Dialog on Morality, part III: Sail Away

Today, slavery is universally condemned as immoral, but until fairly recently, slavery was an accepted aspect of life. Most societies throughout history practiced slavery in one form or another. If we were living in 1717, instead of 2017, would we have had any moral objection to slavery? Should we have had? Maybe we would have rationalized the slave trade to ourselves with the idea that America is so much a better place to live than Africa, that Africans are better off in America, even as slaves.  “Ain’t no lions or tigers, ain’t no mamba snake, Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake… It’s great to be an American.” (Randy Newman’s infomercial for slavery, “Sail Away”, the saddest song ever written. “Like a vision of heaven superimposed on hell” Greil Marcus, Mystery Train)

As a matter of historical fact, very few white people voiced objections to slavery prior to the 19th century. (Quakers may have condemned slavery as early as 1688.)  What values people hold is a function of the society in which they live, so if we lived in 1717, it’s likely we would have shared the values of everyone else and thought that slavery was acceptable. Would we have been wrong?

The moral absolutist says yes: anyone who believed that slavery is morally acceptable was wrong, no matter the time or place. Being part of a society that accepts slavery does not change the moral truth. So almost everyone who lived prior to 1800 or so was wrong about slavery. That’s a lot of morally defective people. In condemning so many, aren’t we guilty of thinking that only we have insight into moral truth? Isn’t that absurdly arrogant?

Our understanding of human diversity has greatly improved over the last century, partly through improved scholarship in history and the development of social sciences like anthropology and social psychology.  Does appreciating diversity lead us to relativism? Paul Boghossian:

Relativism about morality has come to play an increasingly important role in contemporary culture.  To many thoughtful people, and especially to those who are unwilling to derive their morality from a religion, it appears unavoidable.  Where would absolute facts about right and wrong come from, they reason, if there is no supreme being to decree them? We should reject moral absolutes, even as we keep our moral convictions, allowing that there can be right and wrong relative to this or that moral code, but no right and wrong per se.  https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/the-maze-of-moral-relativism/

Which brings us back to our Dialog on Morality.

Carter Gillies: One of the symptoms of the modern age is our temptation to believe in all or nothing situations, itself a form of absolutism. One of my particular obsessions is our culture’s temptation to believe that everything is measurable, especially that everything physical needs to be understood through measurement. But equally pernicious, perhaps, is the temptation that value is best understood as objective, moral value included.

What I hear GNS saying is that we are caught between two alternatives: That morality either has an objective foundation or that it has no foundation. That is, that a relativistic foundation is no foundation at all, since it would make it impossible to judge the objectivity of one’s own judgments. A free for all of values, in other words.

GNS: Gillies is right. Relativism is supposed to be a reasonable and wise middle ground between absolutism and nihilism. But I argue that relativism is unstable, and collapses into the view that there is no normative realm, only the descriptions of social practices from the social sciences and history.

Gillies: To understand my own right to judge, GNS is suggesting that either I am objectively justified or that the absence of objective justification puts every other person’s judgment on the same level playing field. That is, the difference is between absolute arrogance and abject humility. But the truth is that human beings live almost entirely betwixt those extremes. It is not either/or, but a combination of our confidence in making judgments and our humility to see that others are different enough to believe different things with no more justification that we have.

The first thing I would point out is that we have no difficulty calling out other people’s judgment regardless of how this issue is decided. In other words, it is not necessary to be objectively justified to say something is wrong or right, so the hang up in no practical sense seems to depend on this appeal to objective justification. If I say that racism is wrong, I am saying that racism is wrong, not that racism is wrong because that is objectively justified. 

I do not need justification, because the belief of racism being wrong is not an open question for me. It is not  something that can be decided, for or against, with evidence. Rather, it is the starting point for my own actions in the world. In other words, it is not something that gets to be measured. It is not something susceptible to doubt. It does not need to be grounded by a separate foundation, because it IS part of my foundation. If someone gave me evidence that racism was somehow objectively permissible, would that convince me to be a racist? There are simply some issues that are not decided by evidence or proof, and we have to be clear about that.

GNS: So the wrongness of racism is independent of any evidence, independent of any time or place, independent of the opinion of anyone else. That’s what we mean by absolute value.

Boghossian: A would-be relativist about morality needs to decide whether his view grants the existence of some absolute moral facts, or whether it is to be a pure relativism, free of any commitment to absolutes.  The latter position, I have argued, is mere nihilism; whereas the former leads us straight out of relativism and back into the quest for the moral absolutes.

Gillies: This hang up with things needing a foundation undercuts how humans actually behave in the world. Most of us get on with our lives while philosophers drive themselves senseless looking for objective justifications. Because the truth is that human life has never depended on objective justifications exclusively (exclusively is the important part). It is only in recent times when the evidence of science and technology is so persuasive that it seems nothing but the most secure foundation is necessary. In other times the secure foundation for knowledge has variously been the word of God, the word of kings, or various other cultural authorities supposedly in possession of our best interests. 

Objectivity does matter. The question is whether it explains everything. One of those things that seems to hang in the balance is morality. Science has an objective foundation. Everyone can do it independently and will come to the same results. The results do not depend on who is doing it. So we ask “Why can’t things like morality be that way too?”

