Moralist abandons morality

Joel Marks, a philosopher and scholar at The Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, has a very odd column in Sunday’s New York Times Opinionator: “Confessions of an ex-moralist.”  Once a firm believer in objective tenets of right and wrong, he’s now abandoned those, seeing no substantive foundation for morality,  Indeed, he sees belief in objective morality as akin to an unfounded faith in religion.  But in the end I think Marks really does have a morality; he just doesn’t call it that.

Marks starts with his former acceptance of the argument made by Plato in Euthyprho:

This would seem to be the modern, sane view of the matter. We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong that trumps even the commands of God. We have the ability to judge that God is good or bad. Therefore, even if God did not exist, we could fend for ourselves in matters of conscience. Ethics, not divine revelation, is the guide to life. That is indeed the clarion call of the “new atheists.” As the philosopher Louise Antony puts it in the introduction to a recent collection of philosophers’ essays, “Philosophers without Gods: Secular Life in a Religious World”: “Another charge routinely leveled at atheists is that we have no moral values. The essays in this volume should serve to roundly refute this. Every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong.”

But I don’t. Not any longer. . .

. . . A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.”

But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

. . . The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.

So marks has abandoned morality, asseriting that he no longer sees, or calls, things “right” or “wrong.”  He’s abandoned the language of morality, and feel liberated by this decision.  He now sees himself as “amoral.”

Yet he’s not apathetic about things that concern him, especially his  bête noire: factory farming of food animals.  But given that he can’t say this is “wrong,” what does he do? This is his attitude:

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.

So instead of arguing that factory farming is wrong, he does this:

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

This sounds to me like a distinction without a difference.  What he’s trying to do is argue a form of utilitarianism here—that if someone becomes a vegetarian, the consequences are better, for animals, for the environment, and for people themselves.  He may not call that the “right” thing to do, but it’s what he sees as a way to increase well being.  And that’s exactly what Sam Harris sees as “objective” morality.  You can argue about whether Sam’s criteria are good ones, or whether they can be applied in many circumstances, but all Marks has done has rename “morality” as “those things that have good consequences.”  Indeed, he takes morality further into the realm of objectivity when he says that what people do depends on their understanding of “information”, which of course is exactly Sam’s point.  (He also realizes that he won’t convince everyone, even if they’re “agreed on all the relevant facts.”)

At the end, I think Marks makes clear that while abandoning the notions of right and wrong, he still thinks that some things are better to do than others because they have better consequences.  I don’t see a real difference between this and morality:

For one thing, I retain my strong preference for honest dialectical dealings in a context of mutual respect. It’s just that I am no longer giving premises in moral arguments; rather, I am offering considerations to help us figure out what to do. I am not attempting to justify anything; I am trying to motivate informed and reflective choices.

But “figuring out what to do” in cases like factory farming entails understanding the consequences, and that presumes value judgements, which come perilously close to morality.  That, again, is Sam’s point: if it’s better to have more rather than less “well being,” then actions that promote the former can be seen as moral.  And in many cases I think that’s right.  In his last paragraph, Marks gives away the game:

In the process my own desires are likely to undergo further change as well, in the direction of greater compassion and respect, I would anticipate – and not only for the victims of the attitudes, behaviors and policies I don’t like, but also for their perpetrators. But this won’t be because a god, a supernatural law or even my conscience told me I must, I ought, I have an obligation. Instead I will be moved by my head and my heart. Morality has nothing to do with it.

But why have more compassion and respect for people, if it’s not the right thing to do?  The telling thing, though is that he says that he’s going to be moved by his head and his heart.

His “head” is his secular and rational consideration of what consequences actions can bring.  If some consequences are more desirable than others, as in factory farming, that’s not much different from morality.

His “heart” is his evolved feelings about the right thing to do.  That is the part of our morality instilled in our ancestors by natural selection.

Together, the head and heart exemplify the rational and the evolved components of our feelings about what are the good versus bad things to do.  And that has everything to do with morality.

h/t: Eugene


130 Comments

  1. Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I don’t believe in “objective morality” either. Objective has to do with removing as much human bias as possible, whereas morality is about including as much human bias as possible. If there was a such thing as objective morality, we would be able to list a whole bunch of immoral things a person living alone on a desert island could commit.

