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Introduction

The only intelligible measure of morality involves well-being juxtaposed with unnecessary suffering. The former -including necessary suffering- is that which leads to greater well-being (morally good) and the latter is that which takes away from whatever leads to greater well-being or well-being itself (morally bad). These are the facts in the world that are relevant to morality. Given this axiom, once we are in the domain of talking about states of subjectivity, we are also in the domain of talking about objective states at the level of the brain. Truths about morality, in turn, are objective. They are predicated upon subject/object parallelism supported by neuropsychology. That is to say, there are objective-facts which are in turn supervened by ethical-facts. The existence of well-being and suffering are facts in the world, which by themselves are non-ethical facts, that form the basis of all ethical-facts. In turn, you can derive an ought from an is, contrary to what David Hume believed, which was that facts in the world were irrelevant to our moral intuitions, as the latter is wholly dictated by the passions. We can be justified in a non-accidentally reliable manner, which is predicated upon empirical and phenomenological evidence, in making this conclusion.

It is no easy task in academic circles to merely accept any particular axiom. Axioms are often equated to religious faith -which can be referred to as an unjustified false belief. However, axioms which are worth “taking on faith” are ones that can be put into practice, be made manifest evidentially, and can be mapped onto justified true beliefs, given their relevance to certain claims. For instance, take Euclid’s Elements, the foundational text of Geometry, a field which if was nonexistent, would make most of science impossible -thus making much of what we consider knowledge, not knowledge (which is clearly untenable); the geometric method laid out in Elements requires that one grants certain axioms in order to proceed in the endeavor of geometry; without these axioms the postulates and propositions would not make any sense. That is, in order to derive a fact, one must undertake certain values. This is not a flaw of the Geometric method; it is a feature. Indeed, it is a feature to any system of intellectual endeavor. The values one must undertake in order to do science, for instance, is a valuation of evidence over non-evidential justifications, such as faith and/or delusion. In other words, arguing against the acceptance of axioms is to argue against the entire endeavor of philosophical investigation. What is relevant in this line argumentation is instead, the relevance of axioms in a given field and whether or not they can be justified/demonstrated evidentially -as is the case in Geometry and Science. The axiom “circles in their fullness, have a 90 degree angle” is not appropriate in Geometry, because it is not demonstrable. Such is the case in ethics. The axiom “torturing children is morally right” is ethically-untenable, precisely because when demonstrated -hopefully with as little frequency as possible- the opposite axiom -that it is wrong- turns out to be what is demonstrable. The reason why axioms are ever useful is because they predicate what is demonstrable. Thus, the axiom that the only intelligible facts worth studying in the understanding of what constitutes morality, is well-being and suffering, must transcend the status of being an axiom. It is a truism. It is demonstrably true. Both objective and subjective evidence exists for it. Nonetheless, given the fact that many philosophers would argue the contrary, it must be understood that it is a truism to such an extent that one can refer to it as a fact. This is not just a phenomenological fact -which indeed, cuts through cultural differences- but its universality phenomenally makes it an objective fact, as, any phenomenal state, is a state of the brain in the objective world.. The arguments against objective moral truth, however, must not be taken lightly as many of them a strong.

Hume

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The most famous philosophical claim that would deny the idea that morality is an objective fact, is David Hume’s claim that you cannot derive an ought from an is. As a contextual preface, it must be understood that Hume was making this claim primarily against the morality of organized religion; it is unclear if he would have maintained his -short but powerful in its influence- thesis, if the only game in town -the town being that of objective moral truth- was not just theological, but also secular. Hume was a supporter of the American Revolution which had something alluding to a secular moral code predicated on deism and potential atheism (made manifest in the minds of many of the founders like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine) — at least insofar as it was not theologically predicated, and indeed the to contrary, the only mention of God in the United States constitution, is that of his exclusion from the state. Hume himself, in turn, supported “self-evident” objective moral truths, predicated on reason.

Hume predicated his is/ought distinction on the fact that we are not guided by reason -which deals primarily with facts in the world; rather we’re guided by the passions, which are emotionally/subjectively-based. There are many problems with this claim. Firstly, facts in the world can be differentiated. For the sake of simplicity, there are objective facts and there are affective facts. The apprehension of objective facts is governed by the sensory unit of the brain, — which composed of the parietal, occipital and temporal lobes- which governs our five senses. The sensory unit of the brain assembles the perceptive field of apprehension in our experience. It governs the way in which sense data is made manifest in our subjective experience. The sensory unit essentially deals with Kantian sensibility (i.e. experiential representations of sense data, made manifest by space & time). Affective facts are facts which are governed by the motor unit of the brain -which is composed of the neocortex (prefrontal lobes, motor lobes, and premotor lobes). Affective facts are phenomenological facts in the Heideggerian sense of the term “phenomenology.” That is, the motor unit of the brain governs the way in which meaning-based facts occur in our subjective experience. Given Heidegger’s emphasis on tool use in Being & Time, the fact that the motor component of the brain is what largely governs experiential-signification is astonishingly-ironic. This displays a direct parallelism between objective and subjective facts (which constitutes the apprehension of both objective facts and phenomenological facts.)

