Changing Your Metaethics

If you say, “Killing people is wrong,” that’s mor­al­ity. If you say, “You shouldn’t kill people be­cause God pro­hib­ited it,” or “You shouldn’t kill people be­cause it goes against the trend of the uni­verse”, that’s metaethics.

Just as there’s far more agree­ment on Spe­cial Relativ­ity than there is on the ques­tion “What is sci­ence?“, people find it much easier to agree “Murder is bad” than to agree what makes it bad, or what it means for some­thing to be bad.

People do get at­tached to their metaethics. Indeed they fre­quently in­sist that if their metaethic is wrong, all mor­al­ity ne­ces­sar­ily falls apart. It might be in­ter­est­ing to set up a panel of metaethi­cists—the­ists, Ob­ject­iv­ists, Platon­ists, etc.—all of whom agree that killing is wrong; all of whom dis­agree on what it means for a thing to be “wrong”; and all of whom in­sist that if their metaethic is un­true, then mor­al­ity falls apart.

Clearly a good num­ber of people, if they are to make philo­soph­ical pro­gress, will need to shift meta­th­ics at some point in their lives. You may have to do it.

At that point, it might be use­ful to have an open line of re­treat—not a re­treat from mor­al­ity, but a re­treat from Your-Cur­rent-Metaethic. (You know, the one that, if it is not true, leaves no pos­sible basis for not killing people.)

And so I’ve been set­ting up these lines of re­treat, in many and vari­ous posts, sum­mar­ized be­low. For I have learned that to change metaethical be­liefs is nigh-im­possible in the pres­ence of an un­answered at­tach­ment.

If, for ex­ample, someone be­lieves the au­thor­ity of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” de­rives from God, then there are sev­eral and well-known things to say that can help set up a line of re­treat—as op­posed to im­me­di­ately at­tack­ing the plaus­ib­il­ity of God. You can say, “Take per­sonal re­spons­ib­il­ity! Even if you got or­ders from God, it would be your own de­cision to obey those or­ders. Even if God didn’t or­der you to be moral, you could just be moral any­way.”

The above ar­gu­ment ac­tu­ally gen­er­al­izes to quite a num­ber of metaethics—you just sub­sti­tute Their-Fa­vor­ite-Source-Of-Mor­al­ity, or even the word “mor­al­ity”, for “God”. Even if your par­tic­u­lar source of moral au­thor­ity failed, couldn’t you just drag the child off the train tracks any­way? And in­deed, who is it but you, that ever de­cided to fol­low this source of moral au­thor­ity in the first place? What re­spons­ib­il­ity are you really passing on?

So the most im­port­ant line of re­treat is the one given in The Moral Void: If your metaethic stops telling you to save lives, you can just drag the kid off the train tracks any­way. To para­phrase Pi­ers Anthony, only those who have mor­al­it­ies worry over whether or not they have them. If your metaethic tells you to kill people, why should you even listen? Maybe that which you would do even if there were no mor­al­ity, is your mor­al­ity.

The point be­ing, of course, not that no mor­al­ity ex­ists; but that you can hold your will in place, and not fear los­ing sight of what’s im­port­ant to you, while your no­tions of the nature of mor­al­ity change.

Other posts are there to set up lines of re­treat spe­cific­ally for more nat­ur­al­istic metaethics. It may make more sense where I’m com­ing from on these, once I ac­tu­ally present my metaethic; but I thought it wiser to set them up in ad­vance, to leave lines of re­treat.

Joy in the Merely Real and Ex­plain­ing vs. Ex­plain­ing Away ar­gue that you shouldn’t be dis­ap­poin­ted in any fa­cet of life, just be­cause it turns out to be ex­plic­able in­stead of in­her­ently mys­ter­i­ous: for if we can­not take joy in the merely real, our lives shall be empty in­deed.

No Univer­sally Com­pel­ling Ar­gu­ments sets up a line of re­treat from the de­sire to have every­one agree with our moral ar­gu­ments. There’s a strong moral in­tu­ition which says that if our moral ar­gu­ments are right, by golly, we ought to be able to ex­plain them to people. This may be valid among hu­mans, but you can’t ex­plain moral ar­gu­ments to a rock. There is no ideal philo­sophy stu­dent of per­fect empti­ness who can be per­suaded to im­ple­ment modus pon­ens, start­ing without modus pon­ens. If a mind doesn’t con­tain that which is moved by your moral ar­gu­ments, it won’t re­spond to them.

