The Analytic Problem with Personal Moral Relativism

I sat down to write a blog post about this, and realized that I had already done it.  Here’s the original: Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg. But I can give a more succinct account here, for easy reference.

Here’s the basic point: Anyone who claims that moral judgments of the form “X is wrong”  reduces to personal opinion, personal belief, personal view, etc. seems to be saying something incoherent. That is, the attempt to reduce moral judgments to the status of personal belief or opinions fails because it ends up being incoherent.

Why is this the case?

(1) Anyone who makes a claim like “A proposition of the form ‘X is wrong’ (e.g. ‘rape is wrong’) stated by P means only that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’,” is claiming that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’ gives the analysis or meaning of the expression “X is wrong.”

This analysis necessarily fails because “X is wrong” is supposed to be explained as “P believes that X is wrong” which contains the the proposition “X is wrong” embedded within it—and so this embedded portion of “P believes that X is wrong” still needs to be explained. If it is true that “X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong” then the “X is wrong” embedded inside “P believes that X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong,” which yields the analysis “P believes that P believes that X is wrong.”  And “P believes that P believes that X is wrong” itself still contains the embedded “X is wrong” and so becomes “P believes that P believes that P believes that X is wrong” … which still contains the embedded “X is wrong,” which is therefore never explained at any level.  All that is done is to set off an infinite regress which explains nothing at any point.

So attempting to analyze or give the meaning of “X is wrong” as someone’s belief or opinion or view that “X is wrong” is failed pseudo-analysis of moral propositions, being both infinite and failing at every point to give the meaning of “X is wrong.”

(2) Alternately one could attempt to analyze “X is wrong” stated by P as “P disapproves of X.” But now one needs to give the analysis or meaning of “P disapproves of X”—it should be clear that “P disapproves of X” cannot mean “P thinks that X is wrong” because this analysis would be both circular and generate same infinite regress problem above.

(3) One could hold that “X is wrong” stated by P means “P disapproves of X” where “P disapproves of X” is treated as a brute psychological fact without any rational content—it need not be analyzed because it has no rational content. But if the relativist makes this move, he is embracing emotivism, which entirely removes moral judgments from the sphere of reason altogether, which is not what the relativist meant originally when he said that moral judgments were personal judgments.  He did not, presumably, mean at first to deny that they are judgments.  He only wanted to claim that they were “personal” judgments.  But clearly one cannot coherently hold that “all moral judgments are really only personal judgments and are also not judgments at all.”

The UPSHOT: The “personal relativist” needs to give a coherent analysis of moral judgments of the from “X is wrong” that (a) does not set off an infinite non-explanatory regress, (b) is not circular, and (c) does not collapse his position into a different position entirely, viz. emotivism.

Here is philosopher Davis S. Oderberg saying essentially the same thing:

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular.

On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

The Etymology of Atheism

Many people are mistaken about the etymology of the word “atheism.” They think it comes from an alpha-privative negation a- joined with theism, that is, they think

atheism  =  a- theism

or

atheism = the negation of theism

That is not where atheism comes from, however. ‘Atheism’ is in fact an older word than ‘theism.’  It comes originally from the Greek ἄθεος meaning ‘godless’ or ‘without god’.  The -ισμός is a later addition, which means “doctrine of” or “teaching of.”  Hence

atheismἄθεος -ισμός = atheos -ism

or

atheism = the doctrine or teaching of Godlessness, i.e. the teaching that there is no God.

Here’s a breakdown of the history:

EtymologyOfAtheism

As noted above the new redefinition of atheism as “lack of belief in God” was a bit of philosophical slight of hand (or more precisely slight of language, or even more precisely sophistry, perpetrated Antony Flew and a few of his atheistic fellow travelers starting in the early 1970s.  Flew was probably the most consistent atheist apologist in philosophy through most of the 20th century—and it is worthwhile to note that late in his life, when retired and finally with enough leisure to read Aristotle carefully for the first time, Flew was rationally forced to reverse his lifelong position and embrace rational theism. Maybe he should have read Aristotle earlier in his career? Kudos to Flew for having the intellectual and philosophical integrity to publicly reverse himself on the very position he had built his entire philosophical career maintaining.  That extraordinary act of philosophical courage and integrity almost makes me forgive him for perpetrating this pernicious bit of sophistry:

Flew Atheism Etymology

“Fallacies” aren’t what you think they are—and they aren’t very useful.

If you spend any amount of time online following or taking part in debates, you’ll eventually see someone accuse someone else of committing or employing “a fallacy.” What exactly does this mean?

The superficial thing it means as that the accuser is claiming that there is something wrong with the other person’s argument—specifically that the conclusion they are drawing doesn’t follow from the premises they are using; and so (by definition) their argument is logically invalid—where “logically invalid” just means “it is possible that the premises are true and the conclusion is false.”

But people often assume or act as if a fallacy were something more than this, that it is a kind of meta-error that makes arguments erroneous, that it is a kind of formal invalidity maker. But “fallacies” are no such thing.

What is a “fallacy”?

