What are the leftover questions of metaethics?

post by cousin_it · 2011-04-28T08:46:58.803Z · score: 20 (25 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 55 comments

lukeprog gave a list of metaethics questions here:

What does moral language mean? Do moral facts exist? If so, what are they like, and are they reducible to natural facts? How can we know whether moral judgments are true or false? Is there a connection between making a moral judgment and being motivated to abide by it? Are moral judgments objective or subjective, relative or absolute? Does it make sense to talk about moral progress?

Most of these questions make no sense to me. I imagine that the moral intuitions in my brain come from a special black box within it, a "morality core" whose outputs I cannot easily change. (Explaining how my "morality core" ended up a certain way is a task for evo psych, not philosophy.) Or I can be more enlightened and adopt Nesov's idea that the "morality core" doesn't exist as a unified device, only as an umbrella name for all the diverse "reasons for action" that my brain can fire. Either perspective can be implemented as a computer program pretty easily, so I don't feel there's any philosophical mystery left over. All we have is factual questions about how people's "morality cores" vary in time and from person to person, how compelling their voices are, finding patterns in their outputs, etc. Can someone explain what problem metaethics is supposed to solve?

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comment by Marius · 2011-04-28T12:46:28.676Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

All we have is factual questions about how people's "morality cores" vary in time and from person to person, how compelling their voices are, finding patterns in their outputs, etc. Can someone explain what problem metaethics is supposed to solve?

If there is a problem worth solving, it has to be related to "how compelling their voices are". In the philosophy of logic, we classify "Modus Ponens" differently from "Appeal to Inappropriate Authority" - and not simply by asking statistically which is more convincing. An empirical discovery that arguments quoting Justin Bieber are highly likely to convince the listener do not move such arguments out of the "fallacy" category. Similarly, if metaethics is worthy of study, it must be able to say that certain arguments are better than others independently of their likelihood to convince the listener, and why.

If you believe that categories like "fallacy" are useless, then logic is just a crude stab at the true science of persuasion. If you believe there is no analogous category in ethics, it's unlikely that you'll find anything worthy of study.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-04-28T15:06:14.705Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like your answer a lot. Thanks!

comment by sark · 2011-04-28T14:27:20.078Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But logic works! For example, establishing a non-contradictory axiom system, then observing how no contradictions seem to occur as we make deductions within the system. Appeal to inappropriate authority does not work! (Except when authority correlates with truth, and when it's not screened off). On the other hand, I don't see how morality can be said to work or not.

There may be a branch of logic which is a science of persuasion, but what it endorses and prescribes relies much on logic as a science of correct inference.

comment by prase · 2011-04-28T16:14:29.459Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But logic works! For example, establishing a non-contradictory axiom system, then observing how no contradictions seem to occur as we make deductions within the system.

You may establish a formal system of morality, make up some requirements (say, no theorem which starts with "you ought to prefer" is produced within the system), and if you were lucky with the inference rules and axioms, then you would see that your morality works (e.g. no matter how hard you try, you can't derive "you ought to prefer killing kittens"). Clearly, that doesn't mean that the selected system of morality has the same status as logic.

The important question is, why non-occurence of contradictions is believed to be important for logic to work? Why even have a negation sign in our symbolic alphabet of logic? Without that, a contradiction couldn't be even defined. The only answer I can think of is that logic is extremely strongly and universally supported by intuitions, or, if you want, by the brain architecture. Moral intuitions are more complex and variable.

comment by sark · 2011-04-28T17:09:48.511Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point was that we have reason why we don't want contradictions: we want our inferences to be correct. So logic is instrumental there. Morality on the other hand seems to be something we wish to be a certain way, for its own sake.

Modus ponens works better than appeal to inappropriate authority wrt. making correct inferences. In the case of morality, what works better than what wrt. doing what?

You could ask why we would want correct inferences. But I don't see a point in reducing further.

The analogy to morality would make sense if say we already made up our minds to 'maximize happiness for the greatest number', for then we can check that utilitarianism would do this, and hence is correct. But morality seems to be more complex than that.

