Nature Vs. Nurture

Over the transom today came a link (thank you, Bill K.) to Diplomad’s latest salvo: At War with the History of Mankind.

Dip makes the point that a central tenet of modern Leftist ideology (which is, as I and others have argued at length, essentially a cryptoreligious belief-system) is to make Nature sacred, and mankind profane (my words, not his, but the idea is the same). He notes that this is, in humanist terms, a noxious perversion:

Above all else, the history of mankind is one of struggle against nature, against Gaia. Wearing clothing, seeking shelter, hunting animals, creating agriculture, building cities, developing medicines, and devising public health schemes, among others, are all efforts by mankind to defeat nature and, yes, to overcome Gaia — a murderous entity if ever one existed.

Quite so. Modern environmentalism, in its ostentatious self-abnegation before the Sacred, differs only in style from medieval self-flagellation: it seeks grace and salvation through flamboyant gestures of atonement. (While we’re on the subject, white ethnomasochism is another fine example: as Lawrence Auster noted years ago, the sacred objects in that case are ethnic minorities.)

Nowhere is this religiosity, and its quest for martyrdom, more perspicuously self-evident than in the global-warming movement, and its profoundly anti-humanist crusade against fossil fuels. Alex Epstein, the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (which, if it were up to me, would be required reading for anyone eligible to vote in any Western nation) published a fine piece about this last week in Forbes.

In his essay, Mr. Epstein notes that we seem always to be losing the argument with the Left on what is now called “climate change”, and he explains that this is because, as so often happens, we fail to clarify our axioms. Key excerpts:

In naming an energy or environmental ideal, it is essential to recognize that an energy or environmental ideal is not a primary—it depends on the more fundamental question: What is the overall ideal we should strive for, in energy, environment, and everything else?

My answer is: the overall ideal is to maximize human well-being. While most Americans would agree with this ideal if and when it was made explicit, this ideal is almost never made explicit—and it is not driving our energy debate whatsoever. The ideal that is actually driving our debate without being noticed, the ideal that underlies the anti-fossil fuel ideal, is the ideal of minimizing human impact

To reach the right conclusion on what to do about energy, we need to be clear on our moral goal, our standard of value—and that the right standard of value is maximizing human well-being rather than the environmentalist standard of minimizing human impact. If we look at the big picture, both positives and negatives, of fossil fuels by the standard of maximizing human well-being, we find that short-term and long-term they improve every aspect of life by increasing mankind’s ability to use machines—including our capacity to make a naturally dirty environment far cleaner and our capacity to make a naturally dangerous climate far safer.

If we look at the risks and side-effects of fossil fuel use, we see that they are incomparably smaller than the benefits. This is also true for other forms of cheap, plentiful, reliable energy such as nuclear and hydroelectric. Thus, short-term and long-term, the energy policy ideal is energy liberation

If the moral case for fossil fuels and energy liberation flows from a humanist standard of value, where does the moral case against fossil fuels and energy liberation flow from?

It flows from one of the most popular moral ideals of our era, the ideal of being “green”—minimizing our impact on the planet. This ideal is completely contrary to human well-being. Despite claims that human beings live on a nurturing but fragile planet that we must tread lightly on to survive, nature does not give us a good standard of living; we need to create it by dramatically impacting—transforming—nature. In doing so, we want to maximize human well-being, which means minimizing human-harming impacts—but we want to make as much impact on the planet as necessary.

When fossil fuels are discussed, the green standard is invariably applied by both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans regularly accept the minimizing impact ideal left and right, whether by accepting “renewable” (vs. life-enhancing) as an ideal—or by obsessing over every exaggeration of our climate impact but spending no time celebrating our climate mastery—or by calling more attention to the birds killed by wind turbines than the people who would be killed if we had to rely on wind turbines.

Both sides agree: the ideal is to find the form of energy that has as little “environmental impact” as possible. This is an application of the green ideal: to minimize our impact on the planet. This must be rejected and replaced with the ideals of human well-being (or human progress) and energy liberation. Those are the real ideals, and those can be used to rapidly win hearts and minds.

Whenever I discuss any energy and environmental issue with anyone, near the very beginning I make sure to ask: “Would you agree that our goal here is to find the policy that will maximize human well-being? Would you agree that we need to look carefully at all the costs and all the benefits to get to the right answer?” It’s often necessary to bring up the non-impact issue explicitly: “Would you agree that to maximize our well-being we need to impact the world in all kinds of ways and that impact is not a bad thing but often a good thing? That we just want to minimize impacts that harm us?”

That reframing may seem simple or go unnoticed, but the resulting framework changes everything.

If we reframe the debate, making our ideals explicit, we can both win supporters and champions of the right policies, and expose the evil and anti-humanism of the wrong policies… Framing the debate with maximizing human well-being as the ideal enables us to better reach the truth—and for that reason it makes it far, far easier to persuade others of the truth—in every issue and sub-issue. When made explicit, this ideal is compelling to the vast majority of people, much more so than the anti-impact ideal (or no ideal). It transforms our view of fossil fuels (and energy liberation) from self-destructive addiction to life-enhancing technology. The person who advocates this ideal conveys deep confidence and obvious sincerity.

Read the whole thing here.

Finally, I also have to give a nod to James Delingpole, who in this related article (which also links to, and quotes, the Epstein essay), gives us a splendidly apt coinage: wind turbines as “eco-crucifixes”.