There is fairly wide agreement about what one is, some kind of error in reasoning, but if you take a close look at how logicians both professional and popular define “fallacy,” you will quickly see that there seems to be no “something more than just an error” that people seem to think there is. Here’s a representative list of definitions:

“A fallacy is a deceptive error of thinking.” – Gensler, Introduction to Logic

“A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning.” – Kreeft, Socratic Logic

“A fallacy is a flaw in reasoning.” – yourlogicalfallacyis.com

“A fallacy is an error in reasoning.” – The Nizkor Project

“A fallacy is the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning or ‘wrong moves’ in the construction of an argument.” – Wikipedia

“Fallacies are deceptively bad arguments.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“A fallacy is a kind of error in reasoning.” – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

What makes an argument valid or invalid?

There are two basic principles of logic that you must grasp to understand this, and one false principle that you must recognize as false. Let’s start with the correct principles:

(V1) An argument is valid if and only if it instantiates any valid argument form.

(V2) An argument is invalid if and only if it fails to instantiate any valid argument form.

This principle is INCORRECT:

(F1) An argument is invalid if it instantiates an invalid argument form.

Reasoning is movement of the mind from premises to a conclusion, from point A to point B. An argument is valid if it can get from point A to point B by any possible route; it is invalid only if one cannot rationally get from A to B at all. Note that the fact “you can’t get from A to B by route F” doesn’t entail “you can’t get from A to B at all.” This is why (F1) above is a FALSE PRINCIPLE: The fact that a given argument A instantiates a given invalid argument form F shows nothing at all about the validity of A; A can, in principle, instantiate any number of invalid argument forms and still be valid—it only has to instantiate just one valid argument form to be valid.

Consider: “You can’t reach the North Pole by going south; therefore, you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going east; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going west; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going southeast; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going southwest; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” ETC.

The fact that there are innumerable directions by which you cannot reach the North Pole doesn’t show anything at all about whether you can reach the North Pole.  The fact that there is one direction you can travel in which will get you to the North Pole—namely, north—shows that you can, in fact, reach the North Pole. The only thing that matters is that there is a way that succeeds.

And logic is just like that. If there is a valid route from A to B, it doesn’t matter whether there is an invalid route from A to B, or many, or an infinite number (which there are: there are always an infinite number of invalid routes from A to B you can propose).

AN EXAMPLE: Consider the following argument:

  1. q ⇒ q
  2. q
  3. ∴ q

This argument instantiates the invalid argument form affirming the consequent. Is it invalid? No. Why not? It also instantiates the perfectly valid form modus ponens.  So it really doesn’t matter that it instantiates an invalid form, since it also instantiates a valid form—which is all that matters.

THE UPSHOT: people think that IF they have correctly identified an invalid argument form that an argument instantiates, THEN they have shown something about the argument’s validity.  But they haven’t. That no more works than what is sometimes called the “fallacy fallacy,” which is to hold that showing that an argument for conclusion C is invalid shows that conclusion C is false. But this doesn’t work. An argument for C can be invalid and C still be true.  And it is just as wrong to hold that showing an argument A instantiates an invalid argument form F shows that argument A is invalid.

Sophia vs Jacob: A Hypothetical Twitter exchange

Suppose Sophia and Jacob are having a Twitter exchange, and Sophia makes an argument, to which Jacob responds by typing (in all caps of course) “BANDWAGON FALLACY!” and ‘helpfully’ providing Sophia with a link to yourlogicalfallacyis.com’s description of the Bandwagon fallacy:

1. Jacob hasn’t shown anything about Sophia’s argument. All he has done is say the name of an alleged fallacy. If Jacob’s position is that an argument is proven to be invalid on the condition that someone says the name of a fallacy, then he’s in pretty dire trouble. Sophia can simply elect to accept Jacob’s rule and proceed to “refute” all Jacob’s arguments by saying the names of various fallacies; or she can ask him to prove his rule is correct—and defeat every argument he attempts to give for it by saying the names of various fallacies; or if Sophia is feeling particularly snarky, she can post one of my cards to Jacob, which uses the rule he is implicitly appealing to to defeat itself. When someone thinks they can refute your argument by saying the name of a fallacy, this is the name of the fallacy you say to refute their argument that they have refuted your argument by saying the name of a fallacy:

evecardfallaciesnominalfallacyfallacy

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument. All Jacob as done so far is argue “I have said the name of an error; therefore your argument is in error.