    No, morality is relative. Time is also relative but somehow people still manage to catch American Idol.

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Given how morality is rather inherently social (whether you think it’s objective or not), it would be extremely difficult for someone alone on an island to do anything immoral.

      Unless, of course, you agree with Feser and think the inevitable masturbation is immoral. 😛

      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        The phrasing of this suggests disagreement because I misread your initial post.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Just to sort out the terminology correctly, someone who believes that no actions is right or wrong is called a “moral skeptic” or an “error theorist”. Whether moral properties depend on contextual factors such as the actor, the cultural context, or something else, is a different question. When people say “objective”, sometimes they mean “noncontextual” and sometimes they just mean “existing”. Paul Boghossian sorted out some of these distinctions in a different (and better) Stone article.

      http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/the-maze-of-moral-relativism/

  2. Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I’ll still observe that Sam’s and Marks’s view of morality is a top-down skyhook that fundamentally must fail.

    Rather, morality is an emergent phenomenon and, in the ideal, is the optimal strategy (in the sense of game theory) for life. Being a psychopathic mass murderer-rapist (as many Christians wonder why the godless aren’t) is not an effective way to thrive in a society such as ours, and a society in which such were the norm would wither and die as opposed to one in which civility and compassion ruled the day.

    It’s really as simple as that. Do good and you and those around you will be happier and more prosperous. Do evil and you’re putting yourself and the rest of society at jeopardy.

    As with all such truths, it reduces to a self-evident self-correcting almost-tautology.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      It still seems as though we need some kind of definition of “good” and “evil”.

      The example you give is obviously evil, but in some societies genital mutilation and honor killings are considered good, even though you and I and many others would call those evil. Unless you go along, you not only won’t prosper, you’ll probably be killed.

      You and I would probably both say that religion is evil and is putting ourselves and the rest of society in jeopardy, but ours is a minority opinion. Reality will likely prove us right in the long run, but for now civility and compassion are considered to be weaknesses by most people. L

      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        Good is that which leads to happiness and the good life; evil is that which leads to misery and impoverishment.

        Your cultural-specific examples make more sense if you take a step back. Honor killings may or may not further the survival of the killer, but a society with honor killings won’t have much luck competing against one without them.

        As with many such evolutionary systems, there can be local maxima that can be hard or even impossible to break out of. Vertebrates are stuck with the recurrent pharyngeal nerve, and we may also be stuck with authoritative superstitious assemblages.

        That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should ever give up on trying to find ways out of the holes we’ve dug ourselves….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Tulse
          Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          Good is that which leads to happiness and the good life; evil is that which leads to misery and impoverishment

          But whose happiness, and whose life? I’m sure even Gaddafi would agree that happiness and the good life are “good”, as long as we are talking about his life and happiness.

          • Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

            Ultimately, whether we like it or not, morality always works at the individual level — and this, again, is where game theory comes in.

            Much thought is given in game theory to cheaters. Do they prosper? What’s the best way to deal with them?

            And, surprise surprise, it turns out that cheaters pretty much always trade short-term gains for long-term prosperity at a disproportionate cost to the collective. Considering that there’s currently a $1M price on Gaddafi’s head, I think he’s the perfect example to illustrate my point.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Tulse
              Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              morality always works at the individual level […] it turns out that cheaters pretty much always trade short-term gains for long-term prosperity at a disproportionate cost to the collective. Considering that there’s currently a $1M price on Gaddafi’s head, I think he’s the perfect example to illustrate my point.

              So, if individuals actually work out a way not to pay a price for their actions, then they’re moral? History is littered with people who acted reprehensibly (as would commonly be thought) yet lived very comfortable lives — were they actually “moral”?

              Heck, a deep thinker on moral issues once said that, contrary to your construction, what leads to greatest happiness is “to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.” And I don’t think one can say that Genghis Khan didn’t do well.

              • Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

                So, if individuals actually work out a way not to pay a price for their actions, then they’re moral?

