Bryan Caplan  

Money for Morals

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Over at Overcoming Bias, Robert Wiblin offers a tempting reward:
Personally, I would like to think I take doing the right thing seriously, so I am willing to offer a monetary prize of £300 for anyone who can change my mind on a) whether I ought to place a significant probability on moral realism being correct, or b) help me see that I seriously misunderstand what I subjectively value. Such insights would be a bargain!
I'm happy to try my luck on (a).  Robert states the following reasons to doubt the truth of moral realism:

1. People put little effort into acquiring and refining moral knowledge:
If you really believed that there were objective rules that we should follow, that would make it crucial to work out what those rules actually were. If you failed to pick the right rules, you could spend your life doing things that were worthless, or maybe even evil. And if those are the rules that everyone necessarily ought to be following, nothing could be worse than failing to follow them. If most acts or consequences are not the best, as seems likely, then the chances of you stumbling on the right ones by chance are very low.
2. People have inconsistent moral views:
Simple probing using questions well known to philosophers usually reveals a great deal of apparent inconsistency in people's positions on moral issues. This has been known for thousands of years, but we are scarcely more consistent now than in the past.
3. People worry little about moral uncertainty:
A moral realist should also be trying to spread their bets to account for 'moral uncertainty'. Even if you think you have the right moral code, there is always the possibility you are mistaken and in fact a different set of rules are correct. Unless you are extremely confident that the rules you consider most likely, this ought to affect your behaviour.
Let's say the number of (post-)humans we expect to live in the future, in the absence of any collapse, is a modest 1 trillion. The real number is probably much larger. If you thought there were just a 10% chance that people who weren't alive now did in fact deserve moral consideration, that would still mean collapse prevented the existence of 100 billion future people in 'expected value' terms. This still dwarfs the importance of the 7 billion people alive today, and makes the case for focussing on such threats many times more compelling than otherwise.
4. We haven't evolved to grasp moral truth:
[T]here is no obvious reason for our moral intuitions to be tethered to what is really right and wrong full stop. It is almost certain that humans came about through the process of evolution. Evolution will give us the ability to sense the physical world in order to be able to respond to it, survive and reproduce. It will also give us good intuitions about mathematics, insofar as that helps us make predictions about the world around us, survive and reproduce. But why should natural selection provide us with instinctive knowledge of objective moral rules? There is no necessary reason for such knowledge to help a creature survive - indeed, most popular moral theories are likely to do the opposite.
The main problem with all of these arguments is that they prove far too much.  The same holds for philosophy, religion, politics, social theory, and cosmology.  Indeed, it holds for the science of global warming.  People put little effort into understanding climate change. (#1)  People worry little about climate change uncertainty. (#3)  People haven't evolved to understand climate change, since humans in the ancestral environment had very little effect on global climate, and the change takes lifetimes. (#4) 

I'd even argue that people's views about climate change are extremely inconsistent. (#2)  If you believe that lower demand for fossil fuels in in clean countries will reduce fossil fuel prices in dirty countries, why aren't First World greens worried that reducing their carbon footprint will counter-productively increase carbon emissions in the Third World?

By Robert's logic, these are all reasons to doubt that climate change is objective, or at least that humans have any knowledge of climate change.  But that's an absurd leap.  These are all reasons to think harder about climate change, and wonder if what we think we know is right.  But none of them are reasons to think that climate change is all in our heads.  The same goes for philosophy, religion, politics, social theory, cosmology, and yes, morality.

Have I "proven" that moral realism is true?  Of course not.  But if Robert's four stated reasons are why he doubts moral realism, he has no strong reason to think that morals are any less real than any other subject that excites human emotions.  Unless he's a solipsist, then, he "ought to place a significant probability on moral realism being correct."  And he ought to pay me £300.

HT: Everything I know about meta-ethics I learned from Michael Huemer.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (8 to date)
aretae writes:

I'd said a very similar thing in the comments a couple days ago...though with a skeptic's eye. And I'm not a moral realist.

Ted Levy writes:

Of course, if he IS a solipsist, it would be silly to pay you £300...

Robert Wiblin writes:

None of those were my reasons for my doubting moral realism - they were my reasons for doubting other people are moral realists as they claim to be. But yes plausibly they think they are moral realists and just don't appreciate what actions that ought to imply.

My reason for doubting moral realism is that I see no empirical evidence for moral 'facts', and so it's parsimonious to assume they don't exist. Moral facts are like Russell's teapot.

#4 is a reason to doubt we know what moral statements are true and false, if indeed any are true.

Brian writes:

"My reason for doubting moral realism is that I see no empirical evidence for moral 'facts',"


If you are serious about this challenge, perhaps you can define what you mean by morality and "moral facts." It is, of course, impossible to argue for the probablity of something that is undefined. And since you are the one having to be convinced, your definitions of these terms are the ones that matter. It would also worthwhile to know whether your definition of morality is inherently contradictory of a realist position.

Mike Thicke writes:

I think you make a good argument Bryan, it's just that Wiblin's reasons for doubting moral realism are rotten reasons, and not the reasons I think (/hope) most moral relativists take that position. Wiblin's argument is more an argument for why most people aren't serious and rational moral objectivists. But whether people take their moral objectivism seriously, or follow through on the rational implications of their stated beliefs has little or no bearing on whether there are objective moral facts.

If Wiblin were to make a serious attempt to defend moral relativism, he, at a minimum, should cite Hume's is/ought distinction.

Sebastian H writes:

I find it difficult to believe that you see NO empirical evidence for moral facts.

Do you believe that torturing a child for the fun of it is wrong? Why?

I suspect you really think that lots of the things people claim are moral facts are not in fact moral facts. Which while probably true, isn't the same as denying moral facts altogether.

If you aren't careful, you could have the same problem believing in thinking. You have about the same amount of 'empirical evidence' that your own thinking is anything other than your genetics plus brain structure plus environmental inputs. You have no independent basis showing correspondence between your thinking and the real world. You have no reason to believe that anything you think is any more real or scientific than anyone elses thinking. The problem is that this proves too much--once you definitively deny the capacity for logic, you can't argue for or against anything. The theist believes what he believes wholly on DNA plus brain structure plus environment, and so does these atheist and so does the 'virtuous' man and the evil one. At that point you are right that there is no discerning between moral facts and non facts, but you are wrong if you fail to realize that your argument denies the ability to discern between all facts and non facts.

Jeff writes:

Wherein Byran stumbles onto the truth about global warming and backs away as fast as he can.

Dent writes:

[Comment removed for cursing out the webmaster in email. This was your third and final warning, about which we merely emailed you per our longstanding published rules asking you to validate your email address in order to comment on EconLog. Your comment privileges are revoked.--Econlib Ed.]

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