2. Suppose Jacob mans up and really does try to show that Sophia’s argument fits the alleged pattern of the “bandwagon fallacy.” And let’s suppose he succeeds. Well, he still hasn’t shown anything about the validity or invalidity of Sophia’s argument. We’ve allowed that he has shown that Sophia’s argument instantiates a type of reasoning that, as an informal fallacy, can be invalid, but it is the nature of informal fallacies (aka material fallacies) that they are sometimes errors and sometimes not. I’ve written a lot about this, mostly for Twitter. If you like, you can have a look at what I have to say about material fallacies HERE.  But just to give some examples:

(a) an appeal to authority is sometimes erroneous, sometimes not; appeal to experts in their fields or a scientific consensus are not errors of reasoning. In the 1990s, Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem is indeed a theorem.  How do I know this? Because a few dozen of the the few thousand people capable of understanding Wiles’ proof checked it very carefully and agreed. So, my belief that Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is sound is based entirely on the authority of some of the world’s foremost mathematicians. I could verify Wiles’ proof for myself, but it would require around a decade of mathematical study before I’d be in a position to—and frankly I don’t have the time or inclination. That is what expert mathematicians are for. If we were disallowed from appealing to authority, we’d have to establish all knowledge for ourselves at all times, which would completely defeat the point of the division of intellectual labor, and completely wreck science, since no established scientific “conclusions” could ever be appealed to.

(b) an argument from parts to whole is not always an error.  If you argued that “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road weighs 3.5 kg, so the entire Yellow Brick Road weighs 3.5 kg” you’d be making an error (and if you want to call it “fallacy of composition” go ahead).  But if you argued “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road is brick, so the Yellow Brick Road is a brick road” or “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road is yellow, so the Yellow Brick Road is yellow” you wouldn’t be making an error.

(c) An appeal to universal human experience is not an “ad populum fallacy,” for example in the case of such claims as: “minds exist” or “human beings by nature are divided into two sexes” or “time has three dimensions, past, present, and future” or “anger and fear are emotions found in human beings” or Euclid’s Common Notions: “The whole is greater than the part” or “equals added to equals are equal” or “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another.”  The point here is that there really are COMMON NOTIONS, as Euclid uses that term, namely, things which all human beings know or can recognize that do not stand in need of any formal proof, because they are too simple or too obvious to have one (this is also called the consensus gentium, “the consensus of the whole species”—I’ve discussed how it differs from an ad populum error HERE.

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed to TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument, even if he has shown that her argument instantiates the form some informal fallacy or another. All Jacob has done so far is argue “Your argument instantiates a form which may or may not be an error; therefore it is in error!

3. But let’s make it a bit easier on Jacob, and suppose that he has detected in Sophia’s argument not an informal fallacy but a formal fallacy, such as affirming the consequent. Now, formal fallacies are different from material or informal fallacies in that they are invalid just in virtue of their form, and so do not depend on the situation, context, or content as to whether they are valid or invalid. They are simply invalid. Period.

Now, let us suppose that Jacob succeeds in showing that Sophia’s argument does indeed instantiate the invalid argument form called affirming the consequent (P⇒Q; Q; ∴P). Has Jacob now shown that Sophia’s argument is invalid? No, he has not. He has not, because to do so, he would have to be appealing to principle (F1): An argument is invalid if it instantiates an invalid argument form, which as we have seen, is a false principle.

Sophia is therefore entirely within her epistemic and logical rights to says to Jacob, after he has demonstrated that her argument instantiates the form of affirming the consequent, “So what? You still haven’t shown my argument is invalid. You wasted a lot of effort on showing something that has no logical bearing on whether my argument is valid or invalid.”

THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument, even if he has shown that her argument instantiates the form even of a formal fallacy. All Jacob has done so far is argue “Your argument instantiates a formally invalid argument form, an error; therefore it is in error.” And this argument is an enthymeme that requires the false principle (F1) as its hidden premise, and so is unsound.

4. Jacob’s problem is that, in order to show that Sophia’s argument is invalid, he has only two options: (A) the direct logic-indifferent method, in which he can show that Sophia’s argument is invalid by showing that, while her premises are true, her conclusion is false.  This isn’t really a “method” at all—it is simply showing that Sophia’s argument is a case of the very definition of an invalid argument, namely, an argument with true premises and a false conclusion; or (B) Jacob can attempt to show that there is NO logically valid argument form which Sophia’s argument instantiates (remember, her argument only needs to instantiate ONE to be valid), in any formal-logical system, including those which have not yet been discovered or constructed.  In other words, to use method (B) Jacob would have to prove the nonexistence of a logical form which Sophia’s argument instantiates. And as most people are well aware, it is damn-near impossible to prove absolutely the nonexistence of something (showing it to be contradictory is the only way I know that this can be done).

THE UPSHOT HERE is that all appeals to fallacies as a way of refuting arguments or proving invalidity all seem to be instances of (B)—and they all fail because they can’t actually do the work of demonstrating invalidity.  THE MOST they can accomplish is to raise a doubt about the validity of an argument by suggesting that the argument in question has nothing more to it than the invalid form it instantiates.  That is to say, that the person making the argument is appealing to the invalid form as a valid form, which he or she means to establish validity, either in the mistaken belief that it is valid or disingenuously as a rhetorical move.  But if the person making the argument says “No, I see that pattern is invalid, but that’s not what I’m claiming makes my argument valid,” then an appeal to fallacy really can’t DO anything else. People WANT to say “No! Your argument instantiates an invalid argument form! It’s invalid!” But they can’t logically say that. That’s (F1) again, and (F1) is false—obviously false, even: “You can’t get from A to B” obviously does not follow from “You can’t get from A to B by route F.”

