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Let us suppose that we were attempting to use logic alone in order to convince a skeptic that torturing another person for pleasure is (objectively) immoral. We could say that torturing another person for pleasure is immoral because it inflicts suffering unnecessarily. However, this skeptic could then ask why it is that inflicting needless suffering is immoral. In order to answer this question, we would first have to explain what suffering feels like. After all, if a person does not know what suffering feels like, then he will never understand why it is wrong to inflict it. However, how would we go about explaining what suffering "feels like"?
We could talk about the facial expressions or the verbal sounds which the prisoner will make. However, this is not really describing what suffering feels like, since an actor can produce exactly the same symptoms without feeling any suffering, and since it is possible to feel suffering while not displaying any of these characteristics. We can talk about phenomena such as an increased heart beat or respiration. However, this does not tell us what suffering feels like either, since it is also possible to have these symptoms without suffering and to suffer without showing these symptoms. We could attempt to describe suffering as the firing of a particular group sensory neurons in a particular way. However, this too will not give us the answer we seek. We could remove those neurons and place them in a test tube. Having those sensory neurons fire in exactly the same way in the laboratory would not involve any suffering. Simply knowing that these sensory neurons are firing, or knowing any of these mentioned measurable physical characteristics, would not really tell us what suffering "feels like".
The problem is analogous to attempting to describe to a blind man what the color green looks like. We could explain to him that light is a type of electromagnetic wave. We could then tell him that "green" is light with a certain range of frequencies. We could then also talk about which objects absorb green light and which objects reflect green light. However, none of this would get a blind man any closer to understanding what "green" looks like. The only way we can currently describe to a person what a color looks like is by comparing it to other colors. We might say, for example, that "green" is a cross between yellow and blue. However, this is of no use to a blind man since he does not know what yellow or blue look like either.
This is exactly the problem we face in attempting to tell the
skeptic what suffering feels like. We could attempt to explain
what the tortured victim is feeling by comparing it to feelings
of suffering which the skeptic has experienced in the past.
However, a proof based only on logic can not make appeals to past
experiences or to sensations. If we wanted to use only logic to
prove that it is immoral to inflict needless suffering, we would
have to be able to explain what suffering "feels like"
using logic alone also. This, however, is not currently possible.
It is only here that an attempt to use logic alone to prove the
existence of an objective morality breaks down. This does not
mean, though, that we can not use a slightly different method to
argue for the existence of an objective morality.
There are two different ways we can go about explaining the probable truth of a statement. The first is by explaining why we believe that the statement is true. The second is by attempting to explain what causes the statement to be true. Take, for example, the statement, "the sky looks blue". Explaining why we believe that this statement is true is fairly simple. We look up at the sky, and we see that it looks blue. Explaining what causes this is statement to be true turns out to be much more difficult. This would require explaining that light is a type of wave and explaining the properties of wave propagation. Only then would we really understand "why" it is that light having the frequency associated only with the color blue reaches our eyes when we look at the daytime sky.
I will attempt to look at the statement "An objective morality exists" from both of these perspectives. That is, I will talk about why we should believe that the statement is true and about what causes the statement to be true. However, as the previous example shows, it is possible to know why we should believe that a statement is probably true without knowing what causes it to be true. The vast majority of people know that the sky looks blue, and why it is that we should believe that the sky looks blue, while they at the same time have almost no knowledge of wave propagation.
I will first discuss what "causes" the statement "An objective morality exists" to be true. My claim is that it is not necessary to believe in concepts like God or an eternal soul in order to believe in an objective morality. One of the main reasons so many people initially have a hard time accepting such a claim is because one of the most popular alternative views is that we are nothing more than a congregation of atoms and molecules. In other words, the most popular alternative view is that our consciousness is nothing more than complicated electrochemical reactions in the brain. If such a view is correct, they say, an objective morality can not possibly exist. After all, there is no morality when it comes to the physical laws governing the behavior of atoms and molecules. Our laws of physics just tell us which way an electron will go. These laws appear to say nothing about if it is "immoral" for an electron to go in a particular direction. So if we are nothing more than just a congregation of such particles, where could an objective morality come from?
