Set­ting Up Metaethics

Fol­lowup to: Is Mor­al­ity Given?, Is Mor­al­ity Prefer­ence?, Moral Com­plex­it­ies, Could Anything Be Right?, The Bed­rock of Fair­ness, …

In­tu­itions about mor­al­ity seem to split up into two broad camps: mor­al­ity-as-given and mor­al­ity-as-pref­er­ence.

Some per­ceive mor­al­ity as a fixed given, in­de­pend­ent of our whims, about which we form change­able be­liefs. This view’s great ad­vant­age is that it seems more nor­mal up at the level of every­day moral con­ver­sa­tions: it is the in­tu­ition un­der­ly­ing our every­day no­tions of “moral er­ror”, “moral pro­gress”, “moral ar­gu­ment”, or “just be­cause you want to murder someone doesn’t make it right”.

Oth­ers choose to de­scribe mor­al­ity as a pref­er­ence—as a de­sire in some par­tic­u­lar per­son; nowhere else is it writ­ten. This view’s great ad­vant­age is that it has an easier time liv­ing with re­duc­tion­ism—fit­ting the no­tion of “mor­al­ity” into a uni­verse of mere phys­ics. It has an easier time at the meta level, an­swer­ing ques­tions like “What is mor­al­ity?” and “Where does mor­al­ity come from?

Both in­tu­itions must con­tend with seem­ingly im­possible ques­tions. For ex­ample, Moore’s Open Ques­tion: Even if you come up with some simple an­swer that fits on T-Shirt, like “Hap­pi­ness is the sum total of good­ness!“, you would need to ar­gue the iden­tity. It isn’t in­stantly ob­vi­ous to every­one that good­ness is hap­pi­ness, which seems to in­dic­ate that hap­pi­ness and right­ness were dif­fer­ent con­cepts to start with. What was that second concept, then, ori­gin­ally?

Or if “Mor­al­ity is mere pref­er­ence!” then why care about hu­man pref­er­ences? How is it pos­sible to es­tab­lish any “ought” at all, in a uni­verse seem­ingly of mere “is”?

So what we should want, ideally, is a metaethic that:

  1. Adds up to moral nor­mal­ity, in­clud­ing moral er­rors, moral pro­gress, and things you should do whether you want to or not;

  2. Fits nat­ur­ally into a non-mys­ter­i­ous uni­verse, pos­tu­lat­ing no ex­cep­tion to re­duc­tion­ism;

  3. Does not over­sim­plify hu­man­ity’s com­plic­ated moral ar­gu­ments and many ter­minal val­ues;

  4. An­swers all the im­possible ques­tions.

I’ll present that view to­mor­row.

Today’s post is de­voted to set­ting up the ques­tion.

Con­sider “free will”, already dealt with in these posts. On one level of or­gan­iz­a­tion, we have mere phys­ics, particles that make no choices. On an­other level of or­gan­iz­a­tion, we have hu­man minds that ex­tra­pol­ate pos­sible fu­tures and choose between them. How can we con­trol any­thing, even our own choices, when the uni­verse is de­term­in­istic?

To dis­solve the puzzle of free will, you have to sim­ul­tan­eously ima­gine two levels of or­gan­iz­a­tion while keep­ing them con­cep­tu­ally dis­tinct. To get it on a gut level, you have to see the level trans­ition—the way in which free will is how the hu­man de­cision al­gorithm feels from in­side. (Be­ing told flatly “one level emerges from the other” just relates them by a ma­gical trans­ition rule, “emer­gence”.)

For free will, the key is to un­der­stand how your brain com­putes whether you “could” do some­thing—the al­gorithm that la­bels reach­able states. Once you un­der­stand this la­bel, it does not ap­pear par­tic­u­larly mean­ing­less—“could” makes sense—and the la­bel does not con­flict with phys­ics fol­low­ing a de­term­in­istic course. If you can see that, you can see that there is no con­flict between your feel­ing of free­dom, and de­term­in­istic phys­ics. Indeed, I am per­fectly will­ing to say that the feel­ing of free­dom is cor­rect, when the feel­ing is in­ter­preted cor­rectly.

