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July 27, 2008


If you say, "Killing people is wrong," that's morality.

It seems to me that few people simply say, "Killing people is wrong." They usually say, if asked for possible exceptions, "Killing people is wrong, except if you're a soldier fighting a legitimate war, a police officer upholding the law, a doctor saving a patient from needless suffering and pain, an executioner for a murderer who has had a fair trial, a person defending himself or herself from violent and deadly attackers ..." It seems that most of the debate is over these exceptions. How do we resolve debate over the exceptions without recourse to metamorality?

Peter, most of the reasons people give for making exceptions are not themselves meta. For most of the examples you give, the intuitive justification is something along the lines of "the reason killing is wrong is that life is valuable, and in these cases not killing would involve valuing life less than killing would." Nothing meta there.

try to find the perfect rock to stand upon, and you'll end up as a rock.

That's the goal and purpose of the exercise. Rocks and streams do not possess theories or philosophies, but they go about their business anyway. They do not need justifications for the things they do.

The problem isn't that you can't find the solid foundation upon which we can build, but that you DID find it and judged it unpalatable. On some level, you recognize that adopting the impersonal standards of judgement requires abandoning most of the things we like to teach ourselves are important, and you'd rather reject the reality than the fantasy.

Here's my metamorality. Using these terms broadly, law is to a community as will is to an individual, and law is to an environment as desire is to an anatomy. Good is communal law congruent with individual will, anatomical desire and environmental law. Joy is individual will congruent with communal law, environmental law and anatomical desire. Pleasure is anatomical desire congruent with environmental law, communal law and individual will. Order is environmental law congruent with anatomical desire, individual will and communal law. Evil, misery, pain and chaos are incongruencies among communal laws, individual wills, anatomical desires and environmental laws.

Peter, most of the reasons people give for making exceptions are not themselves meta. For most of the examples you give, the intuitive justification is something along the lines of "the reason killing is wrong is that life is valuable, and in these cases not killing would involve valuing life less than killing would." Nothing meta there.

Aaron, I don't see how your proposal resolves debate over exceptions. For example, consider abortion. Presumably both sides on the abortion debate agree that life is valuable.

Okay, so morality can be computed within my brain but still have a meaning regarding things outside my brain. But in order to do that, my brain's sense of morality has to be entangled with something outside my brain. What is it entangled with?

Oh yay! Do tell! I'm very interested to here your metemoral philosophy... Before you started posting on morality, I thought the topic a general waste of time since people would always be arguing cross-purposes, and in the end it was all just atoms anyway... Your explanation of metemorality helps to explain why all these moral philosophies are in disagreement, yet converge on many of the same conclusions, like 'killing for its own sake is wrong' (which people do decide to do- two students from my high school riddled a pizza delivery boy with bullets just to watch him die). I am wondering what universals can be pulled out of this...

I said it somewhere else, but... it seems like Caledonian’s sole purpose in life is to disagree with Eliezer whenever possible. Reminds me of a quote from Stephen King:

"These days if Stu Redman said a firetruck was red, Harold Lauder would produce facts and figures proving that most of them these days were green."

Just exchange Stu Redman for Eliezer, and Harold for Caledonian…

This too is dumb. Just because you love the word meta- doesn't mean you have to use it everywhere. There's already a sharp distinction between moral codes and moral systems. And until you have to build your own moral system, you won't know what the hell you're talking about. It's why you set up all these dumb attacks against strawmen moral systems. It's been literally centuries since anybody serious about moral theory had any god on the playing field. And circularity? Yawn. As you bloody well should know, circularity is to be avoided at all costs. If you're yammering on about it it's because you aren't familiar with any moral theories.

I'll be interested to see what your metamorality is. The one thing that I think has been missing so far from the discussion is the question that without some metamorality, what language do we have to condemn someone else who chooses a different morality from ours? Obviously you can't argue morality into a rock, but we're not trying to do that, only argue it into another human who shares fundamentally similar architecture, but not necessarily morality.

Moreover, to say that one can abandon a metamorality without affecting one's underlying morality doesn't imply that society as a whole can ditch a particular metamorality (eg Judeo-Christian worldviews) and still expect the next generation's morality to stay unchanged. If you explicitly reject any metamorality, why should your children bother to listen to what you say anyway? Isn't their morality just as good as yours?

