Are consequentialism and deontology not even wrong?

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-06-02T07:49:50.848Z · score: 15 (16 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 59 comments

I was stunned to read the accounts quoted below. They're claiming that the notion of morality -  in the sense of there being a special category of things that you should or should not do for the sake of the things themselves being inherently right or wrong - might not only be a recent invention, but also an incoherent one. Even when I had read debates about e.g. moral realism, I had always understood even the moral irrealists as acknowledging that there are genuine moral attitudes that are fundamentally ingrained in people. But I hadn't ran into a position claiming that it was actually possible for whole cultures to simply not have a concept of morality in the first place.

I'm amazed that I haven't heard these claims discussed more. If they're accurate, then they seem to me to provide a strong argument for both deontology and consequentialism - at least as they're usually understood here - to be not even wrong. Just rationalizations of concepts that got their origin from Judeo-Christian laws and which people held onto because they didn't know of any other way of thinking.

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As for morally, we must observe at once – again following Anscombe – that Plato and Aristotle, having no word for “moral,” could not even form a phrase equivalent to “morally right.” The Greek thik aret means “excellence of character,” not “moral virtue”; 2 Cicero's virtus moralis, from which the English phrase descends directly, is simply the Latin for thik aret. This is not the lexical fallacy; it is not just that the word ‘moral’ was missing. The whole idea of a special category called “the moral” was missing. Strictly speaking, the Aristotelian phrase ta thika is simply a generalizing substantive formed on th, “characteristic behaviors,” just as the Ciceronian moralia is formed on mores. To be fully correct – admittedly it would be a bit cumbersome – we should talk not of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics but of his Studies-of-our-characteristic-behaviors Edited-by-Nicomachus.

Plato and Aristotle were interested – especially Plato – in the question how the more stringent demands of a good disposition like justice or temperance or courage could be reasonable demands, demands that it made sense to obey even at extreme cost. It never occurred to them, as it naturally does to moderns, to suggest that these demands were to be obeyed simply because they were demands of a special, magically compulsive sort: moral demands.

Their answer was always that, to show that we have reason to obey the strong demands that can emerge from our good dispositions, we must show that what they demand is in some way a necessary means to or part of human well-being (eudaimonia). If it must be classified under the misconceived modern distinction between “the moral” and “the prudential,” this answer clearly falls into the prudential category. 4 When modern readers who have been brought up on our moral/ prudential distinction see Plato's and Aristotle's insistence on rooting the reasons that the virtues give us in the notion of well-being, they regularly classify both as “moral egoists.” But that is a misapplication to them of a distinction that they were right not to recognize. 

When we turn from the Greeks to Kant and the classical utilitarians, we may doubt whether they shared the modern interest in finding a neat definition of the “morally right” any more than Plato or Aristotle did. Kant proposed, at most, a necessary (not necessary and sufficient) condition on rationally permissible (not morally right5) action for an individual agent – and had even greater than his usual difficulty expressing this condition at all pithily. The utilitarians often were more interested in jurisprudence than in individual action, and where they addressed the latter – as J. S. Mill often does, but Bentham usually does not – tended, in the interests of long-term utility, to stick remarkably close to the deliverances of that version of “common-sense morality” that was recognized by high-minded Victorian liberals like themselves. When Kant and the utilitarians disagreed, it was not about the question “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of morally right action?” They weren't even asking that question.

[Timothy Chappell: Virtue ethics in the twentieth century. In The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) (pp. 151-152). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.]

How did things change so much? Here's a quote from G.E.M. Anscombe's Modern Moral Philosophy (1958), attributing the development to the influence of Christianity:

The terms "should" or "ought" or "needs" relate to good and bad: e.g. machinery needs oil, or should or ought to be oiled, in that running without oil is bad for it, or it runs badly without oil. According to this conception, of course, "should" and "ought" are not used in a special "moral" sense when one says that a man should not bilk. (In Aristotle's sense of the term "moral" [...], they are being used in connection with a moral subject-matter: namely that of human passions and (non-technical) actions.) But they have now acquired a special so-called "moral" sense — i.e. a sense in which they imply some absolute verdict (like one of guilty/not guilty on a man) on what is described in the "ought" sentences used in certain types of context: not merely the contexts that Aristotle would call "moral" — passions and actions — but also some of the contexts that he would call "intellectual." 

