Evil is real - an argument for

From a comment:

I can conduct an objective study on whether beating your children causes them to be more likely to commit violent crimes, and to conduct it in such a way that people can objectively judge the evidence I give.

You say you can conduct an objective study about violent crimes. A crime is an evil act. It would appear, then, that you can conduct an objective study on whether beating your children causes them to be more likely to commit violent evil acts.

I have been down this path so I will anticipate the most frequent sort of objection and answer it. The most likely objection is that one can define "crime" as "act which is against the law", and "law" can be in turn defined as whatever the state says it is.

But if this were all there really were to crime, then it would mean that the results of the study would be valid only relative to the state under which the study was conducted. It could not be generalized beyond the state, nor could it even be generalized beyond the moment, as laws may change. It would be of almost no interest at all. It would be almost as senseless as an objective study of whether beating your children causes them to share Barack Obama's musical preferences (whatever those might be - I have no idea). Obama's musical preferences are of course subjective, specific to him, at most shared by only some other people. It would be odd to conduct an objective study that has as one of its key measures, something subjective (Obama's preferences). Of course technically there is an objective fact about what Obama's preferences are, but nevertheless it would be odd to conduct that study. And similarly, it would be odd to conduct a study about whether beating your children causes them to commit violent crimes - if violent crimes are merely whatever the state says they are and nothing more than that.

Briefly: the study that you describe makes sense because violent crime is what it is independently of what the government says. It is, in other words, an objective category of action. But what is crime if crime is not merely whatever the state says it is?

Crime is evil.

So you can conduct an objective study of evil.

I do not know how to conduct a study to show whether beating your children is "immoral" that would yield a similar kind of evidence.

But you are not being fair at all here. The two studies are not at all parallel. Do you know how to conduct a study to show at what point beating begins, along the continuum of possible contact? How fast must the hand be going in order for contact to constitute a beating? Can you conduct a scientific study to discover this? One that does not merely study the concept of beating, the limits of what people consider to be beating? That would be merely a linguistic study. And similarly, the study that you propose would be a merely conceptual, linguistic study.

I've been down this road, so I'll anticipate and answer an objection. "Now wait a second", someone might object. "If morality is merely a linguistic and conceptual question of what people consider to be moral, then doesn't that show that morality isn't objective? "

To answer, morality is "merely" a question of what people consider to be moral, in the same sense that a beating is "merely" a question of what people consider to be a beating. And yet you were ready to conduct a scientific investigation of beating. If "beating" were merely an arbitrary category that just happens to exist in English for whatever reason, then, for reasons I outlined above, it would be of scant interest to study it scientifically.

It is of general and lasting interest to study beatings because "beating" is a natural category. It is for language to adapt itself to natural categories, and not to arbitrarily create them. And similarly, crime is a natural category. Which is why it is interesting to study crime.

By the way I've supplied you with a rule of thumb in discovering whether a category is a natural category. I pointed out that it is of general and lasting interest to study the effects of beatings because "beating" is a natural category. That gives you at least one method to distinguish natural categories from other categories.

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By the way I've supplied you

By the way I've supplied you with a rule of thumb in discovering whether a category is a natural category.

I fail to see what that rule of thumb is. The only thing I could come up with is that a natural category is a category which it is interesting to study, but you also say:

It is of general and lasting interest to study beatings because "beating" is a natural category.

Thus it would seem that you are telling us that a natural category is a category which interesting to study, yet the only way to see if you have a category which is interesting to study is to find out if it is natural. In any case, I don't think this is what you meant, so care to clarify? Or if it is what you meant, is there a way out of the circle?

~Matt

Circularity is in your interpretation

Here, let me explain with an analogy, and see if you can't find your own way out of the supposed circle.

I say, "the ground everywhere is wet because it's been raining".

Then I say, "I've supplied you with a rule of thumb in discovering whether it's been raining."

Now you come back to me and say,

"It would seem that you are telling us that rain is something that makes the ground everywhere wet, yet the only way to see if the ground is everywhere wet is to find out if it's been raining."

Can you see what part of your interpretation was unwarranted? Well, I'll tell you: in the above analogy, "I" didn't tell "you" that the only way to see if the ground is everywhere wet is to find out if it's been raining. And similarly: I didn't say that in order to tell whether something is of general and lasting interest you must first find out whether the categories involved are natural categories.

Here is Ruth Garret Millikan on "substances", a related idea to what I've been calling "natural category":

From the standpoint of an organism that wishes to learn, the most immediately useful and accessible subjects of knowledge are things that retain their properties, hence potentials for use, over numerous encounters with them. This makes it possible for the organism to store away knowledge or know-how concerning the thing as observed or experienced on earlier occasions for use on later occasions, the knowledge retaining its validity over time. These accessible subjects for knowledge are the things I am calling "substances." Substances are, by definition, what can afford this sort of opportunity to a learner, and where this affordance is no accident, but is supported by an ontological ground of real connection.

[...]

I can discover on one temporal or spatial encounter with cats that cats eat fish and the knowledge will remain good on other encounters with cats. That is, I can discover from the cat over here eating fish that the cat over there will probably also eat fish, or from a cat now eating fish that a cat encountered later will eat fish. I also can discover numerous other anatomical, physiological, and behavioral facts about cats that will carry over. There is the entire subject of cat physiology and behavior studied by those attending veterinary schools. I can learn how to hold a frightened cat on one or a few occasions, and this may hold good for a lifetime of cat ownership.

On Clear and Confused Ideas: An Essay about Substance Concepts by Ruth Garrett Millikan, section 1.1

What I want to point out is that you can discover that cats form what Millikan calls a substance by discovering that you can successfully generalize certain things from one cat (or cat-encounter) to other cats (or cat-encounters). Your discovery that you can generalize precedes and justifies your discovery that cats form a substance.

There is no real circularity here that's really preventing you from learning that cats form what Millikan calls a substance.

Similarly, you can learn about evil. Heck, you can even conduct an objective study about it.