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53 Comments

  1. antiquarian says

    I don’t have a problem with the idea that we might be affecting the climate, or that we could begin to in the future if we aren’t now. So talking about it is fine by me. As I see it, though, what we need to do is to point out that whatever profitable pollution the U.S. doesn’t do, China and India will, and so what we really need to do is to invent technology they’ll adopt, like reliable, cheap electric cars.

    Posted April 13, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I don’t have a problem with the idea that we might be affecting the climate, or that we could begin to in the future if we aren’t now.

    Nor I.

    Posted April 13, 2016 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Whitewall says

    I believe the “climate change” drama is about nothing more than redistribution of wealth on a global scale. With the “right people” doing the redistributing and profiting of course. Global Marxism with a green smile.

    Posted April 14, 2016 at 7:07 am | Permalink
  4. By “right people”, Robert, I assume you mean Left people, like the execrable Al Gore, AKA “Not My Ox”.

    Posted April 14, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  5. Whitewall says

    Henry, but of course!

    Posted April 14, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  6. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    A belated happy birthday to you!

    The author seems to be assuming a false dilemma. Either we maximize human well-being or we minimize human impact. Either Man is god or Nature is god, in effect. Clearly it’s wrong to treat nature as a god, but isn’t it also wrong to say “we just want to minimize impacts that harm us”? Does that mean that, if we could reduce the suffering of pigs and cows by eating less meat, for example, there’d be no reason to do so? Does it mean that, if we can benefit ourselves somehow by killing off all the whales, we might as well do that — so long as we aren’t harmed in the process? That seems very cold and narrow-minded to me. Why shouldn’t we recognize the interests of non-human beings? But maybe I’m not understanding the author’s position?

    Posted April 14, 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Jacques,

    I do not think the author meant we should always choose to maximize human well-being, but only in situations where reducing human impact would cause significant human suffering (out of proportion to the supposed damage caused by human impact).

    Posted April 14, 2016 at 9:53 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm,

    Your blog needs adjustment for daylight savings time. It is now 11:11 pm in Brooklyn.

    Posted April 14, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Right you were, Henry. A recent WordPress update seems to have put me on a fixed offset to UTC.

    Posted April 14, 2016 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    You’re right, and this is a fair criticism of Mr. Epstein’s book, as well — he tends unnecessarily to overstate his case. I doubt he thinks that there should be no weight whatsoever given to the suffering of animals (though it’s hard for me to think of any persuasive argument as to why anything in nature but the suffering of possibly conscious animals should be given any weight at all over human interests).

    As I understand him his point, really, is that in this debate far too many people give human interests zero, or even negative, weight.

    Posted April 14, 2016 at 11:30 pm | Permalink
  11. Jacques says

    “it’s hard for me to think of any persuasive argument as to why anything in nature but the suffering of possibly conscious animals should be given any weight at all over human interests”

    Would you find that hard to accept even when the human interests are fairly trivial ones? Because it seems reasonable to me that, for example, human beings should be prevented from littering in untouched places even if (let’s imagine) that would have no impact on conscious animal life. It seems better that they should have to undergo the inconvenience of cleaning up after themselves than that a site of great natural beauty should be left as a disgusting mess. (I don’t think it would be too strange, either, to say that this would be a kind of desecration.)

    Is it just kooky to intuit that nature, or just Reality perhaps, is an intrinsically valuable or meaningful thing that deserves our respect? That seems like a fitting response to a forest or an ocean or a desert. I guess one reason I find the idea plausible is that I think there might be consciousness of some kind all over the place; but I find the idea plausible enough even aside from that possibility.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    It seems better that they should have to undergo the inconvenience of cleaning up after themselves than that a site of great natural beauty should be left as a disgusting mess.

    I feel that way too — very strongly so, in fact — but who cares besides us? My point is that what you describe is at bottom a human interest. Nature itself has no scruples about destruction.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    P.S.

    Now a truly determined “devil’s advocate” could reply that since humans are a product of Nature, and humans have come to abhor the despoilment of natural beauty, then humans are the means by which Nature itself can at last express its preferences.

    To which I say: I don’t like being used. We get to decide what our interests are.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  14. Jacques says

    Right, you could say it’s just we humans who have this preference. But I think that won’t be coherent in the end. It’s not rational for me to think about my own preference or valuation in this way. Suppose I want the pristine desert to be pristine — no cigarette butts or beer cans or diapers, etc. By hypothesis, the presence or absence of the litter won’t make any difference to us; for example, we won’t know that it exists, if it does. Still I’d prefer no litter. So my preference is based on the value judgment that its pristine-ness is valuable. I do not (or not necessarily) value my own appreciation or valuation of its pristine-ness. (Though I might value that too, as it might happen.) At least I think this is the most intuitive way to characterize the preference we both share in this case. But if this is right, it seems incoherent for me to say something like “I prefer X because I think X is valuable, but really the value of X is just the-value-of-X-for-me”. It’s a little like saying ‘It’s raining but I don’t believe it is’. So I’d argue we have to think there is an intrinsic value or interest of the natural site, if our preference is rational.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    I don’t find this persuasive, because I don’t think any values are intrinsic outside of the being (or perhaps, more generally, class of beings, though we could get out in the weeds over that distinction too) in which they are instantiated.

    Let’s say there exists some planet that is due to be vaporized in a supernova a hundred years from now. Let’s say also that no sentient being will ever visit this place, or even look at it through a telescope, between now and then. Does it really matter whether some litter lands on its surface?

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  16. Jacques says

    I’m only arguing that _if_ our intuitive belief that it’s better for the litter to be cleaned up is rational, we should believe that there are intrinsically valuable states of affairs that have nothing to do with us. Not that the latter belief is actually true (although I also think it’s true).