I do not claim that such a view regarding consciousness is correct. I do claim, though, that an objective morality exists even if this type of view regarding consciousness does turn out to be correct. It is true that there appears to be no morality on the level of atoms and molecules. However, in exactly the same manner, there is also no consciousness on the level of atoms and molecules. It is not possible for an electron to feel happiness, joy, or sorrow. Just as the laws of physics seem to say nothing about morality, they also seem to say nothing about consciousness. The people who want to believe that conscious results from brain activity have to conclude that, although there appears to be no consciousness in the laws of physics on the atomic level, consciousness does arise through the complicated interactions of these atoms and molecules according to physical laws. If this turns out to be the case, then it certainly does not seem to be any less plausible that in exactly the same way, although there appears to be no morality in the laws of physics on the atomic level, morality does arise through the complicated interactions of these atoms and molecules according to physical laws. This, so far, does not actually say that an objective morality must exist. It just says that having morality arise from physical laws is no more or less plausible than having consciousness arise from physical laws in exactly the same way.
Some people have trouble imagining how it is that a
congregation of atoms, which we call a human being, can possibly
have a property such as an obligation to act morally, which does
not also exist on the atomic level. There are many analogies
which can help to illustrate this. One is a wave traveling down a
rope. If you look very closely at any of the individual atoms in
the rope, you will not find this "wave" of the rope in
any of these rope atoms at any given time. It is only when you
stand back and look at the entire rope that you can see this wave
and the properties by which it travels. This does not, however,
imply that this wave does not arise from the basic laws governing
the motion of the rope atoms. Another analogy is a neon sign. A
detailed analysis of the individual atoms in the sign will never
tell you that the sign spells "Joes Diner". I
would like to say again that I am not trying to argue that human
beings are just a collection of atoms and molecules. I am just
pointing out that a belief in an objective morality is perfectly
consistent with such a view.
The analogy between morality and consciousness is not as arbitrary as it might first appear. If we really wanted to know what could cause a statement such as "Inflicting suffering on another person for pleasure is immoral" to be true, we would first have to understand the nature and origin of suffering. This is because it would not be possible to know "why" it is wrong to inflict suffering without knowing what suffering is. As I mentioned before, suffering from physical pain is not the firing of any particular group of sensory neurons. Suffering is the way our consciousness interprets the firing of those neurons.
Explaining terms like "tree" or "rainbow" is fairly simple. To explain the term "tree", all you have to do is point to a tree. To explain what the term "rainbow", all you have to do is point to a rainbow. However, when you attempt to explain the term "suffering", there is nothing to point to. Suffering is a feeling, and we can not point to feelings in this manner. "Suffering" is a state of consciousness. "Suffering" can not exist without consciousness. In order to really understand the nature and origin of suffering, we would have to understand the nature and origin of consciousness.
As mentioned before, there are some people who believe that consciousness is entirely the result of the electrochemical reactions occurring in the brain. Others believe that it is the result of a soul which exists independently of the brain and body. There are many other possible answers to where it is that consciousness comes from. If it turns out that consciousness is nothing more than electrochemical reactions in the brain, then we can understand how suffering arises from these electrochemical reactions by understanding how consciousness arises from such reactions. However, we do not currently understand how consciousness arises from brain activity, so we can not currently understand how suffering arises from brain activity. If it turns out that consciousness is the result of something similar to a soul, then we could understand the nature and origin of suffering by understanding the nature and properties of this soul. Needless to say, we do not know this either.
It is only for these reasons that we do not yet have a complete answer to what "causes" a statement such as "It is objectively immoral to inflict suffering just for the heck of it" to be true. Perhaps one day in the future, we will have a thorough understand what "causes" consciousness. It is only then that we would really know what the nature and origin of suffering is. It is also only then that we would really know what "causes" it to be immoral to inflict suffering just for the heck of it.