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In philosophical discussions regarding morality and David Hume, it might be asked why I am referencing neurophysiology? This is because neuroscientific literature vindicates a wide variety of philosophical claims. In doing so it also supports the refutation of various philosophical claims. Hume is not excluded in the latter lot. Hume’s idea that you cannot derive an ought from an is predicated upon the notion that human beings are primarily guided in their actions by passions. Given that this can be refuted on purely philosophical grounds, neuroscience here is merely a tool for solidification. “Enlightenment thought strove to separate reason from emotion; empirical investigations into the structure and function of the brain –given great initial impetus by the consequences of that separation– have demonstrated instead that the two realms are mutually interdependent, and essentially integral.” Hume’s subordination of reason beneath the passions is fallacious on neuropsychological grounds. It is a negation of the way in which homo sapiens actually interact in the world, which is by way of Dasein –insofar as (1) our experience is meaning-laden primarily and can be characterized by care for others and things [which consists of a positive and negative valence] (2) subject/object & mind/body parallelism has scientific validation, which gives us the capacity to assert that there are objective facts to be known about morality, insofar as what is relevant to morality, are states of subjectivity (well-being & suffering); regarding the latter “Brain structure necessarily reflects embodiment, despite the archaic presumption of the independence of spirit and matter, because the body is, in a primary sense, the environment to which the brain has adapted.” This maps directly onto our phenomenal experience, which in its primary manifestation in experience, is meaning-laden.

When referring to the way in which we interact in the world as Dasein, the existential psychologist Ludwig Binswanger articulates what this precisely means: “what we perceive are ‘first and foremost’ not impressions of taste, tone, smell or touch, not even things or objects, but meanings.” Given the interdependency of affective and objective facts in our experience, the way in which we interact in the world is that –primarily– we experience meaning connotated phenomena. We have aims, goals, loves, hates, interests, disinterests, beliefs and disbeliefs, first and foremost. We do not go forth into the world and identify everything we see as merely space and time, and then following that, add meaning on to that experience; it is rather the reverse. Experiential meaning involves both reason and emotion –we pursue our ambitions with reason & a kernel of passion and we pursue love and others more often through the inverse. The interdependency of reason and the passions –the fact that the motor unit of the brain involves both the functioning centers of reason and significance– points to a fatal flaw of not only Hume’s moral philosophy but his philosophy on human nature –the latter, by proxy, negatively affecting the former.

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Hume believed that human experience was nothing but a bundle of perceptions. “I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist.” In terms of nailing down a “self”, and coming to the conclusion of its illusoriness, Hume’s claims here are perfectly valid. What is commonly referred to as a “self” is a center to consciousness (a thinker of thoughts and a willer of volitions.) What occurs in consciousness indeed is the totality of perceptions. “I” am not whichever perception arises in consciousness -affective nor objective nor the combination of the two. Nor am “I” the totality of the compilation of all of the perceptions which arise in consciousness. There is no “I”. There is no neural correlate to a self, nor can it be found in subjective experience when one looks for it. However, Hume underhandedly articulates perceptions as if they’re overlapping magisteria, in terms of the credence with which one gives to differing perceptions regarding their intrinsic content. In other words, Hume implies that the distinction between perceptions is something to be completely undervalued. For example, the perception of emotion is no more important than the perception of the sensation of breathing. This is not only inconsistent with his moral theory –which explicitly makes substantial differentiation between the passions and reason, at the level of conscious experience (which in Hume’s line of thinking here, must be perceptions, as that is all conscious experience is in his theory of mind)– but is contrary to what the neuropsychological literature bears out. Alluded to previously, reason and passions are overlapping-magisteria, insofar as they’re interdependent.

Hume believed there was a causal connection between facts in the world and moral impulses. This is both inconsistent on the superficial level (regarding the is/ought distinction & its consequences in the history of philosophy as a major source of influence on moral relativism) and within Hume’s own philosophy. In particular, it is inconsistent with Hume’s epistemology, which dictates that rational [causal] knowledge is essentially an illusion predicated upon the idea that causality is merely constant conjunction of variables with one another. All we have from an epistemological perspective is the principle of association. For example, Bertrand Russell in The History of Western Philosophy parodies this idea, using the case of an apple: according to Hume, just because every single time I bite into a fresh clean apple it tastes like an apple, there is absolutely no reason for me to believe that this apple today will continue that trend. Russell concludes -using Humean logic- that it may very well taste like roast beef. This, in turn, makes Hume’s moral philosophy profoundly inconsistent with his epistemology -which is unlikely to be true, as his epistemology is too strong, to the extent that science (an inductive enterprise) would become impossible. It is a denial of the fact that there are coherent laws of the universe that are readily unbroken (ex: gravity, evolution, causality etc.). They may be broken -as they are not deductive truths-, but it is incomprehensibly improbable that they will be.

Hume thought that moral judgment was a kind of non-cognitive response to facts in the world. In other words, morality is purely based upon emotionally derived impulses. Facts in the world that elicit our non-cognitive moral judgment, are made subordinate to the latter by Hume. Thus, Hume understands that facts in the world matter regarding morality, but not nearly as much as our response to the facts. This clearly cannot be accurate in all moral situations. Firstly, we can have the facts completely wrong and map wrong facts onto our beliefs, making our moral intuitions towards these facts delusional. Secondly, we may have inappropriate responses to accurate apprehension of non-facts. Our moral intuition is much more nuanced than Hume makes it out to be. It does involve empathizing, but one need not be in a state of unreasonable emotional impulse in order to deliberate upon an empathetic moral conundrum. In fact, in some cases such deliberation is necessary. Indeed, the impulse which Hume argues is the derivative of all moral intuitions –as a reflex (for example: I see someone get murdered and I feel horror; the feeling of horror is what constitutes morality, not the murder itself)– gives the set of facts which elicits the impulse, an inferior status to the impulse. This is patently absurd & opens the door to relativism. For instance, one can witness the same murder and receive at the level of the brain a surge of dopamine and serotonin and in turn, rejoice at what they are witnessing; positivity to such a person is the “moral” impulse. Is it the case that he is right? Or ought we to map Hume’s own line of thought regarding miracles –which gives credence to the notion that his moral thesis was particularly aimed against the moral claims of the superstitious– onto this situation, in the sense that, isn’t it more likely that the person who is feeling joy towards witnessing a murder is mistaken? As with the miracle, isn’t it self-evident that most people are repellent towards murder –like how the laws of nature are highly probable, in not bending for a particular person? Like the person who witnesses a “miracle” the person who feels joy as a result of witnessing a murder is misguided –in the latter case, both from a cultural perspective and from a neurophysiological one.