    The example of the planet soon to be vaporized is interesting. Obviously it will matter a lot _less_ (or at least, a lot less _to us_) whether litter lands on its surface than it will matter whether the Pacific Ocean is full of litter. But I take myself to be rationally committed to the belief that it does _matter_ whether litter lands there, if the natural state of the planet is beautiful (for example).

    Think of the desert again. Scenario 1: For the next 1000 years, most of the desert will be covered with cigarette butts, human excrement, McDonald’s packaging and other human filth. Scenario 2: None of that human filth ever makes an appearance in the desert. And we stipulate that in neither scenario will any humans know about or be affected by the human filth or lack thereof. We agree, I think, that Scenario 2 is significantly better than Scenario 1. I am just pointing out that, in making this judgment, we are committing to the idea that the way the desert is (quite apart from any effects on humans) has some degree of value or disvalue. That is, we aren’t judging that our own attitudes or feelings about the way the desert is are better or worse; our judgments are just about the desert. Can one coherently hold on that kind of judgment while simultaneously judging that only humans have interests or interests that matter?

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  17. Whitewall says

    In today’s comic strip “Shoe”, there a two blocks…left block reads, “Climate change leads to an increase in what?” Right block answer..”Arguments”.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    I don’t agree that the unsullied desert is intrinsically or objectively better. I do agree strongly, though, that it seems better to me.

    Where we differ, I think, is that I don’t think it’s necessary for our moral or aesthetic intuitions to rest on objective bedrock in order to embrace them. (This is, for me, the narrow way that allows me to function as a nontheistic Darwinist without falling into the abyss of nihilism.)

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Robert,

    Q.E.D. !

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  20. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    You say:

    “I don’t agree that the unsullied desert is intrinsically or objectively better. I do agree strongly, though, that it seems better to me.”

    Okay. But I can agree that X seems better to me without thinking that X really is better. Value judgments about what is good or better are not reports on how things seem to the judge. Just as I can (rightly) say that two lines seem to me to have different lengths, visually, though I know intellectually they aren’t. When we agree that the unsullied desert is better, we aren’t just saying that it _seems_ better to one or both of us. We’re agreeing that it’s better. Though the fact that it seems better might explain why we think it is better. (Just as, when we agree that the lines are the same length, we’re not just agreeing that they seem the same length to us, though that might be why we think they are the same length.)

    Likewise, if I say murder is wrong, I am not saying something that will be true provided merely that murder seems wrong to me, or seems wrong to most people, etc. It seems obvious enough that if everyone started believing it was right to murder young children that would not become right as a result of the new consensus; I’m pretty sure it would still be wrong, in fact. My claim is true if and only if murder really is wrong. Again, it could be that nothing in the objective world actually makes true any of these judgments of ours. In that case, the judgments are mostly false, since they are mostly about how things are in the world.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    I think your optical-illusion example doesn’t really apply properly here, because there really is a “fact of the matter” as regards the length of the lines, as demonstrated by the fact that we can appeal to an objective standard — a ruler — to settle the question.

    In my view, this is not the case for normative choices. I’m willing to accept that there simply is no absolute foundation for them to stand on, and I think it is nothing more than a comforting fiction to imagine that such a foundation exists.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  22. Jacques says

    Malcolm,
    You might be right that there is no ‘foundation’ for normative judgments. I’m not saying that there is, but only that _if_ we believe in our own normative judgments we can’t rationally deny that there is such a ‘foundation’. When you say ‘murder is wrong’ you are pretty obviously making a claim about murder, and not about how it seems to you or to people, etc. If it were to turn out that, apart from human responses and feelings, there was nothing to distinguish murder from water-color painting, that would imply that ‘murder is wrong’ is simply not true.

    The analogy with the ruler is helpful. What makes us regard this an ‘objective’ standard? In practice, it seems to be just the (very) widespread and regular agreement that we find between human subjects with respect to ruler measurements. There’s also wide agreement that murder is wrong. I see no reason to discriminate here, and say that it’s really objectively true that the line is 5cm but only sort-of subjectively quasi-true that murder is wrong. Both things are true, and truth is (by its nature) a matter of how subjective thoughts line up with an objective reality. So, if there is no objective reality to make any normative claim true, no normative claim is true. That’s just a comforting fiction. But how can you have it both ways? How can you say that a normative claim X is true, when X is plainly about an objective matter, while simultaneously holding that there’s nothing in the objective world that makes X true?

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  23. Suppose we simply replace “maximize human well-being” with “minimize excessive human suffering”? Then we can argue about what constitutes “excessive”. That way we can start a fresh argument about who is a masochist …

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  24. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    So, if there is no objective reality to make any normative claim true, no normative claim is true. That’s just a comforting fiction. But how can you have it both ways? How can you say that a normative claim X is true, when X is plainly about an objective matter, while simultaneously holding that there’s nothing in the objective world that makes X true?

    But I don’t want it both ways, you see. I’m not saying that my normative intuition is “true”; I’m just saying that this is the normative framework that I, and my culture, are going to use.

    Think of Sir Charles Napier’s response to suttee.