We do not, though, have to wait till that day to find out if
an objective morality exists and what this objective morality is.
As I said before, it is not necessary to understand what causes a
phenomena to be true in order to understand what that phenomena
is. For example, in order to understand what path a rock will
take when you throw it, all you have to do is use the classical
Newtonian rules of motion which have been known for some time. If
you really wanted an answer to what "causes" the rock
to take that path, though, you would have to understand the way
in which the mass of the Earth affects the curvature of
"space-time", something which we knew nothing about
before the twentieth century. However, even if you know
absolutely nothing about modern physics, you could still know how
to accurately predict the path that a rock will take when you
Let us focus once again on the issue of torturing another person for pleasure. Even though we do not understand the nature and origin of suffering in the manner I described above, we know what suffering is because we have experienced it ourselves. It is only in understanding what suffering is in this manner that we come to understand that it is wrong for others to inflict it on us needlessly. This is not the same thing as simply observing the fact that we dislike the experience of suffering. The only way to understand this difference, again, is to experience what "dislike" is and what "suffering" is. I do not claim that experiencing suffering will necessarily cause anyone to realize that it is wrong for them to inflict suffering on others. For now, I am just claiming that by understanding what suffering is by experiencing a significant amount of it directly, a person will realize that it is objectively wrong for others to inflict needless suffering on him.
There are many objections which can be raised against this claim. In order to argue for the validity of my claim, I must do more than simply show why these objections are not valid. Before I proceed, though, I would like to point out the flaws in several of the most common types of objections people would most likely have.
A person may ask about the masochists who enjoy experiencing physical pain. Such individuals do exist, and a person can ask how this can be reconciled with my position. The answer is that suffering is not the same thing as physical pain. Just as a person does not need to feel physical pain in order to feel suffering, a person also does not need to feel suffering in order to feel physical pain. If a masochist feels enjoyment when he experiences physical pain, then clearly he is not feeling suffering during that time period. It is only when the masochist has an experience which really does cause him to suffer that he will realize that it is wrong for others to inflict suffering on him for entertainment.
A person can ask how the existence of moral relativists can be reconciled with my position. These are people who genuinely believe that no objective morality exists. Since they have all experienced suffering in the past, why do they not believe that it is objectively wrong for others to inflict suffering on them? First, I need to say that when I referred to "a significant amount suffering", I was not necessarily referring to a tooth ache. For some people, experiencing a tooth ache is enough. The knowledge of what a tooth ache feels like is enough to allow them to extrapolate to what the experience of being tortured probably feels like. For others, experiencing a tooth ache is not enough. There are some people who have been fortunate enough to live a life without experiencing much suffering.
Nevertheless, there are moral relativists who have experienced a significant amount of suffering in their lives. I still need to explain how their existence can be reconciled with my position. The answer is that the memory of experiencing suffering is not the same thing as the experience of suffering itself. The process of recalling the memory of a tooth ache you had a few months ago does not bring about the same agony as the tooth ache itself did. For this reason, simply recalling the memory of a painful experience might not be enough. We do not truly fully appreciate what suffering "is" except for the moment in which we are experiencing it. For some people, I believe, the memory of having experienced suffering in the past is enough to make them realize that it is wrong for others to inflict suffering on them just for entertainment. For others, the actual experience is required. I believe that it would not be possible, for example, to find any moral relativists among the prisoners of a Nazi death camp. After a few years go by, however, it is perfectly possible that some of the survivors of this camp will look back on their experience and still become moral relativists.
Another objection which can be raised is the following. It appears that the existence of morality depends on the existence of conscious beings. If it turns out that consciousness has not always existed in the Universe, then it appears that morality did not always exist either. It is possible to respond to this objection by again making the comparison to gravity. You would not see the law of gravity being applied in a region of space without objects possessing mass. This does not imply that the law of gravity does not exist in that region of space. In a similar manner, the law of morality still exists in a region of space or in a time period without conscious beings. We just do not see it being applied.