Another claim that Hume makes is that reason cannot oppose any passion. This is relevant in Hume’s subordination of reason to the passions in our volitions. This is simply untrue and the psychological derivatives –and moral resolutions– to this are found in Nietzsche’s idea of sublimation –which was clearly vindicated by Freud and modern psychoanalysis. Nietzsche had a profound distaste for the passions. In order to self-overcome and become “powerful” in the pursuit of individual self-perfection, Nietzsche believed that when possible, one ought to act according to reason and rationality; nonetheless, Nietzsche was very aware of the fact that we’re subject to the passions –in the tradition of Spinoza’s line of thought; in other words, we are necessarily subjected to the passions. However, he did not find the idea of “repressing” them to be adequate. This results in what Carl Jung would have referred to as a “persona”, which is the “mask” which we wear so as to convince others that we’re being our authentic selves:

When we analyze the persona we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at bottom collective; in other words, that the persona was only a mask of the collective psyche. Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, exercises a function. He is this or that. In a certain sense, all this is real yet in relation to the essential individuality of the person concerned it is only a secondary reality, a compromise formation, in making which others often have a greater share than he. The persona is a semblance, a two-dimensional reality, to give it a nickname. (Jung)

This is clearly an untenable scenario –however unavoidable it might be in some circumstances. The collective could easily consist of barbarism & adopting the mask of such a collective-consciousness by being “in bondage” –in other words, primarily acting according to one’s passions– is morally problematic. For example, in a book called Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning, it is explicitly shown that “ordinary people” were just as subject to the collective cruelty of the Third Reich, as the conspirators of the Nazi party were. The “ordinary men” in the book were individuals who were reluctant to go along with the collective but did so anyway as a result of their persona, which is made manifest by the passions –the passion, in particular, was the impulse to not let others “do the dirty work”. The passion of the collective persona (which becomes problematic when the collective conscious of a given society becomes toxic –which, from a moral standpoint, can be defined as antithetical to well-being and promoting unnecessary suffering. Such societies either are not mapping non-ethical facts correctly onto their ethical beliefs or are not in touch with non-ethical facts at all.) The persona that becomes embodied in a totalitarian state, for example, is toxic, precisely because it is the incarnation of the sleep of reason. The sleep of reason in this respect, is the actualization of evil, qua negligence of the unknown –i.e. a force which elicits both curiosity and fear/anxiety simultaneously (i.e. that which threatens to dissolve the familiar, stable, secure and orderly)– for the sake of saving face (e.g. out of fear [a passion]). Contrastly, wearing a persona in a stable state is not by proxy evil, because the stable state doesn’t embody the unknown –rather it embodies the known (i.e. culture, the familiar, order, stability, security.) A persona predicated upon a collective-consciousness that apprehends reality in an ethical and non-ethical manner (i.e. is embedded in the positively valenced known) does not require the passions; in all likelihood, the passions are reliably antithetical to a positive collective state-of-being where adopting a persona is a morally right choice. The persona of student (individual wearing a mask) in a university setting (the collective setting in which such a mask is required) is not predicated upon the passions primarily; rather it is predicated upon reason, and being within a society that apprehends reality and maps that reality onto their ethics in an appropriate manner, by taking into account which facts in-the-world are relevant in formulating ethical codes.

Nietzsche had a solution to this problem which runs parallel to the neurophysiological data demonstrating the interdependence of reason and the passions. His solution was sublimation. Sublimation is the integration of undesirable passions into one’s personality in a manner that is conducive to self-overcoming –or, more to my point, moral action. This is completely contrary to Hume’s idea that “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (2.3.3) For Nietzsche, the interdependence of reason and the passions involves the former controlling the latter, so as to give one control over themselves:

The misunderstanding of passion and reason, as if the latter existed as an entity by itself, and not rather as a state of the relations between different passions and desires; and as if every passion did not contain in itself its own quantum of reason.

“In other words, the truly rational man need not go to war against his impulses. If his reason is strong enough, he will naturally control his passions.” Reason allows one to develop foreknowledge regarding impulses and allows one to integrate the passions into one’s character in a manner that is morally desirable, instead of “repressing” them. The possibility of sublimation as a phenomenological existent, squarely refutes the notion that the passions cannot be controlled by reason.

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Hume himself concedes that “Nothing can be more real, or concern us more than our own sentiments of pleasure and uneasiness; and if these are favorable to virtue and unfavorable to vice, this is all that is needed for the regulation of our conduct and behavior.” These sentiments are facts about morals; they are part of the is in which we derive oughts from. Sentiments are not in-themselves oughts. They are facts which constitute the way in which we determine what we ought to value. It is a fact of subjectivity that can be mapped onto objectivity -in an increasingly precise manner, through neuropsychology. Reason cannot be exempt from morality. Realism is the only plausible route when speaking in moral terms. Otherwise, we are left with three other options, all of which are inadequate: traditional religion, relativism (which is a moral dead-end which has dangerous consequences), or being guided by the passions, which has already been disproven as tenable.

