Moral Disagreement Part 1: Parfit

Notes and Thoughts on Parfit and Moral Disagreement (Ch. 34)

Before getting into the philosophy, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the trolley thought experiments, answer these questions before proceeding:

Trolly Q1:  You are driver of a runaway tram which you can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other.   You are currently on the track to kill the five.  Do you flip the switch to change tracks and cause the one man to die to save the 5?

Trolly Q2:  This time you aren’t the driver of the runaway tram.  This time there’s only one track, and there are 5 workers working on it.  If the train reaches them, they’ll all die.  You are on an overpass.  You notice a fat man whose body weight is such that if you pushed him off he’ll cause the tram to derail and the 5 workers will be saved.  Yay!  But only at the expense of the fat man’s life.  Boo!  Do you push him off?

Was your answer different for the 2 questions?  The outcome was the same, so why might it be different?  What’s the difference between the situations?  And most importantly, how do you justify your position?  Keep these questions in mind as we discuss this section.  In a way Parfit wants to argue that under ideal conditions we’d all give the same answer.  There’s a fairly large body of empirical evidence to the contrary, but he’ll probably reply that in some way the ideal conditions hadn’t been met.

Yo, check it! (That means I’m about to drop some knowledge)  We is about to talk about D-Rock Parfit’s replies to the argument from disagreement (and some variations).  The argument from disagreement is one of the classical arguments against moral realism (that there objectively true moral values).   I did a more detailed account of the argument from disagreement in my post on Mackie (Mackie calls it “the argument from diversity”) but for the one or two of you not familiar with the argument it goes a lil’ somethin’ like this:
1.  There is somes peoples.
2.  The peoples is disagree very muchly about what is goodly and badly.
3.  If there were such a thing as objective moral values, we would expect to find agreement, not disagreement.
C.  Therefore, it is seeming there are no objectively true moral values, only relative values.  I.e., Moral truth is always relative to social/cultural/historical context; it is never objectively true.

Parfit says this argument is badly.  He does not like it.  Not one little bit!

Two last definitions, normative belief:  A belief about something’s value.  For example, “telling the truth is good” or “causing unnecessary pain is baaaaaaaad.”
Normative reason:  That’s a reason in favour of doing ‘x’.   Or, that’s a reason against doing ‘x’.  Or, that’s a good/bad reason to do ‘x’.

Ok, enough lol catz language.  Lets look at his criticisms.  (Can you imagine turning in a whole paper in lol catz language?  That’d be awesome. lol.)

I will add one more point.  Parfit is going to advance the thesis that ultimately it is our intuition that tells us that certain actions and reasons for actions are morally good.  This thesis is contrary to other realist positions that say we can know that something is good either by empirical means or by conceptual analysis.  

Parfit’s Main Claims

Yo, check it!  Parfit is a moral realist:  He thinks that there are objective moral values.  More specifically he makes several claims:
(A).  There are some irreducibly normative reason-involving truths, some of which are moral truths.
This means there are objective truths about moral values.  For example, there are certain things that are objectively good–in the moral sense–to do, and knowing what these things are gives us reasons for or against an action.  Morally good things aren’t good because of their consequences, but they are good in themselves.  Maybe, helping people is one of these things.  “But helping who?”  “I don’t know, people who need help!”
(B).   Since these truths are not about natural properties, our knowledge of these truths cannot be based on perception or on evidence provided by empirical facts.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory.  Things aren’t good because of some property they have, things are good because they are essentially good.  Morally good things are intrinsic goods.
(C).  Positive substantive normative truths cannot be analytic, in the sense that their truth follows from their meaning.
Whether something is good is not discoverable by analyzing the meaning of the term.  E.g., That “justice” is good, isn’t discoverable through its definition the way that we can discover what a bachelor is by understanding the meaning of “unmarried man”.   Identifying something as good isn’t a matter of analyzing the concept of the word.

(D).  Our normative beliefs cannot be justified unless we are able to recognize in some other way that these beliefs are true.
Since we can’t know what things are good based on empirical investigation, apprehension of properties, or conceptual analysis, we need another way to be able to identify what things are objectively good.

And, Parfit says, we do have this capacity.  Some of our normative beliefs give us reasons in favour/against certain actions and we are responsive to these reasons.  Some of our normative beliefs are “self-evident, and intrinsically credible”.   

For example:  Poking children in the eyes with needles for fun is wrong.   According to Parfit, we just know that this normative belief is true.  We know this to be true just as we know that a something and its negation cannot both be true (at the same time and place).