                Short of divine invincibility, can you propose a mechanism by which such would be possible? If so, we can consider the theoretical morality of the hypothesis. That is, I would suggest that your hypothetical is practically impossible and, as such, irrelevant to any discussion of a practical morality.

                To take your example of Khan…well, all but the poorest of Americans today life lives of wealth, power, and luxury unimaginable to Khan.

                Indeed, compare Khan to Gadaffi or Hussein or Hitler. Had any of his three modern counterparts become doctors rather than despots, they would be alive, healthy, and happy rather than dead or on the lam with a $1M dead-or-alive bounty on his head.

                And, as I mentioned above, there are local maxima that can serve as traps to prevent advancement to better maxima. I find it inconceivable that a modern-day Kahn could lead a nation to, say, interplanetary exploration. Rather, he’d wind up in a shallow grave if we’re lucky, or setting off global thermonuclear war if we’re not.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Tulse
                Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

                Short of divine invincibility, can you propose a mechanism by which such would be possible?

                Being named “O.J. Simpson”? Seriously, do you think that everyone who “cheats” pays for that cheating?

                all but the poorest of Americans today life lives of wealth, power, and luxury unimaginable to Khan

                I really don’t see the relevance of that cross-historical comparison — are you saying that Khan was or wasn’t “moral” by the standard of “cheaters never prosper”?

              • Posted August 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

                First, as you should know from evolution, these effects needn’t be perfect for them to become dominant. Outliers will not change the big picture over the long run.

                But, that aside, consider an alternate universe in which OJ didn’t kill Nicole. Do you really think our OJ is better off than that hypothetical OJ? That other OJ is probably still a well-loved public figure, whereas our OJ is three years into a 33-year prison term.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 24, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

                Short of divine invincibility, can you propose a mechanism by which such would be possible?

                Republican economic theory.

              • Posted August 24, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

                Short-term? Sure. But medium-term, you’re playing Russian Roulette, and long-term you’re toast.

                If nothing else, think on evolutionary timescales. Ten thousand years from now, will our descendants (if any) be more or less likely to have come from a society designed by Republican economic theories or from modern European countries with healthy social support infrastructure?

                Cheers,

                b&

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I’m not seeing how Sam’s theory is a sky-hook. In fact, it seems to me his conception is really the same as yours. Sam has defined “an optimal strategy” as a course of action that best promotes the most well-being for those involved. His idea is also an emergent one: it’s dependent on the existence of conscious beings capable of experiencing well-being and suffering, and derived from that capability.

      That writ, I do think Sam is leaving unsaid the point you make about methods for maximizing well-being being self-correcting, or even, I might add, self-promoting, a la natural selection. If murder, rape and theft didn’t get selected against, we wouldn’t last long.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        Exactly right.

      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        It’s a skyhook because he gets bogged down in the whole “greatest good for the greatest number” sidetrack. That’s the kind of land where you wind up justifying strapping all O- people to blood “donation” tables and sucking them dry, on the theory that the harm to them is outweighed by the benefit to others.

        If you instead look at morality as, “What should I do to maximize my wellbeing?” then you quickly see that developing a society in which such horrors can be perpetrated against people just like you is most emphatically not in your own best interest, even if you might be the recipient of O- blood at some point. How will you prevent the society from forcibly harvesting your kidneys?

        In short, Sam’s taking the, “If I were philosopher-king, here’s the laws I’d make.” That’s a skyhook. My approach is, “Your chances of living the good life are better if you follow this particular simple strategy.”

        I. Do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto.

        (The First Rule may be broken only to the minimum degree necessary to otherwise preserve it.)

        II. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

        III. An it harm none, do what thou will.

        The rules must be applied in that order. For example, following the second rule is not permissible in circumstances which require violating the first rule (except as provided for by the Exception).

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted August 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          I think Sam’s conception can accommodate the question you ask in your second paragraph. In fact, I’m sure I’ve heard him argue that his notion avoids the kind of utilitarian pitfall you describe by looking at things in a larger context, i. e., is it really going to turn out to be the best thing (for everybody) to murder some people for the benefit of others?

