Friday, March 06, 2009

Huemer vs Ghate

Earlier this week skeptic Michael Huemer debated Rand's ethics with the ARI's Onkar Ghate. Audio here. Give us your score for both sides in comments.

(hat tip Neil Parille)

20 comments:

Neil Parille said...

A good job by both.

On Ghate's side I think his claim about there being a lack of agreement about basic ethical principles (or at least the application of certain principles) was well-reasoned. However, Ghate must be the last person who still believes the "everyone thought the earth was flat prior to Colombus" myth. Good to see Heumer called him on that.

I think Ghate had a hard time showing that giving to charity or helping drowning people was somehow compatible with selfishness. If listeners turn to Rand's "The Ethics of Emergencies" like he suggested I don't think they will get much help. Saving a drowning child is "other directed" behavior, like it or lump it.

I think Huemer could have emphasized a bit more that most ethical thinkers don't look down on self-interest the way Rand and Ghate claim they do.

I also found the post-game commentary interesting. I'm not sure why certain Objectivists (such as Ms. Hsieh and Mr. Noumenal Self) consider Huemer less than evil. When people here at ARCHN make such criticisms we aren't cut any slack.

-NEIL PARILLE

Damien said...

Daniel Barnes,

In the debate, Onkar Ghate said there were no altruist in ancient Greece. That is not only an extraordinary claim, it is flat out false. I think you guys could make another post Objectivism and ancient Greece now.

Although I do think Onkar makes a few good points. Just cause someone won't give something up, doesn't mean its in his interest to continue what he's doing for example.

Damien said...

Michael Huemer, however makes some really excellent points. What if it is in your self interest to violate someone else's rights?

Anonymous said...

I think the debate was good, and Huemer made the most important point about Objectivist ethics - that the standard of self-interest doesn't support Objectivist ethics and politics to the extent that they would like it to. And that is all that is required to show that Objectivist ethics is an incomplete theory even on the account of Objectivists' themselves.

Huemer's written a whole book on Ethical Intuitionism and while I take philosophy seriously only because some of its conundrums can confuse am intelligent person until yhe/she has read it widely enough to navigate its landmines, I find ethical intuitionism as described in the debate by Huemer, to be simply another form of general foundationalism as prescribed by Harman from Princeton, where all you do is start where you are, assume that what you know is true, and revise as you learn and go along. Harman's approach and most of Huemer's is consistent with evolutionary theory. It's just unfortunate that Huemer has to shroud common sense morality with such a name as "Ethical Intuitionism", IMO.

Laj

Neil Parille said...

I don't know enough about Greek ethical theory to comment, but it strikes me as unlikely that there were no altruists in Ancient Greece.* I believe Ghate said that Aristotle and even Plato were egoists. (Rand was quite dismissive of Aristotle's ethics, interestingly enough.)

Ancient Greeks saw their identity tied to the polis. For example on his gravestone Aeschylus didn't mention his literary achievements, but only the military ones.

-Neil Parille

*In point of fact, I wonder if there have been all that many altruists in history as that term is defined by Rand and Ghate.

Damien said...

Neil Parille,

I've gotten the impression from some objectivists that they think that anyone who doesn't support an extreme egoist morality is an altruist. So by that definition even most of the Greeks would have to be regarded as altruists by them. The ancient Greeks were hardly objectivist. Some of them would have even regarded Rand's philosophy as morally abhorrent. In fact the original Hippocratic_Oath would shock your average objectivist. Could you imagine what might happen if Onkar Ghate, or Rand, or even some other objectivists, some how actually meet Hippocrates in person? Keep in mind he was a Greek pagan, and Christianity did not even exist during his life time.

Damien said...

If you don't see what I'm getting at, Hippocrates opposed both abortion and euthanasia and he made that opposition clear in the original Hippocratic Oath, which doctors were expected to follow.

Neil Parille said...

I'm sure women (who were supposed to be in the house most of the time) and Greek slaves in the silver mines would question Dr. Ghate's opinion (or perhaps not, given how ingrained certain ideas can be).

-Neil Parille

Damien said...

Neil Parille,

Yeah there were a lot of things about ancient Greece he wouldn't have liked. But slavery and women being force to stay in the house are two thing about the ancient Greeks that most modern westerners (including myself) dislike, and rightfully so.

Damien said...

Neil Parille,

By the way, To be fair to Onkar Ghate, you just backed up one of his arguments. Just because people believed something for a long time doesn't make it true.

Tracey Burger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Damien said...

Tracey Burger,

What does that have to do with the debate between Huemer and Ghate?

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "It's just unfortunate that Huemer has to shroud common sense morality with such a name as 'Ethical Intuitionism.'"

I agree. What does Huemer mean by intution? And what happens if my intuition conflicts with Huemer's? Ghate got in a few nice digs against Huemer's on this point, but he didn't take it as far as he could have. Huemer, for his stead, never went after Ghate on the issue of "reason" and the is-ought dichotomy. Perhaps Huemer realized he was vulnerable on this issue as well.

