On morality and moral responsibility: a final response to Uncle Eric

I wasn’t going to prolong my interchange with Eric MacDonald about “ways of knowing,” as I think we’ve both made our disagreement clear (and let me emphasize again the affection and respect I have for the man), but I want to make a few points connected with Eric’s latest response to me at at Choice in Dying: “Is there a science of morality?

As I interpret it, Eric sees that there are indeed “moral truths” that can be discerned through reason and empirical observation (but not through “science”), while I maintain that what we call “moral truths” aren’t really “truths” in any meaningful sense, but guidelines for behavior that either evolved or were socially constructed to meet certain ends.

Eric starts by taking apart a recent post at Rationally Speaking (presaging a book to be called The Moral Arc of Science) in which Michael Shermer defends the view that morality can be grounded through science. Here’s Eric’s take on Shermer’s claim that the conquest of polio is an objective moral good:

Now, no doubt much moral good went into the achievement of the result, but whether the result itself is a moral good we may question. It is a social good, certainly, and the outcome of much moral good by individuals. But the actual reduction of numbers of polio cases from 350,000 to 222 is not, by ordinary measures, what we think of as a moral good. It is a social good which is the outcome of a great deal of hard work and dedication by many people, many of whom were driven by moral considerations.

I would argue that, in the end, what we see as moral goods are really social goods, and we should jettison the notion of morality in favor of understanding what we really mean by saying an act is “moral.”

I further argue that we’ll find that, at bottom, morality consists of a series of behaviors designed to achieve certain social aims—or that evolved largely as a way to promote individual welfare through cooperation of individuals in small ancestral groups.  It’s likely that much of our “moral intuition” is based on evolution, and that evolution occurred in circumstances that no longer obtain. Ergo we must reexamine our “intuitive” morality. If we find that any of our evolved “moral” ideas are inimical to society—as, perhaps, is the xenophobic idea that we should treat members of our society better than members of foreign societies—we should get rid of them.

This does not mean that I think that morality is somehow objectively determined through reason and evidence. That’s because one first has to determine what one means by “social goods,” and that is often a matter of preference that can be immune to evidence.

Is abortion immoral? Try deciding that one objectively! But if we first construct the subjective dictum that “It is all right to abort a fetus before birth if that is the mother’s preference” (my own view of the situation), then we can say that abortion is moral. My view rests on the fact that fetuses are not sentient, and therefore have fewer “rights” (indeed, if they have any) than does the mother. But how can one argue objectively about what rights fetuses possess?  How can one argue that “if it’s inconvenient for a mother to have an unwanted child, it is not immoral to abort the fetus,” and maintain that this is an objective truth? Against that claim we have all the faithful (and others) who argue, immovably, that a fetus is a potential human being, and thereby has rights.  That is not subject to objective adjudication.

As I argued before, we should figure out why we think things are moral, and then adjust our “morality” to see if it meets the goals of having a code of behavior. Is it really bad to torture someone if there’s a 50% probability that that torture will save the lives of many others? That strikes many as innately immoral, but why? Getting us to think about such issues was, I believe, Sam Harris’s goal in writing The Moral Landscape. We shouldn’t automatically defer to our innate feelings of morality, but rather should delve deeper into the reasons things strike us as “moral” or “immoral”.

In the end, that exercise will, I think, result in deep-sixing the idea of morality in favor of, as one reader suggested, characterizing behaviors as “good or bad for society.” Maybe we think it’s bad to torture not because it’s inherently wrong, but because a society in which any torture is permitted would be dysfunctional. That’s something that can, in principle, be subject to empirical study.

And so I think there’s a lot of good in Sam’s neo-utilitarian approach, despite its many problems. (Two of these are deciding how to measure well being and how to adjudicate different forms of well being). What we call “morality” can be put on a scientific footing, but ultimately must rest on subjective judgments about the good and the right. Most of these judgments (indeed, perhaps the vast majority) will, I think, come down to “well being” or “social goods” when examined closely. But subjective judgments cannot produce “moral truths.”

Finally, Eric takes issue with my idea that we should dispense with the idea of moral responsibility:

I would be remiss here, however, if I did not also address one of Jerry’s central concerns, which he expresses in the following terms:

I am starting to think that we should dispense with the idea of “moral” and “immoral” acts for two reasons. The first is because morality is implicitly connected with free choice, that is, with “free will.” If one can’t choose one’s acts freely, that one can’t decide to be “moral” or “immoral.” Rather, as a consequentionalist, I’d replace “morality” with what it really means for most people, “the effects of an act on an individual or society.” Thus an “immoral act” might better be seen as “an act that reduces societal well being.”

In response to this what more can I say than that I disagree with the claim that we can give no sense either to freedom or to moral responsibility? This is a fundamental disagreement which is not susceptible to scientific proof, at least at present, in very much the same way that consciousness is unamenable to scientific explanation. Besides this, defining immorality in terms solely of a reduction to social well-being seems to me inadequate to what we normally mean when we speak of morality, which is as or more important in the context of individual relationships than it is on the scale of whole societies. Indeed, one of the besetting problems of utilitarianism is that it seems unable to deal with the more immediate concerns of individuals, and, indeed, in its classic form, would legitimate actions which most people rightly take to be immoral.

I stand by my claim that, in light of determinism of human behavior (which leads to my rejection of dualistic free will), we should reject the idea of “moral responsibility” and replace it with the simple notion of “responsibility.”

Consider this: a man who kills someone because of a brain tumor that causes aggression (viz., Charles Whitman), is deemed to be not morally responsible.  But someone who robs a gas station and kills the cashier is deemed morally responsible. But if neither person has a free choice about their behavior. If both behaviors are the ineluctable results of genes and environments, then why is one person seen as morally responsible and the other not?  It’s not that one person could have chosen to act differently while the other couldn’t.  Neither could have chosen to act differently. And if you can’t choose freely, if your behaviors are determined, then what sense does the notion of “moral responsibility” make?

Now you might say that we need the concept of moral responsibility as a sort of social glue. I don’t believe that, for I think the simple notion of “responsibility” will suffice. If you’re responsible for something bad, sanctions must be applied, no matter whether you had a real and free choice. Those sanctions are leveled for rehabilitation of the offender, protection of society, and to serve as an example to deter others. The notion of “morality” has nothing to add; indeed; it complicates matters by implying the false idea that offenders could have made a different choice. (I hasten to add that the sanctions applied to the victim of a brain tumor will differ from those applied to someone who kills because he came from a terrible environment and was abused as a child.)

Finally, I want to point out that Eric implicitly admits that there can be no objective standards of morality:

It may be true that moral philosophy does not reach assured conclusions in the way that science does; but it may, for all that, be the nature of the human condition that these things are undecidable in a strict sense, yet, at the same time, be such that the continuing discussion of morality is the way in which morality’s objectivity, as an aspect of our understanding of being human, is maintained. Absolute moral conclusions are probably, simply as absolute, immoral, because morality, given the nature of being human, cannot arrive at absolute principles that are valid for everyone. . .

Well, if absolute moral conclusions are impossible because there are no moral principles “that are valid for everyone,” then how can there be “moral truths”? After all, scientific truths, while always provisional, remain valid for everyone. Antibiotics work irrespective of your ethnicity, nationality, or religion.

112 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    “… why is one person seen as morally responsible and the other not? … The notion of “morality” has nothing to add.

    “Moral” responsibility just means responsibility that is amenable to deterrence and social opprobrium. Those are the reasons that evolution has programmed us with moral sentiments. The person with the brain tumour will not be affected by social opprobrium and so is not “morally” responsible.

    The biggest red herring in all this is the idea that morals are in some way “absolute”. Ditching that idea does not mean doing away with “morality” or “moral responsibility”, it just means properly understanding what morality is — a pragmatic system like our immune system or our aesthetic senses, cobbled together to do a job, but no more “absolute” than either of those.

    • Gary W
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how the word “moral” adds anything here. What kind of responsibility is not amenable to deterrence? I’d like see some examples of this supposed non-moral, non-deterrable responsibility.

      • Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        An earthquake can be “responsible” for (= primary cause of) someone’s death, yet not be “morally” responsible.

        Morals and moral responsbility are concepts programmed into us by evolution to facilitate and police how we interact with other members of our own species, they are all about social approval and opprobrium.

        If you want to ditch the word “moral” here (as Jerry sees to want to, considering it tainted by the concept of “absolute” morals), then you’ll then need to invent a word that amounts to the same thing.

        There is nothing wrong with ideas of morality, as soon as one ditches the false idea that they are in any way objective or absolute.

        • Marta
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

          I think your use of “responsible” is not the first definition of the word.

          My dictionary (copyright 1966–hey, it was my Dad’s) lists 1)expected or obliged to account; answerable; accountable and 2)involving accountability.

          “Responsibility” to the typical user implies agency. An earthquake might be the reason I didn’t sleep through the night, but I don’t hold it “responsible”. My neighbor, on the other hand, whose dog barks all night long, yeah, I’m holding him responsible if the dog disrupts my sleep. (Notice, too, that I’m holding the owner responsible. Not the dog.)