    As for lengths of lines, they aren’t normative, and they aren’t subjective in the same way values are. We can compare lengths directly, using a ruler, or wavelengths of light, or whatever we like. Obviously you can simply deny, if you like, that this line is longer than that line, even when we hold them next to each other and one extends farther than the other does, but I do think there is an objective “fact of the matter” about relative lengths in a way that is clearly not the case for the “wrongness” of, to pick a nicely contentious example, abortion.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  25. It occurs to me that if we continue mapping (or reframing or even transforming) such an argument onto less divisive issues, we might be able to close the gap to a consensus.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  26. Of course, in proposing an iterative mapping of contentious issues to less contentious framing, I am neglecting the obvious fly in the ointment — people love to argue. BTW, this is why God invented debating societies and philosophy.
    :)

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  27. Malcolm says

    It occurs to me that if we continue mapping (or reframing or even transforming) such an argument onto less divisive issues, we might be able to close the gap to a consensus.

    You’d think so, but when it comes to climate-change, we are dealing with religious issues: sin, atonement, salvation, and heresy. Progressivism tends to traffic in absolutes.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
  28. Jacques says

    “Think of Sir Charles Napier’s response to suttee.”

    I think his response was more like a debater’s point, or a joke, or an insult. Taken as a serious philosophical or moral position, it reduces to incoherence. If I say something like ‘I believe X is good just because X is part of the framework that my culture uses’ then I’m effectively abandoning rational argument. I might as well say ‘Abortion is wrong because my parents told me so’ or ‘It’s good to go to church on Sundays because that’s what everyone around here does’. To believe that something is good or bad, right or wrong, etc. — to actually make a normative claim, as we all have to do all the time — is not equivalent to reporting in an anthropological tone on the practices of your culture.

    If there’s nothing more to be said about the ‘wrongness’ of suttee than ‘my culture doesn’t practice suttee’ or ‘we don’t like it, though some others think it’s great’ then there is no rational basis for holding any opinion about its moral status. If such an opinion is rational, its truth conditions have to do with suttee rather than varying contingent cultural attitudes toward suttee.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  29. Malcolm says

    I think his response was more like a debater’s point, or a joke, or an insult.

    It was nothing of the sort; it was a cultured Englishman doing what he believed to be morally correct, while acknowledging the unprovablility of moral “truths”.

    As for “abandoning rational argument”: rational argument depends on axioms, which are by definition unprovable. (If they were provably true, then they’d be theorems, resting in turn on even deeper axioms.)

    Moral axioms are no different; we accept them intuitively, because that is all we can do. We may convince ourselves that our moral principles are in fact true in some objective sense — but if I disagree with you about any of them, there’s no authority “out there” to which you can appeal.

    All I’ve done here is to try to wean myself from the need to believe that moral axioms are ontologically and objectively true, while retaining my willingness to be guided by them.

    Why? Well if I’m right, why not?

    After all, if there is no ontological bedrock here, why shouldn’t I accept the axioms that exert the strongest intuitive pull? If there is no ultimate foundation for normative intuitions, that also means there is no reason why one must, or even should, go running around like a nihilist.

    Again: is abortion right, or is it wrong? Whatever your answer is, how will you prove it to me? You can’t, of course, except in terms of other normative judgments. You seem to be saying that what really matters is the belief that the intuition you favor is actually, ontologically true (although I can’t for the life of me imagine what the “truth-maker” for such a thing would look like), even though it is unprovably so. I’m just saying (with a nod to Laplace) that we “have no need of that hypothesis”.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  30. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    Just above I wrote:

    I’m just saying (with a nod to Laplace) that we “have no need of that hypothesis.”

    Perhaps I should qualify that: I should say that I have no need of that hypothesis. Societies, on the other hand, very well might; hence the importance of religion. So when you fight me on this point, perhaps you are doing the Lord’s work!

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  31. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    Another note: this is of a piece, I think, with the principles I attempted to defend in our previous conversation.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  32. Jacques says

    “It was nothing of the sort; it was a cultured Englishman doing what he believed to be morally correct, while acknowledging the unprovability of moral “truths”.”

    If he believed it to be morally correct, he believed it to be _true_ that it was correct. Which means that, if he was thinking rationally, he believed the axioms on which his judgment was based to be true. Whether his axioms are provable is another thing. But it’s not rational to believe “Suttee is wrong but it’s not objectively true that suttee is wrong” or “I believe that suttee is wrong but that belief of mine is really just an arbitrary judgment that has nothing to do with the real objective moral facts about suttee”. Because “Suttee is wrong” is just not any kind of claim about how the speaker or his community feels, or what moral axioms or standards they have, etc. (Compare: “I believe it’s raining but it’s not raining”.)

    If you accept an axiom, provable or not, you are committed to regarding it as true. If you didn’t regard it as true, you couldn’t rationally regard further propositions derived from the axiom as really being proven; at most, you could hold that IF some unknowable proposition happens to be true, then your theorems would also be true.

    When you say that there’s no authority ‘out there’ to which we can appeal to settle basic moral disagreements, I don’t see why I should accept this claim. Is this just a bare assertion of naturalism or nihilism or atheism? I think there is an authority within each one of us, ultimately grounded in some metaphysical moral reality that does indeed lie outside of us. Whether I can prove that to you seems beside the point. If someone simply refuses to accept the law of non-contradiction, how will you ‘prove’ to him that p implies not-not-p? Maybe you just can’t. Or maybe you can, by getting the person to reflect more carefully on his own basic intuitions and rational commitments. But in any case, if you can’t prove it to this person that’s no reason to doubt that the principles of logic are objectively true.