I'm agreeing with Marius in thinking that ethics is about achieving some sort of reflective equilibrium. I'm just rejecting the analogy with logic there.

To summarize, with logic, we already know what we want. With morality, we don't.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-04-29T13:32:27.313Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very well said. It should be noted that there are logic problems most people get wrong. Valid reasoning is not defined by majority verdict or observation of patterns.

comment by prase · 2011-04-28T13:27:40.900Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Similarly, if metaethics is worthy of study, it must be able to say that certain arguments are better than others independently of their likelihood to convince the listener, and why.

Fairly good analogy, but the question you have asked wants an answer. What, in your opinion, makes modus ponens better than appeal to authority, independently of its persuasiveness? I am not sure whether I can formulate it explicitly, and without an explicit formulation it is difficult to apply the idea to ethics.

comment by Marius · 2011-04-28T15:10:12.729Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

All my answers to this are flawed. My best is: It's like Euclidean geometry: humans (and other species) are constructed in a way that Euclidean geometry fits fairly well. The formalized rules of Euclidean geometry match spacial reality even better than what we've evolved, so we prefer them... but they're similar enough to what we've evolved that we accept them rather than alternate geometries. Euclidean geometry isn't right - reality is more complex than any system of geometry - but the combination of "works well enough", "improves on our evolved heuristic", and "matches our evolved heuristic well enough" combine to give it a privileged place. Just so, that system of formal logic works well enough, improves on our evolved reasoning heuristics, and yet matches those heuristics well enough... so we give formal logic a privileged place. The privilege is sufficient that many believe logic is the basis of Truth, that many theists believe that even angels or deities cannot be both A and not-A, and that people who use fallacies to convince others of truths are frequently considered to be liars. This does not sufficiently satisfy me.

An alternate answer, that a believer in absolute morality or logic might like, is that logic actually deserves a higher place than Euclidean geometry. Where geometry can be tested and modified wherever the data support a modification, logic can't. No matter how many times our modus ponens does worse than an Appeal to Tradition or Ad Populum in some area of inquiry, we still don't say "ok, alter the rules of logic for this area of inquiry to make Ad Populum the correct method there and Modus Ponens the fallacious method there", we just question our premises, our methods of detection of answers, etc. So logic is special and is above the empirical method. I am unsatisfied by the above paragraph as well.

A third possibility is that it's not - it's just a code of conduct/signalling. We agree to only use logic to convince one another because it works well, because the use of other methods of persuasion can often be detected and punished, and because the people who can rely on logic rather than on other methods of persuasion are smarter and more trustworthy. In specific instances, logic might not be the best way to learn something or to convince others, but getting caught supporting or using contraband methods will be punished so we all use/support logic unless we're sure we can get away with the contraband. This is an unsatisfying explanation to me as well.

comment by AlephNeil · 2011-04-29T00:36:27.331Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your second answer is the nearest to being right, but I wouldn't put it quite like that.

An alternate answer, that a believer in absolute morality or logic might like, is that logic actually deserves a higher place than Euclidean geometry. Where geometry can be tested and modified wherever the data support a modification, logic can't.

Just to clarify: Here you're talking about Euclidean geometry as an empirical theory of space (or perhaps space-time), as opposed to Euclidean geometry as a branch of mathematics. Here is how 'empirical' and 'mathematical' Euclidean geometry come apart: The latter requires that we make methodological decisions (i) to hold the axioms true come what may and (ii) to refrain from making empirical predictions solely on the basis of our theorems.

I don't think there is any important sense in which logic is 'higher' than Euclidean-geometry-as-mathematics.

No matter how many times our modus ponens does worse than an Appeal to Tradition or Ad Populum in some area of inquiry, we still don't say "ok, alter the rules of logic for this area of inquiry to make Ad Populum the correct method there and Modus Ponens the fallacious method there"

I don't think this makes sense.