The ordinary (and quite indispensable) terms "should," "needs," "ought," "must" — acquired this special sense by being equated in the relevant contexts with "is obliged," or "is bound," or "is required to," in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound by law, or something can be required by law.

How did this come about? The answer is in history: between Aristotle and us came Christianity, with its law conception of ethics. For Christianity derived its ethical no- tions from the Torah. [...]

In consequence of the dominance of Christianity for many centuries, the concepts of being bound, permitted, or excused became deeply embedded in our language and thought. The Greek word "aiu,avravav," the aptest to be turned to that use, acquired the sense "sin," from having meant "mistake," "missing the mark," "going wrong." The Latin peccatum which roughly corresponded to aiu,avriiu,a was even apter for the sense "sin," because it was already associated with "culpa" — "guilt" — a juridical notion. The blanket term "illicit," "unlawful," meaning much the same as our blanket term "wrong," explains itself. It is interesting that Aristotle did not have such a blanket term. He has blanket terms for wickedness — "villain," "scoundrel"; but of course a man is not a villain or a scoundrel by the performance of one bad action, or a few bad actions. And he has terms like "disgraceful," "impious"; and specific terms signifying defect of the relevant virtue, like "unjust"; but no term corresponding to "illicit." The extension of this term (i.e. the range of its application) could be indicated in his terminology only by a quite lengthy sentence: that is "illicit" which, whether it is a thought or a consented-to passion or an action or an omission in thought or action, is something contrary to one of the virtues the lack of which shows a man to be bad qua man. That formulation would yield a concept co-extensive with the concept "illicit." 

To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician) — that what is needed for this , is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of "obligation," of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word "ought" has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of "obligation," it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.

It is as if the notion "criminal" were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by "criminal," which alone gave the word its sense. So Hume discovered the situation which the notion "obligation" survived, and the notion "ought" was invested with that peculiar for having which it is said to be used in a "moral" sense, but in which the belief in divine law had long since been abandoned: for it was substantially given up among Protestants at the time of the Reformation.2The situation, if I am right, was the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.

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comment by gjm · 2015-06-02T08:28:07.863Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I am no expert on the historical question here, but I remark that an adherent of Christianity may have motives other than the obvious for spreading the idea that morality as generally understood is a Christian creation, and that Anscombe was certainly a Christian and I suspect Chappell is too. (And on the other hand a philosopher who doesn't share their religion may have other motives for not being convinced.)

Cautiously weighing in on the historical question despite my non-expertise, here is a brief quotation from Plato's Euthyphro:

But tell me, Euthyphro, do you really believe that you understand true ruling of the divine law, and what makes actions pious and impious, that in the circumstances that you describe you have no misgivings?

Unless this is a severe mistranslation, it seems to indicate a concept of ethics in terms of (1) actions rather than just character and (2) a moral law, which is exactly what Anscombe and Chappelle age saying the ancient Greeks didn't have. On the other hand, as Anscombe says this is about a specific defect, namely impiety -- though Socrates's argument, aiming to show that piety can't mean simply "what the gods like", seems to me to suggest that Plato was thinking more broadly, and indeed the same translation quoted above also has Socrates asking this:

Now consider whether it doesn't seem to you that everything pious must be morally right.

He isn't claiming that the two are the same; a little later he goes on to suggest that piety is one variety of "moral rectitude" and to inquire just what sort. There's at least a hint of virtue ethics in what he says about this, but the impression I get is not that virtue ethics was the only sort anyone understood, but rather that Plato's Socrates is something of a virtue ethicist unlike many of the people with whom he argues.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-06-08T19:52:17.954Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Unless this is a severe mistranslation, it seems to indicate a concept of ethics in terms of (1) actions rather than just character and (2) a moral law, which is exactly what Anscombe and Chappelle age saying the ancient Greeks didn't have.

