“Self-evidence”: truth or truthiness?

24 04 2008

Are certain moral propositions self-evident: is it reasonable to simply assert them without further justification?

Christian apologist William Lane Craig claims that “actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality are not just socially unacceptable behavior–they are moral abominations [. . . .] People who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, and there is no reason to allow their impaired vision to call into question what we see clearly.” But surely if you’re not prepared to offer good reasons for why we shouldn’t do these things–if you just want to assert that they’re wrong because they’re wrong because they’re wrong–then haven’t you just conceded the argument? After all, those who do fail to see clearly what you–what most of us–see clearly with regard to these issues: aren’t those the very people you should be trying to convince?

Frankly, I don’t like arguments from self-evidence, and I think we should be very careful with them. In logic they might be OK: “it is self-evident that all bachelors are unmarried,” and so forth. In ethics, appeals to self-evidence seem to me to constitute little more than arrogant presumptiousness on the part of those making them. They’re conversation-stoppers, inquiry-stoppers, either because there are those like Craig who simply refuse to have their moral claims scrutinised (and thus refuse to countenance engagement or debate with those who would do the scrutinising), or because there are those who, failing to recognise the self-evidence of these moral claims, and seeing no other reason to observe them (since none are being offered), simply reject them out of hand. (Ergo, with divine command theory, everything is permitted.)

My own hypothesis is that the “truths we hold to be self-evident”–rape is wrong, torture is wrong, child abuse is wrong, genocide is wrong–are particularly powerful gut feelings or intuitions. They possibly equate to, or are expressions of, the “moral grammar” described by Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser: a kind of hardwired “unconscious moral instinct.” The notion of an evolutionary basis for why it is the case that we have (certain) moral intuitions is still speculative, but I suspect that if there is an explanation for why we have these intuitions, it is likely to be neurology and cognitive science that yields it to us.

Notice, though, that this would only tell us why it is the case that we have these moral ideas about x and y. It does not explain (nor does it set out to explain) why we ought to do x and refrain from doing y; why x is good and y is bad. And the argument from self-evidence explains nothing.

Thoughts?

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20 responses

24 04 2008
Bruce

Self-evident facts are by definition masked (or unmasked) tautologies and/or recursive.

It is self evident that rape is rape, but not that rape is immoral.

I think that though an critical analysis of terms, one can accept that causing suffering is self-evidently immoral. I think that harm is an intrinsic part of a concept of wrong-doing; be it harming another person, harming yourself, harming your environment or harming according to some metaphysical concept (not that I subscribe to a metaphysic of morals, theistic or atheistic).

Accepting this intrinsic harm-component of wrong-doing (aka immorality), it is therefore self-evident (a thinly veiled tautology) that causing harm is immoral.

It is very easy to define rape as immoral simply through the magnitude of harm/suffering that rape causes. It is the harm/suffering that is self-evidently wrong, not the rape itself.

The problem with a priorism in absolutist (particularly literal) divine-authority schools of moral thought as I see it is that the a priori, supposedly self-evident truths aren’t actually self-evident, or at least not demonstrably so. They come back to “Godsaidso” and some variation of “Ibelieveittobeselfevidentinmyheart”.

Of course, believing in something really, really hard doesn’t make it self-evidently true, nor does it mater how many people believe it to be true.

This applies outside of do-and-don’t lists of right and wrong of course. It is not self-evidently true that God (if it exists) has anything at all to do with moral reasoning (or for that matter anything involving humanity), at least not in terms of anything we can experience and share with others.

When God apparently contains self-evident truths by way of (supposed) interest in humanity, and (supposed) supernatural opposition to evil, all we are left to justify this is a combination of argument from assertion (“I believe in my heart God loves humanity and that God is good”) and tarted-up ghost stories (“I was all alone up on top of this mountain and…”). This is of course no justification.

It’s difficult to dress something up as a self-evident truth when it isn’t self-evident. Conversely, you can easily see harm (of various sorts) as a component of wrong-doing without recourse to anything but the purely mundane.

Causing-suffering-is-wrong is more knowably a self-evident truth than say “God is love”. We can know suffering and harm as a component of wrongdoing more than we can ever know a God, despite how many times and how many theists cite “I believe it in my heart”.