The notion of “ought”, if it is to be any bit intelligible, must have to do with the fact of the existence conscious experience of sentient beings. There must be ethical supervenience upon such facts. There are certainly facts that we know, and potential facts that we do not already know about conscious experiences of sentient beings; how is this is not relevant to what we ought to do? Anyone who insists that kindness, compassion, love, and all of our actions which are conducive to positive emotions, are unrelated to facts about the human mind, is either ignorant or an obscurantist. The fact of the matter is, is that any form of ethics that is comprehensible must be based upon the nature of human beings; this is not the same as the naturalistic fallacy, considering we are concerned with certain facts, and not all about human nature. We are concerned with relevant facts about human nature. “If ought is not to be derived from is than where can it be derived from?” Oughts cannot be pulled out of a void.

Ethical Epistemology: Realism

Entire societies, let alone individuals, can be completely mistaken on what morality constitutes. That is because there are right and wrong answers when it comes to moral facts. Preluding those facts, are facts in general (logos), which there are right and wrong answers to. There is a right or wrong answer to questions in particle physics, just as there are right and wrong answers to how much we can map subjective experience on to our knowledge of neuroscience. This is made evident by the occurrence of disagreements on what constitutes morality. To draw an analogy from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement, and his analytic of the beautiful -an aesthetic investigation- we have these disputes as if someone is clearly mistaken. That is because in these disputes one of the interlocutors must be mistaken. These mistakes are twofold in when it comes to moral supervenience: an interlocutor might have non-ethical facts wrong or they might have non-ethical facts right, but fail to map them correctly onto their ethical beliefs. There are clear examples of societies that have morality entirely wrong -e.g. Nazi Germany, The Soviet Union, North Korea, etc. The question is why are they wrong? One need not delve into well-being and suffering in order to make out the error epistemologically. Objective moral realism involves moral supervenience of non-ethical facts, which are predicated upon evidence and non-accidental reliability. None of these societies meet this criteria. That is why they all were/are failures and have resulted in the unnecessary suffering of millions; societies which do not resolve this epistemological dilemma are bound to perpetuate needless suffering. On the contrary, they have all been proven through evidence, in a non-accidentally reliable manner to be moral disasters. What is also clear in these examples, is that the coherency of a moral system -though a preliminary necessity- is not the primary method by which the moral-system is made paramount in realism. Rational-egoism, for example, is perfectly coherent and rational but it is non-accidentally unreliable -in other words, in attempting to map rational egoism on to ethical-facts, it inevitably falters; that is, as the moral precept, it will not work -namely, in some cases rational egoism will be moral, but when made paramount it will end up being antithetical to morality. Reliabilism in rational-egoism is accidental: when it leads to the correct moral outcomes, it does so by accident. The same is the case for the aforementioned societies based upon morally-monstrous precepts: if they ever end up having any morally correct (good/right) outcomes -which given the examples I have alluded to, is not the case- it is not an accident that they unreliably do so. In other words, societies can be reliably wrong about what constitutes morality. “We should not defer to moral monsters, but condemn them, no matter how coherent or numerous they are.” There is no room for an equal-weight response (an agnostic, or even self-deprecating response to a disagreement) in these cases. That is the route to letting tyranny unfold.

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In the cases cited in the previous paragraph, the societies which reliably fail to apprehend what constitutes morality is largely in part due to the fact that these societies don’t even have a grip on non-ethical evidently-derived facts. This is a devastatingly-easy route to become unreliable on ethical matters. When one’s non-ethical beliefs are predicated upon conspiracy theories, disproven philosophical-systems, and necrocratic principles -all of which are false-, the attempt to map these beliefs onto ethics is untenable; these belief systems are antithetical to the logos of reality. This is not to say that there is any belief system that is completely in touch with reality in all respects; however, there are examples where it is rather obvious that not only is the entire society wrong about what constitutes morality, but there are entire societies that are wrong about what constitutes reality and the former requires the latter in order to be adequate epistemologically. Bernard Williams writes:

If we take up the other perspective, however, and look at people’s dispositions from the outside, we may ask the question ‘what has to exist in the world for that ethical point of view to exist?’ The answer can only be, ‘people’s dispositions’.

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Bernard Williams

Williams is wrong here, as people’s dispositions can be profoundly mistaken. It is more-so, ‘which dispositions promote an ethical way of life’ than mere dispositions alone. Hence, dangerous dispositions should be condemned and dispositions that promote the overall well-being of conscious creatures should be promoted and celebrated.

Disputes in any intellectual matter make manifest the implicit existence of a mistaken interlocutor. This extends to ethical disagreements. This begs many questions. How do I know if I am right or wrong? Firstly, however, it is crucial to know what to do if you are right or wrong in such a dispute. If you are wrong and you come to understand that you are wrong, this understanding should alter your beliefs in a manner that is in line with the truth. If you are on the correct end of the dispute, however, for the sake of intellectual integrity and a loathing for arrogance, one ought to practice “hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe [in your interlocutors’] theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which one has hitherto held… we should not attempt to prove [that their theory] is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true.” The intellectual obligation of the interlocutor who is closer to truth, is not to shun there competitor but rather to help bring them closer to the truth in a manner that isn’t repulsive. Condescension and conceit is contrary to what Socrates believed to be wise. Indeed, it is unwise because now your interlocutor is repulsed by the truth, which will only instill more credulity in their ignorance.