I'm not familiar with the context of the quote, but it talks about a divine law, not a moral one. Today most people hold that the two are distinct: for instance if a divine law orders a fasting day, disobeying it is not a moral failure. (Otherwise morality would be indistinguishable from piety and obedience, and we wouldn't need a separate word.)

comment by gjm · 2015-06-08T20:16:45.021Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think that if Chappelle (who says recent conceptions of ethics are very different from those of the ancient Greeks) and Anscombe (who says the same and adds that the key change between the ancient Greeks and us is that Christianity brought with it the idea of right and wrong as obedience to a divinely given law) were both right, we would not expect to find ancient Greek texts connecting right and wrong with obedience to a divinely given law. But in the Euthyphro we do find that; in the first quotation I took from the Euthyphro Socrates talks about piety as adherence to "divine law", and in the second he suggests that "everything pious must be morally right".

This doesn't by any means prove that Socrates or Plato or anyone else at the time thought about ethics in the way people tend to now. But it seems to indicate that the key ingredient Chappelle says was lacking wasn't really lacking.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-06-08T20:49:08.162Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

in the first quotation I took from the Euthyphro Socrates talks about piety as adherence to "divine law", and in the second he suggests that "everything pious must be morally right".

The first part is just the definition of "piety", at least in modern English. The second part may contradict the quotes from Chappelle and Anscome; what word does Plato use for "morally right" and what does he mean by it? Can you shed more light on this?

(I should have asked this question to begin with. I find I didn't read your comment carefully enough at first.)

comment by gjm · 2015-06-08T22:06:05.755Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

what word does Plato use for "morally right"

"dikaios" (δίκαιος).

and what does he mean by it?

See here for an answer to the related question "what did some experts circa 1940 think classical Greek writers generally meant by it?".

Can you shed more light on this?

Not in the sense of having great expertise of my own, as I acknowledged from the outset. It looks fairly clear to me that "dikaios", as Plato's Socrates and Euthyphro use it in this dialogue, has at least a large overlap with terms like "morally right" in contemporary English. Anscombe may be right to say that the ancient Greeks had no word meaning "wrong" or "illicit", but it is difficult for me to look at the LSJ lexicon entry for "dikaios" and deny that they had one for more or less the exact opposite. But it's also hard to believe that Anscombe wrote what she did in simple ignorance of this; perhaps I am missing something important.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-06-08T23:09:30.162Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know any Greek, either modern or ancient, so I can't judge the LSJ entry for myself. Here's a summary of the English glosses:

  • A. Observant of customs or rules, especially social rules; civilized.
  • A-2. Observant of duty to gods and men; righteous.
  • B. Equal, even, well-balanced, fair, impartial; legally exact, precise; lawful, just, right; fitting.
  • C. I don't really understand the glosses here; they seem to refer to justification or lawfulness: bound to; have a right to.

This is woefully insufficient for me to understand the matter on my own. Just from this, it's not clear to me that the word means moral and not simply right or just, or perhaps what we might call "proper behavior". These things are certainly related to morality, but they also seem consistent with descriptions like “excellence of character,” not “moral virtue”.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-02T13:03:36.910Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

My impression is that morality is all about chasing dangling nodes. There are questions about how certain outcomes make you feel. There are questions about how people actually act. There are questions about what actions would lead to the world being a "better place" (however you define it). But asking about whether something is "moral" seems to be chasing a dangling node to me.

comment by Antisuji · 2015-06-03T08:02:48.546Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes and no. Morality is certainly less fundamental than physics, but I would argue no less real a concept than "breakfast" or "love," and has enough coherence – thingness – to be useful to try to outline and reason about.

The central feature of morality that needs explaining, as I understand it, is how certain behaviors or decisions make you feel in relation to how other people feel about your behaviors. Which is not something you have full control over. It is a distributed cognitive algorithm, a mechanism for directing social behavior through the sharing of affective judgements.

I'll attempt to make this more concrete. Actions that are morally prohibited have consequences, both in the form of direct social censure (due to the moral rule itself) and indirect effects that might be social or otherwise. You can think of the direct social consequences as a fail-safe that stops dangerous behavior before real harm can occur, though of course it doesn't always work very well. In this way the prudential sense of should is closely tied to the moral sense of should – sometimes in a pure, self-sustaining way, the original or imagined harm becoming a lost purpose.

