Profile picture
Moshe Hoffman @Moshe_Hoffman
, 86 tweets, 9 min read Read on Twitter
A thread on (the problems with) moral realism.
By moral realism I mean the notion that morals are “discovered” via reasoning. And logical deductions.
I mean the presumption that our moral intuitions can and should be made logically coherent.
I mean the presumption that moral “progress” has been achieved via careful thought as in “the enlightenment.”
I mean the idea that through careful argument and open minded discussion we can persuade others, if only they were properly open minded and wise, to share our moral views.
All this, I think, is a nice story we tell ourselves. A communal fiction. (Why? We will get to that.)

Not at all how morality, moral arguments, or moral progress *actually* work though.


Soon, I will summarize all the evidence against.
But first, let me make clear what I *don’t* mean.

And set aside some “counterarguments,” that I think are mostly just kicking up dust. Making it harder to see the legitimate, and otherwise straightforward, fallacies embedded in moral realism.
-I don’t mean that moral philosophy has no value. There is a benefit to spotting inconsistencies. And absurd implications. To knowing which axioms lead to which implications.
(Thought experiments, and careful argumentation, def have helped w/ *that*. But *that’s* a far cry from discovering moral truths.)
-I don’t mean that there are no actual patterns to our moral intuitions—patterns that can be described, more or less, with words or formal statements.

(That’s obviously true. For anything. No?)
-And, no, moral philsophy is not like math (“both contain unjustified axioms & follow their implications”).

(There are *many* problems w/ moral realism, in addition to the lack of justification for the basic axioms. E.g. the logical contortions. And unavoidable inconsistencies.)
-I don’t *just* mean that people are *sometimes* bad at reasoning. Or *sometimes* selfish.

(That would be too easy. No. It’s not just *some* irrationality muddying the waters. It is, rather, thick mud, through and through.)
-And I most def don’t wish to get into a semantic debate about what is “real.”

(By “real” I just mean having the logical properties described above. The sense of “real” implicit in the way philosophers discuss morality. And lay people debate morality.)
So why do I think morality doesn’t work this way? Isn’t “driven” by logic and discovered by reason?
My argument, in a nutshell:

-There aren’t actually “truths we find.” Only premises we assert.

-Our morals aren’t and can’t be made consistent. Or justified.

-We don’t actually convince others through reason.
And perhaps more importantly:

-There is a much more parsimonious explaination for how moral intuitions, moral arguments, and moral progress works.

-That account is *very* distinct from the moral realism account. Even if it has superficial similarities (both “involve” logic.)
But before going there. Let me ask:

Do we have *any* a priori reason to expect morality to be logical? To presume moral “truths” exist for discovery?

(Other than the fact that people talk this way. And that our philosophical tradition acts as if it’s so.)

I don’t see any.
Why would we expect morality to work this way? Does beauty or physical attraction? Does power?

We might argue about these things and try to persuade others.

But do any of us believe power is allocated based on reason? Or that beauty is “logically consistent”?

No these concepts are not relevant.

(Other than the logic that describes what we evolved to like? Or where the cards have fallen?)

Why would morality be any different?
Ok digging into the empirical facts on how morality actually works:
1) People w/ *very* different moral systems also justify them w/ “reason.” Reason that is no more or less valid than those we utilize.
Think bout the Nazi’s. And southern slaveholders. Did they not justify their moral systems? With “reason” and “logic”.

You think a mathematician, or an algorithm that checks formal proofs, would find more flaws in their logical arguments than ours? Willing to bet on that?
(Spoiler alert: Both would fail. Which obviously isn’t to say there is nothing wrong with nazi ideology. It’s just the specific wrongness, that makes it abhorrent, won’t be found in the logic. Cause the logic is always ridiculously contorted, in every moral system.)
2. You can’t actually justify your moral premises.
You think there is a *logical proof* that says Aryans *should* treat Jews as equals?

Of course not. That’s not what logic does.

I mean I am glad we share this premise. But liking something, or being glad others think something, isn’t exactly a logical proof.
There is no way to prove “every man is created equal.” That’s why our founding fathers had to assert it as “self-evident.”
It’s just something we believe (thankfully).

And proclaim (thankfully).

And act as if it’s true (thankfully).