The truth of ethical matters exists at the level of non-ethical facts about human nature, which become supervened by ethics. “There seems to be cross-cultural norms governing harm and suffering, fairness and reciprocity, hierarchy and respect. In virtually every human culture, harm is taken to be a prima facie wrong, and so to stand in need of justification. Fair distribution is approved, free-riding criticized.” One is on the right side of an ethical dispute insofar as one matches their ethical beliefs to the truth of human nature, insofar as facts about human nature are relevant to ethics. However, there are epistemological problems in discerning how one can be said to know an ethical fact. The Gettier Problem makes it out to be the case that justified true belief is faulty in constituting knowledge, in that, justification does not guarantee truth; according to Gettier, justification does not necessitate truth, as his examples articulate that one can have justified false belief by connecting information to a true belief in an epistemically responsible manner, but the logic in said responsibility would not entail the truth of that belief even if the belief is true. This brings about a problem for ethical-epistemology. What if I have a justified true belief on an ethical matter? This must mean I can’t say I know that I am in possession of ethical knowledge. This is an illusion. Gettier has intentionally warped the definition of justification. Gettier fails to make explicit the definition of justification, and implicitly assumes that it only means that one has been epistemically responsible in coming to believe something. If that’s what justification was, indeed justified false belief would be possible. However, Gettier examples are cases of being half-justified. The other half involves one having grounds that entail the truth of a proposition. Indeed, it is epistemically irresponsible to not have grounds which entail the truth, thus the latter portion of justification is interdependent with the former. If one has the adequate grounds for understanding human nature in a way that pertains to ethics, and in a coherent manner, logically connects them to ethical beliefs, one has ethical knowledge. For example, there is the true fact in the world that unnecessary suffering via malevolence exists; one can have grounds for believing that this is true, by observing psychopaths or reading the history of the 20th century, for example; one would then be epistemically responsible by linking these facts to their ethical beliefs: that unnecessary suffering via malevolence is wrong. This is connected to the ethical-axiom that humans do not like to suffer in a way that is antithetical to well-being and self-perseverance. They wouldn’t be justified on incorrect grounds (e.g. religion, racism, sexism, tribalism, conspiracy theories, xenophobia etc.) “Isn’t it, however, incoherent to grant that S has acted with epistemic responsibility in coming to believe P yet at the same time deny that his grounds establish the truth of that proposition? If S believes something on grounds that do not establish its truth, isn’t that, by itself, enough to show that he has formed his belief irresponsibly?” This is something that Fogelin rejects, for being too epistemically strong; however, it is not. Evidentiary grounds and appropriate logic is necessary for knowledge.

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A clear representation of deviation from cross-cultural ethical norms.

There are cultures that deviate from cross-cultural norms in ethics. For example, “the Ik of northern Uganda engage in constant deception, steal food from their elders by force, and take pleasure in the suffering of children.” Another example is the Dobu Islanders of Papua New Guinea: “Every Dobuan’s primary interest was to cast spells on other members of the tribe in an effort to sicken or kill them in the hopes of magically appropriating their crops… The Dobu imagined that good fortune conformed to a rigid law of thermodynamics: if one man succeeded in growing more yams than his neighbor, his surplus crop must have been pilfered through sorcery. All Dobu continuously endeavored to steal one another’s crops… A good harvest was tantamount to ‘a confession of theft’.” “Is there any doubt that the selfishness and general malevolence of the Dobu would have been expressed at the level of their brains? Only if you think the brain does nothing more than filter oxygen and glucose out of the blood.” Spinoza had it right in The Ethics:

Thus in life it is before all things useful to perfect the understanding, or reason, as far as we can, and in this alone man’s highest happiness or blessedness consists, indeed blessedness is nothing else but the contentment of spirit, which arises from the intuitive knowledge of God: now, to perfect the understanding is nothing else but to understand God, God’s attributes, and the actions which follow from the necessity of his nature. Wherefore of a man, who is led by reason, the ultimate aim or highest desire, whereby he seeks to govern all his fellows, is that whereby he is brought to the adequate conception of himself and of all things within the scope of his intelligence. Therefore, without intelligence there is not rational life: and things are only good, in so far as they aid man in his enjoyment of the intellectual life, which is defined by intelligence. Contrariwise, whatsoever things hinder man’s perfecting of his reason, and capability to enjoy the rational life, are alone called evil. (Appendix IV)

Spinoza’s point is that which leads to understanding, leads to an ethical life and that which is contrary to understanding is contrary to ethical life. Ignorance leads to evil. This is why natural reliabilism in ethics has not been refuted; when people are non-ethically well-informed, and they tend to be ethically reliable in linking non-ethical facts to ethical ones. The Dobu Islanders, the Ik and the people of North Korea have little grip on non-ethical facts, which is part of the reason why they are all ethically unsophisticated.

Hume’s is/ought distinction is primarily a distinction between facts and values. In other words, facts about the world are completely different entities than values. Hence, the is/ought distinction is one which dictates that facts about the world do not determine what is to be valued and vice-versa. However, this is untrue. Not only is it the case that in order to form values, it is a requirement for us to understand facts about the world but in order for us to understand facts in the world, we require certain values that predicate our investigations into such facts. This alludes to the aforementioned interdependency –of which Hume sees an independency– but in a differing manifestation. It is the case that both reason & the passions are independent; however, it is also the case that beliefs about facts and values “respectively” are interdependent. At the level of conscious experience, this is true and the neuroscientific literature on belief bears this claim out. Neuroscientifically, the brain seems to render beliefs about facts and values not as if they’re independent but as if they’re no different. It isn’t fully clear what the neural correlates of belief are. From the data that exists in that respect however, the rendering of belief or disbelief seems to be independent of the content of such beliefs. This has been shown with religious belief juxtaposed with irreligious belief; both forms of belief have respectively been “associated with greater signal in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area important for self-representation, emotional associations, reward, and goal-driven behavior.” This has also been demonstrated to be the case when beliefs about facts are juxtaposed with beliefs about values. For instance, beliefs regarding mathematics entails a very similar pattern of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex as beliefs regarding ethics.