Given that a priori concepts are supposed to be self-evident (so as to prevent circular reasoning), humanism has divine-moral-authoritarianism over a barrel. The a priori principles commonly used in humanism (“causing harm is wrong”, “reason is reasonable” and so on) are genuine and obvious self-evident truths (be they metaphysical or epistemological) and subsequently circular logic doesn’t arise.

The divine-moral-authoritarian on the other hand can’t reasonably demonstrate the self-evident nature of their supposed truths. They necessarily make recourse to logical fallacies to try and rhetorically push the point (argument from assertion/popularity etc), that’s if they aren’t having a Meuhlenbergesque hissy-fit or just ignoring you of course.

Then there is the dead give away. A priori principals that aren’t self-evident lead to circular logic (for example, a metaphysical or epistemological concept based upon a cultural norm, which in turn is subject the very same metaphysic or epistemological concept*).

There are several cultures out there, each with their own God mutually exclusive with the Gods of other cultures. Oddly enough, the moral principles embodied by their Gods, wrongly accepted as self-evident truths, reflect the cultural norms of the culture that the God comes from. Surprise, surprise.

It’s spurious enough to think that just one of these Gods embodies a principal acceptable as a self-evident truth rather than a recycling of the status quo, but it gets worse still. Due to the law of non contradiction, no more than one of these mutually exclusive Gods can be the giver of self-evident truths so all of the variant a priori truths of the competitors must result in circularity (thus explaining why a God appears to have been made in the image of its worshippers).

Given the general reluctance and the general inability to justify these “truths” as self-evident, coupled with the rather dismal best-case scenario for probable (but unknowably) self-evident truths, why should we accept any of these religious truths as self-evident?

Odds on, we are going to pick a supposed self-evident truth that isn’t and even if we do somehow luck out and find the unknowably self-evident truth, we aren’t going to be able to verify it because it’s unknowable (i.e. we can’t just go and ask God and expect reliable evidence in return).

I suspect however that in every day moral transactions, theists and atheists alike defer more readily to self-evident truths like the harm principal so it’s not like we are all that different. The frontline seems to be between academic secular-humanists and academic progressive theists on one side, and entrenched, divine-moral-authoritarians in well established organised religions.

I suspect that there is an evolutionary reason for this, at least socially. Remember the bit about circular logic (epistemology/metaphysics based on cultural norm and cultural philosophy being dependent upon epistemology/metaphysics)?

This isn’t just logically fallacious, it serves to entrench cultural norms at the deepest levels of philosophy, thus perpetuating the status quo.

An organised religion that can perpetuate the status quo in it’s flock and surrounding cultures is an organised religion less subject to internal revolutions and more able to derive power from new recruits. Having non-self-evident truths as a priori principals facilitates this.

Conversely, having genuine and knowable self-evident truths as a priori principals, in a organised religious setting, facilitates scrutiny of basic assumptions (as the congregation gets used of expecting explanations) and an educated congregation (knowable truths being subject to independent inquiry) that can more likely make decisions for itself**.

I suspect that natural selection favors the former. Not being a social Darwinist however, and citing Hume’s is-ought, I don’t see this as desirable. I think this kind of woolly thinking should be criticised where-ever possible.

I suspect most that perpetuate these kinds of dubious pseudo-self-evident truths are aware of what they are doing. Indeed, given the popular, rather casual use of the term “self-evident”, I suspect that most of them don’t actually have a viable understanding of what “self-evident” means in as far as a priori principals are concerned.

Hanlon’s razor and all that.

* To keep the righties happy, I’ll come out and state that I think that the Godless feminist epistemologies also suffer form this terminal problem. 😉
** Shouldn’t good spiritual leaders be aiming for this anyway?

24 04 2008
AV

I think that though an critical analysis of terms, one can accept that causing suffering is self-evidently immoral. I think that harm is an intrinsic part of a concept of wrong-doing; be it harming another person, harming yourself, harming your environment or harming according to some metaphysical concept (not that I subscribe to a metaphysic of morals, theistic or atheistic).