What does it mean for modus ponens to "do worse" than something? It might "do badly" in virtue of there not being any relevant statements of the form "A" and "if A then B" lying around. That would hardly make MP "fallacious" though. It might be that by deducing "B" from "A" and "if A then B" we thereby deduce something false. But then either "A" or "if A then B" must have been false (or at least non-true), and it hardly counts against MP that it loses reliability when applied to non-true premises.

(You might want to object to the ("loaded") terminology of "truth" and "falsity", but then it would be up to you to say what it means for MP to be "fallacious".)

Going back to prase's question:

What, in your opinion, makes modus ponens better than appeal to authority, independently of its persuasiveness?

Users of a language have to agree on the meanings of primitive words like 'and', 'if', 'then', or else they're just 'playing a different game'. (If your knights are moving like queens then whatever else you're doing, you're not playing chess.) What makes MP 'reliable' is that its validity is 'built into' the meanings of the words used to express it.

There's nothing 'mystical' about this. It's just that if you want to make complex statements with many subclauses, then you need conventions which dictate how the meaning of the whole statement decomposes into the meanings of the subclauses.

comment by torekp · 2011-04-30T19:41:12.685Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree but with some spin control.

It might be that by deducing "B" from "A" and "if A then B" we thereby deduce something false. But then either "A" or "if A then B" must have been false

This is key. I like to say that we play logic with a stacked deck. We've dealt all the aces to a few logical rules. This doesn't mean that logic isn't in some sense absolute, but it removes any whiff of theology that might be suspected to be attached.

Users of a language have to agree on the meanings of primitive words like 'and', 'if', 'then', or else they're just 'playing a different game'.

True, but there is more to being logical than just following linguistic convention. The philosophers' classic "tonk" operator works like this: From A, one is licensed to infer "A tonk B". From "A tonk B" one is licensed to infer B. Luckily for language users everywhere, there is no actual language with these conventions.

comment by Marius · 2011-04-29T02:54:56.087Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does it mean for modus ponens to "do worse" than something? It might "do badly" in virtue of there not being any relevant statements of the form "A" and "if A then B" lying around. That would hardly make MP "fallacious" though. It might be that by deducing "B" from "A" and "if A then B" we thereby deduce something false. But then either "A" or "if A then B" must have been false (or at least non-true), and it hardly counts against MP that it loses reliability when applied to non-true premises.

Well, look at the Problem of Identity. I start with an apple or a boat, and I brush molecules off the apple or replace the boards on the boat, and end up with something other than an apple or a boat. This shouldn't be a problem, except that I've got a big Modus Ponens chain (this is an apple; an apple with a molecule removed is still an apple) that fails when the chain gets long enough. To fix my problem, I've got to:

a. Say actually, there are almost no apples in the world. Modus Ponens rarely applies to the real world because almost no premises are perfectly true. When someone asks "is this delicious-looking fruit an apple", I have to say "Dunno, probably not."

b. Say actually, there are apples, and an apple missing a molecule remains an apple, and Modus Ponens works except in rare corner cases. And experience/tradition/etc can help us know where those corner cases are, so we can avoid mistakenly applying Modus Ponens when it will lead from correct premises to incorrect conclusions.

Here you're talking about Euclidean geometry as an empirical theory of space (or perhaps space-time), as opposed to Euclidean geometry as a branch of mathematics

Well, Euclidean geometry is extremely interesting because it works relatively well as a theory of space, without actually relying on empirical data.

Users of a language have to agree on the meanings of primitive words like 'and', 'if', 'then', or else they're just 'playing a different game'.

I hope that logic (like Euclidean geometry) is actually telling us something about the world, not just about the words/rules we started with. If modus ponens is purely a linguistic trick rather than a method of increasing our knowledge, then it's as useful as chess. I think it's far more useful, and lets us obtain better approximations of the actual world.

comment by Nisan · 2011-04-28T19:05:42.535Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another answer (which I'm not sure is the answer) is that in logic or mathematics, a person is more likely to be convinced by a random correct proof than a random flawed proof; and if a person is convinced by a flawed proof it is easy to change their mind by pointing out the flaw in the proof; but if a person is convinced by a correct proof, then it is difficult to change their mind by incorrectly claiming there is a flaw. Of course I am being sloppy and nontechnical here; I bet there is a subtle, technical sense in which, under reflection, Modus Ponens is more appealing than Appeal To Justin Bieber.

comment by prase · 2011-04-28T15:59:33.138Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like the first answer. The second one uses rather mystical "higher place". It decouples logic from the real world, making it "true" without regard to observations. But logic is represented in human brains which are part of the world. The third answer seems too much instrumental. I don't think punishment plays important role in establishing the status of logic. After all, "contraband" methods of persuasion are rarely punished.