Philosophically, the way in which we come to understand facts in the world requires us to obtain certain values that predicate such facts. For example, take the chemist who wishes to understand facts about hydrogen; in order for the chemist to obtain their goal –facts about the world– they must hold certain values prior to investigation. There are values which are more appropriate or inappropriate in allowing the chemist to understand facts about hydrogen; the scientific method –i.e. The valuation of scientific evidence– will allow the chemist to obtain facts about the nature of hydrogen in a much more precise way than theology (i.e. The valuation of faith [unjustified belief]). This undercuts the idea that facts and values are completely separate entities that are non-overlapping, as not only is it the case that you can derive an ought from an is, but you can also derive an is from an ought.

When it comes to existing moral theories, they all take into account facts about the universe, irrespective of whether or not such facts are true. That is why the debate on ethics is one that takes place in the domain of realism. For example, Christian morality is predicated upon the metaphysics of heaven and hell. Whether or not such places exist, an assertion of their existence are factual claims being made about the laws of nature, and following such claims are value judgments (for example: you will go to hell if you apostatize.) In other words, all moral claims –even moral relativism– are predicated upon facts about the universe, which in most cases is localized upon our world. It matters to the believing Christian that heaven and hell exist, as a matter of fact, just as much as the fact of cultural variation regarding moral codification matters to the moral relativist; indeed with the latter, relativism is a form of realism at bottom, precisely because relativism relies upon facts in the world in order for it to be a coherent theory (i.e. the fact that the apprehension of values varies cross-culturally). “The most extreme form of nihilism would be the view that every belief, every considering-something-true, is necessarily false because there is simply no true world… To this extent, nihilism, as the denial of a truthful world, of being, might be a divine way of thinking.”

Well-Being, Unnecessary Suffering & Science

Once one grants the interdependency of facts/values & reason/passions, the question is: what facts about the world are relevant concerning we ought to value morally? The facts which are most relevant to morality are the well-being and suffering of sentient creatures. That is, at the level of consciousness –thus, at the level of the brain– sentient beings have the capability to experience well-being, that which leads to well-being and suffering or that which leads to suffering. To preface this, what is not being asserted is that non-ethical facts are predicated upon well-being and suffering, as a utilitarian would advance -though they are amongst general facts (logos). For example, “x is true because it is conducive towards the well-being of y” is not at all what is being asserted, because that epistemologically-disjointed. As is the case with pragmatism, it is epistemologically-incoherent to make the claim that “x is true because it is useful to y”. What cuts through both of these epistemological claims is that (1 [utilitarianism]) there are many facts about the world which are true but are not conducive to well-being and are indeed indicative of profound misery (ex: it is true that children are torturable) (2 [pragmatism]) there are many facts in the world that are not very useful and there are some facts which are useful, but can be profoundly antithetical to morality, given whom such facts are useful for (e.g. [former] Coca-cola used to contain cocaine; [latter] smallpox can be synthesized). Thus, this is not an argument being made by syllogism. Instead, what is being proposed here is “x induces unnecessary suffering; it is true that this occurs at the level of subjective experience; subjective experience can be mapped –increasingly– onto the objective world; thus there are objective facts to be known regarding morality.”

Hume himself would find such a thesis nonsense. This is because his skepticism extends to induction, to which Hume believed as integral to science. As Bertrand Russell stated in The History of Western Philosophy:

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“Hume’s skepticism rests entirely upon his rejection of the principle of induction. The principle of induction, as applied to causation, says that, if A has been found very often accompanied or followed by B, then it is probable that on the next occasion on which A is observed, it will be accompanied or followed by B. If the principle is to be adequate, a sufficient number of instances must make the probability not far short of certainty. If this principle, or any other from which it can be deduced, is true, then the causal inferences which Hume rejects are valid, not indeed as giving certainty, but as giving a sufficient probability for practical purposes. If this principle is not true, every attempt to arrive at general scientific laws from particular observations is fallacious, and Hume’s skepticism is inescapable for an empiricist. The principle itself cannot, of course, without circularity, be inferred from observed uniformities, since it is required to justify any such inference. It must, therefore, be, or be deduced from, an independent principle not based on experience. To this extent, Hume has proved that pure empiricism is not a sufficient basis for science. But if this one principle is admitted, everything else can proceed in accordance with the theory that all our knowledge is based on experience. It must be granted that this is a serious departure from pure empiricism, and that those who are not empiricists may ask why, if one departure is allowed, others are forbidden. These, however, are not questions directly raised by Hume’s arguments. What these arguments prove — and I do not think the proof can be controverted — is that the induction is an independent logical principle, incapable of being inferred either from experience or from other logical principles, and that without this principle, science is impossible”.

Hume’s skepticism is in essence, a denial of the possibility of obtaining rational knowledge. This is a reductio ad absurdum. In an attempt to illustrate such absurdity, this example suffices: Given the hypothesis that A is the cause of B, and the fact that it has been experimented upon an innumerable amount of times, leading scientists to say that “it is highly probable –verging on transcending mere probability– that A is the cause of B, gives us no reason at all to suppose that A could have caused B, as all that such a conclusion asserts is that A is constantly conjoined with B. This is no easy claim to refute. However, two valid routes have been taken. The first of which derived from the philosopher of science, Karl Popper. Popper found the problem that Hume presented to be impossible to refute; however, he denied the notion that scientific knowledge had its roots in inductive reasoning. Rather, science is derived from deduction, which is the postulating of conjectures (hypotheses) and then, attempting to refute said conjectures, through experimentation. Such a deduction is a modus tollens. This, however, is insufficient because science is intrinsically inductive.