          • Posted February 21, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

            It’s cheaper to apply persuasion to the dog owner than the dog. The dog is responsible in a causal sense (but then again so is the big bang or anything in the chain of causes). I don’t think responsibility should refer to those things. Responsibility can just mean responsive to moral persuasion: response-able.

            As far as what the word moral adds, primarily an indication that persuasive tools SHOULD be used (which is normative) rather than that they could have an effect on a certain agent (which is descriptive).

            That is to say that descriptively the dog owner is probably response-able about many things. (S)he is responsible for any behaviors or actions which persuasion could alter the strength/recurrence likelihood of.

            The dog owner is morally responsible in the context of moral system X if, according to the prescriptions or proscriptions of moral system X, the dog owner should have persuasion used to alter behavior AND they are (believed to be) able to change due to such persuasion (which is kind of baked in due to “ought implies can”).

        • Gary W
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          An earthquake can be “responsible” for (= primary cause of) someone’s death, yet not be “morally” responsible.

          If you’re using “responsible” to refer merely to causation then I think it’s highly misleading to apply it to wrongdoing by human beings, since it is almost always understood to imply what you are calling “moral responsibility.” When we say that a murderer is responsible for the death of his victim, we generally don’t mean that he simply caused that death through no fault of his own, in the same way that an earthquake is “responsible” for someone’s death, but that he is culpable (blameworthy) for it.

          • Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            If you’re using “responsible” to refer merely to causation then I think it’s highly misleading to apply it to wrongdoing by human beings, since it is almost always understood to imply what you are calling “moral responsibility.”

            Yes I agree, and this just shows how automatically humans think of other humans as moral agents. The only exceptions are of the brain-tumour sort.

            It’s because this moral sense, and our emotional reactions to other humans, are such a core part of our nature that I don’t think we can just do away with it and drop notions of morality.

            Whether we call it “moral responsibility” or ” responsibility” makes little difference.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Gary, what does “moral” add?

      I think it adds human emotion. The immune system operates without moral sentiment, as our justice system of deterrence and punishment is supposed to operate without moral sentiment. It is supposed to be based on rule of law, on reasoned evaluation of evidence, on fairness and equality.

      As I see it, adding “moral” to responsibility adds anger, vengeance, outrage, or egotistical feelings of smug superiority, all tribal instincts that probably relate to the evolutionary basis for racism, xenophobia, murder, and war. Murder and war are often considered to be “moral”. For me what passes under the banner of morality has always seemed to involve narrow-minded parochial values that often conflict with virtues such as justice, equality, and freedom. Once upon a time slavery was morally justifiable and socially acceptable among a white tribal biblically inspired majority in the American South. So if morality is to have any use at all, it needs a lot of detoxification and sanitizing. Perhaps better to abandon the term as archaic.

      Imagine your own reactions to exactly the same crime committed in another country, in your own country, in your own community, in your neighborhood, against a member of your own family, or against your self. The crime is objectively the same violation of law or lack of social responsibility in all cases, but the moral feeling differs. This irrationality of moral feeling comes into play in our intuitions about thought experiments, such as switching tracks vs. throwing a person from a bridge to achieve the same life/death trade-off.

      This is exactly what is wrong with morality. It can’t easily be abstracted from primitive emotions and gut feeling. Too much of our common language of morality is connected with such sentiments. This kind of moral instinct in the human psyche is definitely connected to our abstract ethical principles such as the golden rule or the categorical imperative, but it lacks the same universality.

      • Gary W
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        As I see it, adding “moral” to responsibility adds anger, vengeance, outrage, or egotistical feelings of smug superiority, all tribal instincts that probably relate to the evolutionary basis for racism, xenophobia, murder, and war.

        If “moral” adds anything to responsibility-as-mere-causation, it adds an attribution of culpability — the idea that the wrongdoer deserves blame for what he did. You seem to be arguing that we should try to eliminate the concept of blame from human social relations. I can’t imagine such a society.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          No, I’m not arguing against blame. Just arguing that the idea of morality is tainted with primitive emotional gut reactions people often don’t even realize are part of their moral sense.

          • Gary W
            Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

            All moral beliefs bottom out in “primitive emotional gut reactions.” The compassion that people feel for the victim of a crime is an emotional reaction just as their thirst for vengeance against the criminal is an emotional reaction.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

              Right. You are practically making my case. These same emotional reactions tell us in our gut it is good when we kill our enemy, but wrong when we kill our neighbor.

              Ethical principles try to abstract from such specific individual emotions to find universal principles that apply to all humans, independent of how any one person feels. The golden rule, or the categorical imperative are examples. So is “turn the other cheek” and “love they enemy”, which are universal appeals that most “moral” people honor more in the breech.

              Hence my final sentence: “This kind of moral instinct in the human psyche is definitely connected to our abstract ethical principles such as the golden rule or the categorical imperative, but it lacks the same universality.”

              If there is ever to be anything like an objective system of ethics it may be derived to some degree from our moral intuitions. After all, they evolved for good reasons, so they contain some “natural” wisdom. But I think vengeance, anger, hatred, disdain, revulsion, all the moral purity related emotions need to be factored out. All of these emotions are inextricably related to human moral intuitions and the language of morality. So the idea of “morality” is a kind of springboard, but we can move beyond it to broader philosophical ethical principles. I think continuing to talk about morality has the disadvantage of being tainted by emotions in ways that are concretely specific to an individual or group’s survival, and can lead to conflicting views between individuals situated in their cultural context.

              For example, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are people with the moral conviction that God gave all the land to Israel, and Israeli killing of antisemitic terrorist Muslims is morally justified. Then there are other people with the moral conviction that all that land is Muslim land, which pleases Allah, and that acts of terror against the Zionist entity are morally justifiable. These are two groups of people answering to their gut level instincts of morality locked in irreconcilable conflict. Morality is a blinder. You can try to say that this isn’t “real” morality, or take some definitional step to change the term “morality”, but the reality remains that these are human moral emotions and intuitions at work.

              Then there are people who want to find a solution that considers the humanity of everyone involved, regardless of their race or religion or language, and that seeks a way that every human’s needs can be met to some degree of satisfaction with some kind of balanced distribution of resources and freedoms. This is a modern view that transcends human emotional morality, which is prone to taking sides. This is based on rational ethical principles. Emotional morality evolved in a context of tribal warfare. This is why we should consider it a primitive artifact of our evolution, something to be abandoned in favor of more reasoned ethics.

            • Gary W
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

              I don’t know why you think I’m making your case. If you think we should suppress “primitive emotional gut reactions” then we should suppress compassion, love and empathy as well as anger, resentment and hatred. They’re all emotions. What you actually seem to want is to keep the compassion and love and get rid of the anger and hatred. But I don’t think that’s possible, at least not without some fundamental change to human biology. And I don’t think it would be wise either.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                I’m not trying to suppress or get rid of anything. I’m not advocating behavioral modification on humans. I don’t see how you could reach that conclusion from what I wrote. That seems like going way off on an irrelevant tangent.

                I’m simply describing what some of the problems are with the concept of morality, and how it doesn’t necessarily lead us to outcomes we might reasonably wish to reach.

                Humans are able to set rational goals that in many cases allow them to overcome emotional impulses and with practice modify instinctive behavior based on reason. If not, I might have been a murderer by now. We are still evolving, which is why we have been able to transcend as a society the morally motivated justification of slavery, subjugation of women, and vilification of and denial of spousal rights to homosexuals. If we couldn’t use reason to overrule moral intuitions we would be living in a more barbaric fashion than we are today, and we would have morality itself to thank for that backwardness.

  3. Kevin Alexander
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    So, science can tel you what is but for ought you’re on your own.
    But if, however you get your moral direction, whether from philosophy (rigorous or armchair variety) from inherited feelings, from religion or just pulling it out of your ass, you can still test it as though it were an hypothesis and if it passes by increasing well being then you can call it moral knowledge cause it’s true and scientific at the same time.

  4. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I think we can have a “science of morality” in exactly the same sense and to the degree that we have a “science of cooking.”

    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      That said, I find moral philosophy as useful as culinary philosophy.

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Why are claims for “objective” moral values always so obviously anthropocentric? If a moral value is agreed upon only by all members of one particular species, does that make it truly “objective”?

    • eric
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Indeed. Physics works for praying mantises. The moral truth that one should not decapitate ones’ partner during consensual sex, not so much.

      So he doesn’t seem to be using “objective” in a strong sense in the first place. I suspect what Prof. MacDonald is calling “objective,” many philosophers and scientists would consider to be subjective.

      • Bruce S. Springsteen
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        The whole debate dissolves when the word “objective” isn’t used in shifting and vague ways.

        • Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

          This is what I found in a previous discussion with Eric.

          /@

    • Old Rasputin
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Why should we conclude that human flourishing (however vaguely defined and measured) is objectively inferior to the flourishing of, say, polio virus? How could it be a moral “truth” (of the same sort as the inverse square law of gravitation) that the eradication of polio was a moral good? Humans are, to all appearances, more sentient than a virus, so if that’s your main criterion, then fine. But it’s important to make this criterion clear and admit its arbitrariness.

    • josef johann
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      Reginald, that would no more make moral values “objective” than would social agreement that the sun is a chariot riding across the sky would make that an objective claim about the sun.

