Tuesday, January 15, 2008

There are No Moral Facts - Metzinger

Here is a brief essay from one of my heroes, Thomas Metzinger, that I completely agree with - spiced up by an unrelated and gratuitous graphic on morality.
I have become convinced that it would be of fundamental importance to know what a good state of consciousness is. Are there forms of subjective experience which — in a strictly normative sense — are better than others? Or worse? What states of consciousness should be illegal? What states of consciousness do we want to foster and cultivate and integrate into our societies? What states of consciousness can we force upon animals — for instance, in consciousness research itself? What states of consciousness do we want to show our children? And what state of consciousness do we eventually die in ourselves?

2007 has seen the rise of an important new discipline: "neuroethics". This is not simply a new branch of applied ethics for neuroscience — it raises deeper issues about selfhood, society and the image of man. Neuroscience is now quickly transformed into neurotechnology. I predict that parts of neurotechnology will turn into consciousness technology. In 2002, out-of-body experiences were, for the first time, induced with an electrode in the brain of an epileptic patient. In 2007 we saw the first two studies, published in Science, demonstrating how the conscious self can be transposed to a location outside of the physical body as experienced, non-invasively and in healthy subjects. Cognitive enhancers are on the rise. The conscious experience of will has been experimentally constructed and manipulated in a number of ways. Acute episodes of depression can be caused by direct interventions in the brain, and they have also been successfully blocked in previously treatment-resistant patients. And so on.

Whenever we understand the specific neural dynamics underlying a specific form of conscious content, we can in principle delete, amplify or modulate this content in our minds. So shouldn’t we have a new ethics of consciousness — one that does not ask what a good action is, but that goes directly to the heart of the matter, asks what we want to do with all this new knowledge and what the moral value of states of subjective experience is?

Here is where I have changed my mind. There are no moral facts. Moral sentences have no truth-values. The world itself is silent, it just doesn’t speak to us in normative affairs — nothing in the physical universe tells us what makes an action a good action or a specific brain-state a desirable one. Sure, we all would like to know what a good neurophenomenological configuration really is, and how we should optimize our conscious minds in the future. But it looks like, in a more rigorous and serious sense, there is just no ethical knowledge to be had. We are alone. And if that is true, all we have to go by are the contingent moral intuitions evolution has hard-wired into our emotional self-model. If we choose to simply go by what feels good, then our future is easy to predict: It will be primitive hedonism and organized religion.


  1. Wow, what a depressing view of the universe. Moral sentences have no truth value? So the sentence: "It is wrong to torture and then murder a sentient being for amusement alone" has no truth value? I think I'll go out on a limb and disagree with that one. Metzinger says the universe doesn't inform us about morality. But the universe doesn't "inform" us about anything. To attempt to learn truths we use our faculties of reason, and try to minimize bias, to determine the nature of things. It's not like the universe handed us Boyle's Law or Special Relativity on a platter.

    So I'm sorry...I think this is an awful little essay. I reject both his premise and his arguments.

  2. I'm not sure you are actually disagreeing with him, the issue might be the context in which we are are considering 'truth value.'

    I think his key statement is at the end:
    "in a more rigorous and serious sense, there is just no ethical knowledge to be had. We are alone. And if that is true, all we have to go by are the contingent moral intuitions evolution has hard-wired into our emotional self-model."

    In terms of those evolutionary outcomes, your "It is wrong.." statement has relative truth value. It seems to me he is talking about a philosopher's 'absolute' truth values.

  3. Anonymous4:43 AM


    Did you read the fresh new article by Steven Pinker on Morality?


  4. Yes, I almost did a post on it alongside this one, but will wait till early next week. It is a great article, but he makes a few statements that I have to take issue with.

  5. Anonymous9:27 AM

    I can't wait.

    I also really liked the piece.
    Especially the term "Moral Illusions". There are a lot of illusions, biases et cetera that are created by the mind.

    Makes it very difficult to believe anything the brain produces.

  6. I find it hard to believe anyone would say hedonism and organized religion are "good things" even in a world without moral facts. Hedonism is too short-sighted as a pleasure-seeking process, and religion is too far-sightened.