Expanding on your first answer, it seems that logic is based on the most firm intuitions which almost all people have - maybe encoded in the low level hardware structure of human brains. People often have conflicting intuitions, but there seems to be some hierarchy which tells which intuitions are more basic and thus to be prefered. But this is still strongly related to persuasion, even if not in the open way of your third answer.

If this view of logic is correct, the generalisation to ethics is somewhat problematic. The ethical intuitions are more complicated and conflict in less obvious ways, and there doesn't seem to be a universal set of prefered axioms. Any ethical theory thus may be perceived as arbitrary and controversial.

comment by Marius · 2011-04-28T19:02:52.353Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are certainly at least partly right. But:

After all, "contraband" methods of persuasion are rarely punished

Contraband methods of persuasion are weakly punished, here and elsewhere, by means of public humiliation along with repudiation of the point trying to be made. Some people go so far as to give fallacious defenses of positions they hate (on anonymous forums) in order to weaken support for those positions. Interestingly, the contexts where we think logic is most important (like this site) are much less tolerant of fallacies than the contexts where we think logic is less important (politics or family dinner). So while I'd love to dismiss that cynical explanation, I can't quite so easily.

People often have conflicting intuitions, but there seems to be some hierarchy which tells which intuitions are more basic and thus to be preferred.

Actually, there is indeed such a hierarchy in moral reasoning, and it has been better studied/elucidated (by Kohlberg, Rest, et al) than logical reasoning has.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T02:08:09.758Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But logic is represented in human brains which are part of the world.

So do you think aliens would develop a non-isomorphic system of logic?

comment by prase · 2011-04-29T13:01:42.888Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is possible.

comment by Randaly · 2011-04-28T14:48:11.226Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That would seem to assume moral realism.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-04-28T17:47:33.395Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I imagine that the moral intuitions in my brain come from a special black box within it, a "morality core" whose outputs I cannot easily change.

What does your "morality core" tell you when you ask it "How exactly should I rearrange the universe (or a significant part of it), if I had the power to rearrange it any way I want?"

Mine seems to say "I don't know, but if you ever get the opportunity, be sure to do it right, or at least get what you really want." So here I am, trying to figure out what that could mean. :)

comment by cousin_it · 2011-04-28T18:04:26.219Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mine says the same thing. But I guess it's due to insufficient imagination, not insufficient understanding of (meta-)morality. A village girl coming to New York for the first time may have a vague preconceived idea of what kind of awesome dresses she's gonna buy, but before she buys one, she needs to do some actual shopping :-) It doesn't take a genius to imagine some pretty good outcomes for humanity. But finding the best one requires imagination.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-04-28T19:05:51.120Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you implying that your "morality core" can tell you which of two arbitrary scenarios is better, as long as they are both presented in sufficient detail (so as to not require imagination)? What about all of the ethical dilemmas we have been discussing over the past several years?

comment by Marius · 2011-04-28T20:44:21.230Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the village girl in New York example can actually be understood a step farther. She doesn't just need to look at the dresses - the catalogs in her village show what they look like and cost. She also needs to see what people in New York actually dress like, and how the dresses work for them on the street.

Just so, many people have presented ethical dilemmas that are not part of our everyday experiences. If we have a useful morality core, then it (like most other senses or heuristics) is useful only in the areas in which it's been trained. The village girl needs the street experience in NYC to make good purchases. So the two arbitrary sequences would have to be similar enough to the intuiter's actual experiences to be accurately compared to one another.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-04-28T20:30:14.970Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't claim that. "Arbitrary scenarios" is way too wide a class. It's like asking a picture classifier to confidently detect tanks or their absence in arbitrary pictures, even very noisy and confusing ones. (Sorry for the analogy overload!) I only claim that, given the power to rearrange the universe, I would rearrange it into something I would confidently consider "pretty good".

comment by CharlesR · 2011-04-28T13:48:27.763Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does moral language mean?