    Now maybe, as you say, there is no ‘ontological bedrock’ here. Maybe also, in that case, there’s no reason not to accept whatever is most powerfully intuitively appealing to you. But, again, once you do accept it you regard it as true, and regarding it as true just can’t be rationally equivalent to regarding it as nothing more than an arbitrary baseless subjective preference. I’m making a claim about the coherence or rationality of the position you want to hold. I claim you have to choose; maybe you should really just be a nihilist and make no value judgments at all? You could still just assert what you like and don’t like, and act in the interests of yourself and your group against others.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 10:53 pm | Permalink
  33. Jacques says

    Just to be clear, I am assuming in making such arguments that whether p is true has nothing to do with whether p can be proven by human beings or whether human beings tend to agree on p, etc. So I don’t think it’s relevant to this issue that (for example) disagreements about distances can be settled by ‘proving’ this or that in some objective sense, while disagreements about values are arguably not open to that kind of resolution.

    Posted April 15, 2016 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  34. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    Now maybe, as you say, there is no ‘ontological bedrock’ here. Maybe also, in that case, there’s no reason not to accept whatever is most powerfully intuitively appealing to you. But, again, once you do accept it you regard it as true

    That’s what I am disagreeing with. I do not regard it as true, i.e., that there is any “fact of the matter” outside the context of our own moral intuitions (which are, in turn, shaped by evolution and culture). On a naturalistic view, this is “ought from is”, and as such is just wishful thinking.

    Your assertion that I “should” just be a nihilist is incoherent on nihilism’s own terms. You could say I “might as well” be a nihilist, but then I can say that I might just as well not be one, especially because it would run counter to all the moral intuitions and dispositions that I do, in fact, have.

    To put that another way: while there may be no “fact of the matter” as to the ontological truth of the propositions my intuitions assert, that I have them is an observable fact. The point is that, contrary to what you assert here, I do not agree that I need to believe they are actually, ontologically true in order to be guided by them. If they are ontologically true, that’s great; if they are ontologically false, I’ll never have any way of knowing so. On the other hand, if there actually are no normative truths at all, then I might as well let myself be guided by the voice of my own conscience.

    I realize this is rather a dry (or “deflationary”) system, but it’s the best I can do, given the other things I believe to be true. In particular, my confidence in moral absolutism is shaken by three things: (a) that I can’t imagine what it could possibly rest upon, (b) that there are so many competing and contradictory moral systems on exhibit, with no authority to consult in order to determine their truth-values, and (c) the plausibility of a “merely” adaptive and evolutionary foundation for the very idea of morality itself, and for the various settings it can take.

    Just to be clear, I am assuming in making such arguments that whether p is true has nothing to do with whether p can be proven by human beings or whether human beings tend to agree on p, etc.

    Yes, I agree, of course. There is a “fact of the matter” about Aristotle’s shoe-size, but we will never be able to prove anything about it. Some things are true and unprovable. But there are other things about which there really is no fact of the matter, like Ebenezer Scrooge’s shoe-size. (When it comes to the relative length of lines, however, there are both an existing truth, and a way to determine what it is.) My point is that I think normative claims are not the kind of thing about which there can be objective truth.

    Obviously, we disagree about this meta-assertion — and I think that it, too, is as unprovable either way as an ordinary, normative assertion would be.

    Finally, I certainly don’t see that the proposition “there are normative truths” is itself an analytical truth. Your argument here has leaned on assertions about the consequences of denying that proposition. But I’m living proof, I think, that one can deny it, and live a perfectly decent and morally guided life nevertheless.

    Posted April 16, 2016 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  35. Malcolm says

    P.S. (and at the risk of repeating myself):

    When you say that there’s no authority ‘out there’ to which we can appeal to settle basic moral disagreements, I don’t see why I should accept this claim.

    Right, you don’t have to. I can’t prove it to you, after all, any more than you can prove its negation. But I will point out that what I have asserted (and what you are disagreeing with) is that “there is no higher authority we can appeal to in order to resolve these kinds of of questions” — and here we are, unable to resolve the truth of the assertion itself, because there is no higher authority we can appeal to!

    Is this just a bare assertion of naturalism or nihilism or atheism?

    It certainly isn’t something a theist, or a non-Darwinist, would be likely to claim, I’ll grant you. It’s helped along a lot by having a plausible alternative account for the existence of moral intuitions.

    I think there is an authority within each one of us, ultimately grounded in some metaphysical moral reality that does indeed lie outside of us.

    Well, I don’t! (To be clear, I don’t deny that we experience it that way; it’s that last bit I’m not buying.)

    Given what we’ve already brought out in this discussion, I’m having trouble seeing how we’ll get much farther than that.

    Posted April 16, 2016 at 12:58 am | Permalink
  36. jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    I think we may be talking past each other on a few points. You say, against me:

    “I do not regard it as true, i.e., that there is any “fact of the matter” outside the context of our own moral intuitions (which are, in turn, shaped by evolution and culture).”

    But what I meant was not that you yourself regard it as true that

    [Normative claims have ontological truth makers],

    Rather I meant that since you regard such propositions as

    [The unsullied desert is better]

    as truths, that attitude of yours rationally requires to admit that the truth maker is the following state of affairs:

    *The unsullied desert is better*

    And since that truth maker has nothing to do with human intuitions, valuations, etc. your belief in this one normative claim rationally commits you to believing in objective, intrinsic values in the world. I know you don’t actually believe that latter claim but I’m trying to argue that you should (or you should stop believing that the unsullied desert is better).

    You write:

    “On a naturalistic view, this is “ought from is”, and as such is just wishful thinking.”