None of this means that morality is a false concept. Even though you might explain why moral rules and emotions exist, or point out their arbitrariness, it's still simplest and I'd argue ontologically justified to deal with morality the way most people do. Morality is a standing wave of behaviors and predictable shared attitudes towards them, and is as real as sound waves within the resonating cavity of a violin. Social behavior-and-attitude space is immense, but seems to contain attractors that we would recognize as moral.

That said, I do think it's valuable to ask the more grounded questions of how outcomes make individuals feel, how people actually act, etc.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-04T04:35:30.026Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How about asking what you should do? By refusing to ask that question you haven't explained morality, you've merely stuffed it under the rug. Since the should question actually is important (and pressing) you'll find yourself having to sneak in connotations to answer it.

For example, you wrote:

There are questions about how certain outcomes make you feel. There are questions about how people actually act. There are questions about what actions would lead to the world being a "better place" (however you define it).

It's possible to substitute add should-like connotations to any of the above questions and end up with a (generally bad) theory of morality.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-04T13:28:48.809Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What determines whether or not you "should" do something?

My thoughts are that "should requires an axiom". You could say "you shouldn't kill people... if you don't want people to suffer". Or "you should kill people... if you want to go to jail".

In practice, I think people have similar ideas about how outcomes make them feel. Outcome X feels just. Outcome Y feels unjust etc.

When people use the word "should", I think they're implicitly saying "should... in order to achieve the outcomes that me/society feel are just".

comment by Creutzer · 2015-06-06T07:36:14.425Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is basically the issue of whether categorical imperatives are a coherent concept. I have the same feeling as you: that they are not, and that I don't even understand what it would mean for them to be. I'm continually baffled by the fact that so many human minds are apparently able to believe that categorical imperatives are a thing. This strikes me as a difficult problem somewhere at the intersection between philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive psychology.

comment by torekp · 2015-06-07T11:29:11.498Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If you don't even understand what it would mean, this could be a symptom that you are understanding "categorical imperative" differently than they do. I'm going to guess that you are assuming metaethical motivational internalism.

Therein lies your difficulty.

comment by Creutzer · 2015-06-07T16:14:53.707Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, it doesn't, because your guess is wrong.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-05T01:53:58.570Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What determines whether or not you "should" do something?

That is precisely the question we are trying to answer.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-06-03T04:55:34.147Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I was stunned to read the accounts quoted below.

Really?

It's always interesting to hear first person accounts of fundamentally different world views. Some christian fundamentalist turned atheist is on youtube and shared recollections of the perspective of her former self. She shared how she experienced a world of demons and angels. Interesting stuff.

After reading Stirner and Nietzsche, I don't find the quotes particularly remarkable at all. Seems very like Nietzsche's "Geneology of Morals" and Stirner's Hegelian world intellectual history from "The Ego and Its Own".

What you quote also reminds me of Ian Hacking's "The Emergence of Probability", where he claims that the term probability really evolved in it's meaning over time, and starting from something more like "probity and status" of the speaker. That was of a revelation to me at the time, and got me thinking of the function a word served, and the different ways that a function could be served.

If you can't really predict worth squat, doing what the supposed smart guy says is the right thing isn't a bad play. But as our conceptual and predictive machinery improves, we gained other and better means to identify the winning ideas.

I had always understood even the moral irrealists as acknowledging that there are genuine moral attitudes that are fundamentally ingrained in people.

It depends on what you mean by "moral attitudes".

We are evolved social creatures. We have evolved all sorts of behaviors and preferences. Some of those behaviors are those in response to our social preferences. I'd call a subset of those the moral preferences, largely distinguished but not unique in being multiordinal preferences about social preferences and reward and punishment of those preferences in others.

I'd expect most all humans to have "genuine moral attitudes" of those kinds, just like they have general "yummy" preferences, but I would not expect them all to have associated with those attitudes some compelling moral reality beyond their own moral sense, any more than they would associate "yummy" with compelling cosmic yummyness.

I wouldn't expect them all to have conceptually alienated their moral sense as some inexplicably compelling force, though I see how such conceptual moral alienation would be possible, likely, and would serve the interests of those who would manipulate the alienated, particularly when they are in a position of relative power in the first place.

Effective manipulation of the moral sense is the true steel, and alienation of that moral sense is a powerful start.