      But that’s not really an issue about morality per se- that’s just a basic issue about anything that has the character of objectivity. Things that are objectively true are objectively true precisely in virtue of their being independent of any social agreement.

      So a person who really believes in moral objectivity would never appeal to social acceptance to ground the objective character of any moral claim.

  6. TJR
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    In Eric’s piece he writes:

    “All knowing requires reasons and evidence”

    This suggests that the big difference between Eric and Jerry is indeed that Eric uses a narrow “men in white coats” definition of science whereas Jerry uses a broad “evidence and reason” definition.

    In Jerry’s definition of “science”, Eric is conceding Jerry’s main point.

  7. brian faux
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    How can a `punishment` serve to deter others if we have no free will?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Because it’s an environmental input to our brain that modifies our neurons and our behavior. I’ve discussed this several times on my posts about free will.

      • brian faux
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        So behaviour is somehow open to change and not set by the position of particles after the big bang?

        • gbjames
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

          Maybe I’m dense, but I’m not getting what your point is.

        • Brygida Berse
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          So behaviour is somehow open to change and not set by the position of particles after the big bang?

          It’s both: behavior can be modified by environmental inputs AND it is determined by the laws of physics. The behavior of the person who administers the punishment (or provides another environmental input) is also determined by the same principles.

          • brian faux
            Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

            But surely the `environmental inputs` are themselves determined by previous circumstances.

            • DV
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

              Yep, back all the way to the Big Bang. :)

              I can’t keep from being sarcastic. This keeps on coming up – the suggestion that we cannot make free choices, therefore here is what we should do.

      • Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        Prof, do you think by passing close by a jail house one can decide am not going to commit a crime?
        If punishing one person would deter others, why do we still have similar crimes being committed when we have several people in jails for the same kind of offence.
        I think if we dispense with free will, we must dispense with punishment too and try to rehabilitate the person who offends.

        • Kevin Alexander
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          It only means that the ones in jail weren’t deterred. You have no idea how many were deterred because they are still at home.
          What your computer does is determined by how it’s made, what software you have and what you do with the keyboard
          The knowledge that you can get your ass in jail if you transgress can still deter you even if you, like your computer, have no free will.

          • Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

            Kevin, do you think at the time of committing a crime where the person is weighing between getting money and being caught[pain and pleasure] when pleasure[getting the money] overrides pain[jail term] what will he choose?

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          Certainly we can use deeper knowledge of human behavior, including findings of neuroscience, to create a better corrections system. Using less punitive sentences and focusing more on building a sense of having a stake in an ordered law abiding society are approaches that can greatly improve things. But rehabilitation is hard. Understanding how to make it work, when it can work, and when it can’t work means having a deeper understanding of cognitive differences between people than we currently possess.

          Here is a really interesting article on the principle of “swift, certain, and not severe”, which has been successfully used to improve effectiveness of parole systems in several US jurisdictions. Briefly, using random verification backed by immediate and certain punishments of only a few days of jail is more effective at reducing violations than using a system where punishment is less certain, but much more severe, involving jail for the entire remaining parole or probation period.

          As I see it, the success of this approach and the failures in traditional schemes where violations are punished more severely is suggestive that we don’t have free will.

          Truly free minds would not risk the larger sentences and be deterred by the shorter ones. What causes failure seems to be more a matter of human weakness and vulnerability to temptation, not a matter of free choice. Not the result one would expect from free minds making moral choices. Certainly a free will would correctly value time. Why wouldn’t it if were free? So the results are what one would expect of deterministic intelligence making probabilistic choices heavily swayed by involuntary desires and emotions.

  8. Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    If you haven’t read it already, you should read Peter Singer’s 2005 paper, “Ethics and Intuitions.” You can probably get it online through your university. You’ll find it very amenable.

    As for deciding things objectively, there seem to be two different questions:

    (Q1) How do we decide objectively that abortion is permissible?
    (Q2) How do we decide that abortion is objectively permissible?

    I’m happy to say that we don’t, in the former case, since we all make our judgments from particular positions.

    But about the latter question, there’s still a huge debate over whether there are ethical facts that are

    objectively true: true such that their truth does not depend constitutively on anyone’s attitudes or situation.

    There are hundreds of book pages written in the past ten years defending objective ethical truths, so the question really can’t be dealt with in comments or posts, unless you want to devote an entire post to an argument that there are no objective (in the sense boldfaced above) ethical truths. I’d like to see that post, in numbered premises and conclusions, if you want to make that debate available directly for your commenters’ perusal.

    All I have space for here, probably, is an appeal to authority: It seems now to be the dominant position in metaethics that there are objective ethical truths–even though, as mentioned, that doesn’t mean there are any that are decided objectively.

    • Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      It seems now to be the dominant position in metaethics that there are objective ethical truths

      I’m amazed that this is still being debated in philosophical circles. It seems to me blatantly obvious that there are no “objective” ethical truths (as you have defined it), and indeed that that concept does not even have any sensible meaning.

      I admit that argument by stating something to be “blatantly obvious” is as bad as appeal to authority. ;-)

      • Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        Hi coel,

        If you’re only going to read one book defending objective ethical truths, it should be Mike Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism. He directly addresses, for example, the evolutionary anti-ethical objectivism argument.

        I would just like to see a valid deductive argument such that all of its premises are more overall justified than

        It is objectively (in the boldfaced sense) wrong to torture children for fun.

        and the conclusion is that there are no objective ethical truths.

        • Gary W
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          I would just like to see a valid deductive argument such that all of its premises are more overall justified than

          It is objectively (in the boldfaced sense) wrong to torture children for fun.

          You’re the one asserting that there are objective ethical truths (such as the example you state above), so you have the burden of producing an argument (with justified premises) to support that assertion.

        • Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          … more overall justified than: “It is objectively (in the boldfaced sense) wrong to torture children for fun.”

          As I see it there is no justification for that claim at all, and indeed I still don’t have any conception of what it means. Thus more or less any account of subjective morals based on evolutionary programming to facilitate social cooperation would (as I see it) be more justified.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Yes, could we please see 6 or 7 examples of these “objective ethical truths” please? I presume they are not so arcane that the average person couldn’t understand them.

      I’m waiting. . . .

      • eric
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        Here are some.

        1. Upon birth, babies are to be released immediately into the wild, never cared for (spiders).

        2. Upon becoming head of a new household, the man should kill all the infants born from the prior head of household (lions).

        3. Sex is a perfectly fine way to cement a friendship. Or say you’re sorry. Or get someone to give you food. Or accomplish any number of of ther social goals (bonobos).

        4. Women should be free to decapitate and eat their mates during (consensual) coitus (mantises).

        5. The biggest and strongest eat first; everyone else gets leftovers (multiple species).

        Obviously the above is all satire. The point is, if ethics were really “objective,” we’d have to conclude that there’s a lot of animals running around out there committing highly unethical behavior.

      • Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        A more basic question that asking for examples of “objective ethical truths” is to ask what the concept actually means.

        What does it mean to say: “It is objectively unethical to do X”?

        Given Tom’s definition, no reference to anyone’s opinions, feelings, values or happiness is allowed in answering.

        Further, simply re-stating the claim by using close synonyms is circular, so mere rephrasing in terms of what one “ought” or “should” do is also not allowed.

        Have any of the philosophers defending objective ethics ever answered this basic question?

      • Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Jerry,

        As always, I really appreciate your taking the time to respond.

        I’ll borrow Mike Huemer’s (Ethical Intuitionism, p. 102) list:

        1. Enjoyment is better than suffering.

        2. If A is better than B and B is better than C, then A is better than C.

        3. It is unjust to punish a person for a crime they did not commit.

        4. Courage, benevolence, and honesty are virtues.

        5. If a person has a right to do something, then no person has a right to forcibly prevent them from doing that thing.

        It may be that not everyone will agree with all of these, and it may be that no one can objectively discover any of these, but neither of those facts would be inconsistent with these being objectively true, in the boldfaced sense.

        As I implied in my comment, I doubt very strongly that anyone could frame an explicit argument against the objective ethical truth of any of these such that all of its premises are more overall justified than all five of these propositions.

        • Gary W
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          1. Enjoyment is better than suffering.

          There’s that word “better” again. What exactly do you mean by “better” here? “Better” by what standard of better/worse? In our previous exchanges, you said you aren’t referring merely to preference (i.e., enjoyment is preferable to suffering), so what exactly do you mean?

          • Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

            Hi Gary W (and Gregory Kusnick),

            Since both of you made essentially the same point, I’ll save some space and time.

            Everyone knows what ‘better’ means. (It means ‘more good,’ or ‘surpassing in overall value,’ or ‘worth more,’ or ‘more preferable.’)

            It’s not easy to define, since it’s such a basic concept. But I guess I’ll be satisfied if only those who have the concept of ‘better’ are ethical objectivists.

            Gregory, as for #4, I don’t think it applies to all sentient beings. (That’s not required by the definition of ‘objective.’)

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted February 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

              That’s not required by the definition of ‘objective.’

              Where I come from, an objective fact is one that can be independently verified by observers of any species or cultural background. The truth of such facts does not depend on individual attitudes, situations, or cultural context. Unless I’ve misunderstood you, this context-free notion of objectivity seemed to be what you were getting at with your boldface definition.