    This is a misunderstanding of what I’m proposing. If there are objective facts about value, e.g., the sheer better-ness of the unsullied desert, then I am not deriving any claim about how things _ought_ to be from a claim about how things merely _are_ in some non-normative sense. That might be a fallacy (though I’m not sure) but my inference is nothing like that. I’m claiming that, if normative judgments are true, they are made true by the kinds of facts appropriate to those judgments: normative facts. If it’s true that X is good (or bad or right or wrong), there had better be some truth-maker involving goodness (or badness or rightness or wrongness).

    In fact I think you are deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ here. You wish to maintain that this or that is indeed good or better or whatnot, while you also claim that such judgments of yours have no basis apart from various contingent non-normative facts about our culture, our human nature, etc. But those are just ‘is’ premises and no amount of those can deliver any conclusion about what ‘ought’ to be, what is good or better, etc.

    Posted April 16, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  37. jacques says

    If nihilism is true, then strictly speaking there is nothing you ‘should’ believe and nothing you ‘may’ believe either. If nihilism is true, there is nothing good or better about figuring out what is true or coherent “on nihilism’s own terms”. On those terms, coherence is not better than incoherence, and whether or not something is true or coherent on any given set of terms is itself a meaningless valueless factoid.

    You say we can’t agree here, because there is no higher authority to which we can appeal. I don’t accept that either. It seems to me that we are slowly making some progress, and I take myself to be appealing to ‘higher’ standards of internal coherence and rationality that you already accept; since you yourself admit that it _seems_ to you that these are rooted in some higher reality, I urge you (rationally) to take your intuitions more seriously. If it seems true and your own normative beliefs seem to rationally require you to believe it, you should believe it.

    Finally, consider a rock-bottom issue in this ballpark. In having this debate we both care about what is true. How does truth fit into a ‘naturalistic’ world-view? Isn’t truth an inherently normative kind of relation between subjective thoughts and the objective world? And don’t we have to assume that that relation is really part of the objective world in rationally believing that our debates and discussions are rational?

    Posted April 16, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  38. Malcolm says

    Jacques, very sorry, but I have to take a break here. Will resume in a few days.

    Posted April 17, 2016 at 8:10 pm | Permalink
  39. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    Found a moment here (sorry, insanely busy and distracted with RL stuff this week).

    Very briefly:

    …since you regard such propositions as

    [The unsullied desert is better]

    as truths,

    But I don’t! My whole point here is that I regard them as preferences, shaped by our history, and supported by intuitions and dispositions.

    You wish to maintain that this or that is indeed good or better or whatnot…

    No, only that it’s better in my view, and that I will act accordingly.

    Posted April 18, 2016 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  40. Jacques says

    Malcolm,
    I’m confused! How can it make sense for someone to say “X is better in my view” while also saying “It’s not the case that X is better”? It being better-in-your-view implies that you (having that view) take it to be better.

    Now I guess it would be coherent to say “I just _prefer_ A to B, although in fact A is not better than B”. But in the present case, your preference is for a state of affairs having nothing to do with you or any other human being (by hypothesis). How can you rationally prefer that kind of state to some other one, except on the assumption that there are goods or values that have nothing to do with you or other human beings? I am claiming that this kind of human preference imposes a rational commitment to believing in the intrinsic value of something other than human preferences. And that’s not so strange; often we value things other than our own valuations, desire things other than the satisfaction of our own desires, etc.

    Posted April 19, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  41. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    It is simply that I have an aesthetic preference for unlittered planets. There are lots of practical reasons why we might have evolved an aversion to garbage, but they would all have to do with our own interests, and wouldn’t have to rely on there being anything “better” about a clean planet outside the context of how a garbage-strewn place might affect humans.

    I prefer Scotch to Bourbon. Is Scotch objectively better? Of course not. It’s just an acquired taste. I’m saying that all of our normative intuitions and dispositions are “acquired tastes”, acquired either in our upbringing, or our evolutionary history.

    Posted April 19, 2016 at 6:37 pm | Permalink
  42. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    If you prefer to Scotch to Bourbon then, sure, it does not have to be the case that Scotch _is_ objectively better or (more to the point) you don’t need to _believe_ that it’s better in order for your preference to be rational. This is because of the kind of preference you’re talking about: what you are preferring just is, by its very nature, a subjective conscious state of yours; so its a preference for something that intrinsically involves certain human interests.

    But suppose you just prefer that the desert be unsullied. And suppose, as we earlier supposed, that its being unsullied will not make any difference to the experience or happiness or self-focused interests of any human beings. Then if you still prefer _that_ kind of state to some other (that also makes no difference to your experience or happiness, etc.) I claim you are rationally committed to believing that it is objectively better. Otherwise, what could possibly make it (rationally) seem preferable to you?

    We could disagree about this latter kind of case, but I hope you agree it’s not obviously equivalent or reducible to the Scotch/Bourbon type of case.

    Posted April 20, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  43. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    Then if you still prefer _that_ kind of state to some other (that also makes no difference to your experience or happiness, etc.) I claim you are rationally committed to believing that it is objectively better.

    I disagree.

    Otherwise, what could possibly make it (rationally) seem preferable to you?

    Here are some possible (and interrelated) reasons:

    (a) I have a purely aesthetic preference for unlittered landscapes.

    (b) Despite our stipulation that nobody will ever lay eyes on this place before it is vaporized in a supernova, I prefer never to create the potential for an aesthetically disagreeable experience for any sentient being.

    (c) I have a normative intuition that disposes me to preserve and create order, and to resist the progress of entropy; to see good and evil in thermodynamic terms. (Indeed I do feel this way.)

    (d) Given (c), I think that people shouldn’t bestrew pristine places with garbage, just as a matter of behavioral discipline.