Another objection which can be raised to my position is that it relies too heavily on personal experience. It can be pointed out that since my belief that a particular action is "objectively immoral" relies on personal experience, and since different people have different personal experiences, different people are going to end up with different moralities. The morality of a person who has almost never experienced suffering, for example, is going to be very different from the morality of a person whos life has been almost nothing except suffering. This, it would appear, does not make my morality very objective.
The way to respond to this objection is by recalling the fact that, due to different observations, people in different time periods have had widely different views about physical laws as well. At one time, for example, it was believed that gravity results because all objects with mass exert an attractive force on one another. Today it is believed that gravity results because objects with mass cause a curvature in "space-time". The reason that people in the 19th century believed differently about gravity than people do today is not because the people living in the 19th century were less intelligent. It is only because people living in the 19th century did not have access to the same experimental observations which people had access to in the 20th century. All science is based on observation, whether it be the observation of a chance occurrence or the observation of a controlled laboratory experiment. It is perfectly in accordance with the scientific method for a belief to be based on observation. It is also in accordance with the scientific method for people who have access to different sets of observation to come to different conclusions. All scientific laws and theories are only approximations to reality. The greater the number and variety of observations on which a theory is based, the greater the odds that it better approximates reality.
There are many people, however, who would find fault with this
comparison to the scientific method. Scientific theories, they
would argue, are based on repeatable observations which are
performed many times by different observers. It must be possible
for these observations to be reproduced by anyone at any time. My
position relies on "personal" observations, they would
continue, which do not meet this criteria. Well, lets check
to see if this accusation is true. Are these observations
repeatable? Clearly the answer is yes. Dropping a bowling ball on
your foot is probably going to hurt just as much today as it will
tomorrow. We can easily reproduce the experience of suffering for
any observer at any given time. I, of course, believe that doing
so would be immoral and would not recommend this course of
action. Nevertheless, my argument from an individuals
"personal observations" does meet the reproducibility
requirement of scientific observations.
So far, I have not actually provided an argument for my claim. Up till now, I have only shown flaws in various objections to my claim. Ultimately, the objection which can be raised is that perhaps the only thing which we really observe when we experience suffering is that we dislike the experience. Perhaps the perception that something is "objectively wrong" is nothing more than an illusion. After all, we can not construct a device which measures the "morality" of an action. So why should we believe that "morality" is anything more than a figment of our imagination? Also, why should my claim be accepted by a person who has never had the impression that it is wrong for others to inflict suffering on him?
There are two cases I have to address. The first is the case of a person who has felt the impression that it is objectively wrong for others to needlessly inflict suffering on him, but chose to believe that it was just an illusion. I have to explain why this person should believe that he was observing more than the simple fact that he dislikes suffering. The second is the case of a person who claims never to have felt the impression that it is objectively immoral for others to inflict suffering on him.
I will start with the first case by tackling the issue of the lack of a "morality detector". As I mentioned in the introduction, it is true that we can not currently construct a measuring device which would indicate to us when an action is immoral. So it follows that we can not build a measuring device that tells us that it is "objectively immoral" for another person to torture us. Does this, though, imply that an "objective morality" does not exist?
While attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to keep in mind that we also can not build a measuring device which detects suffering. We can build instruments which measure the responses of the brain and body. However, none of these can measure what suffering "feels like". Since suffering is nothing more than a "feeling", we are just as incapable of measuring suffering with scientific instruments as we are at measuring morality. Should we, as a result, believe that suffering does not exist? Should we believe that suffering is nothing more than an illusion? Clearly, the answer is no. Suffering really does exist. We all believe that it exists in spite of the fact that we can not build measuring devices which indicate this to us. It would not be consistent for a person to reject as an illusion his "observation" that it is wrong for another person to inflict needless suffering on him, while at the same time accepting as an objective truth his observation that suffering exists. If a person rejects one of these conclusions because we do not have such measuring devices, then to be consistent, he should reject both of these conclusions. Similarly, if he accepts one of these conclusions as probably true, he should accept both of these conclusions as probably true. This does not apply to a person who has never experienced the "observation" that it is wrong for others to inflict suffering on him just for the heck of it. Here, I am simply referring to a person who has had this experience but afterwards chose to think of it as an illusion.