What do words like good, bad, right, wrong, and should mean?

Do moral facts exist?

Are statements like, Murder is wrong, propositions that can be true or false?

If so, what are they like, and are they reducible to natural facts?

If yes, can we explain this within the framework of naturalism?

Is there a connection between making a moral judgment and being motivated to abide by it?

This has to do with the feeling we get when we know the Good but don't do it.

Are moral judgments objective or subjective, relative or absolute?

The sun revolves around the earth. Humans thought this was true for thousands of years. But humans were wrong. Are statements like, Murder is wrong, the sort of thing we can be wrong about?

comment by Morendil · 2011-04-28T19:07:23.638Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You could say more or less the same things about your mathematical intuitions: they come from one or several modules, evolutionary psychology can explain how these modules arose or were pressed into service for mathematics, and we can readily write program to extend these capabilities.

Yet there seem to be some mysteries left over in math, for instance finding from time to time some deep unifying principles, such that topics which previously appeared entirely distinct turn out to be facets of a single theory. Philosophically, there are questions such as the debate opposing mathematical realism and anti-realism. There are questions of the elegance of theories being a subjective or objective matter, and so on.

comment by lukeprog · 2011-05-01T17:51:37.998Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

cousin_it,

I suspect the 'standard questions' of metaethics are confusing to you because you have the admirable tendency to be confused by things that are confused. Most of these categories and questions are confused, and I plan to dissolve rather than solve most of them in my metaethics sequence.

And after those questions are dissolved, I plan to explain what I think are the open and difficult questions that remain in metaethics.

comment by knb · 2011-04-29T03:08:44.732Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can someone explain what problem metaethics is supposed to solve?

Metaethics probably is useless for you, but that is because you've already been convinced by a metaethical theory (sounds like ethical subjectivism to me.)

I think it is a mistake to dismiss as pointless an area of inquiry that many people find confusing, just because you see the answer as obvious. It sounds like I agree with your metaethical position, though.

comment by scientism · 2011-04-29T00:57:17.945Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're right then the relevant philosophical question would then be, "What's wrong with these questions? Why do we feel compelled to ask them?"

I think you're basically right: the questions are misguided. But I also think it'd take some sophisticated analysis to get to the core of what went wrong. Even with your description of the mechanism in hand we would keep coming back to these sorts of questions in different forms. "Why should I do what I feel is the moral thing to do?" "Why shouldn't I oppose my moral intuition since it was created by a force that wasn't acting in my own self-interest?" "Is morality all in my mind?"

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-04-28T14:48:33.562Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem I expect a useful study of metaethics to solve is "How do we compellingly demonstrate that moral language (that is, our use of words like 'good,' 'bad,' 'right,' 'wrong,' 'should,' and 'ought') can be cashed out entirely in non-moral terms (e.g., in terms of expected and realized value of actions) with nothing important left over?"

Or, if we can't solve that one, then: "After we cash out moral language into non-moral terms as far as we can, what exactly is left over, and what is interesting about that stuff?"

It's not clear to me that this is entirely a task for evo psych, as what seems to happen is that regardless of what evo psych demonstrates, people who believe moral language cannot be cashed out in non-moral terms will simply deny that evo psych's claims are at all relevant.

Ditto for every field of study other than morality itself.

Of course, if I already believe that moral language can be cashed out in non-moral terms, there are several positions I can take:

  • Yes, I believe this, but I can't compellingly demonstrate it.
  • I believe this and can compellingly demonstrate it... this problem has been solved. If other people choose not to accept my compelling demonstration, well, that's not my problem.
  • I believe this and don't consider compellingly demonstrating it to be a worthwhile use of my time.
  • Etc.
comment by XiXiDu · 2011-04-28T17:16:59.696Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"How do we compellingly demonstrate that moral language (that is, our use of words like 'good,' 'bad,' 'right,' 'wrong,' 'should,' and 'ought') can be cashed out entirely in non-moral terms (e.g., in terms of expected and realized value of actions) with nothing important left over?"