But then isn’t all mor­al­ity cir­cu­lar lo­gic, in which case it falls apart? Where Re­curs­ive Jus­ti­fic­a­tion Hits Bot­tom and My Kind of Re­flec­tion ex­plain the dif­fer­ence between a self-con­sist­ent loop through the meta-level, and ac­tual cir­cu­lar lo­gic. You shouldn’t find your­self say­ing “The uni­verse is simple be­cause it is simple”, or “Murder is wrong be­cause it is wrong”; but neither should you try to aban­don Oc­cam’s Razor while eval­u­at­ing the prob­ab­il­ity that Oc­cam’s Razor works, nor should you try to eval­u­ate “Is murder wrong?” from some­where out­side your brain. There is no ideal philo­sophy stu­dent of per­fect empti­ness to which you can un­wind your­self—try to find the per­fect rock to stand upon, and you’ll end up as a rock. So in­stead use the full force of your in­tel­li­gence, your full ra­tion­al­ity and your full mor­al­ity, when you in­vest­ig­ate the found­a­tions of your­self.

The Gift We Give To To­mor­row sets up a line of re­treat for those afraid to al­low a causal role for evol­u­tion, in their ac­count of how mor­al­ity came to be. (Note that this is ex­tremely dis­tinct from grant­ing evol­u­tion a jus­ti­fic­a­tional status in moral the­or­ies.) Love has to come into ex­ist­ence some­how—for if we can­not take joy in things that can come into ex­ist­ence, our lives will be empty in­deed. Evolu­tion may not be a par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant way for love to evolve, but judge the end product—not the source. Other­wise you would be com­mit­ting what is known (ap­pro­pri­ately) as The Gen­etic Fal­lacy: caus­a­tion is not the same concept as jus­ti­fic­a­tion. It’s not like you can step out­side the brain evol­u­tion gave you: Re­belling against nature is only pos­sible from within nature.

The earlier series on Evolu­tion­ary Psy­cho­logy should dis­pense with the metaethical con­fu­sion of be­liev­ing that any nor­mal hu­man be­ing thinks about their re­pro­duct­ive fit­ness, even un­con­sciously, in the course of mak­ing de­cisions. Only evol­u­tion­ary bio­lo­gists even know how to define ge­netic fit­ness, and they know bet­ter than to think it defines mor­al­ity.

Alarm­ing in­deed is the thought that mor­al­ity might be com­puted in­side our own minds—doesn’t this im­ply that mor­al­ity is a mere thought? Doesn’t it im­ply that whatever you think is right, must be right? Posts such as Does Your Mor­al­ity Care What You Think? and its pre­de­cessors, Math is Sub­junct­ively Ob­ject­ive and Prob­ab­il­ity is Sub­ject­ively Ob­ject­ive, set up the needed line of re­treat: Just be­cause a quant­ity is com­puted in­side your head, doesn’t mean that the quant­ity com­puted is about your thoughts. There’s a dif­fer­ence between a cal­cu­lator that cal­cu­lates “What is 2 + 3?” and “What do I out­put when someone presses ‘2’, ‘+’, and ‘3’?”

And fi­nally Ex­ist­en­tial Angst Fact­ory of­fers the no­tion that if life seems pain­ful, re­duc­tion­ism may not be the real source of your prob­lem—if liv­ing in a world of mere particles seems too un­bear­able, maybe your life isn’t ex­cit­ing enough on its own?

If all goes well, my next post will set up the metaethical ques­tion and its meth­od­o­logy, and I’ll present my ac­tual an­swer on Monday.

And if you’re won­der­ing why I deem this busi­ness of metaethics im­port­ant, when it is all go­ing to end up adding up to moral nor­mal­itytelling you to pull the child off the train tracks, rather than the con­verse...

Well, there is op­pos­i­tion to ra­tion­al­ity from people who think it drains mean­ing from the uni­verse.

And this is a spe­cial case of a gen­eral phe­nomenon, in which many many people get messed up by mis­un­der­stand­ing where their mor­al­ity comes from. Poor metaethics forms part of the teach­ings of many a cult, in­clud­ing the big ones. My tar­get audi­ence is not just people who are afraid that life is mean­ing­less, but also those who’ve con­cluded that love is a de­lu­sion be­cause real mor­al­ity has to in­volve max­im­iz­ing your in­clus­ive fit­ness, or those who’ve con­cluded that un­re­turned kind­ness is evil be­cause real mor­al­ity arises only from selfish­ness, etc.

But the real reason, of course...