(Why? That’s another, interesting and important, discussion).
That doesn’t make it an actual truth. That’s not how truth works.
3. (Smart, non-self interested) people don’t actually change their minds when presented with “clear” or “clever” arguments.
You think if Kant has debated Mill, one of them would have conceded? Is that cause one of them was dumb? Or just started with differing premises? And were focusing on different intuitions?
4. Our moral intuitions are *actually* logically inconsistent. And there is *no way* to make them consistent.
Consider the “paradox” of “moral luck”.

We think people should be punished based on their behavior, not based on god’s behavior.
We also think it’s wrong to put a drunk driver in jail for life, if nothing bad resulted from his misbehavior.

But also wrong to let a drunk driver off lightly if he ran over a kid. Even if the difference between kid and no kid is entirely up to god.
These intuitions contradict each other, logically.

An existential problem?

Not at all.

(Maybe a legal one. If you have to decide which intuition to apply. But not an existential one.)
Because there is no reason to suspect moral intuitions, which each evolved for different purposes can or “ought to” be made logically consistent with one another.

That’s not how evolution works.
5. Our moral intuitions are often *completely orthogonal* to the reasons we give.
Does anyone even try to justify why omissions are worse than commissions?
Does Aquinas (or any deontologist since) have anything resembling a compelling explanation for why means ought to be treated differently from by-products?

No. Of course not.

Cause there is no way to justify this logically.

It’s just an intuition
(Why we evolved this intuition is, again, an interesting, but separable question. For another time.)
6. When we apply reason to justify or argue for our morals, the “reasoning” is *quite* contorted. Not *actually* reasonable.
Yes, free will (obviously) doesn’t exist.

Yes, we still intuit that we should have punishment (obviously).

Yeah if you try and reconcile the two, without recourse to evolved intuitions about justice, you are gonna hurt your back.

(Which many have done.)
Yeah, pleasure is good, pain is bad.

Yeah, we all intuit that’s true for everyone.

So utilitarianism *seems* like a good call.

Oh what’s that, we also intuit these things like rights, hmmm, ok, let’s just add that in. (Which is what Mill did!)
Oh ticking time bombs, utility monsters, and a handful of dying patients who want your organs.

Those are all conceptual problems.
No worries.

W/ enough pages and centuries of scholarship, we can sweep these conflicting intuitions under the rug!

Better that than admitting conflicting moral intuitions!
Are these arguments “logical”?

Or just appear to be so?

What about when you justify why you eat meat? Or buy lattes instead of giving that $3 to buy mosquito nets or water filters for those actually in need in Africa? Are you being logical then?

Or bending over backwards?
How different are these pseudo-logical arguments from those used to justify land ownership, colonialism, or divine right of kings?
7. Perhaps most importantly:

There is a more parsimonious account for where our moral intuitions come from.

And why they have these illogical features.

And why we nevertheless justify them and try to reason about them. And for what drives moral “progress”.
Namely, we evolved (culturally and biologically) moral intuitions.
Some of the evolutionary origins are well understood (we find incest icky, we don’t like those who shirk, kill, steal, or treat others as merely a means) others less well (why do we, universally, intuit that omissions are less bad than commissions).
Obviously. Who would disagree with this?

But no reason evolution (again biological or cultural) would hand us morals that can be made logically consistent. Or even reasonable.
Equilibrium are not “logical.”

Is it logical that peahens like long tails? Or that some viruses get their kicks out of destroying your immune system?
(I mean, maybe, if by logical you mean “fits the logic of evolutionary processes.”

But that’s not what philosophers, or lay people, mean by moral reasoning.)
And we *also* evolved to justify our moral intuitions.

(Why? Presumably cause then we can sound less selfish and more principled, especially when our justifications are in line with desirable principles, like selflessness and treating others the same as us.)
(And even come to believe these justifications. And *sometimes* the need to justify and come off as principled actually influences our behavior and leads to “progress”? Yeah. Sure. *Sometimes.* And for *those* reasons. But that’s a far cry from morality being “driven by reason”.)
There’s a ton of evidence for this (another thread?).

It’s also, unlike the moral realism story, evolutionairily sensible.

(We would never evolve to have morals dictated by “logic,” we would evolve to have moral intuitions *justified* by (contorted) logic!)
8. This story is *very* distinct from the moral realism story.

-One story says what matters is logic and principles that are self-evidently true.

The other story says what matters is *appearance* of logical consistency.

And consistency with what? Not truth. But principles that are *socially desirable.*
-Appearance is key.