Similar to the article, I'd guess that monotheism would play a central role in enabling conceptual moral alienation, as it posits a singular overpowering compelling force for Morality, which makes dropping the context of "whose morality?" all the easier and more likely.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-04T15:34:01.731Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would not expect them all to have associated with those attitudes some compelling moral reality beyond their own moral sense, any more than they would associate "yummy" with compelling cosmic yummyness.

This may be a bad comparison. "Yummy", once you break it down into specific preferences over flavors, corresponds very, very well to food chemistry.

I wouldn't expect them all to have conceptually alienated their moral sense as some inexplicably compelling force, though I see how such conceptual moral alienation would be possible, likely, and would serve the interests of those who would manipulate the alienated, particularly when they are in a position of relative power in the first place.

Effective manipulation of the moral sense is the true steel, and alienation of that moral sense is a powerful start.

Ooooh, I sense a Marxist talk coming on? Go on, go on!

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-06-06T01:37:06.655Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

""Yummy", once you break it down into specific preferences over flavors, corresponds very, very well to food chemistry."

I have a genetic variant where when I was young I was more sensitive to bitter tastes than others, but getting older I'm supposed to get less and less sensitive, until I'm less sensitive to bitter tastes than most people.

Yummy isn't even consistent just for me over time.

"Ooooh, I sense a Marxist talk coming on? Go on, go on!"

More Stirner than Marx. Nouveaux Marxists may have gotten on board with Stirner, but Marx spent 500 pages In the German Ideology mocking the idea that ideas matter. The world runs on historical materialism, dontcha know?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-06T22:33:13.200Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have a genetic variant where when I was young I was more sensitive to bitter tastes than others, but getting older I'm supposed to get less and less sensitive, until I'm less sensitive to bitter tastes than most people.

Yummy isn't even consistent just for me over time.

Uhhh... so what? It's a very real relational property.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2015-06-02T11:37:23.618Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

"distinguishing right and wrong" seems to be on this list of human universals.

comment by gwern · 2015-06-02T21:14:45.345Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, that falls to the same critique. If you accept that we may have read into Plato and other Western pre-Christian our own conception of morality despite how profoundly those thinkers have shaped Western ethics and culture (not just in translation - how many people have learned Greek just to read the philosophy in the original?), then a fortiori, you should have no trouble in believing that, in lumping together the complex beliefs of thousands of poorly-understood aboriginal and tribal and semi-civilized foreign peoples across the world in a single short formula 'distinguishing right and wrong' for a list of universals, the compilers of the list (or their sources) have twisted various concepts of social norms and appropriateness and magical thinking and superstition into a Christian 'right and wrong'.

comment by Desrtopa · 2015-06-04T15:10:38.475Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Most people haven't read the original untranslated versions in order to understand them better, but a lot of academics, such as classics professors, have. I've learned about Greek culture from a few professors who would discuss at length how the Greek conceptions of, say, honor or cunning differed from our modern conceptions. But if they were also of the impression that the ancient and classical Greeks did not have a concept of morality, then that would have been a very conspicuous and relevant omission from their instruction. So I'm inclined to suspect that this is a minority interpretation.

comment by shminux · 2015-06-02T15:09:38.569Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Did non-Christian cultures develop their own concept of "ought" and "should"? Say, China or Japan? I am no expert, but it certainly seems like they had their own moral codes, with elements of virtue ethics and deontology.

comment by Rob Bensinger (RobbBB) · 2015-06-03T04:17:22.868Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And consequentialism!

comment by shminux · 2015-06-03T05:58:42.097Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, absolutely, I think this is present in all cultures by default. But it is often superseded by the lost purposes expressed as rules or virtues. Well, some virtues, such as fairness are already built into primates and probably most pack animals on the genetic level.

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-02T12:51:52.344Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This is a very old argument. Certainly anyone familiar with Nietzsche or Strauss will have seen one version of it rehearsed. But it's not entirely persuasive (there are some excellent counter-arguments already in this thread), and there are reams of literature on it.

The truth is, we do not know for certain what Plato or Aristotle really meant, and these philological arguments don't - can't - settle the matter.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-06-02T13:18:18.272Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Would you have any good summary or review articles on the debate to recommend?

