Monday, August 3, 2015

Matt Dillahunty vs John Figdor - Are there Objective Morals? November 2014


This debate ( audio | 2:11:20 ) took place in 2014 between The Atheists Experience's Matt Dillahunty and Stanford Humanist Chaplain John Figdor on the Dogma Debate Podcast with David Smalley, the topic was "Are there Objective Morals?"

3 stars: An OK debate on a more unique topic marred by weird attempts to generate more light than heat.

I like the idea of this debate because its between two atheists: popular AXP host Matt Dillahunty and a new person (to me) John Figdor. Dillahunty contends there can be objective moral truths while Figdor disagrees. The host, David Smalley, apparently agrees with Dillahunty.

I've been so used to listening to formal debates that the back and forth part of the program was a bit annoying to me at first. I could flesh this statement out but meh, on to the debate review. Just know that's probably behind my review negative of this debate. I think this might be more fun to a larger audience, actually.

Dillahunty gives a solid opening, bringing up a few different ways humans can ground their morality in an objective manner. He mostly sticks with Sam Harris's views (objective moral facts can be derived from the pursuit of human well-being) but brings up a few others like Rawls' Theory of Justice. It seems one point he makes is that there are multiple ways to go about grounding morality, a point I wish he kind of emphasized a bit more and kept pushing for the rest of the debate.

Figdor starts off strong but then kind of muddles through his examples. He agrees that there are objective facts about the world but that there are no objective moral facts. This idea is interesting but it's apparently hard to explain because Figdor attempts to do so with a really bad analogy. He mentions that any man-made right or law, for example, can't be labeled as objective because billions of years from now, in the heat death of the universe, such laws will have no application in reality.

For example, consider the right to an attorney. When the sun explodes and all the attorneys, people needing attorneys, us and everything else are obliterated, such a right is kind of moot.

I don't think Figdor is implying that this means who cares about such rights, then. I assume another analogy could contend that dinosaurs weren't really worried about due process or whatever. But I just think this argument comes off as kind of solipsistic. And Figdor doesn't clarify this too much least not right away and not in a way that meant that Dillahunty didn't end up asking if Figdor even thinks he exists.

Matt, quite rightly, took objection to Figdor's analogy and then there was some back and forth about how things like scientific measurements like the water boiling, etc. Like I mentioned, Figdor seems to be fine with the existence of objective facts, but not objective moral facts because (I think) of their dependence on humans to have any value. However Matt's objection seemed like a missed opportunity or to be focusing too much on the meta-ness of everything. That is, he still wanted to argue about TAG it seems, which is a topic he apparently loves, haha.

Both Matt and Smalley seemed pretty committed to defending Sam Harris, too. Since I'm not a fan of Harris I kind of felt this was focused on a little too much.

I think Matt would have done better to focus on the fact that even saying the measurements we for the strength of a spring or cord are just as moot to dinosaurs or after the Earth burns away, too. If that's the case then Figdor cannot even say that objective facts least given the arguments he made at the start of the debate.

Here is where a decent dialogue occurred about the concept of well-being and health but again it seems like Dillahunty and Smalley were more interested in being terse towards Figdor. I like the more entertaining battle of arguments type of debates (look at my Fun Top Ten picks) but here it seemed unnecessary and to take away from the overall debate.

And then the debate kind of got worse from here because Figdor started trying to find a better analogy for his point but just kept picking classical science experiments like the ones I've mentioned...just stick with math proofs, like the fact that all the angles of a triangle will always equal 180 degrees...but wait a minute, dinosaurs weren't doing geometry! Well accept for the Euclidasaurus rex.

It also didn't help that Smalley the host was a little hostile, too. And actually seemed rather perplexing to me because Figdor, wasn't really caustic or even frustratiingly false, like the normal opponents these guys deal with. I did think it was frustrating when he kept agreeing that things like measuring the strength of springs were objective facts but not moral systems because it seems like that is false because it assumes that the empirical measurement system science has supported isn't too a human enterprise. However it seems like Matt was a bit scattered in countering Figdor on this because he wanted to show how moral systems based on an empirical frame of reference can be compared to the empiricism used to measure spring strength and so forth.

In the end the debate kind of went in to the Bummersville after Figdor's introduction. This is because Dillahunty came back in a surprisingly hostile manner. Dillahunty is known for being pretty punchy on his show but while in other venues he's a lot more subdued. I was expecting laid back Matt, but instead he kind of seemed mean-spirited at times. I think Figdor got the same impression and became more ingratiating but that didn't appear to help much.

Minor rant:
Smalley also had a serious case of host-syndrome. That is, following every time Matt made a point, before getting Figdor to respond, Smalley'd first summarize what Matt said, literally two seconds ago, add a few more questions, and then ask Figdor for a respon--oh wait! Commercial break. Then after the break, Smalley recapped again - only even more vaguely - then ask Figdor to respond. Figdor would then try to respond to Smalley's version of Matt's argument and the new stuff Smalley brought up. Then Matt would accuse Figdor of not addressing his argument in some manner and then they'd talk over each other and Smalley would chime in and BAM, the cycle repeats itself. Then a commercial break.

I have to remember it's justifiable that Smalley does this. It's his show, after all. But sometimes the summarizing a point literally made immediately before just comes off as unnecessary and a waste of time. It also seems like it's a chance for someone's original point to get misconstrued, even unintentionally.

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