I’m probably missing something, but could you elaborate on how a critical analysis of terms shows that causing suffering is self-evidently immoral? (Might it have something to do, for instance, with morality being defined in terms of conduct towards others: “immorality”=”bad conduct”?) It seems like the kind of thing the Godsaidso brigade would pick up on.

24 04 2008
The Barefoot Bum

Self evidence is an important concept, but Craig egregiously misuses it, conflating self-evidence with (presumed) obviousness and popularity.

Analytical truths are not self-evident; self-evidence pertains to synthetic propositions; indeed self-evident synthetic propositions are the foundation of scientific epistemology.

A self-evident proposition is a proposition such that the truth (or falsity) of the proposition is itself sufficient warrant for the corresponding truth-belief in the proposition. By definition, one cannot have a mistaken belief about a self-evident proposition.

In practice, this means that the truth or falsity of the proposition has a uniform physical causal relationship with its belief. Therefore, a self-evident truth is always phenomenological in nature: it pertains to our subjective consciousness.

When I see a tree, the truth of the phenomenological proposition, “I see a tree” is self-evident (note that the corresponding ontological belief, “A tree exists, and causes me to see it” is not self-evident; it’s a scientific conclusion well-supported by the self-evident phenomenological evidence). The physical act of seeing the tree uniformly causes the belief that one sees the tree. In much the same sense, one’s own subjective opinions are self-evident: That someone does indeed disapprove of rape is self-evident: The fact of one’s own disapproval uniformly causes the corresponding belief that one does indeed disapprove.

Thus Craig’s admission that some people can be mistaken about moral beliefs completely undermines his position that the underlying propositions are self-evident.

24 04 2008
The Barefoot Bum

Pardon my imprecision: The sentence, “The physical act of seeing the tree uniformly causes the belief that one sees the tree.” is more precisely stated as “Particular neurological events such as “seeing a tree” physically cause corresponding neurological events, such as “believing one sees a tree.”

25 04 2008
AV

The physical act of seeing the tree uniformly causes the belief that one sees the tree. In much the same sense, one’s own subjective opinions are self-evident: That someone does indeed disapprove of rape is self-evident: The fact of one’s own disapproval uniformly causes the corresponding belief that one does indeed disapprove.

Whereas the idea that we ought to disapprove of rape is not self-evident.

Would you say that the divine command theorists are maybe hitting upon the idea that certain moral beliefs are “hardwired,” but they are then committing the is-ought fallacy (i.e. confusing “we have x moral belief” with “we ought to have x moral belief”)?

25 04 2008
Stewart

You may know about the social intuitionist model for accounting for morality, championed by Jonathon Haidt, among others. I’ve touched on this in my blog, but I can’t seem to get links to work here. Anyway, if you google Haidt, you’re bound to turn up some interesting stuff.

Haidt talks about moral dumbfounding. His group made up stories which generally evoked disgust in the listener [more or less, depending on their social background], but which on examination didn’t seem to violate the harm principle. When asked to justify their disgust rationally, many subjects were ‘dumbfounded’. His basic idea is that the heart of morality isn’t rational but intuitive, unconscious and grounded in what we’ve evolved to be [impurity avoidance, a tendency toward exogamous sexual relations etc].

25 04 2008
The Barefoot Bum

Would you say that the divine command theorists are maybe hitting upon the idea that certain moral beliefs are “hardwired,” but they are then committing the is-ought fallacy?

Sounds plausible. I don’t think any of our moral beliefs are really hard-wired, in a biological sense. But I’ve explicitly made the case that even if our beliefs are biologically hard-wired, it would be an example of the adaptationist fallacy to too-quickly conclude such beliefs were really universal or objectively real.

25 04 2008
AV

You may know about the social intuitionist model for accounting for morality, championed by Jonathon Haidt, among others. I’ve touched on this in my blog, but I can’t seem to get links to work here. Anyway, if you google Haidt, you’re bound to turn up some interesting stuff.

I’ll do that, Stewart: it sounds interesting.

BB: I really should try to get my hands on Hauser’s Moral Minds, because I fear I may have misrepresented him. From what I gather, what is posited as “really universal” in his adaptationist account is what he terms a “moral grammar,” analogous to Chomsky’s linguistic universal grammar. And I think he’s claiming that his moral grammar allows for the development of divergent moral codes or beliefs across different societies and cultures, just as Chomsky’s grammar allows for the development of different languages.

