Does “The Truth” have Objective Moral Value?

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In a previous post I discussed the three primary theories of truth that dominate Western conversations of well, pretty much everything.  I believe all three theories are valuable and have their place depending on the subject we are considering as well as the context in which that subject is being discussed.    Without question Correspondence theory dominates our everyday lives simply because we are governed by cause and effect.  If I go to work, I’ll get paid.  If I I don’t take out the trash, my wife will be frustrated with me.  In most cases the Correspondence theory is simply “obvious” because it establishes the relationship between causes and effects and, perhaps most importantly, allows us to make decisions based on what executed outcome we feel is most likely.

But as I have thought about truth in an abstract sense; that is, without applying to any specific question or context, I have come to wonder if truth, in itself, has inherent moral value.  Quite often I have seen and heard people seek after “the Truth” as it if were an end it itself.  And of course, they do so seeking specific answers and within a very specific context.  Yet, if they were suddenly lifted out of that context and those specific questions, would Truth have any value at all?  For example, is the value of the truth that water will cause my crops to grow a good in itself?  No.  That truth’s worth is to be found in its application.  Consider a stoplight with its three colors: red, yellow, and green.  Simply establishing the truth that red = stop is meaningless without application and context.

Truth is merely a concept; a construct that establishes a relationship between two or more observations.  Of course, this raises important metaphysical puzzles such as the ubiquitous question from George Berkely: “If a tree falls in the forest when no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  There are, of course, two (or more) ways to answer this question.  The first is that no, sound is a function of the “producer” and the “hearer” and therefore, because no “hearer” is present, no sound exists.  On the other hand, we can answer that sound is a function of energy causing vibrations in the air and as such, the tree falling does indeed make a sound.  I believe both answers are accurate and merely reflect differences of context and perspective.  This example illustrates that even seemingly simple questions can often produce distinct, but equally “true”, answers.  What makes the question even more interesting is to consider that sentient beings (animals included) perceive the world based on the limitations of their physical capabilities.  Were I to hold up a standard stop sign to a human, dog, and mantis shrimp and asked each to tell me what color the sign is, I would receive three different answers because of the difference between how human, dog, and mantis shrimp eyes.  Dogs see fewer colors than humans and humans see fewer colors than the mantis shrimp.  Yet we can still describe what is happening with the stop sign even in the absence of an observer.  We know, for example, that if it is daytime the sign is reflecting energy from the sun.  Yet with no observer the sign is not red, nor does the sun produce light.  Rather, the sun emits energy and that energy is reflected by matter in space.  The qualitative properties of this interaction only become realized when there is an observer to both consider and describe it.

I suppose it can be a bit disconcerting to recognize that we take many “absolute” truths for granted.  They are anything but absolute.  As such, It behooves us to be both humble and precise when we declare what is, or is not, “true.”  And certainly, we can see that truth, in itself, has no moral value.  Moral value is derived only from the application of  truth.

Here is an interesting slideshow showing how our beloved dogs see the world

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/photos/how-does-a-dog-see-the-world

Comments

  1. What if you looked at truth from the angle of how nature functions? Our understanding or perception have nothing to do with what is true. Once we discover that natural law or truth, we then may at least perceive and act accordingly. The truth of the color of the stop sign is not that it is actually different to each of the animals you mentioned. Rather, it is their perception of the sign within their ability to experience it. It still retains all of it’s properties and portions of those properties are each perceived differently by each species. The Stop Sign’s truth remains and I would argue that Stop Sign’s truth is it’s nature rather than the different animal’s percetptions of it.

    Isn’t what were seeking a reliable model of how things really are and a recognition of our need to be willing to surrender our “truth” once we perceive a more fundamental truth about the Stop Sign? What about what the Stop Sign means to each species? To the human, it is a symbol to perform an act, to the dog it may be a place to mark his territory, to the shrimp it may be an object to hide under if it is found after someone dumped it to the bottom of the ocean. Has anything about it’s nature changed?