              “Courage is a virtue” does not meet that standard. “Courage is deemed virtuous by members of society S” does, but says nothing about the intrinsic or objective virtuousness of courage.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          Point 2 is also meaningless without a clear definition of “better than”. Transitivity does not hold for all relations (try replacing “better than” with “the opposite of”). So without knowing what “better than” is supposed to mean, we’re in no position to says it’s transitive.

          Also, anyone who thinks point 4 must apply to any sentient being simply lacks imagination about the possible forms sentience may conceivably take. (See eric’s list above.)

        • Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          Re 1., masochism?

          /@

        • Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

          Hi Tom,

          Of your 5 propositions, 4 (1, 2, 3 & 5) are tautologies, following from the meanings of the terms, whereas the 5th (no 4) is simply a description of what humans consider to be virtuous.

          I don’t think that any of these qualify as “objective ethical truths” in the sense of “is is wrong for X to do Y”.

          • Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

            Hi coel,

            Tautologies are objectively true, right?

            (I don’t agree that they are tautologies. Enjoyment and suffering are defined by the character of those experiences. If you look up ‘enjoyment’ in a dictionary, it doesn’t say ‘better than suffering.’ And so on.)

            Whether #5 is merely a descriptive of what we consider to be virtuous is precisely what’s at issue. #5 isn’t the claim that people consider those to be virtues; it’s the claim that they are virtues.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      There are hundreds of book pages written in the past ten years defending objective ethical truths, so the question really can’t be dealt with in comments or posts, unless you want to devote an entire post to an argument that there are no objective (in the sense boldfaced above) ethical truths…

      All it would take for you to burst the “no objective ethics” balloon is one valid example. It’s too bad the hundreds of pages written on the topic do not enable you to do so.

      All I have space for here, probably, is an appeal to authority: It seems now to be the dominant position in metaethics that there are objective ethical truths…

      All the worse for mataethics. I’m going to save this one up for the next “modern philosophy is useless cr*p” flame war.

      • Vaal
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Reginald Selkirk,

        “All it would take for you to burst the “no objective ethics” balloon is one valid example.”

        Example of an objectively true ethical statement:

        The desire to rape is a bad desire.

        If the goal/desire theories of morality are sound, that’s an objectively true statement, and if you deny it you are objectively wrong.

        Of course, handling all the questions and objections takes quite a bit of theory-building, not too suited to blog (sorry web-site) comment sections.

        And it’s important to point out that moral realism theories are no more committed to having absolute certainty in their answers than are any other statements about the world including our scientific statements.
        Nor is the realist committed to absolutes – statements that admit of no exceptions.

        But in a nutshell, the moral theory I would reference posits desire-fulfillment as the foundation of value, and we get reasons for “ought” statements from our desires and inferring what actions are most likely to fulfill desires. Moral statements concern those desires which tend to fulfill other desires (“good” desires). Another way of putting it is: the difference between everyday prudential “oughts” and “moral oughts” is that moral oughts are a subsection of “oughts” – they concern the desires we have reasons to promote among one another.

        Someone saying “the desire to rape is bad” is claiming that the desire to rape is one that has the tendency of thwarting desires (so far as our desires give us our reasons for acting) – and it’s a desire that we have reasons to condemn among one another. It’s either objectively true or false that the desire to rape would have the tendency to thwart desires – both the raped and the desires-to-rape-that-go-unfulfilled – if it is increased in frequency and strength in a society, and even before putting it to scientific study (in principle, possible) it would be hard for anyone to make a reasonable case against this claim.

        Again, that’s just an outline and it’s not unreasonable to point out it takes more than discussion in a comments section to flesh it out.

        Vaal

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          Vaal, all we’d need to disprove your claim is one example of a species in which sex is primarily non-consensual, in which males typically ambush females for purposes of copulation. I don’t know of such an example off the top of my head, but I’m certainly not prepared to say there aren’t or couldn’t be any such.

          If what you meant was “A human male’s desire to rape a human female is a bad desire”, then you’ve just forfeited any claim to objective truth in Tom’s boldface sense, since you’ve now conditioned this “truth” on human attitudes and situations.

          • gbjames
            Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            One might consider sex among the bedbugs.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCD2VoEjbr0

          • Vaal
            Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

            Gregory,

            Moral statements (on this view) are statements of praise or condemnation meant to influence the desires of entities that can be influenced by such statements.

            So finding just *any* insect or animal that engage in non-consensual sex won’t mean anything. If a fish or bear can’t understand or be persuaded not to rape by telling it “rape is wrong” and giving the reasons it is wrong, then applying such “ought” statements don’t make sense. But they do to creatures like us who can communicate to one another about our desires/ends and who can rationalize action plans to meet those ends and consider reasons to choose among those plans, etc.

            As for this: “A human male’s desire to rape a human female is a bad desire”…

            First, rape is inherently desire-thwarting. It’s what it means to rape (to force sex on someone against their desire). If some other creature with moral faculties “raped” it would be “wrong” for just the same reasons, so long as it thwarted the victim’s desires. If we were just talking about some form of rough sex acts that for all the world *looked* to us like rape, but actually fulfilled the desires of both sides of the act, then we’d have no reason to condemn it.

            (In fact, something like this has been slowly realized over time especially in Western societies concerning homosexual sex.
            Most heterosexuals have been mortified by the prospect of homosexual sex – it just “feels wrong” because it goes against our own desires. But more people have come to accept homosexuality as not being a moral wrong realizing that what may be off-putting to us is a consensual and mutual desire-fulfilling act for homosexuals. And thus, whatever our own inclinations, we haven’t good basis to condemn the act).

            Vaal

            • Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

              Why is thwarting someone else’s desires objectively wrong (as oppose to being wrong in the opinion of some or all humans)?

            • Gary W
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

              First, rape is inherently desire-thwarting. It’s what it means to rape (to force sex on someone against their desire).

              Rape thwarts the desire of the rape victim, but satisfies the desire of the rapist. So by your definition of morality (fulfillment of desires), if the desire of the rapist to rape is stronger than the desire of the victim not to be raped, why is the rape immoral?

              • Vaal
                Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

                Re rape:

                In the rape scenario you have one desire being fulfilled, another thwarted. Rape inherently thwarts desire. Can we find a “better” desire to promote/instill that will have the greater tendency to fulfill desires?
                How about “A desire to have sex only when the other person also desires to have sex with you.”

                If THAT desire replaced the desire to rape, then the “rapist” would not have a desire to rape in the first place (and wouldn’t have such a desire thwarted if he couldn’t rape).
                Instead this desire for consensual sex would be inherently desire fulfilling – fulfilling the desires of BOTH parties. That’s why it would be a better – a morally “good” desire – to promote vs the desire to rape.

                Again, (on this theory) moral desires are the desires we have reasons to promote in other people. Would the rapist have good reasons for promoting the desire to rape in his victim? No…the rapist doesn’t want to be forced into sex against his will. He would have reasons to promote the desire for consensual sex in the other person, so that he himself, or people he loves, are not put at risk by other desires-to-rape. And for the same reasons, the other persons he deals with will have reasons to promote the same desire in him.

                After all, what other reasons DO we have (or could we have) to make sense of why we would be trying promote the desire for sex to be consensual rather than promote the desire to rape?

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

                You simply haven’t answered the question I asked. I’m not talking about “a desire to have sex only when the other person also desires to have sex with you.” I’m talking about rape (your example). In a rape, the rapist desires to have sex with his victim against the victim’s will. That’s what makes the act rape rather than consensual sex. So again I ask: by your definition of morality (fulfillment of desires), if the desire of the rapist to rape his victim is stronger than the desire of the victim not to be raped, why is the rape immoral?

                Again, (on this theory) moral desires are the desires we have reasons to promote in other people.

                Huh? How can a desire be “moral?” You defined morality in terms of the fulfillment of desires. A desire itself is neither moral nor immoral. Desires are just desires.

              • Vaal
                Posted February 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                “Huh? How can a desire be “moral?” You defined morality in terms of the fulfillment of desires. A desire itself is neither moral nor immoral. Desires are just desires.”

                No. Desires themselves are objects of valuation.

                Many desires are malleable, via social interaction (society, culture, etc). That is why one culture may desire a preponderance of one type of food over another, or why if I were an Afghan man I would likely desire my woman be kept in a cloth bag, or if you were born in the USA south at a certain time, you would likely desire a slave, etc.

                Desires are malleable via tools like praise/condemnation/reward/punishment. So we can ask questions like “What desires OUGHT we promote in society and which desires OUGHT we discourage and condemn?” Since the only answer to such value questions, the only basis for “oughts” and “reasons for actions” concerns desire fulfilment, then a desire would be evaluated on it’s tendency to fulfill other desires (good) or thwart other desires. Something’s tendency to fulfill desire is the only way it can attain “value” or “goodness.” So desires certainly can be evaluated by their tendency to fulfill desires.

