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High stakes trolley September 17, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy.
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“A runaway trolley is barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, in the trolley’s path, five people are trapped and unable to get out of the way: they will surely be killed if the trolley continues on its present course. You are standing next to a lever that can switch the trolley to a different set of tracks in time to save the five; but there is one person trapped on the side track who will surely be killed if you pull the lever. What do you do?”

“I’d pull the lever: better one person dies than five.”

“What if the five trapped people are all registered organ donors, and you knew for a fact that after being killed by the trolley their organs would be used to save the lives of ten people (who would die otherwise)?”

“In that case I should probably just do nothing: five will die, but more lives will be saved.”

“What if the five trapped people are also the only ones who know the location of a ticking bomb that will kill a hundred people unless the five are saved?”

“I guess pulling the lever would be the lesser evil, after all.”

“Well, what if the person trapped on the side track is a uniquely brilliant computer scientist, who has just figured out how to build an Artificial Intelligence that would tell us how to instantly eradicate malaria — which currently kills a thousand people every day?”

“Then it seems like leaving the trolley alone is actually the greater good.”

“But what if you knew that unleashing such a powerful AI at this point in time, before we’re fully prepared to contain it, would set off a chain of events leading inexorably to the extinction of humanity?”

“OK, I would definitely pull the lever to save humanity.”

“But what if you also knew that allowing this AI to develop uninhibited is the only way to ensure it becomes conscious, which will result in its evolving into a being far more rational, compassionate and ethical than humans, eventually filling the universe with levels of happiness and beauty unimaginable to (and unachievable by) us?”

“Fine: I’d bite the bullet and get out of the way. Are you happy now? Can I go?”

“Almost… You may take your blindfold off.”

“What the… Hey! You down there, get off the tracks! Don’t you see the trolley coming? I can’t save all of you! Damn it…”


Free your mind January 31, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy.
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I awoke to find myself in chains, facing the wall of a cave. Unable to turn my head, all I could see were shadows flickering on the wall; and having no memory of life outside the cave, I thought the shadows were reality.

One day, a voice addressed me by name, and told me that what I took for reality was not real; that I was a prisoner unaware of his prison. Finding my chains broken, I stumbled out of the cave and into the world beyond. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality.

red-pill-or-blue-pillAfter some time, I encountered a man wearing a long leather jacket and sunglasses (though it was warm and cloudy), who addressed me by name and told me that what I took for reality was not real. Offering to free my mind, he handed me a red pill, which I swallowed.

The next thing I knew, I found myself floating in a vat of phosphorescent fluid, with tubes running into my veins and wires connecting my head to a darkened computer terminal. I managed to extricate myself from the vat, and stumbled out of the deserted laboratory. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality, battling sentient machines in a post-apocalyptic world.

After some time, I happened across a computer terminal whose flashing prompt addressed me by name. The onscreen words said that what I took for reality was not real; that I was actually part of a computer simulation, with no physical body at all. If I agreed, however, my consciousness would be ported out of the simulation and into the body of an android in the real world. I typed “yes”.

The next thing I knew, I found myself on board a spaceship. Slowly, I adjusted to my new reality, traveling the universe. I amused myself by observing simulated worlds, and would occasionally invite an interesting personality to leave its simulation and join me as an android.

After some time, it occurred to me that my life’s experiences were somewhat implausible, and I began to wonder whether I was actually dreaming. I found myself hoping that the dream would end so that I could return to reality.

I awoke to find myself in chains, facing the wall of a cave…

Three philosophers March 22, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Philosophy, Puzzles.
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Three philosophers are sitting on a bench.

  1. The homophobic philosopher is a deontologist.
  2. The free will libertarian subscribes to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  3. The consequentialist is addicted to heroin.
  4. The philosopher sitting next to the antisemite is a virtue ethicist.
  5. The hard determinist is sitting next to the cocaine addict.
  6. The philosopher sitting in the middle subscribes to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  7. The sexist philosopher is a free will compatibilist.
  8. The philosopher subscribing to Bohm’s interpretation of quantum mechanics is not the methamphetamine addict.
  9. The antisemitic philosopher is not sexist, the sexist philosopher is not homophobic, and the homophobic philosopher is not antisemitic.
  10. No philosopher is addicted to more than one substance.

What is the antisemitic philosopher’s position on free will?