    To all of the species in your example, the truth about the nature of things is there and the Stop Sign gives a symbol of that truth. As each of those species has a particular ability to not only see the stop sign, each also has a particular ability to see the truth that it represents. The Stop Sign’s nature as it is perceived by a human represents a truth that defines a behavior that allows for social order. The truth is that my actions affect others and so I agree to stop when this Stop Sign is placed in certain locations in order to contribute to that order. The truth that the sign means something and is a symbol of a truth that could be described as dependent origination (in the Buddhist sense). You could go through all of the steps in the creation of the Stop Sign but the truth that brought it into being was that actions have consequences and once we perceive this, we have an objective moral value. That truth was always there. Once we realized that the stop sign wasn’t an object to live under or mark we recognized that it was a symbol of an objective moral value. While it may not be a perfect representation of the objective moral truth, our attempts to honor it by creating a stop sign and stopping, show that, to use your analogy, a tree fell in the forest and we heard it.

    Is the accepted truth of the moral obligation to act in a certain fashion a real truth? I believe it is if you look at it from the point of dependent origination. Once we accept the idea that nothing that is (objective or conceptual) can arise independently, we have to consider what caused it to arise. That is where the moral value of any phenomena is found. The Stop Sign, while a symbol, recognizes a truth that is an conceptual one that may have obvious objective truths attached to it as well. It has value whether or not we see it, or experience it and the more refined we become, we begin to recognize that there is no independent phenomena and all things are interconnected. We often just blow by “Stop Signs” everyday because we fail to see the connectedness of all things. I think that this connectedness is what gives the truth its objective moral value.

  2. I fundamentally agree with everything you have written, Vearle. My one caveat would be that even our understanding of “how nature functions” is itself, a construct because we must be able to describe a phenomenon using some agreed upon units of measure etc… However, there is a key difference, as you note, between the agreed upon “nature” of an object and how sentient beings react to that nature. I’m being pedantic here but imagine the universe before sentience. Did the Sun shine? In one sense, absolutely. The fusion within the Sun’s core produced energy that emanated outwards. However, I would argue that before the emergence of sentience the Sun did not shine because “to shine” is a description of a sentient experience. In the same way I think that the moral value is often derived from truth but is not found in the truth itself.

    I firmly believe in objective moral value and I don’t think we need God or gods to explain it. This isn’t to suggest that God or gods don’t exist, I simply don’t believe they are a necessary condition for objective value. I’ve been playing with the idea of objective moral value emerging from the universe in much the same way that atoms, molecules, life, etc…. emerges — with the culminating (yet continuing) event being the emergence of sentient beings. Sentient beings, are, in my view, a necessary condition for objective moral value in two significant ways. First, moral value only arises from the consciousness of sentient beings (either directly or indirectly). Second, moral value must always have some aspect of intent; else it is not a question of moral value at all.

    For example, when a person becomes infected with a flesh-eating bacteria and loses his/her arm, moral value doesn’t enter into the equation. Bacteria are simply doing what bacteria do. There is no intent — only action. Yet, if one human being chops off the arm of another sentient being then moral value can be established. If that human being chops off an arm simply to witness suffering or to inflict pain, this is an immoral act. However, if a person chops off an arm to prevent a disease from spreading etc… then this may be considered a moral act.

    So in the end the Stop Sign I used as an example in my post is absolutely and truthfully made up of specific “natural” properties. However, it requires sentience, perspective, and in many cases social agreement, to provide that “underlying” truth with any meaning. This is not to say that moral value is completely subjective and is it is merely a social construct. While this could be said of some things I do believe that the along with the emergence of sentience also came the emergence of moral value to “govern” that sentience. But not until the appearance of consciousness and the ability to reason with intent, could moral value recognized, defined, and applied.

    I’m just rambling and thinking out loud so take please take everything I write here as a “work in progress.” :)

  3. Dear Seth,

    I hope you don’t mind this continued engaging exchange. I too, have been giving this some thought and while a layman, I have considered this idea for some time. I have been considering a series of events and/or phenomena of nature as the beginning of volition. You seem to desire to take it back one step further and examine if there are objective truths independent of sentience or volition. I wonder if even basic life forms which exhibit responses to stimuli could be used to examine this concept. For example, plants exhibit phototaxis, simple organisms move from low concentrations of nutrients to higher ones and they must do this due to some form of sentience. Do these organisms have conscious thought, do they desire? I don’t think they do but as living things they respond to stimuli. They don’t know the sun shines, they don’t realize that if they over-multiply they may cause their own extinction. Yet, this cause and effect of their actions reflect an underlying objective truth. That truth is that no thing exists in a vacuum. Even before the emergence of any sentience at all, natural laws had to exist and suns shone even if there were no sentient perceptions of that light.