                As I keep saying, the other angle or way of stating this is to ask “what desires do we have reasons to promote in our fellow creatures?” The only reasons for actions (e.g. the action of promoting a desire) can come from whether “promoting the desire would be desire-fulfilling.” You may have a desire to rape…prudentially…but this won’t translate to a moral desire – one that you ought to promote in others – because it won’t bear any reasoned defines to do so. You won’t want to be forced into sex against your will, and likely wouldn’t like others you like or love to be put in that situation either. So you have better reasons to promote the desire for consensual sex in other people than you would for promoting their desire to rape. And THEY have essentially the same reasons to condemn the desire for rape in you and other people and to promote the desire that sex be consensual.

                So back to your question about the strength of the rapist’s desires vs the victim. Moral desires are those we have reason to promote among one another in a society. Does the rapist have a good reason to promote the desire-to-rape in other people, including his intended victim? No. Does his victim? No. So it can’t be a “good” desire, a moral desire…lacking this type of universalization it may be prudent for the rapist to rape his victim (would fulfill his own desire) but we can not say it is MORAL for him to desire to rape, since it fails to be make it into the category of desires people have reasons to promote universally among other people.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

                I don’t know what “objects of valuation” is supposed to mean. You defined morality in terms of the fulfillment of desires. By that definition, desires themselves have no moral content. Desires are just desires. Actions have moral content by virtue to the degree to which they fulfill desires.

                If you’re now saying that you think desires themselves have moral content, and that some desires are more moral/immoral than others, then you need a new moral theory to account for that. Why are desires themselves moral or immoral? What makes some desires more moral/immoral than others?

                If you’re arguing that morality is defined in terms of *maximizing* the fulfillment of desires, then rape is moral if it tends to fulfill desires more than thwart desires. Your claim that rape “inherently” thwarts desires is simply wrong. It fulfills some desires (the desires of the rapists, for example) and thwarts others (the desires of the victims not to be raped). On your account, whether rape is moral depends on which effect is greater.

              • Vaal
                Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

                Gary W,

                Desires are just desires. Actions have moral content by virtue to the degree to which they fulfill desires.

                ANYTHING has value to the degree it fulfills desires. If you can ask the question “Will X tend to fulfill desires” then it has value. We may value water because it helps cause our crops to grow, so we value water for it’s necessity for some desire(s) to be fulfilled. The same can be said of desires themselves. Yes actions will fulfill desires, but since desires cause our deliberate actions (provide our reasons for actions) then some desires are more valuable than others in terms of their propensity as a cause for desire fulfillment. The desire to cooperate, for instance, is a desire that tends to be mutually desire-fulfilling when promoted among people living together (you help me fulfill my desires, I help you fulfill yours, we promote stronger cooperation desires over stronger selfish desires).

                The thing is people who profess to doubt this logic don’t seem to come up with actual reasons to doubt it. Why DO you think we want to generally promote desires like those for cooperation, caring for each other, mutual love, respect for one another’s autonomy, for sex to be consensual and not one-sided rape, etc? If you can make sense of all these things without explicit or implicitly founding them on the tendency for desire thwarting and fulfilling, please do so. It would be an easy way to show how this value theory is wrong.

                As to rape:

                “then rape is moral if it tends to fulfill desires more than thwart desires.”

                Yes, that’s right. Rape WOULD be moral if the desire to rape had the tendency to fulfill more and stronger desires as it became a stronger and more prevalent desire in a society. But can you paint any remotely realistic scenario in which this would be the case?

                “Your claim that rape “inherently” thwarts desires is simply wrong.”

                That statement concerns the observation that rape REQUIRES the thwarting of desire in order for it to be “rape.” The rapist must be forcing sex in contradiction to the desires of his victim…or it’s not rape, it’s consensual sex. So desire thwarting is an inherent, built-in feature of what we mean by “rape.” This is not true of, say, the “desire for sex to be consensual” or “the desire to help one another when in need.”
                They do not have desire-thwarting as logically necessary feature, or built into their very definition as with rape.

                Vaal

              • Vaal
                Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

                ^^^ Sorry, that first paragraph is yours Gary and should have been in quotes.

                Cheers,

                Vaal

    • Vaal
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Coel, (and others with the same questions)…

      An “objective moral statement” – for instance “It is wrong to torture children for fun” – can be understood to mean the proposition has truth value in the same way we consider “the sun is larger than the earth” to have objective truth value. The claim is in principle objectively true or false, and if it’s true, anyone holding the opinion that it is false is objectively wrong.

      How would moral statements have such truth value? By being statements
      about the relationship between goals/desires and actions that would (or would not) fulfill goals and desires. In the same way that to say “Given your desire to live longer, you ought not swallow that glass of cyanide poison” is an objectively true statement about the relationship of your “desire to live” and the facts about the likely result of drinking cyanide.

      The fact that subjective goals and desires are part of the equation no more makes morality “subjective” than the fact that random chance mutations being part of the evolution equation therefore means “evolution is random chance.” You have to look at the whole structure of the claims involved.

      Take the problem of the “is/ought” division (I’m presuming you are familiar with it).
      It seems more and more moral/ethical philosophers have been converging on the idea that it is “goals” or “desires” that provide the bridge from “is” to “ought” statements. IF you have a goal in mind, or a desire, then based on facts about human beings and facts about the world, you can start making objectively true or false claims about which actions are more likely to achieve those goals/desires.
      If someone says “if you want your rocket to reach Mars, you ought to build it out of straw” then they are making an objectively false statement, as determined by facts we can investigate about the world.

      Since, to make any sense at all, “ought” statements would require this appeal to desires/goals and to actions that would be likely to fulfill those desires/goals, that goes for any moral statements as well. To say “We ought to respect as much as possible the autonomy of others” or “You ought not rape” would be appealing to goals or desires, for which those prescribed actions either ARE objectively likely to fulfill, or are not. It is something about which mere opinion doesn’t settle the matter: you can be objectively wrong or right about your moral statement.

      Now, the discussion about what moral prescriptions would make sense goes on to even deeper territory, but you should be able to see that in understanding “ought” statements as claims about actions that will or will not fulfill our goals and desires, that objective truths are IN PRINCIPLE possible due to this relationship. And that ought statements would not be subjective simply because they have a subjective COMPONENT to the relationships being referenced.

      (As it happens, as I’ve blathered here before, I agree with a theory in which morality would concern those subset of desires we have reasons to promote among one another, due to the tendency of those desires to fulfill other desires).

      Vaal

      • Gary W
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        You’re just redefining morality to refer to a functional relationship between ends and means. That doesn’t answer the “ought” question. Just because it is objectively true that action X will accomplish your goal Y doesn’t mean you ought to take action X.

        • Vaal
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          Gary W,

          “You’re just redefining morality to refer to a functional relationship between ends and means.”

          But that just begs the question. By saying I’m “re-defining” morality, it assumes some other definition of morality you have in mind that has been accepted (and/or successfully defended) as a standard. But since this argument concerns the very nature of morality – what moral statements could mean – you can’t simply assume whatever definition/account of morality you have in order to dismiss this account of morality. You need an argument for the other definition/account of morality.

          “Just because it is objectively true that action X will accomplish your goal Y doesn’t mean you ought to take action X.”

          Yes it does. If this theory is sound. The theory makes sense of “ought” statements by pointing out that ought statements concern actions – prescriptions and proscriptions for actions – e.g “You ought to help others in need” “You ought not rape,” “You ought not steal,” “You ought to worship God” etc . And that reasons-for-actions only arise as a consequence of having desires/goals and reasoning about which actions are likely to fulfill those desires/goals. Prescriptions for actions make no sense without explicit or implicit appeal to a desire(s). This explains most of our use of prescriptive language (“What could it mean to say “you ought to put suntan lotion on” if it didn’t have as it’s basis some desire or goal, e.g. to not burn in the sun?). And if you deny this relationship, you will have to show how ought statements could make sense absent any appeal to desires or goals.

          Can you do that? I’m quite skeptical. If not, then “you ought to do X” seems best understood as “Doing X will be such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.”

          Vaal

          • Gary W
            Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            By saying I’m “re-defining” morality, it assumes some other definition of morality you have in mind that has been accepted (and/or successfully defended) as a standard.

            I think the standard definition of morality is about how one ought to act, not about how it is necessary to act in order to achieve a goal (your redefinition).

            Yes it does. If this theory is sound. The theory makes sense of “ought” statements by pointing out that ought statements concern actions – prescriptions and proscriptions for actions – e.g “You ought to help others in need” “You ought not rape,” “You ought not steal,” “You ought to worship God” etc .

            But your redefinition is not about how one ought to act. You’re defining morality in terms of how it is necessary to act to achieve some goal. That says nothing about whether one ought to take that action, or about whether one ought to achieve the goal. For example, to achieve the goal of rendering an innocent person dead, it is necessary to kill him. That doesn’t mean one ought to kill an innocent person, or that one ought to render an innocent person dead. A cause-and-effect relationship is not a moral prescription.

            And if you deny this relationship, you will have to show how ought statements could make sense absent any appeal to desires or goals.

            Desires and goals are subjective by definition. They cannot be present independently of the desiring agent. Therefore, defining morality in terms of the fulfillment of desires denies that morality is objective.