Why not conduct an experiment and stop using 'moral language' for a week and see if you hit upon something that is inexpressible without it?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-04-28T17:36:17.082Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do that often. My experience is that people who think something important is left over don't find that a compelling demonstration.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T01:59:44.405Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't believe, you. Or rather I suspect you cheated by sneaking in moral connotations into 'non-moral' words.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-04-29T03:24:02.377Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting! What leads you to suspect that?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2011-04-28T10:35:48.965Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can someone explain what problem metaethics is supposed to solve?

The problem to which you believe you have a solution, a solution so obvious to you that you no longer see the problem and cannot even describe the solution.

Your solution seems to consist no more than a description of your subjective experience of moral intuition and a couple of speculations about the mechanism, speculations you have done no more than imagine, and then imagine that you could implement them. All you've done is imagine a black box with an output labelled "moral intuitions". Or a collection of black boxes.

Either perspective can be implemented as a computer program pretty easily

You've solved AGI? Tell us more!

comment by cousin_it · 2011-04-28T10:45:05.138Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems I fail at expressing myself clearly. Sometimes I write posts formulated as questions (e.g. this one, complete with "please help!") but they come across as position statements instead. I'm not proposing or defending any solution (to what?), I'm asking where the philosophical problem of "metaethics" lies, modulo the (obvious) understanding that our moral intuitions come from some mechanical source. I'm asking what sense lukeprog's questions can make, when reformulated in such mechanical terms. Why oh why can't people just answer directly?

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-04-28T12:41:20.611Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why oh why can't people just answer directly?

They are confused by the same words they use to dissolve their confusion about those words.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2011-04-28T13:47:47.660Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not proposing or defending any solution (to what?), I'm asking where the philosophical problem of "metaethics" lies, modulo the (obvious) understanding that our moral intuitions come from some mechanical source.

That final clause is your proposed solution to the questions you quoted from lukeprog, and it fails to dissolve them. It's like answering "how do living things work?" with "atoms!".

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-04-28T17:20:05.644Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

He's asking something like: 'given that we know living things are built from atoms, what specific questions are you trying to answer?'. He wants answers (to the question of living things) that specifically mention atoms like 'I want to know 'what specific configurations of atoms are commonly used in living things?'' which would have a corresponding answer of 'well there 20 amino acids are commonly used, here are their structures'.

comment by Clippy · 2011-04-28T17:47:43.665Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then that would be the wrong way to go about it, and part of (I suspect) why anti-reductionist ideologies become popular among human minds. From the fact that atoms (or quarks) govern social interaction and preferences, it does not follow that the best explanation/model directed at a human will speak at the level of atoms, or explicitly reference them.

Rather, it need only use higher level regularities such as emotions, their historical basis, their chemical mechanisms, etc. The mechanisms for moral intuitions almost certainly act in a way that is not dependent on the particulars of atoms, in the same way that the mechanisms behind a heat engine do not depend on any particular atom having any particular velocity -- just that, in the aggregate, they produce a certain pressure, temperature, etc.

The constraint of reductionism (which correct reasoning quickly converges to in this universe) is not that every explanation must reference atoms, but rather, that it could ultimately be connected to an atom-level model, even if that adds no further insight on the particular problem under investigation.

So asking for an atom-level explanation is asking for far too fine-grained of a model.

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-04-28T18:20:57.223Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I was unclear. I didn't mean that cousin_it was looking for atom level explanations specifically, I meant that cousin it wanted the questions explained in terms of questions involving already understood phenomena or at least questions that are obviously in-principle reducible (like 'what is the cognitive algorithm that makes humans think then experience X?').

comment by Clippy · 2011-04-29T14:49:40.424Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, OK.