    You can observe natural laws without their having any effect upon sentience at all. What about the light that has travelled 13 million light years from a star that has no living things that is finally observed by an astronomer here upon earth? While we cannot say what it’s state is now, can we say that it did not exist until we observed it? I wonder if all natural laws, whether organic or not, represent objective truth. The perception of their complexity extends as only in the sense that they are “discovered” as evolution occurs. To put it simply, evolutionary success must be limited in order to prevent extinction. Or, a good parasite doesn’t kill it’s host. There is no need for sentience to know that millions of species have gone extinct and if the cases were known, some representation of the above example would come into play.

    When conditions are right, things arise. We they are not, they do not manifest. Again, dependent origination is in play. The role of consciousness seems to me is to fathom the whole and recognize that any attempt to describe parts of it becomes reductionistic and we think that our “discovery” of these truths brings them into existence when they were there all along.

  4. Taylor Vearle Payne says:

    Seth,

    I’ve been thinking… I know, anyway.
    Truth is how things are. Morals are the values sentient beings assign to those truths as they apply them to explain or justify actions. Does the flesh-eating bacteria have the same right to exist as the person that happens to be the host of the bacteria?

    I had an epiphany a while back. I work as a nurse and I was assigned the task of researching and writing a fecal transplant policy. Fecal transplant is used in individuals who are colonized with C. Difficile bacteria usually due to other antibiotic therapy. Did you know your body contains more DNA in it from other species of organisms than you have of your own? We literally could not exist very well without all of our little friends in our guts. I digress.

    Our digestive tracts could represent, in a small way a world. There is a whole ‘system’ at work there. Toss in some antibiotics and you can really screw it up. We’ve found that patients that do not respond well to the antibiotics of last resort for the C. Difficile often dramatically improve when the stool from a healthy person is infused into their colons. We really don’t know all of the types or ratios that a healthy colon should have but once those little buggers are introduced there, balance is restored and the patients do very well. We haven’t created a pill that has all of the types in all the right ratios and given it to a patient, we just put stool from a healthy person there and viola!

    I would agree that morals are sentient being made. Often, they do not take into account the whole system and may not be moral at all. That is because there is an underlying, un-understood truth at work that reigns. I prefer to think that those deep truths may be respected once understood and moral constructs be seen as things that should change if we screw things up by our following them.

  5. Vearle,

    You said:

    “I would agree that morals are sentient being made. Often, they do not take into account the whole system and may not be moral at all.”

    Yes! I agree completely. Without omniscience, sentient beings are bound to make choices that produce negative consequences. This is why I take issue with Consequentialist or Utilitarian thought where morals are determined by consequences or outcomes. A classical, and very strict, utilitarian may argue that if a person performs some action that produces negative consequences (inverse utility) then the act was immoral. I see serious problems with this because I believe that while moral action must always consider and be aware of probable outcomes etc… we cannot claim that a person acting in good faith with the intent of doing good, is immoral. They may be negligent or incredibly stupid — but not immoral.

    You said:

    “That is because there is an underlying, un-understood truth at work that reigns.”

    I agree that the function of the universe could be considered this underlying reigning truth. Indeed, without the existence of higher consciousness, matter is acted upon by the four fundamental forces. It has no say in the matter. However, with the emergence of consciousness — and especially the consciousness of higher animals like humans (and who knows …. dolphins and orcas may have their own Plato …. ) sentient beings are able to reason through their interaction with these fundamental forces. Antibiotics, the A-bomb, bridges, dams, etc… are all examples of sentience harnessing the underlying “truth” of the universe (as expressed by the fundamental forces) to serve some purpose. The “use” or application of the underlying truth determines moral value.

    My wife is a Buddhist and so I have been studying Buddhist philosophy and am currently reading through the Pali Canon. One of the big things I’ve taken away thus far is the incredible importance of direct experience. It is through the direct experience that we come to know there is no separation between what we conceive as our ego, and the rest of the universe. We are a function of the universe in the same way waves are a function of the ocean. Waves are not separate from the ocean but merely a manifestation of underlying forces at work. In the same way we are a function of these same forces but the Self has outdone itself this time by giving rise to consciousness wherein we can consider questions like those we’ve been discussing.

    Perhaps, then, we can say that the fundamental forces of the universe — as far as we can understand them — represent an underlying truth.

    Seth

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