At this point, someone may say that he does not believe that there is anything objective about the existence of suffering either. The experience of suffering, this person might respond, is never identical in any two people. This, he could continue, prevents suffering from being objective. If this is the case, then we are simply disagreeing on the use of the word "objective". When I say that a statement is "objectively true", all I mean is that it is actually the "correct" position. If a patient is experiencing suffering, perhaps no one else will ever know exactly what he is feeling. Nevertheless, the statement "the patient is experiencing suffering" is an objectively true statement in the sense that it will remain true regardless of what anyone thinks.
But still, a moral relativist can point out that it is possible that the only thing which we really perceive when we experience suffering is that we dislike it. Perhaps our senses are simply misleading us to believe that it is "immoral" for others to inflict suffering on us needlessly. I have to admit that this is a logically consistent possibility. Nevertheless, we have to put at least some trust in our senses. We should always be aware that there is a possibility that our senses are deceiving us, and that what we see or hear has no correspondence to reality. But, in the absence of further information, we should conclude that what our senses tell us probably has some correspondence to reality. Just as it is a logically consistent possibility that the perception of an objective morality is an illusion, there are many other things which are also logically consistent possibilities. Perhaps your entire life is nothing but a dream and no external reality exists. Perhaps the existence of a "free will" is just an illusion and we have no control over our thoughts or actions. Perhaps the belief that time moves forward is just an illusion, while in reality it has always been frozen at this instant. These are all logically consistent possibilities, yet most people do not believe them. In the absence of further information, most people choose to believe their senses and conclude that there is an external reality, that there is a free will, and that time does move forward. Similarly, in the absence of further information, a person should choose to believe his senses and conclude that it is immoral for others to torture him for entertainment.
But what about a person who does not believe in an objective morality and who claims to never have had the impression that it is wrong for others to inflict suffering on him? Why should anything I have said influence his position? Well, if I have done nothing else, I hope I have at least demonstrated how the belief that certain actions are objectively immoral can be reconciled with all of our current scientific beliefs. I think that one of the main reasons that there are so many moral relativists is that many people, for one reason or another, believe that the existence of an objective morality is not logically consistent with our current scientific theories. At the very least, I hope I have dispelled these reservations.
When you debate with another person, it is not actually possibly for "you" to change their mind about a certain issue. Only they can do this for themselves. All you can do is present them with reasons for them to change their mind. As an extreme example, let us say that you were debating with a person who believed that the Earth was flat. You can show him the most recent photographs of the Earth from a space shuttle, but this will not necessarily convince him. He can still believe that these photographs are a forgery and that there is a government conspiracy to brainwash the population into believing that the Earth is round. You can not "force" him to believe in a round Earth. All you can do is present your side of the argument and hope that this will influence him to rethink his position.
The same is true with morality. Just as it is not possible to
"make" a person believe in a round Earth, it is not
possible to "make" a person believe in an objective
morality. In the case of the Earth, though, you can draw the
persons attention to the photographs from the space shuttle
and hope he will reexamine his beliefs in light of this. In the
case of a person who does not believe that is objectively wrong
for others to torture him, similarly, all you can do is draw the
persons attention to his own past experiences of suffering
and hope that this will cause him to rethink his position.
So far, I have only claimed that by understanding what suffering is by experiencing it, a person can realize that it is objectively wrong for others to torture him. I have not yet shown why this should cause anyone to believe that it is wrong for them to torture others. This is the issue which I will now address. What is to prevent a person from believing that it is objectively wrong for others to torture him but that it is perfectly OK for him to torture others?
