Sunday, June 16, 2019

Agree to disagree?

My friends! Yesterday I was presented with a common response to a line of questioning. It is a response I have encountered many times during my long search for wisdom. And I believe it hinders our progress. During a dialogue with a friend, I was asked to “agree to disagree”.
We had been debating a certain metaphysical claim–a claim that I did not find entirely convincing. I had proceeded to examine the claim in the manner of which I am most familiar: by asking questions. My interlocutor had interpreted my questioning as a belief in the falsity of his claim–perhaps a belief in the opposite of his claim–and after finding himself unable to provide answers, he had suggested that we “agree to disagree” about the issue. I was unsure what he meant, but I took his request to mean that we abandon our dialogue. And so it was. We each walked away carrying with us our existing beliefs about the issue. But if, as implied by the request that we “agree to disagree”, we cannot both be right, one of us must be wrong. Which one? We may never know.
Now, if my friend is unable to convince me that his belief is true then either it is false or he needs more convincing arguments. Either way, progress could have been made by continuing our dialogue. Simply abandoning our discussion by suggesting that we “agree to disagree” seems to me to leave us no wiser than we were at the start of the dialogue.
I have, for my entire life, maintained that I know nothing. But like everyone else, I have beliefs. And many of those beliefs are likely to be false. It is through dialogue that I test my beliefs and the beliefs of others. And I do this to move closer to knowledge. If knowledge is good, then I claim that we should continue our discussions and not simply defer examination of important issues by suggesting that we “agree to disagree”.
— Socrates

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Objective Good

My time over the last few months has been spent conversing with a variety of people. Many people make bold claims about a subject that I believe to be most important: ethics. The claims some people make are similar to the claims made by an old acquaintance of mine, Protagoras. Put simply, they are moral relativists, believing that there is no objective good and that matters of right or wrong are no more than personal opinion.
It seems to me that following this thought may lead to the view that the actions of people do not really matter. If there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then we cannot say that it truly matters if a student cheats, or if thief steals property, or if a murderer goes on a killing spree. But when I make this proposal to the wise people with whom I converse, they object and declare that these things do matter. So what can we deduce from these two premises? Perhaps a tension in the relativist position. Let us take a closer look:
  1. If there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then our actions do not matter
  2. Our actions do matter
  3. Therefore, there is an objective good, or right, or wrong
This argument is valid, but if one of the premises is false, it is unsound. So, is premise #2 true? Well, the people I have been dialoguing with believe that our actions do matter. So, they think premise #2 is true. If my friends maintain that there is no objective good, they must therefore refute premise #1. In other words, they need to show that it is false that if there is no objective good, or right, or wrong, then our actions do not matter. To do so, they need to find an example in which our actions matter and yet there is no way to objectively measure an action's goodness.
But if an action matters, then it must be good or bad, correct? Otherwise, it wouldn't matter. So finding an example in which our actions matter, while there is no way to measure an action's goodness, is to find an example in which our actions matter when there is no way to measure whether our actions matter. But we cannot find an example in which our actions matter if there is no way to measure whether our actions matter. So something may have gone wrong. Either the relativist position is problematic, or my reasoning is mistaken.
I shall continue my dialogues with my wise friends and allow them to educate me. I know nothing.