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...