In the case of mor­al­ity, once again there are two levels of or­gan­iz­a­tion, seem­ingly quite dif­fi­cult to fit to­gether:

On one level, there are just particles without a shred of should-ness built into them—just like an elec­tron has no no­tion of what it “could” do—or just like a flip­ping coin is not un­cer­tain of its own res­ult.

On an­other level is the or­din­ary mor­al­ity of every­day life: moral er­rors, moral pro­gress, and things you ought to do whether you want to do them or not.

And in between, the level trans­ition ques­tion: What is this should-ness stuff?

Award your­self a point if you thought, “But wait, that prob­lem isn’t quite ana­log­ous to the one of free will. With free will it was just a ques­tion of fac­tual in­vest­ig­a­tion—look at hu­man psy­cho­logy, fig­ure out how it does in fact gen­er­ate the feel­ing of free­dom. But here, it won’t be enough to fig­ure out how the mind gen­er­ates its feel­ings of should-ness. Even after we know, we’ll be left with a re­main­ing ques­tion—is that how we should cal­cu­late should-ness? So it’s not just a mat­ter of sheer fac­tual re­duc­tion­ism, it’s a moral ques­tion.”

Award your­self two points if you thought, “...oh, wait, I re­cog­nize that pat­tern: It’s one of those strange loops through the meta-level we were talk­ing about earlier.”

And if you’ve been read­ing along this whole time, you know the an­swer isn’t go­ing to be, “Look at this fun­da­ment­ally moral stuff!”

Nor even, “Sorry, mor­al­ity is mere pref­er­ence, and right-ness is just what serves you or your genes; all your moral in­tu­itions oth­er­wise are wrong, but I won’t ex­plain where they come from.”

Of the art of an­swer­ing im­possible ques­tions, I have already said much: Indeed, vast seg­ments of my Over­com­ing Bias posts were cre­ated with that spe­cific hid­den agenda.

The se­quence on an­ti­cip­a­tion fed into Mys­ter­i­ous An­swers to Mys­ter­i­ous Ques­tions, to pre­vent the Primary Cata­strophic Fail­ure of stop­ping on a poor an­swer.

The Fake Util­ity Func­tions se­quence was dir­ec­ted at the prob­lem of over­sim­pli­fied moral an­swers par­tic­u­larly.

The se­quence on words provided the first and ba­sic il­lus­tra­tion of the Mind Pro­jec­tion Fal­lacy, the un­der­stand­ing of which is one of the Great Keys.

The se­quence on words also showed us how to play Ra­tion­al­ist’s Ta­boo, and Re­place the Sym­bol with the Sub­stance. What is “right”, if you can’t say “good” or “de­sir­able” or “bet­ter” or “prefer­able” or “moral” or “should”? What hap­pens if you try to carry out the op­er­a­tion of re­pla­cing the sym­bol with what it stands for?

And the se­quence on quantum phys­ics, among other pur­poses, was there to teach the fine art of not run­ning away from Scary and Con­fus­ing Prob­lems, even if oth­ers have failed to solve them, even if great minds failed to solve them for gen­er­a­tions. Her­oes screw up, time moves on, and each suc­ceed­ing era gets an en­tirely new chance.

If you’re just join­ing us here (Belldandy help you) then you might want to think about read­ing all those posts be­fore, oh, say, to­mor­row.

If you’ve been read­ing this whole time, then you should think about try­ing to dis­solve the ques­tion on your own, be­fore to­mor­row. It doesn’t re­quire more than 96 in­sights bey­ond those already provided.

Next: The Mean­ing of Right.

Part of The Metaethics Sequence

Next post: “The Mean­ing of Right

Pre­vi­ous post: “Changing Your Metaethics