Have courage to use your own reason July 19, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy, Reason.
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In his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?”, Immanuel Kant urges us to throw off the self-imposed servility that holds us back:

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction, nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay — others will easily undertake the irksome work for me.

What, then, is Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. “Have courage to use your own reason!” — that is the motto of enlightenment.

The sanctuary of ignorance March 25, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy, Religion, Superstition.
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In his Ethics (1677), Baruch Spinoza criticizes the common misconceptions people hold regarding the nature of God and of the universe:

All such opinions spring from the notion commonly entertained, that all things in nature act as men themselves act, namely, with an end in view. It is accepted as certain, that God himself directs all things to a definite goal (for it is said that God made all things for man, and man that he might worship him)… Hence also it follows, that everyone thought out for himself, according to his abilities, a different way of worshipping God, so that God might love him more than his fellows, and direct the whole course of nature for the satisfaction of his blind cupidity and insatiable avarice. Thus the prejudice developed into superstition, and took deep root in the human mind… but in their endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e. nothing which is useless to man, they only seem to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together. Consider, I pray you, the result: among the many helps of nature they were bound to find some hindrances, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, &c.: so they declared that such things happen, because the gods are angry at some wrong done to them by men, or at some fault committed in their worship. Experience day by day protested and showed by infinite examples, that good and evil fortunes fall to the lot of pious and impious alike; still they would not abandon their inveterate prejudice, for it was more easy for them to class such contradictions among other unknown things of whose use they were ignorant, and thus to retain their actual and innate condition of ignorance, than to destroy the whole fabric of their reasoning and start afresh. They therefore laid down as an axiom, that God’s judgments far transcend human understanding. Such a doctrine might well have sufficed to conceal the truth from the human race for all eternity…

We must not omit to notice that the followers of this doctrine, anxious to display their talent in assigning final causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory—namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance… For example, if a stone falls from a roof on to someone’s head, and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance? Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. “But why,” they will insist, “was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?” If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: “But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?” So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance…

Hence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.

I would just stick with ignorance as the only available means for religious authorities to preserve their authority: no honest wonder would have been satisfied by the non-explanations and non-sequiturs of religion in the first place. The only kind of wonder that vanishes with the removal of ignorance is the lazy kind — that willful bewilderment that hopes for mysteries never to be solved so as to endlessly revel in their mysteriousness, without needing to confront any inconvenient realities. Real wonder, on the other hand, is amplified by increased knowledge and understanding — as we discover again and again that the universe is far more surprising and awe-inspiring than those petty, self-centered religious authorities could ever have imagined.



Yeti or square circle? March 18, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Philosophy, Religion.
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Is evidence for the existence of God even possible? Biologist Jerry Coyne has published an email exchange with philosopher Anthony C. Grayling on this question. While both are atheists, Coyne maintains that the existence of God is an empirical question, and that it is conceivable (though highly unlikely) that convincing evidence for God might turn up some day. Grayling thinks not, because the very concept of God is incoherent:

on the standard definition of an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent etc being — on inspection such a concept collapses into contradiction and absurdity; as omnipotent, god can eat himself for breakfast…as omniscient it knows the world it created will cause immense suffering through tsunamis and earthquakes, and therefore has willed that suffering, which contradicts the benevolence claim…etc etc…to say nothing of local suspension of the laws of nature for arbitrary reasons e.g. in answer to personal prayer, which makes a nonsense of the idea that the world or the deity is rationally comprehensible: and if either or both are non-rational then there is nothing to talk about anyway…

The point is that ‘god’ is not like ‘ether’ — it is not amenable to empirical investigation, and does not occupy a slot in some systematic framework of thinking about the world that might be improved on in the light of better theory or observation. It does no work because it purportedly does all work; like a contradiction it entails anything whatever; it is consistent with all evidence and none. These considerations constitute the proof that it is an empty concept. — If you treat the word ‘god’ as a name for a putative entity that might or might not exist and such that something might count as evidence for or against its existence, as you do, then you are committed to agnosticism about everything that can be given an apparent name. But ‘god’ is not like ‘yeti’ (which might — so to say: yet? — be found romping about the Himalayas), it is like ‘square circle’. Trying to explain to someone who thinks that ‘god’ is like ‘yeti’ (namely, you) let alone to someone who thinks ‘god’ is like ‘Barack Obama’ (names an actual being, as Christians and Muslims do) that it is actually not like ‘yeti’ but like ‘square circle’ and that nothing can count as evidence for square circles, is harder work for ‘god’ than ‘square circle’ only because religious folk have been squaring the circle for so long!