Our current scientific beliefs about the world rest on the assumption that the physical laws of the universe do not change and are the same everywhere. For example, our belief that galaxies are moving away from each other rests on the assumption that the laws of physics operate the same way in other galaxies as they do in our own. Otherwise, there would be no way to interpret as "red-shifted" the light which we receive from those galaxies. The point I am trying to make is that if we choose to reject the assumption that laws which govern the Universe are the same everywhere and unchanging, then we would have to also reject the vast majority of our scientific beliefs. So it appears that for the purposes of my argument, this assumption that these laws are "universal" is a fairly safe assumption to make.
If a person admits that it is objectively immoral for others to torture him, then he is admitting that there is some external "law" which makes it immoral. Operating under the assumption which I have just mentioned, this law must continue operating unchanged after a passage of time or a change in location. Therefore, if it is objectively immoral for another person to torture you, then it must also be immoral for you to torture another person.
But someone might protest. A person can claim that the two situations are not really the same. In one case, he is being tortured by another person. In the second, another person is being tortured by him. He could attempt to claim that this "universal law" only states that it is wrong for others to torture him. Well, what exactly do we mean when we say that a physical law is the same at all places and at all times? When we say that a rock will fall to the ground due to gravity, do we mean just that one rock? What if we claimed that this law of gravity only stated that one particular rock will fall to the ground, while other rocks do not necessarily follow this pattern due to the fact that they are not the same rock? If this is the case, then our claim that this is a law which is the same everywhere at all times would be an extremely hollow claim. If this is truly a "universal law" then it has to apply to all rocks. Similarly, such a "universal law" of morality would have to apply to all people. Otherwise, it wouldnt be very universal.
There is one problem, though. I claimed that we can only understand what suffering is by experiencing it ourselves. If this is the case, how can we ever tell if another individual is experiencing suffering? This question might appear trivial to some people. However, in some controversial moral issues, this question is at the very heart of the matter. In the case of abortion, for example, whether or not a fetus can feel suffering is sometimes at the center of the debate. Another example is a debate concerning if we have an obligation to act morally towards insects. A persons position on such an issue is going to strongly depend on that persons belief about if insects are capable of suffering. I will leave such questions for part three of my discussion. For now, I will just focus on how to determine if another healthy adult human being is experiencing suffering. How this question is answered, though, will play an important role in determining how these other questions are answered.
Suppose that the prisoner who is going to be tortured is an enemy prisoner of war who does not speak our language. Also, there is no interpreter around. Let us hypothetically suppose that a person claimed that it is not immoral to torture this prisoner because this prisoner does not feel any suffering. How can we refute this claim? In other words, since we only know what suffering feels like by experiencing it ourselves, how can we determine if this prisoner is experiencing suffering. The answer is that we can never know with 100% confidence that another individual is experiencing suffering. We can, however, know that another individual is most probably experiencing suffering.
We know how we would react if we were in the prisoners
position. We know how our body language and facial expression
would react to torture. We know what kind of verbal sounds we
would make. We also know how our heartbeat and various other
measurable features would respond to this torture. We also know
that we would suffer. What do we see when we look at this
prisoner who is being tortured? We see that his facial expression
and body language is vary similar to what ours would be in that
situation. We see that the verbal sounds, heart beat, and other
measurable features of this tortured prisoner very closely
resemble how we ourselves would react. Since all these measurable
characteristics are very close to what they would be in
ourselves, then we can argue by induction that the characteristic
which we can not measure, that of suffering, is also probably the
same in this prisoner as they would be in ourselves. This is like
arguing that if all you know is that the Sun has risen for the
last thousand mornings, then it will probably rise again
tomorrow. So we are able to conclude that this prisoner is most
probably suffering as a result of torture, and that therefore it
is immoral for us to continue torturing him.
In summery, an extremely simplified version of my position is the following. Moral laws are of the same nature as the laws of gravity and heat transfer. It is true that it is not possible to use logic alone to explain why it is wrong to inflict suffering on another. However, that is only because it is impossible to logically explain what suffering is. It is only by experiencing suffering ourselves that we can come to understand what suffering is and the fact that it is wrong to inflict it needlessly. This, however, should not come as a surprise. All science is based on observation.
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