    All of this disposes me to prefer that our hypothetical planet be kept tidy, but none of this collection of preferences and intuitions is based on anything outside of my own personal and evolutionary history. In particular it has (and needs!) no basis in any belief that a clean planet is intrinsically better, i.e., better even if there had never been anyone in the world to think so.

    The thrust of your argument seems to be that mere preferences and dispositions such as these are insufficient motivators: that in order to take them seriously enough to be guided by them, I must also commit to a belief in some sort of ontological truth-maker for my intuitions. But if I believe, as I do, that no such truth-maker can possibly exist, then I am at liberty to act, and to make normative utterances, as I see fit, as purely “objective” criteria are off the table all round.

    One other quibble:

    …what you are preferring just is, by its very nature, a subjective conscious state of yours; so its a preference for something that intrinsically involves certain human interests.

    I think you’re trying to steal a base here. I will simply say that my preference is a disposition of mine, or an intentional posture. Given what we’ve already discussed in our previous conversation about consciousness and intentionality, I do not agree that it needs to be conscious (although of course it can be).

    Posted April 20, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  44. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    My idea is not so much that mere preferences such as these are insufficient motivators; instead I’m claiming that, if they really are preferences (and motivators) of this kind, they bring with them a rational commitment to believing that some things are valuable in themselves and apart from all human interests. For short, I’ll just call this ‘objective value’.

    For example, if your reason is (a) then I think you’re still committed to that kind of value. If you think the unsullied desert is aesthetically better, then since by hypothesis you think it’s better in that respect although its betterness makes no difference to you or other human beings, your subject aesthetic preference concerns a (putative) objective value.

    If the reason is (b) then the situation is more complicated. Perhaps for now I’ll just ask: why would a sullied desert create a potential for some kind of negative experience that wouldn’t also be created by an unsullied one? (Aren’t there some subjects, actual or potential, for whom the sullied desert would be a very agreeable experience aesthetically? Post-modern ironists or nihilists or punk rockers or Oscar the Grouch or…?) I suspect that in the background is the idea of a potentially disagreeable experience _for_ subjects with the right standards or tastes or preferences. But what makes them right, then?

    As for (c) I don’t understand how the content of your normative intuition could fail to be about objective value of some kind, e.g., “Order is better than chaos” or something like that. It’s not an intuition about your own tastes or preferences or intuitions, but rather about the objective world — that increasing order is better than entropy or something to that effect.

    Does this make sense to you? I doubt I’ll convince you but at least I hope to clarify what the disagreement is about.

    Posted April 21, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  45. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    I’m claiming that, if they really are preferences (and motivators) of this kind, they bring with them a rational commitment to believing that some things are valuable in themselves and apart from all human interests. For short, I’ll just call this ‘objective value’.

    I do think that I understand very clearly (and have all along) that this is what you are insisting on. I just don’t agree.

    Regarding (a):

    …if you think the unsullied desert is aesthetically better, then since by hypothesis you think it’s better in that respect although its betterness makes no difference to you or other human beings, your subject aesthetic preference concerns a (putative) objective value.

    But it does make a difference to me. The idea of a garbage-strewn desert just feels distasteful to me. I have an aversion to filth and disorder, so I’d prefer that the whole world be an orderly place. It’s just a matter of taste — my taste.

    (b):

    Perhaps for now I’ll just ask: why would a sullied desert create a potential for some kind of negative experience that wouldn’t also be created by an unsullied one?

    Because unsullied deserts don’t create, for me, a negative experience. In fact, I think they can be very beautiful. I want there to be as much beauty in the world as possible.

    Aren’t there some subjects, actual or potential, for whom the sullied desert would be a very agreeable experience aesthetically?

    Sure there are. I’m not one of them. I’ll even go so far as to say that if they want to go around creating filth and disorder, I’ll resist them.

    I suspect that in the background is the idea of a potentially disagreeable experience _for_ subjects with the right standards or tastes or preferences. But what makes them right, then?

    My answer to that is simple: Nothing does. But nothing makes them wrong, either. So I am free to choose, and so I choose to be guided by my own normative preferences and intuitions — in other words, my own conscience.

    (c):

    It’s not an intuition about your own tastes or preferences or intuitions, but rather about the objective world — that increasing order is better than entropy or something to that effect.

    Right, it’s not a meta-intution about my intuitions. They guide me directly. But it is, nevertheless, nothing more than my preference about state-of-affairs A versus state-of-affairs B. I think order is better than chaos, and I have lots of reasons why. (Order creates utility and beauty, it’s hygenic, it’s safer, etc.) But to say “order is better” is, ultimately, reducible to nothing more than “I prefer order”. The difference between us is that I am content to end the regress there, and you aren’t.

    I think that, for some reasons peculiar to you that I don’t share, you just prefer ontological bedrock! But I can get along fine without it, as you can see.

    Posted April 21, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  46. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    One quick thought about this:

    “But it does make a difference to me. The idea of a garbage-strewn desert just feels distasteful to me.”

    You seem to be inferring from this that I’m wrong to say “its betterness makes no difference to you or other human beings”. But that doesn’t follow. It’s a scope error. It’s coherent to imagine a state of affairs S such that makes no difference to you, while also holding that S is better than not-S.