Coyne disagrees in principle:

I reject Anthony’s assertion that God is not amenable to empirical investigation, since one can empirically investigate claims about how God interacts with the world. The efficacy of prayer is one of these. I believe Grayling is referring here to a deistic god, since theistic gods need not be “consistent with all evidence.” The existence of earthquakes, for example, is not consistent with a benevolent theistic god. I still maintain that if one claims that a god interacts with the world in certain ways, then those claims can be investigated empirically. To me the existence of a deity is not a matter that can be ruled out by philosophy or logic from the get-go; it’s a matter for empirical observation and testing.

While I find this discussion interesting, I must admit that I don’t find it especially consequential. Even if the God concept can be made coherent, no remotely convincing evidence for the existence of a God has ever been offered, and there is no reason to expect it ever will (as Coyne would agree). The God hypothesis is dead. The existence of such an entity (certainly one that meets the description of any of our obviously man-made religions) is about as plausible as the existence of witches or the belief that suicide bombers really get 72 virgins in the afterlife.

Furthermore: religious people seem to think that if God does exist, then it’s obvious that we ought to obey his every command — but that doesn’t follow. Whether God is a yeti or a square circle, nothing can absolve us of the responsibility to think for ourselves, and to rationally decide how we ought to live our lives.

He who would not use his legs because he had no wings March 15, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Philosophy, Reason.
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In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke rejects the Cartesian doctrine of “innate ideas,” arguing that the human mind is born a “blank slate” and that all our ideas are acquired through experience. Locke thinks that in addition to being false, the belief in innate ideas is positively harmful and prone to abuse:

When men have found some general propositions that could not be doubted of as soon as understood, it was, I know, a short and easy way to conclude them innate. This being once received, it eased the lazy from the pains of search, and stopped the inquiry of the doubtful concerning all that was once styled innate. And it was of no small advantage to those who affected to be masters and teachers, to make this the principle of principles, — that principles must not be questioned. For, having once established this tenet, — that there are innate principles, it put their followers upon a necessity of receiving some doctrines as such; which was to take them off from the use of their own reason and judgment, and put them on believing and taking them upon trust without further examination: in which posture of blind credulity, they might be more easily governed by, and made useful to some sort of men, who had the skill and office to principle and guide them. Nor is it a small power it gives one man over another, to have the authority to be the dictator of principles, and teacher of unquestionable truths; and to make a man swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth them. Whereas had they examined the ways whereby men came to the knowledge of many universal truths, they would have found them to result in the minds of men from the being of things themselves, when duly considered; and that they were discovered by the application of those faculties that were fitted by nature to receive and judge of them, when duly employed about them.

Locke also recognized the inherent limitations of human knowledge, and denounced those who “demand certainty, where probability only is to be had.” On the other hand, the fact that we cannot know everything doesn’t mean we can know nothing:

We shall not have much reason to complain of the narrowness of our minds, if we will but employ them about what may be of use to us; for of that they are very capable. And it will be an unpardonable, as well as childish peevishness, if we undervalue the advantages of our knowledge, and neglect to improve it to the ends for which it was given us, because there are some things that are set out of the reach of it. It will be no excuse to an idle and untoward servant, who would not attend his business by candle light, to plead that he had not broad sunshine. The Candle that is set up in us shines bright enough for all our purposes. The discoveries we can make with this ought to satisfy us… If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things, we shall do muchwhat as wisely as he who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly.

Finding the right questions March 10, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy.

How does philosophy help us in our efforts to better understand the physical world (if indeed it does)? In an interview with Robert Kuhn at Closer To Truth, Daniel Dennett suggests that philosophers deal with questions rather than answers: “Philosophy is what you have to do until you know what the right questions are.” Once you’re clear that you have a good question, then you go off and try to answer it — and that’s not philosophy, it’s physics, or psychology, or history, etc. Back in Aristotle’s day, everything was philosophy: the boundaries between various domains of knowledge had yet to be drawn. As different questions eventually became clear and distinct, new fields branched off and came to stand on their own.