Of course the big question is how do we know these assertions to be true without appeal to our sensory perception or definitions?  It’s not like I need to see someone poke a child in the eyes to know it’s wrong…Parfit proposes intuitionism:  The theory that we have intuitive abilities to respond to reasons and recognize some normative truths.

Parfit is well aware of the problems with intuitionism.  Where was people’s moral intuition during slavery?  Back then people often argued it is intuitively true that Africans ought to be slaves.  And what about wars?  People do horrendous things because they take it to be intuitively true that the other side is evil or that they’re on the side of good (see: US military culture, or any military culture for that matter…).

Nevertheless, in the less clear cases we ought not to rely only on intuition about the act.  This is where Parfit adds in a requirement that we assess the strengths and weaknesses of conflicting reasons, arguments, and principles.  The idea is that, as with particular acts, our intuition gives us “similar abilities to recognize truths about what is rational, and about what we have reasons to believe, and want, and do.”

I’m not sure I agree with him here.  I think all one has to do is look at American politics to see that people clearly do not agree on what truths are rational “and what we have reasons to believe, and want, and do”.  However, I do agree with him (and Scanlon) that appeal to reasons for/against committing a particular action “is the only defensible method”.   I mean, for serious, if you can’t give reasons for why you did something, beyond “I just felt it was the right thing to do”, then you is wack.

The problem for Parfit is in trying to show that people’s intuitions will magically aligne regarding what they think are good objectives, reasons and/or principles for action.  To deal with this objection Parfit argues that just because there might be disagreement over what 2 people find to be “self-evident”, doesn’t imply that we don’t have the capacity to find out.  

Consider our other senses.  People can disagree over what they see or hear, yet we don’t conclude from that that they are blind and deaf.  Well…sometimes, I do.  Nevertheless, despite their infrequent lapses, we don’t conclude that vison and hearing aren’t reliable ways of coming to know truths about the world.

One more reply to the anti-intuitionists is that people might find that the beliefs over which they disagree aren’t of the self-evident variety; that’s why they’re disagreeing.   Well, that’s sounds like a mighty convenient argument for Parfit.  “No, no, no! it’s not that one of your intuitions is wrong, it’s that regarding this particular matter, there is no self-evident truth–that’s why you’re disagreeing”.  But this reply avoids one difficulty by creating another.

How is it that we are supposed to distinguish between intuitive beliefs that are self-evidently true and those that only appear to be self-evidently true?  If Parfit’s answer is that we should resort to our intuition to sort it out, I’m gonna punch him right in the face!   Oh! I shouldn’t say that.  Parfit’s a nice guy.  Almost all accounts of him never fail to mention how nice he is.  But anyway, you know what I mean.  There’s a vicious circle goin’ on here, and it’s making me dizzy!

10 thoughts on “Moral Disagreement Part 1: Parfit

  1. I don't see a viscous circle. I see an inability to show people they are wrong at times. Still, one's inability to recognize something intuitively shouldn't undermine another's justification if they can recognize the fact in question intuitively. Ethical intuitionism requires a long defense I cannot offer in a short comment, but here is a basic point. All arguments of any kind necessarily rely on intuitions (roughly, a non-inferential belief) of some kind. Disagreement over intuitions happens in both the normative and non-normative realm. So, any argument from disagreement against ethical intuitionism needs to show why this doesn't generalize to non-normative matters (including this very argument against intuitionism). If one cannot find a relevant difference (and I don't think anyone can), then the argument is self-defeating.I don't find the argument from disagreement persuasive because I don't see any reason to grant the assumption that if some people have the ability to recognize moral truth via intuition, then there would be wide-spread agreement about matters of ethics. That falsely assumes that all people are sufficiently good intuiters and free of non-rational cultural and religious influence (and other sources of bias).


  2. I see your point about the argument from disagreement; especially because i just finished Parit's chapter on it. He makes quite a convincing case, and I find it hard to disagree with him. However, I have one very decisive reason in favour of disagreeing with him, and that is I have to write a paper about him and if I write \”I find Parfit's views agreeable and eminently reasonable\” I don't know how I'll fill up the rest of the pages! That aside, while I'm willing to accept most of his arguments against arg. from disagreement, I don't see how moral agreement doesn't entail moral realism. There are other plausible accounts of agreement (functionalist/biological). That's what I'm going to argue anyway!


  3. Right. I don't think Parfit (or anyone) argues that moral agreement entails moral realism. Rather, it's that moral disagreement is supposed to be evidence of moral anti-realism and Parfit aims to undermine that argument against moral realism (rather than give a positive argument for moral realism, which he does elsewhere).


