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DJ Grothe’s Failed Speech on Morality



Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Skepticon II, a free conference on skepticism held in Springfield, Missouri. I had a fantastic time, and if anyone lives nearby and missed it this year, I highly recommend going to Skepticon III. There were many excellent speeches, but the one I found most interesting was DJ Grothe’s speech on morality. DJ is someone who thinks deeply about life’s big questions, as demonstrated by his Point of Inquiry podcast. He is also a great speaker and all-around good guy. So I was excited to hear that he was going to be speaking on morality, a subject that I have recently become very interested in. While I agreed with many of the points he made in his speech, I do not think he succeeded in showing how morality can exist without God.

DJ stated that he would be arguing for three conclusions:
  1. Evolution can help explain ethics; it alone cannot justify ethics.
  2. Justifying ethics requires critical reasoning.
  3. Mere knowledge of evolution does not make people less moral.
In his speech he argued not only that you need reason to justify ethics, but how you can use reason to justify ethics. I strongly agree with all three of DJ’s conclusions, but do not think he provided any reasons to move beyond moral nihilism. Although I am a moral realist, I thought his arguments for moral realism were inadequate. I recognize that a short speech can at most sketch out a moral theory, but I don’t think he even managed to provide a good sketch of his beliefs on morality, let alone justify them.

The first part of DJ’s speech was his attack on evolutionary ethics. He made the excellent point that showing that the golden rule evolved would not establish it as moral any more than showing that xenophobia evolved would establish it as moral. As he said in his speech, “Evolution is inefficient, wasteful, [and] cruel.”

After explaining why he disagrees with grounding morality in evolution or in God, DJ briefly explained his view of morality. He stated that freedom from unnecessary suffering is something good to the individual, something that has value. He then went on to say that something everyone values is good in a more general sense. He defined his position as “well-being consequentialism” whereby the goodness of an action is determined by its effect on the well-being of individuals.

One problem I have with this is that he never explains why he thinks it makes sense to call this collective good a moral good. Everyone can value something without it being a moral good. For example, if everyone on earth valued the Mona Lisa, that wouldn’t make it morally good. Even taking things like this into account, there’s still the question of whether any of the remaining goods can be rightly called moral goods.

He addressed this a little bit when he was asked about the “is-ought distinction” which basically says that you can’t get from what is to what ought to be. DJ said that he buys into the is-ought distinction, but there can still be something that feels like the science of ethics. I saw this as a very poor response. Creation science may feel like real science to some people, but that doesn’t mean it is. This seems like a concession that DJ was not actually talking about morality all along and that while something similar to morality might exist, morality itself does not exist. I’m sure that DJ would disagree with that implication, but if so he should explain why he thinks morality exists in spite of the is-ought distinction.

Another problem is that he never defines “well-being.” He instead leaves it so incredibly vague that it’s almost like saying the goodness of an action is defined by whether something has good consequences. It seems so vague that you could use it to pretend you have a basis for your moral beliefs when instead you are really just relying on your moral intuitions (which may be completely unreliable since they are products of evolution). Is drinking alcohol good because it makes people happy and happiness is part of one’s well-being, or is it bad because it has negative health consequences?

And there is also the problem of what happens when something is good for someone’s well-being, but is bad for someone else’s. Instead of putting forward a means of saying what is moral when there are competing interests, DJ just says that when something is good for each individual’s well-being, it is good. But if you can only establish morality when something is good or bad for everyone, it becomes a useless concept. The morality of an action only matters if that action might actually take place. But if something makes everyone worse off, then who would have the incentive to do that action?

After the speech, I asked DJ how he defined well-being and how he determined morality when an action made some people better off and other people worse off. He named a couple things that he saw as part of well-being, but he never really defined exactly what he meant by it. We only talked for a few minutes, but hopefully we’ll be able to continue our conversation in the future. It may turn out that DJ has good answers to my objections, but based only on this talk, I am very skeptical of his view of morality.

Update: I just listened to the recent Reasonable Doubts podcast in which they interviewed DJ. While this post is primarily about DJ’s speech at Skepticon, he makes a few points in the podcast that I wanted to respond to.

He says that his response to moral nihilists is to say that just because something evolved doesn’t mean that it’s unreliable. Our eyes evolved, yet we think it’s reasonable to trust them. I agree that the fact that our view of morality evolved does not make it unreliable. But there’s a key difference between our moral sense and vision. While we have good reasons to expect that evolution will give us a generally reliable sense of sight, we do not have any reason to expect our evolved morality to generally match true morality. If predators looked like human babies and babies looked like predators, our species probably would not have survived as long as it has. However, if there are moral facts distinct from all other facts, why would evolution make our moral sense match these facts instead of whatever led to the greatest reproductive success? I think our senses and intuitions are pretty reliable in cases where we need them to be accurate, but are unreliable in other cases. For example, while my intuitions about physics are roughly accurate in the everyday world, science has shown that my intuitions about the very large and the very small are way off. And finally, I don’t see how someone could say it’s rational to trust our moral sense, but it’s irrational for someone to trust their sense of God (their sensus divinitatis).

When asked about how we can justify our ethics without looking at what is (in light of the is-ought distinction), DJ said that we can ground our morality in critical rational reflection. But this doesn’t make sense to me. If you can’t use what is to determine morality, what are you basing it on? I guess you could arbitrarily make up a few moral facts and then rationally determine the implications of those facts, but then there’s no reason to trust your conclusions.

When asked about moral duties, DJ says that we have to start at the beginning: what is valuable to us. I agree completely. He says that we value well-being, which he minimally defines as “limiting unnecessary suffering.” But I think you need to consider all things that we value. If you only look at one thing, then all of your moral conclusions are suspect because there are some times that limiting suffering is worse than the suffering itself. As an extreme example, hooking my brain up to a machine that makes me experience a virtual world in which every day is the same may prevent me from ever feeling suffering again, but it would also deny me other things that I value. A more complete definition of value is needed.

Finally, DJ says, as he did at Skepticon, that from his vantage point, he can say that what the Nazis did is morally wrong, even if it made sense to the Germans. But anyone can say anything; the key is whether he has good reasons for saying that what the Nazis did is wrong. This depends on whether he has good reasons for believing that his view of morality is true. I could believe in a Magic 8-Ball based system of morality in which whether something is moral is determined by what a Magic 8-Ball tells me. If I ask it whether what the Nazis did was immoral and it says “It is certain”, then from my view of morality, I would be able to say definitively that what the Nazis did is wrong. If we have no good reasons to believe that a certain theory of morality is true, then we have no reason to believe that theory’s implications. Unless DJ has some other justification for his view of morality, I see no more reason to trust his theory as a reliable guide to morality than to trust the Magic 8-Ball based theory.

David B. Ellis said...
December 1, 2009 at 9:41 PM  

On the topic of how evolution can affect (and potentially skew) our moral intuitions I highly recommend the following novella by Eliezer Yudkowsky:


Especially if you like science fiction that explores philosophical questions.

Mike said...
December 3, 2009 at 12:20 AM  

Thanks for the recommendation. I enjoyed reading it and I thought it raised some great issues concerning morality.

kadir karabaş said...
February 22, 2013 at 10:07 PM  
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