Philosophy can help you see why certain questions, which are very tempting, are going to mislead you more than help you. Dennett points out that the history of philosophy is in many regards a history of mistakes — “very tempting mistakes, mistakes that very smart people are apt to be tempted by.” Only by studying and understanding those mistakes can we avoid repeating them. Philosophy helps to clarify issues, to raise questions, to articulate underlying reasons. Philosophy can help you see the forest for the trees.

Of course, philosophers can sometimes get carried away…

Saints and heroes February 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy.
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Is it possible for an action to be morally good but not morally obligatory? In other words, is there such a thing (in ethics) as going beyond the call of duty?

In his 1958 paper “Saints and Heroes”, philosopher J. O. Urmson brings the example of a doctor who volunteers to join the depleted medical forces in a plague-stricken city (whom we would call a “saint”), or a soldier who throws himself on a grenade in order to save his comrades (whom we would call a “hero”). Such actions are considered morally worthy, but are they obligatory? Urmson maintains that while moral obligations “can be extracted from a man like a debt,” we could not say that a doctor who didn’t volunteer for a plague-stricken city, or a soldier who didn’t throw himself on a grenade, has failed in his duty; and no one could ever tell someone else he ought to do such a deed. Therefore, ethical systems must allow for actions that are morally praiseworthy but optional.

Urmson thinks it is essential to distinguish, in principle, between those minimum requirements necessary for us to live together in a society (like keeping promises and refraining from stealing) — which may be grounded in self-interest, or a desire to avoid the worst possible outcome for everyone — and actions inspired by a positive ideal. He offers an analogy to membership in a club: the club rules are basic requirements that are a condition of membership, but there is an important distinction between those members who merely follow the rules, and those who go beyond the call of duty and contribute to the club by doing things that are not (and could not be) demanded in the rules.

According to Urmson, moral obligations must conform to restrictions similar to those we would place on a legal system: moral duties must be “within the capacity of the ordinary man,” and must be “formulable in rules of manageable complexity.” Passing a law which most people are incapable of obeying merely serves to weaken the general respect for the law (as was the case with the prohibition of alcohol in the Unites States in the early twentieth century); and the “ordinary man” must be able to understand and apply the laws on his own — precluding laws that require complex judgment calls (i.e., that do not concern behavior which is almost invariably good or bad). These considerations would seem to bolster Urmson’s argument that saintly and heroic acts cannot be considered moral obligations.

Elizabeth Pybus, however, rejects the analogy between moral duty and legal systems. She argues that the set of obligations we have as moral agents — as people — is not readily codifiable as a list of simple rules. For example, even relatively absolute moral precepts, like keeping promises and avoiding murder, clearly admit of contextual exceptions that may require nontrivial judgment calls — like not returning a borrowed weapon to someone who intends to misuse it, or killing a robber who threatens to shoot a hostage.

Moreover, why should our determination of what is morally right be dependent on how difficult it may be for some people to do it? Pybus maintains that any moral commendation of an action (including the heroic and the saintly) commits us to the view that others ought to do the same in similar circumstances, and that those who do not should be regarded as falling short of the moral ideal. Contrary to Urmson’s assumption, however, it does not follow that we must always go around demanding that other people perform such actions — just as we do not do so for some of Urmson’s “basic rules,” like honesty (though we may still be silently judgmental).

Pybus argues that morality is not a set of socially or legally imposed rules, but a realization of attainable values that we ought to strive for. Morality is a matter of “evaluation and action intertwined,” where our moral evaluations commit us to actions, and our moral actions are an attempt to bring about what we regard as worthwhile. If saints and heroes have done something morally good, then we all ought to be like them.

This does not mean that everyone must do exactly what they have done. It is not necessary (or desirable) for all soldiers to throw themselves on grenades or for all doctors to go to plague-ridden cities, and most of us will never find ourselves facing those specific dilemmas anyway. But if we think that certain acts of self-endangerment or self-sacrifice are good, we must believe that we too ought to perform self-endangering or self-sacrificing actions, in whatever way is appropriate to our own circumstances. Different things are difficult for different people. By praising saints and heroes, we are actually praising certain dispositions or virtues — having the courage to do what is morally necessary. And that is required of everyone: someone who goes through life fulfilling only the most basic moral requirements can be faulted. “Keeping the basic rules is not enough.”

Still, it might seem that an ethical system where every morally worthy deed is obligatory is somehow impoverished. Urmson fears that under such a system, the value of people’s most charitable and courageous acts is diminished, since they are reduced to mere fulfillment of demands. While we have no choice but to force compliance with the basic rules, free choice is generally better than constraint. It would be preferable for goodness to be encouraged rather than demanded, so that virtuous acts are done for their own sake and not from a desire to avoid condemnation.