The trouble with all such debates about ethics is that they inevitably come down to wrangles over various rationalizations for what people feel about human conduct. I don't recall Huemer or Ghate disagreeing on what was good, merely on how the good should be described and explained or sought. Ghate insists that the good is whatever is in one's self-interest; Huemer that the good is whatever our intuition or common sense posits as such. The vagueness of both standards leads to all kinds of problems. What happens when the intuitions (or self-interest) of two individuals clashes? My intuition says X is the good, your intuition says X is evil. I regard Y as in my self interest, you regard Y as against your self-interest. Then what? How are such disputes to be settled? If Ghate says: All ethical disputes can be settled by reason, I can easily retort, But what if my reason differs from yours? And if Huemer says, Disputes over intuition are settled by consensus, by the intuitions of people in general, I can merely snap fingers at such a majoritarian outcome and say, What do I care about majority opinion? Majorities supported anti-semitism and the witch persecution mania—so why should I regard them as some kind of moral oracle? In a word, neither system generates any coherent system of morality. They merely provide bad reasons for how people would to judge conduct based on their own sentiments.

Neil Parille said...

I gather ethical intuitionism is making a comeback. I plan on buying Huemer's book.

Red Grant said...

___________________________________

If Ghate says: All ethical disputes can be settled by reason, I can easily retort, But what if my reason differs from yours? And if Huemer says, Disputes over intuition are settled by consensus, by the intuitions of people in general, I can merely snap fingers at such a majoritarian outcome and say, What do I care about majority opinion? Majorities supported anti-semitism and the witch persecution mania—so why should I regard them as some kind of moral oracle? In a word, neither system generates any coherent system of morality. They merely provide bad reasons for how people would to judge conduct based on their own sentiments. - Greg

3/09/2009 01:37:00 PM
___________________________________






Brilliant points, Greg

JOR said...

I was kind of disappointed in the approach Huemer took in the debate, but think he outperformed Ghate.

He has a much more thorough demolition of Objectivism here, and specifically of Objectivist ethics here. The former of these includes a more thorough explanation of what he means by ethical intuitionism than he gets to expound in the debate, including a good tackling of the argument from disagreement.

Michael Prescott said...

"Majorities supported anti-semitism and the witch persecution mania—so why should I regard them as some kind of moral oracle?"

Having read Huemer's book, I can tell you that he would not regard either of those positions as a question of ethics. Rather, he would regard them as questions of fact.

As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, people didn't stop burning witches because they changed their moral code. They stopped burning witches because they stopped believing that there were such things as witches.

If today we believed that some people had the power to make us ill with a curse, or to blight our crops or disfigure our children, we would surely hunt down and punish these people. Maybe we wouldn't burn them; we might use the electric chair instead.

The witch-hunters and we moderns share essentially the same morality; we both agree that it's wrong to harm the innocent, and that those who do harm must be stopped. The only difference is that we don't believe in witches, so we don't worry about them. Our assessment of the facts has changed, but our moral "intuition" remains the same.

That said, I concede that Huemer's overall approach is too rationalistic for my taste. But I don't think he is vulnerable on this particular point.

Dragonfly said...

I don't think it matters much whether you call it common sense or intuition. Both are largely a product of our genetic endowment and our (early) education. Many people try to rationalize their ethical choices by referring to some guidelines in a holy book dictated by some God. More sophisticated people laugh at such views, as they realize that that God is just another human invention, so that those guidelines are in fact no more than the "common sense" view of some other people.

Thanks to Objectivism there seems to be salvation for those more sophisticated people: the notion that ethics is a science, that its principles can be derived from "the nature of man". Bollocks of course, as has been shown many times that kind of reasoning is seriously flawed, but my experience is that this is one of the biggest Objectivist taboos and nothing infuriates them more than questioning this corner stone of their "philosophy". There is no "objective" ethics, it always boils down to a subjective notion, and whether you call its basis "common sense" or "intuition" is not very important, we'll just have to do with it.

We can only try to convince as many people as possible that our ideas are the best for the kind of society that they also more or less want and hope that other views will not gain acceptance. Vain hope, of course, but perhaps we can reach some more or less acceptable compromise. If we look at the history of mankind, we see that such "common sense" is not invariable, but evolves with time. We'll just have to be realistic and accept such facts, trying to find a reliable and immutable basis in religious texts or quasi-scientific reasoning is a pipe dream. These are no more than rationalizations. Sorry, life isn't fair.

Michael Prescott said...

"More sophisticated people laugh at such views, as they realize that that God is just another human invention ..."

I think I'm a fairly sophisticated person, and I believe in God (though not necessarily a personal God).

I don't think it's a matter of sophistication, really. Different people have different belief systems. It's natural to think that our own beliefs are superior to the alternatives, but this assumption can sometimes blind us to the strengths of opposing viewpoints.

Anonymous said...

I listened to the first 5 minutes before I gave up...I mean, mental masturbation or what? :)

Does their debate have any significance for me? Nah, though I'm sure there may be those that hum and haw and say the points raised there are of vital importance.