It may be possible that religious metamorality serve as a basis to inculcate a particular set of moral teachings, which only then allows the original metamorality to be abandoned. eg It causes at least some of the population to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, when they otherwise might not have done the right thing at all.

Richard, I don't know anything about moral theorists, but this series of posts has helped me understand my own beliefs better than anything I've ever read, and they've coalesced mostly while reading this post. "Meta" was a concept missing from my toolbox, at least in the case of morality, and Eliezer's pointing it out has been immensely productive for me.

behemoth, I think the point you make about the second generation is an important one. Because children are both irrational and bad at listening to their intuitions when it's inconvenient to do so, having some form of metamorality is useful to serve as a vessel for morality. The problem is, in doing that, people bind the vessel and its contents, and can't pour the contents into some other vessel if theirs turns out to be leaky. Which is why rationalism is important.

Please don't feed the troll.

What is "philosophical progress"?

No! The problem is not reductionism, or that morality is or isn't about my brain! The problem is that what morality actually computes is "What should you feel-moral about in order to maximize your genetic fitness in the ancestral environment?". Unlike math, which is more like "What axioms should you use in order to develop a system that helps you in making a bridge?" or "What axioms should you use in order to get funny results?". I care about bridges and fun, not genetic fitness.

Actually, "Whatever turns y'all on" is a pretty damn good morality. Because it makes sense on an intuitive level (it looks like what selfishness would be if other people were you). Because it doesn't care too much where your mind comes from, as it maximizes *whatever* turns you on. Because it mostly adds up to normality. Possibly because it's what I used, so I'm biased. Though I don't think you quite get normality - killing is a minor offense here, because people don't get to experience it.

Is there a reason for the term "metamorality" rather than "meta-ethics"? Eliezer, you get occasional (frequent?) comments arguing that you are pontificating outside your area of expertise and/or re-creating the wheel while ignoring decades or centuries of established work in those areas. Making up your own term, without an explicit rejection of the existing term/ideas or any reference to existing thought, suggests ignorance. It implies that you think you are the first person ever to tread this ground, or perhaps that no one before you is even worth engaging.

Which, hey, has a long and proud history amongst philosophers. But it does not inspire confidence.

Zubon, in this case, it's because I consistently use the word "ethics" to mean something different from "morality" (namely, prosocial instrumental values, as opposed to terminal values; i.e. Prisoner's Dilemma type stuff). You're right that the topic here is standardly called metaethics in academia - but I'm sorry, that term just sounds wrong to me, and I can't bring myself to use it.

I've linked to the SEP entry on metaethics in passing, but should perhaps do so with more of a banner.

I trust that the link is in one of the linked posts. There are 35 links in the post...

Mostly a note in case this is part of the book version. Meta-ethics is fairly well-worn territory, so noting awareness is good. Otherwise, the immediate assumption is that you do not know the existing counter-arguments. (Also, citing yourself and only yourself is kind of Ayn Rand-ish, although again not rare. I doubt that you are trying to engage academic philosophers.) You have many comments that you are engaging mischaracterizations of others' arguments.

Oh, forget it. You're right. Name changed.

But I do insist on being able to say, "One metaethic, two metaethics" or a lot of the things I wanted to say about one metamorality, two metamoralities will not be sayable.

I feel liked I kicked your puppy. Sorry. If nothing else, I just made a lot of comments using "metamorality" look odd. I like clarity, but I'm not emotionally attached to the orthodox terminology.

I think refering to a meta-ethic/multiple meta-ethics is orthodox. I suppose that talking about competing meta-ethical theories is meta-meta-ethics, and I always support more "meta-"s. (Now we just need a way to consult the GOD Over Djinn for a final answer.)

I love the topic and it brings up some ideas I've had in mind that I've never seen outside of it. I think making these points even more clear would be helpful. I think there is a lot that could be said around the Moral Void, and also about detaching from a belief or theory in general and the feelings involved. Maybe something about transferring those feelings to your attitudes instead of your beliefs or something like that. Great post and blog!

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