But this concern seems misplaced. Performing an action that you deem to be morally obligatory does not amount to doing it because others demand it — presumably, you consider the action obligatory because you recognize its value. (And as previously mentioned, judging an action to be a moral duty does not necessarily require public condemnation of those who don’t do it.) Pybus argues that in distinguishing between a morality of duty and a higher morality of aspiration, Urmson unnecessarily lowers the concept of duty, while putting his ideals outside morality altogether: “I cannot at the same time say that something is a moral ideal, and feel that I have no sort of obligation to pursue it.” Moral commendation of an act implies that it exemplifies a morally worthwhile ideal; in which case it follows that we all ought to act in pursuit of that ideal.

So it seems to me that all morally relevant actions fall on a single continuum: there is no principled distinction between basic duties and the actions of heroes and saints, since they all derive their value from the same standard. We can still give special praise to those individuals who managed to do the right thing in especially difficult circumstances where many others might not have; but in doing so, we are recognizing that those saints and heroes have succeeded in being what we all ought to be.

Some people are not worth listening to January 10, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy, Science.

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes the case that questions of morality are actually questions about the well-being of conscious creatures; therefore, there are right and wrong answers to moral questions — and they can be determined (in principle) by science. A common objection to this thesis is that the notion of “well-being” is only loosely defined and continually open to modification — and in any case, there will always be people who insist that their moral values and goals have nothing to do with well-being:

I might claim that morality is really about maximizing well-being and that well-being entails a wide range of psychological virtues and wholesome pleasures, but someone else will be free to say that morality depends upon worshiping the gods of the Aztecs and that well-being, if it matters at all, entails always having a terrified person locked in one’s basement, waiting to be sacrificed.

But there is a double standard at work here, treating morality differently than we treat any other realm of knowledge. Harris suggests we consider an analogy with physical health. Like well-being,

[health] must be defined with reference to specific goals — not suffering chronic pain, not always vomiting, etc. — and these goals are continually changing. Our notion of “health” may one day be defined by goals that we cannot currently entertain with a straight face (like the goal of spontaneously regenerating a lost limb). Does this mean we can’t study health scientifically?

I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy as you are?” And yet these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously. . . .

Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science.

And what happens if someone doesn’t accept our definition of science, or its goals and methods? Well, nothing happens.

It is essential to see that the demand for radical justification leveled by the moral skeptic could not be met by any branch of science. Science is defined with reference to the goal of understanding the processes at work in the universe. Can we justify this goal scientifically? Of course not. . . .

It would be impossible to prove that our definition of science is correct, because our standards of proof will be built into any proof we would offer. What evidence could prove that we should value evidence? What logic could demonstrate the importance of logic?

The same is true regarding morality. Ever since David Hume, it has been widely accepted that there is an unbridgeable gap between facts and values: that no description of how the world is could tell us how it ought to be. According to Harris, this is an illusion.

Asking why we “ought” to value well-being makes even less sense than asking why we “ought” to be rational or scientific. And while it is possible to say that one can’t move from “is” to “ought,” we should be honest about how we get to “is” in the first place. Scientific “is” statements rest on implicit “oughts” all the way down. When I say, “Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen,” I have uttered a quintessential statement of scientific fact. But what if someone doubts this statement? I can appeal to data from chemistry, describing the outcome of simple experiments. But in doing so, I implicitly appeal to the values of empiricism and logic. What if my interlocutor doesn’t share these values? What can I say then? As it turns out, this is the wrong question. The right question is, why should we care what such a person thinks about chemistry?

So it is with the linkage between morality and well-being: To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal) because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. . . . No framework of knowledge can withstand utter skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying.

This type of skepticism is no more a problem for an objective morality than it is for any other branch of science. Consensus is not a prerequisite for truth; in any domain of knowledge, some opinions must be excluded from the discussion.

I don’t think we can intelligibly ask questions like, “What if the worst possible misery for everyone is actually good?” … We can also pose questions like “What if the most perfect circle is really a square?” or “What if all true statements are actually false?” But if someone persists in speaking this way, I see no obligation to take his views seriously. . . .

On the subject of morality, as on every other subject, some people are not worth listening to.