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-04-28T12:38:40.879Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your solution seems to consist no more than a description of your subjective experience of moral intuition and a couple of speculations about the mechanism, speculations you have done no more than imagine, and then imagine that you could implement them.

That is not correct, at the very least his explanation is the simpler one.

If we want to figure out the reasons for why something like moral philosophy does exist we'll have to reduce it to underlying phenomena and not talk about it in terms of itself.

comment by prase · 2011-04-28T12:08:55.655Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you be more explicit in saying what the problem is? This answer isn't much helpful.

He has said that (1) morality is a term which denotes some subset of cognitive algorithms, which are very probably deterministic and thus implementable as a program (of course we don't know what exactly those algorithms are, but this is an empirical, not a philosophical problem) and that (2) the origins of morality can be explained by evolutionary psychology. Do you disagree with either (1) or (2)?

comment by torekp · 2011-04-30T20:17:18.725Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The phrase "task for evo psych, not philosophy" is an invitation to false dichotomies. Ditto for "all we have is factual questions." Sure, evo psych could shed some light on the sources of many ethical intuitions. So could neuropsych, and plain old psych, and cultural anthropology, and game theory, and logic. And then we'll face questions of which ethical responses we want to trust or keep and which we want to change, and again we'll turn to science, and to everyday experience - but that doesn't mean we're not doing philosophy. It only means that we're doing it right.

Similarly, epistemology asks questions that merit scientific inquiry, with a heavy contribution from psychology. But that doesn't mean epistemology is not philosophy, nor that it is all nonsense.

CharlesR has replied with a point-by-point clarification of the questions metaethics is supposed to solve. Is that helpful?

comment by Randaly · 2011-04-28T14:51:01.966Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What you're "imagining" is one potential solution to metaethics. Others would disagree; e.g. claiming that morality should be identified with human happiness, not with intuitions within your mind, or whatever.

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-04-28T10:14:39.860Z · score: 1 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does moral language mean?

A convoluted, covert and self-delusional way of expressing how you want other people to behave.

Do moral facts exist?

Moral facts are one's preferences together with the associated instrumental actions and the necessary environmental circumstances to realize them, which are then unconsciously ascribed to the outside world by the use of ought statements.

If so, what are they like, and are they reducible to natural facts?

They are reducible to the interactions of different agents with each other and the environment in order to realize their preferences.

Is there a connection between making a moral judgment and being motivated to abide by it?

The connection is your subjective evaluation of the evidence in favor of a judgement. If you believe the judegment to be correct and binding then you are motivated to abide it.

Are moral judgments objective or subjective, relative or absolute?

I like this explanation.

Does it make sense to talk about moral progress?

No, there is no justification to add the word 'moral'. What we mean by 'moral progress' is how close we are to a preference equilibrium.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-28T23:51:16.644Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does moral language mean?

A convoluted, covert and self-delusional way of expressing how you want other people to behave.

The uses of moral language we're exposed to is a massivly biased sample that would tend to lead to that conclusion, whatever morality really was.

It's almost always clear what's right and what's wrong (this is true whatever your view of the nature of morality). Go out onto the street and you won't see people massacring other people right and left, because everyone knows how to behave. Importantly, nobody says anything. People don't go on and on about morality. They just get on with their day.

On very rare occasions, it's not clear what's right and what's wrong. There is a difference of opinion. And it's precisely on these rare occasions that people start talking a lot about morality. Almost all of the moral language that we're exposed to comes from these rare occasions where it's not clear.

Moreover, on these rare occasions, everybody is of course going to try to convince everybody else that morality actually favors their case. The same thing happens in court. Every statement you hear in court from one side or the other is about why the law or the facts favor their side. So pretty much every statement that you ever hear about morality is going to be somebody drying to say why you should do what they want you to do.

Biased sampling is a major source of error. It's something that needs to be taken into account when drawing conclusions.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-04-28T10:17:51.923Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your comment seems to be a response to lukeprog's questions, rather than to my question.

comment by XiXiDu · 2011-04-28T12:23:13.137Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You said most of those questions make no sense to you so I tried to make sense of them myself and thought I could as well write down my thoughts.