It certainly feels like there'd be plenty of other data to help judge the question besides just Plato's and Aristotle's writings - e.g. other writings from the era or anthropological data from non-Western cultures (e.g. it was already mentioned that "distinguishing right and wrong" has been documented as a human universal by one anthropologist).

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-02T13:43:02.970Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Regarding the question of what ancient Greeks meant by "the good," I'd start with the SEP.

I have no idea about anthropological data from non-Western cultures.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-03T09:50:34.726Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't like the terms consequentialism and deontology. I don't think using either label helps you to make better decisions for yourself. It's more useful to keep your identity small and have more nuanced beliefs than either of those labels. I'm also doubtful to what extend it makes sense to separate discussion of morals from personal development.

As far as non-Western concepts goes the Buddhist of Karma is interesting. Most Buddhist try to minimize their karma by engaging in actions that would be called "moral" in Western terms. Karma provides a payoff for those actions.

Not all Buddhists try to minimize their Karma. The Bodhisattva vow is about not seeking the minimum of personal karma because that would mean passing on. It would mean to not reincarnate and not be able to teach others. It still includes keeping a pretty low Karma balance and mostly engaging in acts that don't cause Karma but it doesn't mean to engage in no such acts.

comment by Nowhere Man (kephas) · 2017-11-16T04:38:42.145Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think experimental moral psychology puts a bunch of holes in this notion the moral category is a recent one, as studies of people like Jonathan Haidt seem to show that morality is pre-wired in human brains and may have been a crucial step in our biological evolution.

comment by Squark · 2015-06-03T18:18:06.302Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I am not sure what you mean by "not even wrong". My interpretation of consequentialism is just following an algorithm which is designed to maximize a certain utility function. Of course you can get different kinds of consequentialism by using different utility functions. In what sense is it "not even wrong"? Or do you consider a narrower definition of consequentialism?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-07-08T18:23:05.506Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I am not sure what you mean by "not even wrong".

I didn't answer this at first because I had difficulties putting my intuition to words. But here's a stab at it:

Suppose that at first, people believe that there is a God who has defined some things as sinful and others as non-sinful. And they go about asking questions like, "is brushing my teeth sinful or not", and this makes sense given their general set of beliefs. And a theologician could give a "yes" or "no" answer to that, which could be logically justified if you assumed some specific theology.

Then they learn that there is actually no God, but they still go about asking "is brushing my teeth sinful or not". And this no longer makes sense even as a question, because the definition of "sin" came from a specific theology which assumed the existence of God. And then a claim like "here's a theory which shows that brushing teeth is always sinful" would not even be wrong, because it wasn't making claims about any coherent concept.

Now consequentialists might say that "consequentialism is the right morality everyone should follow", but under this interpretation this wouldn't be any different from saying that "consequentialism is the right theory about what is sinful or not".

comment by Squark · 2015-07-09T18:32:21.885Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hi Kaj, thx for replying!

This makes sense as a criticism of versions of consequentialism which assume a "cosmic objective utility function". I prefer the version of consequentialism in which the utility function is a property of your brain (a representation of your preferences). In this version there is no "right morality everyone should follow" since each person has a slightly different utility function. Moreover, I clearly want other people to maximize my own utility function (so that my utility function gets maximized) but this is the only sense in which that is "right". Also, in contexts in which the difference between our utility functions is negligible (or we agreed to use an average utility function of some sort by bargaining) we sort of have a single morality that we follow although there is no "cosmic should" here, we're just doing the thing that is rational given our preferences.

comment by UtilonMaximizer · 2015-07-09T19:12:08.931Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The "preferences version" of consequentialism is also what I prefer. I've never understood the (unfortunately much more common) "cosmic objective utility function" consequentialism which, among other things, doesn't account for nearly enough of the variability in preferences among different types of brains.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-04T15:37:25.882Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I am not sure what you mean by "not even wrong".

"Not Even Wrong": an idea so incredibly ill-founded that it can't be tested, because it's wrong in the presuppositions it necessitates and admits, and wrong in its definitions as well.