26 04 2008
THR

I’m not sure I agree with BB that self-evident propositions are synthetic, rather than analytic. A synthetic propositions (i.e. ‘Yesterday was rainy in Melbourne) may be as ‘true’ as an analytic proposition (i.e. ‘Triangles must have 3 sides), but is not self-evident.

Secondly, I think there are a number of arguments against the notion that morality can be anchored in any notion of avoiding harm, or suffering. For many, if not most kids, education (and even toilet training) are a kind of ‘suffering’, but would we go so far as to abolish them on ‘moral’ grounds?
There are also the Nietzschean arguments regarding the necessity of suffering, whereby the latter ‘ennobles’ or enriches one’s spiritual life. German psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl advanced a vaguely similar thesis when he identified suffering as a fundamental source of ‘meaning’ (along with two other things – love, and work).
Finally, I think it’s worth remembering Foucault’s idea that the old moral dichotomies (good vs evil) resurfaced with a modern facade in a multitude of disciplines and practices, such as psychiatry, education, criminology, etc. Basically, Foucault argued that the good/bad distinction came to be subsumed under a ‘healthy’/’harmful’ distinction, with only a fairly limited number of people exerting the power to decided what belongs in each category.
I still think attempts to develop a secular, universalist ethics have not been without mishap. A symptom of this sort of thing would be, for me, at least, the folly of the Euston manifesto, for instance.

26 04 2008
Bruce

For many, if not most kids, education (and even toilet training) are a kind of ’suffering’, but would we go so far as to abolish them on ‘moral’ grounds?

Neglecting their education would be (demonstrably) more harmful.

27 04 2008
Bruce

PS. Sorry for ducking in and out. I saw that prior request for me to elaborate, but with all the home hunting I’ve been doing, I’ve lost track of not only this thread, but what I wrote previously. :O

Geez the real estate market in Australia is a dog at the moment.

27 04 2008
THR

Neglecting their education would be (demonstrably) more harmful.

Perhaps, but only if you come to the discussion with some a priori notion of ‘harm’, and consider it to outweigh the short-term unpleasantness of the alternative.

28 04 2008
AV

Perhaps, but only if you come to the discussion with some a priori notion of ‘harm’, and consider it to outweigh the short-term unpleasantness of the alternative.

THR: are you arguing, then, that defining morality in terms of harm is problematic (because it introduces apriorist assumptions about “harm” for which one might reasonably demand justification), or that defining morality in terms of x is problematic (if this involves introducing an apriori notion of “x” for which we might reasonably demand justification).

Or do you think that appealing to some kind of “absolute morality” is justified?

28 04 2008
THR

Or do you think that appealing to some kind of “absolute morality” is justified?

Not on the basis of harm. Perhaps other a priori assumptions may be different.
In a sense, harm is the criterion for morality used in a range of settings. A psychiatrist, for instance, can deprive a person of his/her liberties based on the potential harm he/she may cause. The problem is, this notion of harm doesn’t necessarily hold water – what if a person has the right to harm themselves? Is it not merely a matter of harming oneself in a socially respectable way, and thereby avoiding punitive/medical state apparatus?

28 04 2008
AV

A psychiatrist, for instance, can deprive a person of his/her liberties based on the potential harm he/she may cause. The problem is, this notion of harm doesn’t necessarily hold water – what if a person has the right to harm themselves?

Yes, but maybe there’s a distinction to be drawn between having the right to harm oneself, and having the mental competence to exercise that right. An analogy might be drawn with age of consent laws, the existence of which don’t impact upon an adult’s ability to engage in consensual sexual activity.

28 04 2008
THR

But to speak of mental competence, we have to rely upon an arbitrary division somewhere along the line, between the competent and the incompetent.

28 04 2008
AV

But to speak of mental competence, we have to rely upon an arbitrary division somewhere along the line, between the competent and the incompetent.

I don’t know enough about the science to comment on whether the division is indeed arbitrary, nor do I know where the division lies, if it is arbitrary.

30 04 2008
Promises… « The Thinkers’ Podium

[…] Address Hap’s point/challenge about an a priori principle of harm… […]

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