            • Vaal
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

              Gary W,

              “I think the standard definition of morality is about how one ought to act,

              Quibble: that’s problematic as it stands, since we make all sort of “ought” and “should’ prescriptive statements that no one thinks are in the moral realm (e.g. if you want to watch The Colbert Report you should/ought to switch to channel 47). So it seems more about how we ought to act *toward one another* (and possibly expanding to other creatures as well).

              But that said, simply saying morality is about how we ought to act misses that moral theories are meant to address: what would we sensibly MEAN by any “ought” statement? And are such statements of objective, subjective, relative nature?

              That’s what this approach is doing. If you don’t think that desires/goals are necessary to making sense of ought statements (of any kind) then I’m waiting for the actual argument…and what else could possibly make sense of our prescriptive statements.

              “For example, to achieve the goal of rendering an innocent person dead, it is necessary to kill him. That doesn’t mean one ought to kill an innocent person, or that one ought to render an innocent person dead.”

              Exactly. But notice it would be objectively true to say something like “If you desire to kill an innocent person you ought to render that person dead.” If someone tried to claim that allowing the victim to live would fulfil the desires/goal, they’d simply be objectively wrong, wouldn’t they?

              The example you give there is of a prudential ought. Moral oughts are simply a subset of oughts – they concern the subset of desires that tend to fulfill other desires; desires that we would have reasons to promote among one another in a society. You may desire to kill innocent people…but is that a desire that tends to fulfill desires, or thwart them, when put into action? Do you have reasons to promote the Desire To Kill Innocent People among the society in which you live? I can’t see how you would – because it put yourself in jeopardy, or others you may love. So, whatever desire you have to kill, you actually would have more reasons to promote in your fellow man their desire to respect your autonomy with respect to your own life. But guess what…for just the same reasons your fellow man has those reasons to promote the same desire in YOU! Prudential desires concern the ones for which you can have good reasons to meet your personal ends only. Moral desires
              concern the desires we have reasons to promote IN OTHER PEOPLE. So the prudential prescription for killing your innocent person is highly unlikely to translate into having reasons to promote that same desire among your fellow creatures, hence it’s not a moral desire.

              Vaal

            • Vaal
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

              Forgot this:

              “Desires and goals are subjective by definition. They cannot be present independently of the desiring agent. Therefore, defining morality in terms of the fulfillment of desires denies that morality is objective.”

              See my replies to Coel regarding that fallacy.

              Height relationships cannot be present independently of the agents in question either. Does that entail that “Charles Barkley is taller than Tom Cruise” is not an objective statement?

              We are talking about the *relationship* between desires and actions (or states of affairs) that will be, in fact, such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question. Statements about relationships can be fully objective.

              Cheers,

              Vaal

            • Gary W
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

              If you don’t think that desires/goals are necessary to making sense of ought statements (of any kind) then I’m waiting for the actual argument

              I don’t have to make any such argument. You have to make an argument as to why desires “ought” to be fulfilled.

              See my replies to Coel regarding that fallacy.

              It’s not a fallacy. You keep confusing objective facts about relationships between ends and means (“In order to achieve X, it is necessary to do Y”) with moral prescriptions (“One ought to do Y”). Under your definition of morality, for an act to have a moral character at all it must involve a subject (a desiring agent). Without a subject, there is no morality. Hence, there is no such thing as an objective moral truth.

              Height relationships cannot be present independently of the agents in question either.

              No, height relationships don’t involve agency at all. They are simply empirical facts about objects.

            • Vaal
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

              Gary W,

              “You keep confusing objective facts about relationships between ends and means (“In order to achieve X, it is necessary to do Y”) with moral prescriptions (“One ought to do Y”).”

              I’m being quite careful about this, as it is the very fact/value is/ought distinctions that this theory addresses. So it’s no “confusion.” The theory points out that ought statements concern prescriptions for actions – ALL ought statements – and the only thing that supplies reasons for actions are desires and rationalizing about what actions will fulfill desires. Hence ALL ought statements are of essentially the same kind, the same nature…but NOT of the same category. Tiger Woods and I are both human beings, but we have reasonable criteria for putting him in another category – “Professional Golfer” – that we would not put me in. Same with ought statements. All of them rely on the same logic – fulfilling desires – it’s just that the MORAL CATEGORY would contain those oughts which we can reasonably universalize, those oughts/desires for which we have reasons not simply to have ourselves, but to promote among the other people we live among.

              Calling any of this “confusion” is no argument, only assertion at this point.

              Vaal

            • Gary W
              Posted February 20, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

              No, you’re not being careful. You’re pretending that an objective fact about a relationship between action and an outcome (“In order to achieve X, it is necessary to do Y”) supports a moral prescription about how one ought to behave. It doesn’t. The fact that our actions are driven by our desires is completely irrelevant to this point. Desires are subjective, not objective. No account of morality that rests on the fulfillment of desires supports claims of moral fact or objective moral truth.

              • Martin Freedman
                Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

                This looks like the genetic fallacy? That is just because desires are subjective does not mean that their fulfilments are too.

                As James Griffin (Well-Being 1986) put it “being fulfilled cannot be understood in a psychological way. A desire is ‘fulfilled’ in the sense in which a clause in a contract is fulfilled: namely, what was agreed (desired) comes about.” and “fulfilment is a state of the world, satisfaction is a state of mind”.

                Even earlier Mackie resolved the Moore’s Open Question argument which (he says) “trades off the indeterminacy of the good” by arguing that good is be understood as “such as to satisfy the desire of the kind in question”. I think Mackie would have had no trouble with Griffin’s distinction between satisfaction and fulfilment and then you are going towards the desirist account that Vaal is arguing for.

                As Vaal noted there is a wide range of work in moral realism in the last 20-30 years and to which this blog and (most) commenters appear to be in ignorance.

                So it is a matter of fact as to whether a desire is fulfilled or thwarted and, surely, that is all the objectivity one needs to build an natural axiology? From there, one can develop a moral framework where it the desires of everyone, not just the agent, that are taken into account – somewhat similar to Railton’s social rationality model of morality. (Note do not confuse this with a desire-fulfilment utility approach, one does not need utility maximisation – with its attendant problems- to develop this further.

                Anyway busy moving flats so I can only visit occasionally so I pass the baton back to Vaal for further responses.

      • Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Vaal,

        I entirely agree that we should understand morality in terms of human goals and desires, it’s the only conception of morality that makes sense. And once you have stated those goals you can indeed then make objective statements about fulfilling them.

        However, this is not what I would understand by the term “objective” morality, it is subjective in the sense of being entirely based on our subjective goals and desires.

        As others have noted, human goals and desires are species specific, and any morality that is species specific is surely not objective.

        • Vaal
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          Coel,

          “However, this is not what I would understand by the term “objective” morality, it is subjective in the sense of being entirely based on our subjective goals and desires.”

          But it’s not *entirely* based on our goals and desires. If it were only “what I desire = moral” then yes it would be subjective. But that’s not the whole equation. Moral claims (on this view) are claims about what will IN FACT fulfill desires. You need to be right about true states of affairs, and real facts about the world, in order for the moral claim to be “true.” And we can be right or wrong about such claims – hence if your mere subjective desire or opinion were that “Rape is Good,” you’d be objectively wrong.

          I’m wondering if you missed this point I’d made:

          “The fact that subjective goals and desires are part of the equation no more makes morality “subjective” than the fact that random chance mutations being part of the evolution equation therefore means “evolution is random chance.” You have to look at the whole structure of the claims involved.”

          You don’t dismiss evolution as “random chance” because it has random chance mutation (with respect to fitness) as a necessary component, do you? It makes just as little sense to


          As others have noted, human goals and desires are species specific, and any morality that is species specific is surely not objective.”

          First, on one level there is relativism – good being relative to the desire(s) in question. But relative statements are not therefore subjective, or not objective.

          To say “I was once smaller than my mother, but now I am larger than my mother” is a statement about a relationship, just like “The sun is larger than the earth.” But these are nonetheless fully objective statements, right? They are “true” and someone having an opinion or subjective feeling that they are wrong claims would simply be objectively wrong.

          So statements about relationships can still be fully objective. (And if you do not accept “objective” in this sense, I’d ask what you mean by “objective”).

          Second, while specific ACTIONS or DESIRES will be good relative to the situation of a particular moral species (or particular society)*, the underlying moral theory would remain the same whatever the species: The only reasons-for-actions will come from considering which actions will fulfill the desire(s) in question. So the same moral math will obtain, whatever species (capable of considering such things) you will appeal to.

          Vaal

          *(No that doesn’t mean we can’t morally critique other societies…but that takes more conversation).

          • Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

            So statements about relationships can still be fully objective.

            Agreed. I’ll try to clarfiy what I meant above.

            The statement “Fred likes this painting” can be objectively true. But Fred’s like of the painting is entirely subjective. And thus the claim “the painting is beautiful” is not objectively true but is subjective.

            When I assert that morals are subjective and that there is no such thing as “objective ethical truths”, I’m not denying that there can be objectively true statements about someone’s moral system, but I am asserting that the values that determine whether something is “good” or “bad” are entirely subjective.

            By the way, in your “fullfilling desires” analysis of morals, how would you treat the case of a lion wanting to catch an antelope which wants to escape?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        Vaal, there may indeed be objective facts of the form “Desire X is more effective than desire Y at promoting some widely-accepted social good G in society S.” What makes it objectively true (or not) is the qualifier “in society S”. But that same qualifier makes it clear that this is an anthropological or sociological claim about society S, not an objective moral fact about the inherent goodness of X or Y independent of any social context.