"2 + 2 = 3" is Wrong. "The sky is made of music" is Not Even Wrong.

comment by Squark · 2015-06-05T18:34:34.269Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hi Eli. I understand the meaning of the phrase "not even wrong", I don't understand its application in this particular context.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-06T22:10:07.897Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I'm obviously not Kaj, but I do think that consequentialism is maximizing a utility function over world-states. You could say that deontology, then, is having a preference ordering or utility function over actions your algorithm outputs, with little or no regard for the world-states those actions make likely. Virtue-ethics, then, could be taken as a preference ordering over kinds of people one can be, choosing actions based on which Kind of Person those actions provide evidence for your being (which basically makes it the Evidential Decision Theory weirdo of the bunch).

One way consequentialism could be Not Even Wrong is if we evaluate utility over world-lines, with the entire causal history and world-state both contributing as input variables to the preference function.

comment by Squark · 2015-06-07T19:18:17.752Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I would describe the scenario you suggest as "consequentialism is wrong" rather than "consequentialism is not even wrong". Moreover, I don't see what it has to do with whatever the Greeks or Bentham or whoever meant when they wrote something.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-08T18:05:50.971Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough, then.

comment by Dentin · 2015-06-02T21:55:30.989Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is something I've held for a while now, and that I've had difficulty expressing in a way that makes sense here on LW. When I went looking at the various ethical systems to try to find a word that describes mine, they all simply fell flat; none of them describe it, and all of them feel like prefabricated labels.

To be specific, I don't subscribe to 'ethics' or 'morality' at all. From my standpoint, both of these things are what we call "best practices for functioning in our current society", and every single aspect of them could change should the underlying society change. Both could even be the empty set for certain societies.

I think this also helps me understand why there are so many different types of 'morality' - the territory is a complex terrain that has originated over millennia of human interactions, millennia of trial and error. The various types of morality are the maps - people slapping labels on that complex landscape and trying to declare that the label is comprehensive. Small wonder in retrospect that they all felt shallow and incomplete to me.

comment by cogitoprime · 2015-06-02T16:54:55.507Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I see the entire branch of philosophy known as normative ethics(deontology, consequentialist, virtue) as emerging out a need to codify a right and wrong that we already know. "By what measuring stick are you measuring your measuring stick?" You must already know what is right and what is wrong otherwise you would have no standard by which to judge ethical systems. This "phenomenological ethics" emerges out of our encounters with other people who we, as socially defined beings, feel a moral call towards(Levinas). The true moral question, that that encounter asks is simply, what does love demand? We either respond to that call or we betray it and when we betray it we have created a need within ourselves to self-justify our actions. I think that's where normative ethics originally arose. As a code to point to to justify our betrayals of the true moral of, "what does love demand". It is as if we are saying, "I'm justified in not doing what love demands because... they broke this deonotological rule, or it serves a higher purpose(consequence), or I'm serving a higher virtue." If we hadn't betrayed our true internal moral sense we would have no need to codify it.

Sorry for the bad summary of Levinasian/Buberian ethics. This book does an infinitely better job of explaining it than I can. http://www.amazon.com/Bonds-That-Make-Free-Relationships/dp/1573459194

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-06-04T11:10:11.423Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ethical systems a re judged right and wring by epistemic norms, not moral norms.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-04T13:06:30.153Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ethical systems are judged according to different norms by different people. In particular, it's common to say "System X has the consequence that doing Y is obligatory/good/bad/prohibited, which is obviously ridiculous" and use that as grounds for rejecting system X, and that sure looks like a moral norm to me.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-06-02T11:55:18.984Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

recent invention

The Torah is pretty old. Did you just mean that the influence of memes stating that "there is such a thing as 'divine law,'" and "behavior should be constrained by 'divine law'" on Europe is relatively recent"?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-06-02T12:44:09.449Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I meant that a divine law-inspired conception of morality in a society that doesn't actually believe in divine law, might be pretty recent.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-06-02T13:19:57.088Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ok. Your post title seems pretty strong, then.