Stanley Fish (replying to Paul Boghossian and in effect agreeing with Carter Gillies https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/does-philosophy-matter/ ):

Does any of this matter outside the esoteric arena of philosophical disputation? Let’s suppose that either of two acts of persuasion has occurred in that arena: a former moral absolutist is now a relativist of some kind, or a former relativist is now a confirmed believer in moral absolutes. What exactly will have changed  when one set of philosophical views has been swapped for another? Almost nothing. To be sure you will now give different answers than you once would have when you are asked about moral facts, objective truths, irrefutable evidence and so on; but when you are engaged in trying to decide what is  the right thing to do in a particular situation, none of the answers you might give to these deep questions  will have any bearing on your decision.

GNS: Everyone has moral feelings. And of course it’s hard to change anyone’s mind about anything. The question is whether all of what we call “morality” is merely a matter of an assortment of strongly held beliefs. If not, what else can it be?

Gillies: Far from my belief that racism is wrong indicating a position derived from absolutes, it is a position derived exclusively from what I think matters. I treat it absolutely in my life by the fact that it is not open to question for me, but, again, this does not depend on ANY external justification. It is simply how I act. This matters to me. It is part of my human enterprise.

As per Wittgenstein, to explain anything that humans do or that they care about, we don’t need to look outside ourselves. That is, we don’t need to look outside what it is we do. It is not an issue of purely internal subjectivity and it is not an issue of disembodied or absolute objectivity. Look at what we do. 

GNS: We preach relativism, but practice absolutism. Here Gillies preaches relativism. His opposition to racism “is simply how I act”. So no moral judgment applies to anyone else?   

Gillies: So, what I was offering were observations. I wasn’t making claims on anyone else. I was saying that this is how my life works. Sometimes I can appeal to justifications, but other times not. My acting does not always  depend on being justified. It’s just what I do. What any of us does. And we act AS IF certain things matter. It is our acting in this way that makes them significant. We care about this but not that. Other people may care about those things, but not us. That’s how it works. 

GNS: True, people have a variety of values and moral intuitions. If Gillies is “not making claims on anyone else”, then he limits his judgments to himself. “This is how my life works.” That might be the purest form of moral relativism: limited only to oneself, not making reference to the values of any group. So if he encountered someone he regarded as a racist, he wouldn’t say, or even think, “You’re wrong!” because that would be making claims on someone else.

Nihilism does not deny that people have strong feelings. It denies that morality amounts to anything other than those feelings. Nihilism might be true.

Fish: When Boghossian declares that “Denial of moral absolutism leads not to relativism, but to nihilism,” he could mean one of two things: Either (1) if you deny the existence of moral absolutes, you are committed, as a matter of philosophical logic, to nihilism, or (2) if you deny the existence of moral absolutes, you will behave nihilistically. If he means the first, he is claiming a consequence within the parameters of philosophical debate, and nothing more. If he means the second, he is committing what I call the theory mistake, the mistake of thinking that your philosophical convictions (if you have them; most people don’t) translate directly or even indirectly into the way you will act when you are not in a seminar.

GNS: What does “behave nihilistically” mean? Fish must think it means behaving destructively or something. He should check out Alex Rosenberg’s “nice nihilism” in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.

How should any philosophical or scientific theory influence our actions? If after a lifetime of believing in creationism, you suddenly became convinced of the truth of Darwin’s theory of evolution (this does not happen to anyone often), what exactly would you do? Are the consequences for you only “within the parameters of philosophical debate”? Only in the seminar room? Maybe. Nevertheless, Darwin’s theory of evolution is true. Absolutely.

Here at BQTA, we first want to figure out what the truth is. If we ever get there, we can worry about what to do about it. Can we enjoy life without illusions?

Is Fish conceding the philosophical truth of nihilism?

Fish: The ability to make judgments of right and wrong does not depend on your holding a particular belief about morality in general; all that is required are the common sense, on-the-wing criteria you bring to bear  (without deep reflection) on everyday situations of choice and decision. There is no additional requirement that you root your decision in a high philosophical abstraction to which you are positively committed.

GNS: People will believe what they believe and do what they do. The problem is that “common sense” morality about slavery, for example, means one thing in 2017 and quite the opposite in 1717. Which is right? Neither? Both? Only ours?

Boghossian: There appears to be no good alternative to thinking that, when we are in a muddle about what the answer to a hard moral question is, we are in a muddle about what the absolutely correct answer is.

Fish: Why “absolutely”? Isn’t “correct” good enough?  (Of course without “absolutely” the assertion is circular; you wouldn’t be looking for the incorrect answer.) “Absolutely” is there to insist that the answer you arrive at and  consider correct must be backed up by the conviction that it is underwritten by the structure of Truth and by the universe. This is a demand that makes sense if you are doing philosophy, but if you are doing anything else, it is a demand  you can safely, and without contradiction, ignore.

GNS: If Fish’s “correct” answer is not backed up by “the structure of Truth and the universe”, what does back him up? Nothing? If he is backed up by Nothing, that’s nihilism, whether he knows it or not. Like everyone else, including me, Fish will do what he does and believe what he believes. That’s all there is to it, apparently.


Randy Newman “Sail Away” 1972

In America you’ll get food to eat,
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet.
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day,
It’s great to be an American.

Ain’t no lions or tigers, ain’t no mamba snake,
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake.
Everybody is as happy as a man can be.
Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me.

Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay,
Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay.

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family.
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree,
You’re all gonna be an American.

Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay,
Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay.

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