        It’s also an empirical claim, to be settled by observation of actual societies rather than by armchair theorizing. You’re welcome to propose hypotheses of this sort, but neither proposing them nor confirming them serves to elevate them to the status of objective moral facts; they’re still facts about the social dynamics of S.

        In addition, it seems to me that your argument is somewhat question-begging. Promoting some widely-accepted social good is itself a desire, and the claim that X achieves that is just another cause-effect statement of the form “If you desire G, do X.” You still haven’t given any objective reason for desiring G — nor can you, I claim; the best you can do is put on your anthropologist hat and observe that members of S do in fact desire G.

        And if G is “widespread fulfillment of desires”, then the argument collapses to a tautology: fulfilling desires is good because it fulfills our desire that desires be fulfilled.

        • Vaal
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

          Gregory Kusnick,

          Your formulation above for why a Desire would be “good” is a little off, but I’m going to skip to this point: We are concerned with claims about the relationship between actions that will or will not fulfill desires, and about desires that, insofar as they are promoted within a society, either will or will not have the tendency to fulfill more and stronger desires overall. Yes these are empirical claims, and potentially amenable to empirical inquiry. This is one reason why the moral claims are objective, have truth values.

          That there is subjectivity (desires) and relativism (relationship of desires to current facts about what will fulfill desires) is true, but the relationships are objective empirical claims – someone having a different opinion will be as wrong as someone who has the opinion that the sun is smaller than the earth.
          (Again, an analogy: One of the propositions in the relationships described in Evolution Theory concern “randomness” of mutation w. respect to fitness – but it is not a theory of randomness or chance simply by having this component).

          Because of the objective nature of moral claims, this does not shake out to cultural moral relativism. Other societies can be completely wrong in which desires they decide to promote or condemn, if they are promoting desires and actions that tend to thwart desires generally.

          As to your tautology objection: the theory
          argues, ground up, for why desire fulfillment is the only thing that makes sense of value existing at all, provides the only reasons for actions, and underwrites and makes sense of our prescriptive claims. Take away desires, and the relationship between our desire and fulfilling the desire, and statements of value will not make sense, nor will you be able to explain our deliberate actions, the rational behind our behavior, without
          appeal to desires/goals/actions that are meant to fulfill those desires (yes this is a cognitivist theory).

          So it’s not question-begging: if the theory is right, and to me it’s the best explanation I’ve seen so far for how and why we could value anything at all, then
          value and reasons for acting DO have desire fulfillment as their foundation.

          Not that we can hammer out all these issues in a comments section.

          Cheers,

          Vaal

          • Posted February 21, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

            @ Vaal

            Can you suggest a good popular book that covers this desire/fulfilment model of morals?

            /@

  9. Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I think: there but for the grace of genes go you or I. I agree with the concept of responsibility then, but this doesn’t simplify much.

  10. SLC
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Just for the information of readers here, Mr. MacDonald is now blogging at Freethoughtblogs.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/02/19/another-coup-for-ftb/

    • gbjames
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Cool!

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Is it really bad to torture someone if there’s a 50% probability that that torture will save the lives of many others? That strikes many as innately immoral, but why?

    After millenniums of practical tests, I’m amazed that this is still a question! It is akin to asking if slavery is bad. After all, slavery saves the time and energy of many others.

    It is natural to hypothesize that torture leads to pattern search, the tortured would agree to anything that the torturer would like to read into the situation. To test this (again), let us see the US record for torturing presumed terrorists in later years.

    As far as I know the released record, such as it is, is zip. What broke the back of al-Quaida for example was economical warfare, and tearing down its then ineffectual figure head was a result of intelligence work. If anything, willful prosecution inspires more people to become terrorists.

    Presumably this is why torture is considered illegal as far as war goes.

    And since terrorists are not classical freedom fighters but modern criminals, they should enjoy jurisdictional rights of being presumed innocent until found guilty in court. Who would want to meaninglessly torture innocents, or be the innocent tortured? Proper jurisdiction would take years, and there would be little sense to torture then.

    • Gary W
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      Torture may not be a reliable method of interrogation, but that doesn’t mean it is never an effective one. In a time-critical emergency situation, where other forms of interrogation have been tried and failed, torture may be the option most likely to work. If the stakes are high enough in such a situation, torture will almost certainly be used, regardless of what the law says. Remember that no one has even been prosecuted for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques during the Bush era, let alone convicted of a crime.

  12. DV
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Does anyone seriously think the argument that we cannot make free choices is gaining any traction at all?

    What’s the difference between “moral responsibility” and plain “responsibility”? Why if humans cannot make free choices would they have even the plain vanilla “responsibility”? It seems to me just nonsensical word-play to attach all the meaning to the word “moral” and none to the word “responsibility”.

    Notice that’s there’s a lot of twisting of concepts needed to sell the incompatibilist idea – that determinism means we have no free will. Whereas, all it takes to makes sense of compatibilism is to simply realize that the “free” part of “free will” does not mean absolute freedom (it just means nobody coerced you!).

  13. Blas
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    “It’s not that one person could have chosen to act differently while the other couldn’t. Neither could have chosen to act differently.”

    So if you are right, you wrote that because you have no choice to do not write or write any other idea. As I am writing this because I have no choice. As I think that you are wrong, there is no way to know who is right, it is all about what our genes let us to do. If you are right, also if you or me change our idea, will mean nothing because it will be consequense of the chemistry of our genes too.
    Then your blog is a waste of time everything will happen according our genes and we will never know who is right.

  14. Lyndon
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Well said Jerry.

    For fun, my pet claim on why we believe in [objective] “moral truths.”

    Okay, to start, we teach little Johnny not to hit his sister not because it is the “Right” thing to do, we do it because it helps us be a better family and helps Johnny learn to get along with other people, we can also probably claim that our genes encourage us towards socialization. But things get obscured when we turn that process for bettering selves and society into the “Right” thing to do, we soon forget that the “Right” thing is no more than just the means towards better selves and social cooperation, and believe that there is a moral order to the world, perhaps because God commanded or because it just is that way.

    Alright, I claim that our psychology encourages us to think in terms of moral facts. When we tell 4-year-old Jill that “stealing IS wrong,” we inculcate beliefs about the wrongness of stealing and it is taken into her brain/mind in an absolute way. We may partially give reasons why stealing is wrong, we may play on Jill’s empathy with those reasons, but much of the wrongness of stealing is internalized as simply and absolutely wrong within Jill’s brain/mind or belief structures. That is, when we say to Jill that “stealing IS wrong” or “Do not take your brother’s toy!” what we as knowing adults actually mean is that a society where individuals violate the properties and activities of others is a world that leads to less flourishing and less happiness.

    Many of our baseline personality and beliefs hinge on these non-reasoned stances that have been drilled into our selves by the dictates of authority (and also perhaps on evolutionary structures to the brain/mind). In the end, for all of us, the wrongness of acts was something that we felt as simple givens to the world because of the authority that impressed it on us in non-reflective ways, “stealing IS wrong.” From early on, our feeling about the wrongness of acts is separated from the reasons about why such acts are problematic to society, even if we come to embrace those reasons later on. Thus we feel moral dictates to be objective givens to the world, emotionally speaking.

    Just one thought . . .

  15. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    I hasten to add that the sanctions applied to the victim of a brain tumor will differ from those applied to someone who kills because he came from a terrible environment and was abused as a child.

    So you agree that there are different categories of behavior that call for different responses from society. But you want to jettison the label (“moral responsibility”) by which we distinguish one category from the other. How does this help? If society is to accurately apportion its responses, wouldn’t it be useful to retain some taxonomy of bad behavior, instead of lumping all behaviors together under the single rubric of “equally unfree”?

    • Vaal
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point.

      Vaal

    • Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      A knowledge based approach–treat the brain tumour if possible/test if the killer with an abused child history can be rehabilitated, that is, if the killer has a disordered personality lacking empathy, then no–provides the basis for different and ultimately the most effective response.

    • gillt
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      This apparent inconsistency bothered me too. Just because causation can be easily attributed to a single, recent source (tumor), and less easily to a more historically foggy and less clearly defined source (upbringing) doesn’t imply a different treatment of sanctions.

      Different diagnoses require different treatments (e.g., surgery vs therapy) and perhaps different deterrents for future behavior if said treatments are unsuccessful. But then it would be that the person with the inoperable homicide-inducing brain tumor might be subject to the harsher/more restrictive sanction.

  16. Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I do not understand, without further clarification, the difference between responsibility and moral responsibility, at least so long as responsibility itself is still supposed to have any meaning. But perhaps that just shows that I agree with the post without understanding it completely.

    I further fail to understand what the entire point of the discussion is if the sanctions applied to the victim of a brain tumor will differ from those applied to someone who kills because he came from a terrible environment and was abused as a child. That is precisely the situation as it is now, and whatever one thinks of the word “moral” or of free will only lunatics would disagree.