I agree that history of ideas is super important, and I further agree that there is a strong relationship between the concept 'divine law' and the concept 'deontology.' But they are not the same, and deontology can outgrow its roots. Nor do its roots settle its value.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-04T15:35:16.996Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Torah is very recent, on an evolutionary scale.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-06-04T16:13:07.656Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that's the kind of recent the OP is talking about.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-04T18:27:29.640Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fine, but even on the scale of "Since the Neolithic Revolution and the formation of continuous human cultures", it's still kinda recent. China, India, and Sumeria all predate the Jews, especially when you take into account that most of the actual text was written in something more like the Kings period.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-05T01:52:25.642Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

China, India, and Sumeria all predate the Jews, especially when you take into account that most of the actual text was written in something more like the Kings period.

Sort of. On the other hand we have nothing from China except a some oracle bones from that period, and we haven't yet deciphered the Indus Valley script (assuming it is a script). In fact the earliest Chinese and Indian texts we have are roughly contemporary with the Kings period.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-06-04T20:15:27.205Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure what you are trying to say. Are you trying to say that the OP's point is:

"Deontology might be not even wrong, why it's as recent as Jewish monotheism!"

I don't think that's what he's saying. That would be a weird thing to say. He clarified what he meant anyways, below.

comment by Creutzer · 2015-06-06T07:31:45.827Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder if what this really means isn't that it is possible for a culture not to have a concept of amorality. What I mean by this is the following: they have a concept of what things ought to be like, and it encompasses both moral and non-moral imperatives. What they did not realise is that you can just ignore a subclass of these oughts (namely, the moral ones) without rationality compelling you to do otherwise and thereby be an amoralist.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-06T19:10:23.624Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well Plato argues that "if you know the right you will always do the right". Heck, this idea, in the form that "all problems are caused by ignorance", is still around today.

comment by khafra · 2015-06-04T23:02:13.258Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Related SMBC.

comment by chaosmage · 2015-06-02T12:08:30.794Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think we have intuitive decent common sense morality that works for negotiations within the ingroup, and competing imperfect theories for acting towards outgroups.

What you quoted sounds to me like the latter is a recent project and Plato etc. discussed the former, which is new to me but sound plausible. Christianity was much more concerned with its outgroups than other religions of antiquity were, so it would make sense for them to be among the first (in/near Europe) to develop a framework for it, and the aim continues to make sense even after the supernaturalist means turned out to be bullshit.

Just because something is Christian doesn't make it wrong or "not even wrong". Confession was a decent innovation, and Christians did treat their kids better than other cultures of antiquity. Why wouldn't their ideas for acting towards outgroup members be better than nothing? Remember, they came up with that in times when not even genocide had been established as bad.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-06-02T12:46:23.441Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Just because something is Christian doesn't make it wrong or "not even wrong".

No, but something being derived from a Christian framework and then being used outside the framework in which it was a coherent concept, might. (See the last quoted paragraph.)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-02T09:16:20.623Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It is a bit too highbrow for me, but if the argument is that "moral" is not a special sense of words, a moral "ought" is the same kind of "ought" as "this machine ought to be oiled", isn't that textbook consequentalism? Non-moral oughts are of course consequentialist - if oiling or not oiling the machine makes no difference, why bother?

Also, the law conception of ethics... let's assume now, really just for the sake of testing hypotheses, that left-wing people are right. By that I mean that kind of analysis that the culture of societies is largely about upper classes justifying their rule, such as kings claiming they have a divine right and so on. Wouldn't any society where there are kings and laws would like to justify it by making up stories like the king is just doing the same thing as what the gods are doing?

Also, laws are far more fundamental than religion. Every culture has customs and taboos and turning them into laws is just about writing them down.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-04T04:25:58.115Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It is a bit too highbrow for me, but if the argument is that "moral" is not a special sense of words, a moral "ought" is the same kind of "ought" as "this machine ought to be oiled", isn't that textbook consequentalism? Non-moral oughts are of course consequentialist - if oiling or not oiling the machine makes no difference, why bother?

No, it only seems that way to you because you implicitly assume consequentialism. Plato, for example, would argue that "this machine ought to be oiled" because an oiled machine better approximates the ideal form of a machine (in what we now call a Platonic sense).

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-05T23:31:28.160Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And better approximating it is a consequence.

Ah... I sense there is a different problem here. Consequentualism can be interpreted widely enough to be fully general term that predicts everything and thus nothing. After all even breaking a deontological rule can be said to have some consequence somewhere somehow and virtue ethics certainly speaks about internal consequences.