Why aren’t “fallacies” very useful?

A fallacy is usually a name given to some general type of error or mistake. The problem with this is that errors do not, strictly speaking, have ‘types’—there are no general forms of error, because error by its way of being is indefinite and indeterminate—and what is indefinite and indeterminate is cannot be defined or determined rigorously.

Fallacies aren’t very useful because they CAN’T DO MUCH.

Naming a fallacy certainly doesn’t show anything about an argument’s validity or invalidity.

Showing that an argument fits the form of a informal fallacy doesn’t show anything at all, since material fallacies aren’t always fallacious—that depends entirely on the content, and you’d still have to show that the argument in question is in error, something which, if you are able to do it, makes the citation of the “fallacy” completely redundant and superfluous, and if you can’t do it, makes the citation of the “fallacy” completely toothless and pointless.  So in the case of informal fallacies, citing the fallacy accomplishes nothing either way; everything turns on whether you can demonstrate an actual error in the argument. EITHER WAY, the citation of the fallacy adds nothing and does nothing.

Showing that an argument instantiates a formally fallacious argument form also doesn’t show anything about the validity of the argument. Because (F1) is false, from the fact that a given argument A instantiates a given formally invalid argument form F, NOTHING FOLLOWS ABOUT THE VALIDITY OR INVALIDITY OF A.  So, once again, if you are going to get anywhere, you’d have to show an error in the argument itself, and the appeal to the fallacy (1) does not show any error, nor (2) add anything to the demonstration of error if one is able to show an error in the specific argument. So in the case of formal fallacies, citing the fallacy accomplishes nothing either way; everything turns on whether you can demonstrate an actual error in the argument. EITHER WAY, the citation of the fallacy adds nothing and does nothing.

Basically, citing a fallacy or appealing to a fallacy is just a roundabout way of saying “Your argument is in error”—and this is something that still needs to be shown. Either can you can show an error, in which case the citation of the fallacy is superfluous and adds nothing; or you cannot show any error, in which case the citation of the fallacy is pointless and accomplishes nothing.

EITHER WAY, the citation of a fallacy ADDS NOTHING and DOES NOTHING. 

ADDENDUM:

It is with satisfaction and pleasure that I learn that Peter Geach, one of the greatest logicians of the 20th century, and a philosopher I respect extremely highly, makes the same point that I do: that ‘fallacies’ understood as invalid argument forms are not invalidity-makers of arguments:

GeachValidInvalid

As Geach notes, if it were the case that invalid argument forms were invalidity-makers, then all arguments would be invalid, since all arguments can be reformulated an the conjunction of all their premises with &s, leaving us with the invalid form

  1. p1 & p2 & p3 & p4 & … & pn
  2. ∴ q

or more simply

  1. p
  2. ∴ q

which gives us a simple modus tollens

  1. If instantiating a logically invalid argument form makes an argument invalid, no arguments are logically valid.
  2. But some arguments are logically valid.
  3. ∴ Instantiating a logically invalid argument from does not make an argument invalid.

Q.E.D.

Philosophers are (or should be) interested in truth, not originality, so I am always pleased to find points that I make in philosophers I respect.

Why the ‘Burden of Proof’ Destroys Rational Discourse

As my friend Chris Lansdown has noted, not only is the “burden of proof” not useful in discussions, it actually renders all discussion and argument impossible, if it is taken seriously.

Consider someone who claims that his opponent has the burden of proof. By his own principle that “the one who claims has the burden of proof,” he has the burden of proof to prove his claim that his opponent has the burden of proof.

Suppose he attempts to do so. In order to prove this, he will have to make an argument. In order to make an argument, he will have to assert other claims, namely, the premises of the argument he offers as a proof.

But in asserting these new claims as premises, he immediately, by his own principle, acquires a burden of proof to prove his claims. So he will need to prove his new claims, the premises, as well.

But to prove his premises, he will need to make an argument for each premise, and every argument he makes will require more still more premises—that is, claims—and with every new claim he asserts, he acquires—by his own “the one who claims has the burden of proof” principle—a new burden of proof to prove each of the new claims.

This very obviously results in an infinite regress, where you have to prove the proof and then prove the proof of the proof and then prove the proof of the proof of the proof etc. ad infinitum.  And since this endless task cannot be completed by any human being, it would destroy any meaningful conversation before it even begins.

Thus, literally the ONLY way to have a rational discussion about ANYTHING is to DISREGARD the nonsensical pseudo-logical principle that “the burden of proof is on the one who claims.”

Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg

I recently made a post to Twitter to explain why the simplest kind of moral subjectivism necessarily collapses into emotivism or moral non-cognitivism.  The basic argument is that one cannot coherent reduce “P is wrong” to a mere opinion or belief that “P is wrong” because, opinions and beliefs are propositional attitudes towards a proposition, in this case, the proposition “P is wrong,” which, if it is proposition, must necessarily have a truth-value. If it does not have a truth value, it is senseless to claim that the analysis of such judgements is to say that someone has a view about what its truth value is.