That’s where things like plausible deniability come in.

Which, as a matter of actual fact, plays a huge role in moral intuitions, moral arguments, and moral progress.

Unlike *actual* consistency. Plausible consistency.
See for instance “strategic ignorance.”

(As well as prominent explanations for why we evolved to distinguish omissions from commissions. And means from byproducts. See Kurzban and Descioli.)
Again, these features of morality can’t be well explained with moral realism.

But are obvious implications of the evolutionary story.
-The two stories also give different predictions as to *which* moral principles people will hold.
The realism story says which principle will depend on which fundamental truths have been discovered.

The evolutionary story, in contrast, says which principle will depend on what’s valued/socially enforced in your community and context.
Which story better fits the principles people hold?

You tell me.
Slave holders just weren’t aware of enlightenment thinkers? That literature finally arrived in the south in the mid sixties and seventies of this century?
In Germany in the 20s & 30s that knowledge from the enlightenment was just forgotten? After all those books were burned?

Or the French and British were just that much smarter or better educated than the Germans and Italians?
-And who will be more moral?
One story says people will be more or less moral depending on how reasonable (and maybe self controlled?) they are.
The other story says what matters is how much they have an incentive (albeit not necessarily conscious) to *come off as* moral.

(Like whether they are powerful and control others.)
Which story seems right to you?
-One story says an individual will become more or less into a given principle depending on how much social capital they have built up as behaving consistent with that principle.

The other story says this shouldn’t matter.
The psych lit on consistency motives”, foot in door technique, moral licensing effect, all suggest reputational capital plays an important role.
-one story says people who are smarter, or better informed, will become more moral
The psych evidence on motivated reasoning (see Dan Kahan, Jonathan Haidt, Francesca Gino) suggests smarter people are better at *justifying* their behavior as moral, sometimes even giving more slack to be less moral.
-And when will we achieve moral progress?
One story says progress will come as soon as we are smart enough or learn enough to discover truths.
The other says “progress” will come when the principles become socially beneficial, the costs to disobeying them become high enough, and the benefits low enough. Or the inconsistency made no longer plausibly deniable.
An illustrative example:

Think about the famous slave ship image that helped end the slave trade in the British empire. And not-so-coincidentally ended the ability to plausible deny knowing how bad slave ships were.
-One story says debates will be won and people will be persuaded on the basis of good arguments, teaching them something they didn’t knkw.

The other says debates will be won when plausible deniability is preempted, and the principle at play is made socially undeniable.
Which is going on when Peter Singer describes the drowning child? Making it evident that if you would jump in to save him but not donate to a stranger in Africa, your pro social acts are either not as selfless as you describe, or you are a racist.
Pretty compelling no?

But is singer compelling because he taught you something you didn’t know? Or because he removed plausible deniability, and left no wiggle room for you to maintain your selfish or discriminatory behavior?
-One story says moral philosophers are helping us elucidate moral foundations of the universe.
The other story says moral philosophers are playing an interesting game where they are trying to justify (or help their readers justify) principles and intuitions that happen to be rewarded in their culture, or evolved for reasons they are unaware of.
(And contorting logic, as needed. And trying to call out others’ contortions, when the other derives a different conclusion.)
Which looks closer to the game moral philosophers are playing?

You be the judge.
-One story says our primary motive when discussing our morals or debating our stances is discover of truth.

The other story realizes that’s just a facade. Perhaps a deeply internalized one, but just a facade.

Which do you think fits the facts better?
Tbh I am kind of surprised so many smart people are so fooled by this facade, even after so many years of science has elucidated how and why morality works the way it does.

It doesn’t work the way “reason” dictates.

Missing some Tweet in this thread?
You can try to force a refresh.

Like this thread? Get email updates or save it to PDF!

Subscribe to Moshe Hoffman
Profile picture

Get real-time email alerts when new unrolls are available from this author!

This content may be removed anytime!

Twitter may remove this content at anytime, convert it as a PDF, save and print for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video

1) Follow Thread Reader App on Twitter so you can easily mention us!

2) Go to a Twitter thread (series of Tweets by the same owner) and mention us with a keyword "unroll" @threadreaderapp unroll

You can practice here first or read more on our help page!

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just three indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member and get exclusive features!

Premium member ($30.00/year)

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal Become our Patreon

Thank you for your support!