Regarding your own questions. I believe that there are some genetically hard-coded intuitions about how to approach and respond to other primates. Why would we want to wrap that into some confusing terminology like moral philosophy?

You further say that you cannot easily change those intuitions. That is correct, but do we want to change them? Does it even make sense to ask if we want to have different intuitions?

I think that if we face conflicting preferences we don't want to change or discard the preferences with less weight but simply ignore them temporarily.

We are humans and that means that we are inconsistent agents without stable utility functions. Do we want to change that?

Further, I don't think that our "morality core" is all that important. We are highly adaptable and easily catch cultural induced memes that can override most of our "morality core". Just see how many people here claim that they would be killing the fat guy when faced with the trolley problem. That is a case where high-level cognition, cultural and academic "memes" hijack what you call our "morality core" in an attempt to resolve conflicting preferences by favoring the one that we assign the most weight.

Can someone explain what problem metaethics is supposed to solve?

I have no idea, I upvoted your post because I have the same question.

comment by Amanojack · 2011-05-01T17:56:59.138Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe that there are some genetically hard-coded intuitions about how to approach and respond to other primates. Why would we want to wrap that into some confusing terminology like moral philosophy?

Why, to disguise it of course.

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-04-28T22:07:18.097Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A convoluted, covert and self-delusional way of expressing how you want other people to behave.

I must say I agree with this, and it's reassuring to see someone else say it out loud.

I find that a lot of people who successfully make the step to a non-theistic world view are unable to then shed the baggage of moral realism. They continue to damn their intellectual opponents as demonstrably, factually "immoral". They just change the source of that objective morality from God to secular philosophy. It's uncomfortable to realize that your side isn't the one, true, noble cause. Thus, new atheists latch on to some political cause or the "cause of Reason" and assert it as the true objective good.

And hey, I support many of the goals of the "cause of Reason". I'm in favor of raising the sanity waterline and improving the instrumental rationality of my friends and colleagues. But that's a subjective value. That's my preference. And that's okay.

comment by Amanojack · 2011-05-01T17:52:28.503Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great points! Was the final sentence intentional irony? :)

Edit to clarify: "And that's okay" seems to slip back into objective morality (although of course it is hard to avoid such phrasing in English).

comment by NMJablonski · 2011-05-01T18:05:43.525Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Heh, I'm tempted to answer "yes" to your question because it makes me seem wittier than I was.

In reality, what I meant by "okay" was: Not contradictory or a crisis of rationality. It is indeed hard to avoid the language of objective judgments in English. :)

comment by djcb · 2011-04-29T20:59:30.776Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wikipedia's metaethics article might be a good alternative starting point -- lukeprog's article does not add too much to that I think.

Anyway, meta-ethics tries to figure out the ways to determine the actual values of 'variables' like right and wrong in first-order ethics.

Personally, I don't think there is any objective way to determine this; meta-ethics can concern itself with the question whether any proposal is logically consistent but cannot really determine the answer. Morals are a human invention and I can't see how one could ever prove anything -- there are only our intuitions.

Similar to things like free will or purpose in life, ethics seem merely like a useful illusion.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-04-29T16:22:53.804Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of these questions make no sense to me. ... Can someone explain what problem metaethics is supposed to solve?

It is intended to make those questions make sense to you, or at least to help you understand why other people think those questions make sense. If you are not interested in trying to deconstruct other people's confusion, perhaps because you feel secure in your dismissal of the whole subject, then metaethics solves no problems for you. There is nothing to see here. Move along.

comment by Manfred · 2011-04-28T15:49:14.387Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Similar to Marius' answer, the way I see for metaethics to not have exactly the same problems as ethics is to have some statement similar to the ultimate criterion for science, "things that produce measurably accurate results are to be used rather than things that don't." But in the same way that this raises the question "why is working selected over not-working?", any analogous claim in metaethics raises the question "why are moral systems that have property X preferable?", and aside from consistency, which is not a strong enough property, I don't know of any property X that is as universal to humans as "working is better than not working." But I'm not certain, so I'm not ready to doom metaethics to failure yet.