This point is made very cogently by philosopher David S. Oderberg in his magisterial Moral Theory: A Nonconsequentialist Approach, which I highly recommend to all my readers, as well as its companion volume Applied Ethics: A Nonconsequentialist Approach.

I here reproduce Oderberg’s analysis from Chapter 1 of his book, specially about the semantic objection to moral relativism—a case originally made by philosopher Peter Geach, whose work I also highly recommend to anyone interested:

______________________________________________________________

Perhaps the most widespread form of relativism, again deriving from the philosophy of David Hume, is what I shall call personal relativism, more usually called subjectivism. The central claim of personal relativism is that the truth or falsity (truth value) of moral statements varies from person to person, since morality is merely a matter of opinion. Now there are various ways in which subjectivists have elaborated this basic thought, developing more or less sophisticated semantic theories linking moral judgements with statements of opinion. It is impossible to look at them all, but since the sorts of objection I will raise can be applied in modified form to different versions, let us take just one kind of subjectivist theory. It is one of the more simple varieties, and while many philosophers would say it was too simple, it also happens to be the sort of subjectivism that the vast majority of students of moral philosophy believe; and it is an approach that many will continue to believe even after they have finished studying philosophy!

According to this version of subjectivism, there is no objective truth to the statement, for instance, ‘Child abuse is wrong’: all that a person is entitled to claim is something equivalent to ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’ Instead of saying ‘I disapprove of child abuse’, Alan may say ‘Child abuse is wrong for me’, or ‘Child abuse is wrong from my subjective viewpoint’, but he is not then allowed to say ‘Child abuse is wrong, pure and simple’, since it might be right from Brian’s subjective viewpoint—he will say ‘Child abuse is right for me, though it is wrong for Alan, who personally disapproves of it.’ Generally speaking, moral judgements can never be considered apart from the question of who makes them. A moral judgement, ‘X is wrong’, made by a person P, can only be assessed for truth or falsity by relativizing it to P: the subjectivist says that ‘X is wrong’, uttered by P, is equivalent in meaning to ‘I disapprove of X’ uttered by P. If an observer were to report on P’s opinion, he would say, ‘X is wrong for P, or as far as P in concerned; in other words, P disapproves of it.’ But the observer can still say, ‘However, I personally approve of it, so “X is wrong” is not true for me.’

For the subjectivist, to claim that there is a fact about the morality of child abuse, which transcends mere personal opinion, is a philosophical mistake. Certainly, there are facts about what is wrong for Alan, right for Brian, and so on. These facts are genuine—they are reports of the opinions (or ‘sentiments’ to use Hume’s term) of individual moral judges—but since each judge makes law only for himself, he cannot impose his view of things on others. For the subjectivist, once the facts are in concerning the moral opinions of those engaged in a disagreement, there is no room for further argument. More accurately, there might be room for argument over other facts: Alan might claim ‘I approve of child abuse’ because he does not know the psychological damage it does to children. Had he known, he would have claimed ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’; and another person might change Alan’s mind by pointing out the relevant facts. But what the personal relativist holds is that as long as there is no dispute over the facts, two people can make opposing claims about the morality of a certain action or type of behavior with no room left for rational dispute. That have, as it were, reached bedrock.

As was said, the version of subjectivism just outlined is a simple one and all sorts of refinements can be added. Still, it is the view held by very many philosophy students, not to say quite a few philosophers (and certainly vast numbers of the general population), and should be assessed in that light. Further, as was also noted, the general kinds of observations that can be raised against it apply to the more sophisticated versions. We can only consider a few devastating objections here, but it should be noted that the validity of any one on its own is enough to refute subjectivism, whatever the strength of the others. Given the weight of all the objections, however, it is surprising that personal relativism is no widely held.

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular. On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Nonconsequentialist Approach; Blackwell: Oxford, 2000; pp. 16-18.

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In case it adds something, I will also append the write-up I made for Twitter:

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The Burden of Proof Fallacy

The concept of “the burden of proof” is a matter of interpersonal protocol in debate or discussion. In formal contexts, such as courts of law, one side—in criminal cases in the United States, the prosecution—may hold the burden of proof.  Some formal debates also make use of a burden of proof as part of the rules.

A burden of proof fallacy occurs when someone attempts to invoke or assign a burden of proof outside of any agreement or interpersonal protocol.

In such cases, the concept of “the burden of proof” becomes a rhetorical trope that conceals two informal logical fallacies: special pleading and an argument to ignorance. A fallacy of special pleading occurs when one asks or demands (“pleads”) to be exempted from a rule or criterion to which everyone else is held for no relevant reason (or no reason at all).  An argument to ignorance fallacy has the form “my assertion is true until proven false.”

The burden of proof fallacy takes the form of “My position is the default position. My opponent has the burden of proof!” But in asserting that one’s position is “the default position”, one is making an argument to ignorance: this just is equivalent to saying “My position is true until it is proven false.” And the justification for this argument to ignorance is simply special pleading that one be allowed to use an argument to ignorance as if it were valid.

Both combined have the form “My argument is true until proven false, and although this is an argument to ignorance, I am specially pleading that I be allowed to use it, despite its invalidity.”  This sounds more legitimate when it is phrased as “My position is the default position, and my opponent has the burden of proof,” but the meaning is the same.

To attempt to lay the burden of proof solely on one’s opponent, as if one had some sort of metaphysical, moral, or logical right to do so is logically fallacious, intellectually dishonest, and unethical.  Since the burden of proof exists solely as a matter of interpersonal protocol, it cannot be placed upon someone without their consent.

As my readers know, I do not appreciate attempts to obligate me without my consent.  As my readers also know, I block this move by demanding that anyone who asserts that I have “the burden of proof” PROVE IT.  And he will never be able to do so, since the burden of proof is a matter of interpersonal protocol, and not any sort of metaphysical, logical, or ethical principle.  It is exactly the same as someone unilaterally attempting to say that I am bound by a contract I never agreed to or signed, just because he says I am a party to the contract.  He cannot “prove” I signed a contract I never signed.

Or to make an even more obvious analogy, it is like someone claiming that of two parties, one of them can consent for the other person, whether or not he or she agrees to this. This dynamic has the same structure as an accused rapist arguing to be acquitted of rape charges on the grounds that he consented for his victim and therefore there was consent.

No one in their right mind would accept this kind of argument. Consent precisely does not occur when only one of the two parties involve does the “consenting” for both. And it is not any more sound when it involves nonconsensual attempts to morally obligate someone with specious “burdens.”

Escaping Plato’s Cave

As you know, the Image of the Cave, which is the centerpiece of Plato’s Politeia (or Republic) is an image of human nature in chains and the story of an escape—a healing, Socrates says—from our default condition, which is one of bondage and ignorance.

There are people, though, who think that healing is what we need to be healed from, and anywhere outside the prison is what needs to be escaped.  In a quite literally Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument, I have been told that only they are truly free who are slaves, and that free men and women are enslaved—by their freedom.

This is one of those times that I will choose Socrates’ simplemindedness over the sophisticated sophistry of the sophists—I’ll go with the freedom of the mind that’s just freedom, not the sophistical freedom that is the “true freedom” of mental slavery.

But let’s take a look at this idiocy, shall we? It’s meant to “cure” me of Platonism, and since Platonism is, at bottom, the belief that reality exists and can be known, it is meant to cure me of these beliefs too.  Let’s see if it succeeds, shall we?

stupidplatostuff

Nine whole points.  Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

1. Plato’s essentialist, historicist and degenerative Theory of Forms or Ideas is a bad idea.

1. This is nothing more than name-calling. And it isn’t even accurate name-calling.  Platonism is as anti-historicist as one can get, since to be a Platonist is to hold that there are entities and intelligible structures in reality that do not vary over time—things like mathematics or the laws of nature.  It is the Caveman (as I shall call him) who is the historicist, as we will see, and who holds that human thought is incapable of rising above its historical situatedness.   As for “degenerative,” the word holds no meaning here.  Again, Platonism holds that there are entities and structures within reality that do not change, and being changeless, cannot degenerate.  If the Cavemen is asserting there is something “degenerate” about Platonism itself, he hasn’t said what it is or even might be, so that claim can be ignored.

2. Nothing — mind, matter, self, or world — has an intrinsic or real nature.

2. Pure self-contradiction.  Supposing it were true, it would be the nature of all these things not to have a nature. To be able to assert this, one would have to know that being or reality is this way—but what is being denied even as it is being asserted is that there is a way reality is.  And “there is no way reality is” is just as self-contradictory an assertion as the assertion “there is no truth” (a proposition the Caveman also accepts, as we will see).

3. That does not mean that the world does not exist. The world is independent of our mental states.

3. Flat contradiction of 2.  Caveman now states, in opposition to his self-contradictory principle 2, that the world does indeed have a nature, and that that nature is “to exist independently of our mental states.”  Remember he said this, because his right to say this is going to be an issue.

4. It means that truth, knowledge and facts cannot exist independently of the human mind. Truth, knowledge and facts are properties of sentences, which make up larger theories and descriptions.

4. Idiotic on several levels.  I am certainly willing to concede that knowledge cannot exist apart from some mind (it doesn’t have to be a human mind)—since knowledge JUST IS the apprehension of some true proposition by some mind.  Notice however that Caveman in the next sentence will ridiculously ascribe knowledge not to minds, but to sentences.  No, Caveman, sentences do not KNOW THINGS.

[Philosophy 101 lesson: Following the principle of charity, I’m going to take Caveman’s “sentences” to mean “propositions,” although strictly speaking he is confused.  Propositions are the primary truth-bearing logical entities, and they relate to sentences in that they are expressed by sentences.  Using the standard philosophical example, consider two sentences: “Snow is white” and “Schnee ist weiss”.  The sentences are different.  One is an English sentence and one a German sentence. The can be found in different locations on your computer screen. If they were spoken, they would be spoken at some time, in some place, by some speaker, etc.  However, they both express the same proposition, which is the logical expression of the relation between a real entity, snow, and a real property of that entity, being white. That snow is white is a state of affairs in the world or a fact.  The relation of snow to whiteness is an intelligible proposition which is true (the fact that snow is white makes the proposition ‘snow is white’ true). Propositions are universal. Sentences are particular.  When you are I or anyone comes to know ‘snow is white’, we have the same propositional attitude towards the very same proposition, viz. that snow is white.  If this were not so, we would not all know the same fact or truth about snow, but we would each ‘know’ an individual fact or truth relative to us—but the nature of knowledge is such that it is common to all.  And once we have propositional knowledge we can express these propositions that we know in the linguistic entities called sentences.  And it is  irrelevant whether we do this by means of English, or German, or Chinese.]

As I’ve just mentioned, facts are best construed as the truth-makers of true propositions.  This is because facts, as states of affairs, exist independently of their being known, that is, independently of human minds—contrary to Caveman’s assertions. It should be a fairly trivial point to note that IF Caveman is correct, we human beings produce not only the entities that may or may not be true, affirmative sentences or negations, BUT ALSO produce the truth-makers of these things, this makes FACTS and TRUTH things that are produced by human beings.  We would, in this case, not only be the ones who produce claims about reality, but we would produce/create/manufacture the truth-makers that make our claims true.  And this means that we human beings have the power to make any claim about anything true or false by our creative wills.  Hello Nietzsche, my old friend. It’s good to meet with you again.

Finally, Caveman’s claim that truth is a property of sentences, which I will charitably take to mean “truth is a property of propositions”, is a half-truth.  There is a very important way in which propositions are the most common locus of truth—for us, since we are essentially discursive creatures or creatures of λόγος.  But this is not the most primordial sense of truth—discursive truth is itself always grounded in a deeper openness of reality to comprehension that makes discursive truth possible.  To put it very simply: we could not grasp or express discursive, propositional truths of the form “S is P” if S and P and their relation where not already given to us in such a way that we could grasp them in their belonging-together and thus come to know them precisely in this belonging together.

So even where Caveman gets close to saying something true, that “truth is a property of propositions,” he’s right only with a series of necessary qualifications.

5. The world can cause us to hold certain beliefs. However, neither the world nor some notion of unchanging Forms decides which description of the world is true. The world does not speak or provide descriptions. Human beings do.

5. Okay, I have decided that this is not a true description of reality.

See the problem?

The problem is an equivocation on the verb “decide.” In one sense, as creatures capable of knowing or believing, it is up to human beings to ‘decide’ what to believe. On the other hand, the way that reality is is not a matter up to human ‘decision.’  Reality is the way it is, regardless of whether human beings ‘decide’ otherwise.  If Caveman seriously disagrees with this, I have a simple challenge for him: I challenge him to ingest a large quantity of cyanide and ‘decide’ that cyanide is non-toxic to human beings.  If reality is controlled by human decision, he should not have a problem doing this and not dying. I maintain “Cyanide is a lethal poison to human beings” is a true description of the world. I further maintain than no amount of human “description” can change this fact.

We can do another thought experiment to bring this home: suppose that the earth became unstable for some reason and was soon to explode, much like Superman’s home planet Krypton.  Suppose also that (for some odd reason) Caveman was the one who was tasked to find a solution to the imminent explosion of the earth.  His solution is “Because the world does not decide what is or is not true, it is not true that ‘the earth is going to explode’. Nor can anything in the world ‘decide’ whether the earth does explode. These things—’facts’ or ‘truths’ or ‘knowledge’—are all contingent on human description. So all we need to do, as human beings, is to describe the earth as ‘not going to explode’ and it will become true that the earth is not going to explode.” Do you think that would work? I think *KABOOM*.

If human ‘decision’ could alter reality by means of ‘description,’ why would we not redescribed reality into some kind of ideal state for human beings? Why do we not live in a perfect world, if it is entirely within our power to create reality as we see fit by description?

Oh, wait, I think I know! It’s because this is bullshit, and we can’t actually change reality by redescrbiing it, isn’t it? Damn. I knew this was too easy.

6. That does not mean that truth, facts and knowledge are subjective. It means that they are a product of shared vocabularies, language games, social practices, in short, forms of life which are again contingent upon and conditioned by historical, social, environmental, and cultural factors and, in the final instance, human evolutionary biology.

6. Time to cut the bullshit. This means that we cannot have knowledge of reality. THAT is what the denial of Platonism MEANS, as I’ve said. “Contingent, historical, circumstantial truth which is produced by a variety of social factors” IS NOT TRUTH.

Caveman is putting forward a theory of reality that serves as a DEFEATER for all theories of reality INCLUDING HIS OWN.  If this account is TRUE, then it itself is merely a product of some historically contingent form of life, etc., etc., and “in the final instance” of human evolutionary biology.  In other words, he is FIRST a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST about reality, but SECOND (inconsistently) a BIOLOGICAL REDUCTIONIST.

Neither of these things is coherent, either with the other, or with itself.

Social constructionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is a mere social construction or convention.

Biological reductionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is merely the outcome of mindless biological forces.

Each theory provides its own defeater, because it provides a defeater for all theories.

Any theory that provides a defeater for all theories, including itself, can be immediately rejected as unwarranted and wholly irrational.

So, that’s what I’ll do.

In this case, each theory also instantiates a performative contradiction insofar as the one who puts forward the theory intends that it be taken to be a true theory about nature of reality—which means that the proponent of the theory, despite his wishes, is committing himself by the very fact of offering a theory of reality, to the view that REALITY CAN BE KNOWN, or in a word, to PLATONISM.

Nietzsche understood this: TRUTH stands or falls with PLATONISM.  That is why he said things like this

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And this

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And this

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What we can see from this is that Caveman is one of those sad specimens of the 20th and 21st centuries, a feeble Nietzschean.  He thinks he is a late-Wittgensteinian, but of course he isn’t consistent in any way, nor is there anything Wittgenstein discovered that Nietzsche was not aware of.

Caveman’s problem is not (yet) the wild incoherence of Nietzsche or the late Wittgenstein. Caveman’s problem is that he sees, dimly, that his shallow Nietzscheanism cum Wittgensteinianism requires him to reject Platonism—but his isn’t actually prepared to DO THAT, since that entails giving up the idea of TRUTH once and for all.

This is sane, to an extent, insofar as the rejection of TRUTH and REALITY is tantamount to embracing the irrational void of pure nihilism—but the inconsistent attempt to embrace the nihilistic void is, if anything, worse. It merely makes one a failure on all sides, a half-and-half, a lukewarm neither-this-nor-that, a rebel when convenient, but utterly conventional when that is convenient. “Hypocrite” would be another word.

But here’s the deal Caveman: YOU DON’T GET TO RENOUNCE PLATONISM AND KEEP IT TOO.

It’s one or the other: BEING or NOTHINGNESS;  PLATONISM or NIHILISM.

And lest I be accused of putting to much weight on Nietzsche’s assessment of meaning of Plato (although Nietzsche, as his arch-enemy, understood Plato better than almost any other thinker), let us add some additional testimony:

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7. We communicate successfully every day, and we use knowledge successfully every day, because we share imagined (and conditioned) realities and social practices on many levels.

7. What’s amusing is that Caveman thinks our success in knowing and communicating shows that we can “do without” Platonism.

Actually, what it shows is that Platonism is true; that is, we can know things and communicate them.

At bottom, Platonism is the theory of theories, the theory we can know things.  No anti-Platonism can be coherent, since it has to assert we cannot know anything to be true, and so, by its own (anti-) theory, it cannot know what it asserts as true to be true. Caveman is merely another in a long line of people trying to escape truth by asserting the “truth” that “there is no truth” or to escape knowledge by claiming to know that “nothing can be known.” Caveman fails, and all such attempts will always fail, forever and necessarily.

 8. Truth, knowledge and facts can always be redescribed by changing the language game, by changing the habits of speaking, by scientific research coming up with better theories, better descriptions that pragmatically explain better, work better according to what we want to achieve.

8. This is simply the thesis of the sophists, that because we speak about reality, we can change reality by changing the way we speak.  See above for why that doesn’t work.

Caveman thinks he is being bold and new. But there is nothing new here. It is the same old sophistry that philosophy, in the person of Socrates, rose up to destroy.

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Platonism is the view that, not man, but reality and truth are the measure of all things. The fact than it is man who does the measuring does not change the fact that what man measures is not man’s creation, nor is it under man’s arbitrary control.

This is of course how SCIENCE operates.  Human beings gain what technological power and mastery over nature they have, only insofar as they submit to the objectivity of reality. Here is Bacon, one of the founders of empirical scientific method making this point:

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The postmodern rebellion against reality is, to paraphrase Sartre, a useless passion.

9. Plato’s hypothesis of truth, knowledge and facts as unchanging essences (or “The thing in itself”, in Kant’s description) — only every seen as poorly reflected images on a cave wall — is entirely optional.

9. Platonism is “optional” only so long as you are willing to regard reality, truth, and knowledge as “optional.”  And it is far from clear that that is even a coherent thing to do.

Caveman keeps making assertions which have the appearance of being meant as possibly true assertions—but since he assures us repeatedly that “truth” is a kind of social fiction (or perhaps biological fiction; see Nietzsche’s remark above)—this is in vain, a useless passion.

It is not clear that it is in any way meaningful to say that everything is a fiction, an illusion, a falsehood, etc., since these very concepts of “fiction,” “illusion,” “falsehood” seem to by parasitic on the idea of truth.

And the idea of truth is ultimately the same as the truth of ideas, that is, of an intelligible reality which shows itself to the human mind in such a way that it can be known.

Caveman has failed in his attempt to persuade me to reject truth in favor of fiction, to reject philosophy in favor of sophistry.

I remain, as always, a friend of truth, a seeker of truth and a friend of wisdom.

Which is to say, a philosopher.

Which is to say, a Platonist.