The second refutation was made by Immanuel Kant. Kant understood that Hume’s skepticism was partially predicated upon the assumption that a priori judgments could only be analytic. In other words, judgments postulated prior to experience cannot add to an existing body of knowledge. Synthetic judgments, according to Hume, could only be a posteriori. In other words, the way in which judgments can add to an existing body of knowledge is only through experience. Kant made the point that a priori synthetic judgments are not only possible, but they’re integral to epistemology and are in part, predicated upon causality –which is something Hume believed to be illusory. Kant’s view was that our phenomenal experience would be incomprehensible without causality, because our phenomenal experience is made coherent by “the categories of the understanding.” Causality is a necessary precondition of experience according to Kant. Thus induction is intrinsic to our acquisition of knowledge. It is epistemologically too strong to assert that induction is not adequate for knowledge, as our phenomenological experience must allow for it in order for us to navigate the world in a comprehensible manner.

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The notion of well-being that is being perpetuated, is very similar to that which Aristotle called happiness. Well-being is not Epicurean hedonism. Nor is it wealth or honor. In line with The Nicomachean Ethics, in order for such “virtues” to be the “highest good” it is required that such a virtue is both self-sufficient and the final good. That is why, what is clearly evil, is unnecessary suffering; unnecessary suffering, is antithetical to that which is self-sufficient and is contrary to the highest good, which is well-being and that which leads to well-being –including suffering itself (e.g. the psychological & physiological pain it takes to get through university and to play a sport one enjoys respectively).

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Well-being and that which leads to it as the guiding principle of morality is given a similar treatment –as Heidegger alluded to in Being & Time– as the term Being does. That is, (1) well-being is a term that is too broad to clearly define, (2) well-being is not self-evident and (3) well-being is not a universal concept.

(1) The first of these claims is predicated upon the fact that what one calls well-being and what it constitutes & towards whom it applies, is constantly changing. For instance, throughout the history of the United States, minority groups were excluded by the majority of its population. To a large degree, this state of affairs has improved. Clearly this change is something any ethically oriented person wants. In other words, if an entire society is mistaken on what constitutes morality, those who are in touch with reality would rather have it be the case that the entire ethical-zeitgeist of the society change so as to cohere with reality. The fact that the notion of well-being is not a static term is a non-sequitur in its significance as a moral quantifier. New realizations -based on scientific research, sheer understanding and/or Hegelian self-consciousness- are necessary altering elements to the term. Moral systems do not remain the same and indeed that is an indicator of a healthy moral system, as strict adherence to the “letter of the law” is a primary precondition for tyranny -which, generally, is a system or individual that seeks to restrict the domain of knowledge and/or competence for the sake of ideology and/or tradition-, which masquerades as the antidote to suffering but indeed is the inducer of it. In fact, the primary indicator of a healthy moral system, is analogous with the archetypal hero story:

Cultural schisms emerge when once-predictable and familiar individuals become possessed by novel behavioral notions, images or semantic formulations, which present a challenge to presumptions deemed necessarily inviolable — such as the (most dangerous, authoritarian) presumption that all currently accepted presumptions are “true”.

The archetypal hero is the apprehender of the logos in a society which is out of touch with it, insofar as the highest values of the society are corrupt by its standards. The hero, in turn, acts in a manner which not only promotes new values that cohere with the structure of reality, but retains the values of tradition — which in many respects has become corrupt as a result of said presumptuousness — insofar as they are worth keeping — which is insofar as they’re conducive to well-being (even if the way in which they are conducive to it, involves suffering.)

As Sam Harris has often used as an analogy, take the term “health” for instance. The fact that what constitutes the definition of “health” is a constantly changing does not induce complete denunciation of it as an applicable term, nor does it a call for relativism, as is the case with well-being. For instance, one would not say “it is the case that the perspective of eggs has constantly been shifting, in the way in which scientists view their nutritional importance, thus who is to say what is nutritionally important?” The problem with such a claim — and the reason why no one articulates it with regard to health — is that it is made under the assumption that better research (understanding) will never materialize; the absurdity in the case of health can be illuminated as such: “because eggs have been altered in the way in which they are perceived by scientists, who am I to judge if someone thinks that [insert overtly unhealthy activity] is healthy.” Such is the case with well-being. Because of new research, we understand that non-human animals experience well-being and suffering, thus we have moral responsibility towards them, whereas, Descartes believed animals to be mere mindless automata, thus yielding no moral significance on our part. Progress in morality is possible. For instance, our generation will undoubtedly looked upon with indignation by future generations due to the way in which we have coordinated the climate change crisis and in our treatment of animals in factory farms, just as our generation looks upon previous generations with sheer exasperation for genocide, slavery, war, chemical & biological weapon usage, and overall ignorance; the latter point is crucial: the more we understand, the more moral progress will unfold.