  4. Yo! So I hav been read'g your blog 4 a long time. Not once do u take a stand on anything. Yes, ur site is informative but I can read the same info after a pleasant stroll to the library. U have also changed from wanting to be a university professor to a college instructor, what gives? If u were to take a stand on any of ur typed arguments, would that demonstrate that u r committing to certain ways of interpreting yourself and ur environment or would it just irritate u? BTW enough with the dancing shit maybe tell us what the topic was at your weekly gab with the other grad students and how that happened in life, now that is some real shit, come out, man.


  5. What a tiresome debate about the existence or otherwise of inate, objective morality. I consider myself a futurist, and broad knowledge of past and present phenomena to be a vital foundation for any forward thinking. Regrettably, as long as philosophers and those who study them continue to operate in isolation from the better informed scientific and artistic communities, this type of regurgitative processing of the musings of others will continue to fail to contribute any meaningful or valuable insight into the human condition or true nature of the universe we inhabit, and remains at best decades to at worst centuries behind truly holistic students of the universe and humanity within it.If you are wondering if there is any such thing as inate, objective reality, then read a psychology textbook; sociopaths are clearly documented as lacking any recognisably conforming objective morality, because the structure of a sociopathic brain is subtly different from that of the human majority in that the part of the brain responsible for emotional intelligence is underdeveloped. Just because a non-sociopathic majority might agree on a moral issue, any dissenting minority undermines the notion of universality. A sociopath would not agree with the statement 'sticking needles in children's eyes is immoral,' except to mimic a perceived normal response, and thereby avoid detection and stigmatisation as a non-conforming or otherwise abnormal individual. A sociopath could conceive of numerous examples of benefits to be derived from such an activity, with no misgivings, as long as they could do so unpunished. So, if the existence of human morality is a matter of brain structure, we should simply conclude that it is an evolved sensibilty naturally selected for in our species because it affords a survival and/or propagational advantage to those individuals possessing it, resulting from the typical gregariousness of members of our species and our social constructs, which are, by definition, inately subjective. Anyone attempting to decry this argument on religious grounds, again, needs to do a little wider reading; evolution is a proven mechanism, and many religious people have successfully incorporated the belief in evolution into their religious belief system by ascribing divine origin to the evolutionary process itself.(ranting to be continued….)


  6. This provides a neat segue to my next contention, and my reference to the better informed artistic community: the Founding Fathers incorporated freedom of religious practice into their constitution for fairly obvious reasons, along with the mentioned institutionalised presupposition of a supreme being. To claim that you cannot attempt to deduce the intent of another, in this case at least, is tantamount to admitting that you are not troubled enough to try. Whilst it is admittedly debatable how much we can ever truly know another's mind, the Founding Fathers are sufficiently famous to be well historically documented and biographed, and it should be a simple enough matter to pick up and read a book about them to deduce at least an approximation of their intent in this matter: they were heavilly influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and deist, i.e. non-mainstream Christian and subsequently decliningly popular, beliefs. Never heard of them? Again, please try to read anything other than a philosophy book, and try to keep up with recent developments in the arts and sciences, especially if you are thinking about entering the noble teaching profession, or you will only end up teaching people how very narrow your knowledge is. I challenge you to broaden your mind, that you might in turn broaden the minds of others. I hope that you will find a sense of mission and noble purpose in this pursuit that will enrich your life in a way that you have never before experienced, and that will cause the fleeting pleasure you derive from utilising your knowledge to reaffirm your belief in your own intellectual superiority to pale in comparison. It really isn't difficult to deduce another's intent, when you take the time to learn a little about them, from them. Buddhists have used a system of character and thought analysis for millenia, called the principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, incorporating the concept of the mutual possession of the ten 'Worlds' or 'life conditions'. I would refer you specifically to the concept of the life condition of 'Asura' within 'Learning'. In general, I think you will find this a privately rewarding place to assuage your admirable hunger for knowledge, and maybe even find a little wisdom along the way.NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO.


  7. Totally with gfreetekif you do plan on responding, try using an \”I\” statement. As in, \”I\” believe this is the way the world works in my eyes – I can understand that it might take u some time to read ahead in ur textbook but the real challenge is being able to acquire truths that speak to u, truths u'd be proud to call values. A teacher creates challenges so that their students may respond to such thought provoking, mostly questions of existentialism, questions. A great teacher enables the students to think broadly, opens doors for their minds and encouranges the students to surpass the instructor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s