    Bishop Berkeley tried to convince us the world is mental on the grounds that we can’t conceive an unconceived object. Imagine an unconceived tree, and you at least are conceiving of it, right? But no: you can imagine (a) a tree, and someone, e.g., yourself, conceiving of that tree, but also (b) a tree, conceived by no one. The fact that you are engaged in conceiving scenario (b) doesn’t imply that conceivers or conception are part of the content that you conceive. Something similar is going on here: I claim that _what_ you prefer is a state that makes no difference to you, though at the same time it makes a difference to you whether that state-that-makes-no-difference-to-you obtains. And that’s why your preference commits you to believing in objective value (I’m arguing).

    Posted April 21, 2016 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  47. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    We’re definitely getting out into the tall grass here.

    Your “tree conceived by no one”, if I understand you correctly, is a way of saying “there exists a particular tree instantiating the property ‘that-no-one-has-ever-conceived-it’.” Any particular tree I might point to, in other words, is immediately disqualified, on the grounds that it is, by definition, the wrong tree. (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for!”)

    This assertion, at least potentially, relies on there being an infinite number of trees; it couldn’t be true, say, of Federal Reserve Banks.

    All very interesting!

    Frankly, though, I think I am losing the thread a bit here; I have tried to be really really clear — and what’s more, I also know, by direct introspection, that I do not make the doxological commitment you demand, namely to believe in objective value.

    But as I say, I am not sure, now, that I understand you with exact precision. In particular, I’m getting a whiff of equivocation on the phrase “makes a difference to you”. What do you mean by that phrase?

    Posted April 22, 2016 at 1:10 am | Permalink
  48. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    Yes, an existential quantification like that is one way to make sense of the idea. But I also think that I can coherently envision a state of affairs S such that, in S there is a certain tree T that is never conceived by anyone. After all, S may be a merely possible state of affairs. So even if, as things actually are, I myself am conceiving of T in conceiving of S (since T exists in S) state S does not have to have me or my conceptual activities as ingredients. It can just be (by stipulation) a possible state such that T exists and no one, including me, ever conceives of T. Surely that _is_ a possible or coherent state of affairs. And surely my modest mental act thinking about that possible state of affairs doesn’t make it into an impossible or incoherent state. Notice that, on this view, I could after pick out a particular actual tree T and coherently imagine _that_ tree existing unconceived.

    Maybe I could get closer to your view on this by allowing that, if I do pick out an actual object O and imagine O existing unconceived, it can’t be _true_ in the _actual_ world that O is unconceived. But my conception of O-as-unconceived is coherent despite that. (And once I notice that I am conceiving of O, it becomes incoherent for me to _believe_ that O is actually unconceived.)

    Posted April 22, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  49. Jacques says

    I’m not sure what I mean by ‘makes no difference to you’. I’ll have to think this over some more to figure out how to put the point more clearly (if I can)… But, about commitments, I don’t think we can always know by introspection what our commitments are; often it’s hard or impossible to figure out the implications of our beliefs, by introspection or any other means!

    Posted April 22, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  50. Malcolm says

    Jacques,

    …often it’s hard or impossible to figure out the implications of our beliefs…

    True. I have spent quite a bit of time, though, of the course of many years, trying to work out the implications of the worldview I’ve been discussing with you in these two posts. I still feel, for now at least, that I am secure in denying the necessity for ontological bedrock for my normative intuitions, valuations, and dispositions, and in denying the need for consciousness as regards intentionality.

    Posted April 23, 2016 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  51. Jacques says

    Hi Malcolm,
    Here’s an analogy that may help to clarify what I had in mind in speaking of things that ‘make no difference to you’.

    An egoist might argue that no one ever acts altruistically, since any time a person acts intentionally his intention is to do something that he wants, i.e., satisfy some preference or interest of his. The conclusion is that all actions are self-interested.

    This argument is fallacious. It may be true (trivially) that whenever you act you are trying to bring about some preference of yours; but it doesn’t follow that all of your preferences or interests must be directed toward yourself, i.e., that they are always selfish or self-interested. An angelic being incapable of selfishness or even self-interestedness could still have preferences or interests; she might prefer that others be happy (for example). In trying to bring about that state of affairs she’d be trying to satisfy a preference of hers, but her preference would be purely other-directed.

    So I’m suggesting that, in a similar way, you can prefer things like an unsullied desert. You prefer that the world be that way, not _because_ its being that way makes the world better for your in any respect, but simply because (you believe) its being that way makes the world better. Just as the angelic being can prefer that others be happy, not because their happiness makes things better for her, but just because (she believes) their happiness is better than the alternatives. In either case it’s also true that if the person learns that this other-directed preference has been achieved, then _that_ will be a nice experience for the person. And the person will presumably also prefer that the other-directed preference be achieved, and that he learns that it has been achieved… But the hope of having that nice experience is not the reason for the other-directed preference.

    All that to say: this is why I think it makes sense to say that something that ‘makes no difference to you’ (in a certain sense) can also be something that you rationally value or desire or prefer. And if the idea is coherent, I’d add that this seems to be the most natural interpretation of a desire for an unsullied desert.

    Posted April 28, 2016 at 9:55 pm | Permalink
  52. Malcolm says

    Hi Jacques,

    I don’t find this persuasive. The way I see it, my preference is ultimately mine, regardless of its referent, and I am simply disposed to act in harmony with my preferences.

    Posted April 29, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  53. Malcolm says

    Jacques, one other thing. You wrote:

    But, about commitments, I don’t think we can always know by introspection what our commitments are…

    If what I believe is not available to me by introspection, then aren’t you flirting here with unconscious intentionality?

    I realize you may respond by saying all you are talking about is the implications of our (introspectively available) beliefs, but then of course those implications should, in principle, be accessible by following the implicative chain.

    Posted May 2, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink