Our recent discussions, particularly on the thread about Jonathan Haidt’s response to Sam Harris’s challenge, left me thinking about the various scopes of objective facts. In retrospect, it’s a bit obvious to me now that a key question in moral philosophy is, if morality is objective, at what scope is it objective?
Haidt used the terms anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric to divide facts between natural ones and ones within the scope of the human species. He then uses the mouthful “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths” to describe culture related facts.
Just for my own mental categorizations, I’m using slightly simpler terminology. For one thing, “anthropocentric” feels like a term that is likely to require lengthy explanations every time it is used. Instead, I’m thinking of the following hierarchy.
1. Universal facts
These are facts that are determinable through the natural sciences, such as E=mc2 or F=ma. Universal facts are, as far as we can determine, true throughout time and space. This is the domain of fields such as physics, chemistry, and geology.
2. Biological facts
These are facts about how evolution and biology works, at least on Earth. I debated whether this is really part of 1, but decided that since we haven’t observed life anywhere other than on Earth, it might be prudent to consider this as separate. We may well discover someday that extraterrestrial life operates radically different than Earth life.
Even limiting ourselves to Earth, I also fully realize that the scope of biological facts is very vast, and what is true for certain types of life is often not true for other types.
This is the domain of biology, paleontology, ecology, and related fields.
3. Human biological facts, or facts of human nature
This includes facts such as the color blue, that we get hungry if we don’t eat, that we feel fear and other emotions under certain circumstances, and other facts about humans that are not due to choices we make.
Human biological facts are only true within the scope of the human species. This area is studied by medical science, evolutionary psychology, paleoanthropology, and related fields.
4. Cultural facts
This includes things like the relative values of gold and silver, humor, or the way we feel about gay marriage. It is studied by psychology, sociology, economics, and other social sciences, as well as history.
Each of the domains above is emergent from the previous one. However, while human cultural facts may reduce to universal facts, it’s really not productive to think of them in that way, since in all practicality we can’t use any of the universal facts that we know to really predict or understand human cultural facts.
So, where in this does morality fall? Well, along with Haidt, I tend to think that specific moral rules exist in 4. However, these rules arise from instinctive impulses, from programming, from foundations in Haidt’s terminology, that exist in 3. So from a descriptive viewpoint, morality is relative, although it’s grounded in, and constrained by, biological evolutionary facts.
Of course, the problem is that even the relative strengths of the foundations themselves are relative to our individual biologies, to our particular genetic and phenotypic profile. It means that our deepest feelings about right and wrong may simply be different. Conscience itself is, to some extent, relative to each individual.
That said, there is enormous overlap among us. Enough that it’s possible to form societies, and enough that we can study human nature in general and discover what the vast majority of humans will instinctively prefer.
We can scientifically study what people or cultures prefer. We can study why they prefer what they prefer. We can scientifically study the effects of those preferences on specific rigorously defined indices. We can establish objective facts about these things.
What no one has found a way to scientifically study, what we can’t really establish objective facts about, is which preferences we should have, which values we should hold. For example, what study could we do that would ever tell us whether gold should be valued more than silver? Or whether it is right or wrong to kill a deformed infant? We can’t, at least not without reference to some other pre-existing value.
These are value judgments. And as I’ve said in multiple posts, we ultimately don’t hold values for any cognitive reason. We hold them as a result of evolved programming, of instincts, of the moral foundations in Haidt’s theory.
- Jonathan Haidt: Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change his Mind (3quarksdaily.com)
- 7 Reasons Why It’s Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution (motherjones.com)
- Moral values aren’t absolute, but aren’t arbitrary either (selfawarepatterns.com)
- Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene – review (theguardian.com)