  17. Roo
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Talk of maximizing what is good for society, as a stand alone concept, still makes me very squeamish. I work with students who have severe behavioral challenges. Today alone, one of them sprayed cleaner in my eyes (surprisingly, not as painful as you would expect,) and another ripped out a chunk of my hair (surprisingly, far more painful than you would expect.) They’re difficult, they require tremendous resources to be a part of society, and many of them will probably always require those resources, to a degree. But some part of me (I really want to say “my heart says”, in most life contexts I could, but I get that this is entirely inappropriate on a science website,) says that learning to really love and be compassionate towards all humans is important – challenges like these are an opportunity for growth and an important part of being human. But I can’t appeal to any concept of maximizing well-being for society to show this.

    Taken a step further, I just don’t see how maximizing what’s good for society couldn’t, hypothetically, involve removing people who will never contribute. Yes, you could say that the mere knowledge that this could happen to you or your child would create enough suffering to cancel out any increase in well-being. But say this wasn’t true? Would we sign on to this? No, I don’t think we would, but why? What do we appeal to, what principle?

    Steve Pinker also talks about the interchangeability of perspectives. I think this accounts for much of what I talk about above. And I know this will not necessarily go over well, but the religious do like to talk about how this is at the heart of every religion – do unto others. I say if there are valuable ideas within religion, it’s that much more important to extract them, to make sure religion doesn’t have exclusive “ownership rights” to such concepts. I don’t know if interchangeable perspectives is a perfect solution either, of course. People have pointed out various problems with this perspective – so perhaps some combination of utilitarianism and interchangeable perspectives (looking at anyone, in any situation, and understanding ‘That could have been me’) is where our morality emerges.

    • gbjames
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      If you want to pull some valuable ideas from religion then you must first show that such ideas exist there and only there. “Do unto others” is not a religious idea. It is a universal human idea. I don’t think you can identify ANY ideas that are good and “owned” in any way by religions. The only ideas that are unique to religion are bad ones as far as I can tell.

      • Roo
        Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        Ownership rights might be overstating it – I see what you’re saying, I think that’s true if you’re thinking of who “invented” the concept. I was thinking more like this – yesterday I went to Starbucks, and the woman at the counter offered me a blonde roast. Apparently people have come to associate this with Dunkin Donuts, so Starbucks is now hyping a couple of light blends. In a functional sense, it doesn’t matter who invented light roasts or the golden rule, but it does matter if people associate them with Dunkin Donuts or religion. In either order, I guess…

        Just saying it’s important to remember concepts that hold up regardless of context, especially if some people “go to” religion for these things. But maybe you’re saying this has never been in question in the secular movement, so no need to make as special point of it.

        I’m not sure about the blonde roast, by the way. I put about ten Splendas in my coffee so taste doesn’t matter, but I still think Dunkin’s is more caffeinated.

        • gbjames
          Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          What has never been in question in the secular movement?

          I’m not understanding your point.

          There are a lot of people who mistakenly believe that religion is the source of human morality. They are just plain wrong. People who “go to” religion to learn of the golden rule are confused. They don’t need to go there any more than they need to go there to learn how to walk, read poetry, or appreciate music.

          • Roo
            Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

            In answer to your question, I originally said “Do unto others” is, in my opinion, important, and usually strongly associated with religion. You said religion didn’t invent this concept. I said that’s true, but if it’s important to people and they associate it with religion, I, personally, think secularism should consider this a baby in the bathwater and promote this as well. Perhaps they already do, and there was never any need to discuss. Or perhaps they think it’s a really dumb idea, I don’t know – I don’t want to get all presumptuous and speak for secularism, I guess.

            • gbjames
              Posted February 19, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

              I guess I just don’t understand your point. Secularists might think the Golden Rule is a dumb idea? They might throw it out accidentally? You have lost me.

              • Roo
                Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

                My point is what I said above, that I don’t know how “The Secular Community” feels about the idea of “Do unto others”, so it would be presumptuous of me to speak on behalf of that community. If it’s pretty uniformly agreed that everyone is on board with this, well, I didn’t need to make my original point at all, it was redundant. If not, then something to consider. I don’t automatically assume everyone does value The Golden Rule, moral philosophers have such divergent ideas – they might not like it at all, for all I know.

                Anyways, if it’s still not clear I do apologize, but I feel I should probably stop the back-and-forth here. Figuring out the posting limit involves dividing the absolute value of pi by the number of cats in Zaire. Or something. So I try to just play it safe and stop when it seems like “a lot”. Happy Tuesday and, if you’re near a Starbucks, know that they have a blonde roast now!

              • gbjames
                Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

                The reason it is confusing is that it is rather like saying “I don’t really know if secularists think it is wrong to stick pins in the eyes of kittens. After all, I can’t speak for secularists.”

                The statement is sort of offensive, don’t you think?

              • Roo
                Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

                I think you’re trying to pick a fight. Bye.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

                Not really. Just trying to figure out what you are trying to say.

  18. Posted February 19, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I like the point Jerry makes here about the fact that our ideas of right and wrong probably evolved under circumstances that no longer obtain. It is by no means assured that “good” actions circa 1500 would be considered “good” today, or that those we consider so will be in another hundred years. This means that morality cannot be a set in stone. It emerges from the action of history, i.e., the real sequence of events!

  19. Posted February 19, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I think when discussing morality it is very important to define your terms. I used to have a lot of trouble distinguishing between morality and ethics (I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking since then). I think it helps to think about them in terms of the “five spheres of morality (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.)” From this perspective, ethics primarily has to do with fairness. Lying, cheating, stealing, plagiarizing, etc are all unethical. If you are the victim of one of these actions, you feel as though something was done to you that is unfair. Morality includes the other spheres. Taboo, for example. If two adult siblings have consensual (safe) sex in private and tell no one (and both enjoy it and have no regrets), it is hard to see how this may negatively affect overall human well-being. Many people, however, would still say that this is morally wrong, just because it *feels* wrong to them. This has to do with their own innate (evolved and learned) sense of morality. I doubt any rational argument could make them feel otherwise (in some or most cases, if not all). Since morality is often (if not always) a feeling, it is hard to see how there could be a universal, objective moral truth. And because of this, I agree with Dr. Coyne that the term is not helpful, and probably should be discarded.

    • cubswin84
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      I would substitute needs for morality, and suggest that the use of the word morality is embraced by us, both individuals & social groups, to make it appear that our motivations are beyond self interest. However, I don’t find any empirical evidence beyond self gratification, ie, one’s needs at any particular moment, for any act, and I assume my ever dripping brain chemistry is the determining factor.

      I have been involved in work with the disadvantaged and vulnerable throughout my life. The work is not altruistic, moral, or ethical, it just meets my needs, despite some enormous frustrations. My ethical and/or moral standards merely evolve out of, and express, my needs. They are always situational, and grow out of a range of ever evolving variables often beyond my understanding, but always directed towards my emotional self interest. To call one’s behavior moral seems to presuppose the existence of absolute standards that exist outside of, and are independent from, the human experience – just like all those religious doctrines that have stupified civilizations over time.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Agree totally. Morality seems to be pre-rational, emotional, and intuitive. For example “morality” has dictated that whites in the Jim Crow South felt revulsion about sharing the same drinking fountain or eating in the same restaurant as blacks. Morality has allowed masters beating their slaves to feel justified in punishing offences and teaching lessons about proper place in society. Morality justifies terrorism, and wars of all kinds. Morality is often appealed to in justification of killing. It seems to be a tribal hunter/gatherer social bonding and cohesion emotion, appropriate for competing tribes warring over scarce resources. It guarantees that anger, threats, and violence meet transgression, and that revulsion and disdain and shaming are heaped upon taboo and purity violations.

      Morality really has no great place in modern civilization, except to be reigned in, understood as an artifact of our evolutionary past, and controlled. If your neighbor rapes your daughter, the morally dictated reaction is to shoot him (or make him marry her and pay 50 shekels, in the Old Testament). The modern rational ethical reaction is to call the police and let a dispassionate, evidence and reason based justice system sort it out.

      Morality is human reality, but it is primitive instinct we seek to override with reason. Debates on civil rights and marriage equality are really just processes of society transitioning its source of opinion about rights from primitive moral sentiment to modern rational ethical principle.

      The Old Testament is full of morality. The New Testament has an innovation that transcends morality. It moves to a reason based override of the primitive gut reactions, as in love thine enemy, turn the other cheek, and let he who is without sin cast the first stone. It’s a more rational and universal idea that really touches on game theoretical notions of cooperation and non-zero sum interactions. This is leaving morality behind and moving toward rational ethics.

  20. Jordan Bissell
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Hi Dr. Coyne Et Al,

    C. S. Lewis’s “Poison of Subjectivism” is one of the clearest essays written on the subject of morality: well worth a read.

    Cheers,
    jb

    • gbjames
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      Especially if you are interested in the poison of xtian apologetics.

      • Jordan Bissell
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        Good point, GB: if you wish to remain a sound atheist you can’t be too careful of what you read. Alot of toxins out there, in that sense.

        • gbjames
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          You miss the point. I have no objection to reading something. The objection is to characterizing C.S. Lewis as a “clear”. He was a Xtian apologist and everything he wrote done was from that religions point of view. And religion poisons everything.


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