(2) Well-being, as a concept is perceived as not being self-evident, is due to its variance definitionally cross-culturally. The solution to this is twofold: (1) many cultures are simply wrong about what constitutes well-being (e.g. the necrocracy of North Korea or dog fighting in the Southern United States); (2) many cultures have differing ideas regarding how to attain well-being and how to avoid suffering. The former, indeed, can be a byproduct of the latter; for example, a culture that finds the primary behavioral route to well-being as constituting murdering one’s daughter for being raped, that is clearly a mistake, which can be illuminated by the sheer terror of the daughter and the complete absence of bliss in the consciousness of her murderer — who in honor cultures, is most often a male family member. However, when the latter is coherent, this can be illuminated by what Sam Harris refers to as The Moral Landscape. The Moral Landscape is a framework that articulates the real-world possibility of experiencing different levels of flourishing (peaks) and misery (valleys) through alternative routes. The Moral Landscape is elucidated by the meta-issue of morality. Each peak is a different experience of the same thing (for example, one peak could be a monk meditating in a cave and another could be someone contently drinking coffee; likewise with valleys of suffering.

I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential.

Morality could be a lot like chess: there are surely principles that generally apply, but they might admit of important exceptions. If you want to play good chess, a principle like “Don’t lose your Queen” is almost always worth following. But it admits of exceptions: sometimes sacrificing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do; occasionally, it is the only thing you can do. It remains a fact, however, that from any position in a game of chess there will be a range of objectively good moves and objectively bad ones. If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being — if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is — then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning.

It is also the case that the self-evident nature of well-being is a profound non-sequitur in its validity as a moral quantifier. Given the fact that the truthhood of the existence of well-being as a fact, it is actually preferable that one provides evidence for its existence, rather than proclaiming that it is self-evident. Self-evidence is merely a term which dictated non-evidential justification for a given proposition, which means that what is self-evident does not refer to any intuition, belief, fact, or phenomena that is relevant to what is being proclaimed. I employ Hitchen’s Razor (that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence) to the epistemic-horridness of suggesting that non-evidential justification is an appropriate manner of vindication and thus do not concede that well-being even needs to be self-evident. In fact, the reader ought to demand evidence for the writers claims. If one presents a counterclaim against well-being that is non-evidentially “supported”, whereas the former is given scientific, logical, and psychological evidence, the counterclaim can simply be denied.

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The fact that well-being is not a universal concept, is not a problem in its validity but it is a problem in it being perceived as valid. Indeed, it is alluded to in The Critique of Judgement by Immanuel Kant that such universals do exist. That is, there are not only objective universals but there are also subjective universals. Kant also alludes to a parallelism between these two categories of universals. It is often argued that well-being and suffering are not human universals; rather, it is often thought of as being culturally relative. One must propose an example to refute such piffle: suppose one gathers a representative from a wide variety of differing cultures and presents each of them with a hot stove; the object of this experiment is to have each representative place their bare hand on the hot stove for as long as they can tolerate. The level of credulity -characterized by an superlative level of mistakenness- it would take for these representatives to deny the sheer fact of their would be enormous; reversely, it would be equally maddening for said representatives to deny the fact, that the absence of such pain is preferable, and is indeed a state of well-being when juxtaposed with the agony of the intense heat of the stove. This is not to say that a universal conception of what well-being and suffering constitute is an easy find, but it is to say that cross-culturally there are undeniable agreements on what it constitutes, and many of these agreements are simply denied due to ideological adherence, which induces stubborn credulousness.

Well-being and suffering as the quantifiers of morality constitutes an objective moral framework, predicated upon the fact that subjective experience can be explained -to increasingly precise degrees- at the level of brain-states. Science has often been thought to be completely irrelevant to morality. The philosopher Bernard Williams, for instance, did not think that an understanding of [human] nature as a culmanous harmony of potentialities -this must include human minds, as our minds are the only lense where such understandings/potentialities can exist, and which are self-evidently apart of human nature- can allow us to understand morality. In fact, he believed that “our present understanding gives us no reason to expect that ethical dispositions can be fully harmonized with other cultural and personal aspirations that have as good a claim to represent human development.” This is predicated upon the assumption that the scientist who seeks to derive a morality from scientific truths, requires all domains of science in order to create a coherent morality. This is not at all true. Not all aspects of science are -directly- relevant. For instance, one does not require extensive knowledge of quantum mechanics in order to understand well-being, as -like Spinoza understood regarding the affects- it manifests in experience and is not at all made clearer when observing quarks. Contrastly, states of the brain directly correlate -thus are directly relevant- to states of subjective experience.

Williams is certainly correct in asserting that evolutionary biology would not be a good foundation to align morality with science. Darwinism and well-being are surely not synonymous with one another. If a universal moral precept was based upon natural selection, my main priority -in fact my ethical duty- would be to spend the majority of my life donating sperm to sperm banks, as to spread my genes as far and wide as possible, whilst bearing no responsibility for my offspring;this is certainly not what most of us deem ethical and there is evidence that childhood abandonment leads to negative psychological consequences later on in life -which we need not elaborate as to why this would be ethically wrong if done en masse (a hint, is diminished subjective well-being of the children and those around them). Williams is -likely on account of the lack of requisite 21st century science (even the lack of possible predictions as to where science was headed after 1985, which is illuminated by the fact that it is not neuropsychology that he finds problematic)- misled in taking a stab at psychology as the basis for the alignment of science and morality, however. Psychology aided by cognitive neuroscience has the potential to eventually become the basis for a science of morality. Williams wrote, “these psychological aims in themselves cannot carry ethical weight unless they are already defined to do so”. It is a mistake to assume that true knowledge of human psychology can be simply dispensed with, when speaking of ethics, because we need to have some sort of ethical disposition a priori; it is a monumental moral error to suppose that objective facts about human subjectivity are completely null in our philosophical discourse on ethics.

Philosophy MA Student @ The CUNY Graduate Center

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