          • Posted August 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

            I know Sam objects to the kind of bleed-em-dry-for-the-greater-good scenario I’ve presented, but I’ve yet to hear him derive his position from first principles. That’s what I hope I’ve done here.

            That is, Sam knows it’s worng, but he doesn’t know why it’s worng. I do: simply, it’s a false economy. The putative gains are overwhelmed by the losses that don’t become apparent until one takes into account second-order effects.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted August 25, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

              I think Sam’s point about looking at actions in a wider, longer-term context is recognizing the false economy of a more barbaric utilitarianism.

              I also think it might be caricaturing Sam’s argument to say that it ultimately results in a mandate to travel the globe looking for and trying to ameliorate suffering like that which a rat might experience at the “hands” of a python.  I think he’s arguing only that we can look to science for some kind of metric by which to judge whether or not a given action, an action you’re contemplating making, will increase or decrease well-being.  Of course, figuring out just what constitutes well-being is the sticky wicket.  But that’s a separate problem.

              I think, however, that I’m starting to see what you don’t like about Sam’s idea, and how it differs from yours.

              Let me know if this is accurate:

              Sam doesn’t put forward a specific set of guidelines for action, or first principles.  He only says that a moral action is one that best promotes the most well-being for all involved.  Well, as we consider secondary effects, tertiary effects, etc, it becomes apparent that the math is prohibitively complex.  The above is useless in a practical sense.  I’ll also agree that it’s a top-down approach, but not a sky-hook.  He does base it in what he thinks science will be able to say about well-being.

              Your rules seem much more practical; it seems they could actually inform our actions.

              But…I have some reservations.  Or at least some questions.

              Concerning the first rule – what about those whose wishes don’t line up with what would actually be beneficial for them in the medium or long-term?  My daughter, when she’s older, may not wish me to withhold the car keys until she’s finished her homework, but I’m going to do it anyway.

              Concerning the third rule – I think we actually run into a problem similar to Sam’s, i. e., one of definition.  What is harm?  In fact, isn’t that just the inverse of “what is well-being?”

              Don’t get me wrong (or should I say “worng?”).  I find a lot of what you’ve written compelling.  Just some points to ponder.

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

                Of course, figuring out just what constitutes well-being is the sticky wicket.

                Actually, it’s not. There is precisely one way to determine that, and that’s to let the decision be made by the individuals themselves.

                Anything else leads instantly to Torquemada’s problem. It was Torquemada’s opinion that it was better for his victims to suffer a few weeks or whatever of earthly torment than an eternity in Hell.

                I know Sam has fantasies of tricorder scans that reveal one brain state as being better than another and then doing whatever’s necessary to induce said state, but even that’s horrific. What if the tricorder decides that we’d all be better off perpetually on some magic heroin without the side effects? I know there’re those who’d leap at the opportunity, but it’d be Hell for me. Of all the things I aspire to in life, perpetual orgasm isn’t one of them.

                We must each be the masters of our own fates. Anything else is oppression and unacceptable.

                Concerning the first rule – what about those whose wishes don’t line up with what would actually be beneficial for them in the medium or long-term? My daughter, when she’s older, may not wish me to withhold the car keys until she’s finished her homework, but I’m going to do it anyway.

                I’ve yet to fully flesh out how to deal with fringe cases such as minors. A five-year-old may wish to play in traffic, but clearly mustn’t be allowed to do so. I’ll just make one observation and leave it at that: children are not yet full persons. They will be, and they’re well on their way, but they’re not there yet. This is intuitively obvious, long recognized by law and convention (in the US, for example, you’re not fully vested in all your rights until 35 when you can be elected president), and evidentially sound. I think the broad outline of where to head with that should be evident, but clearly no more than the broad outline.

                Concerning the third rule – I think we actually run into a problem similar to Sam’s, i. e., one of definition. What is harm? In fact, isn’t that just the inverse of “what is well-being?”

                I hinted at this above, but I would define harm as being done unto as you do not wish to be done unto. If you whipped me, you’d be harming me. But if you whipped somebody into S&M, you wouldn’t be causing harm.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

                “…fantasies of tricorder scans…”

                lol

                “…let the decision be made by the individuals themselves.”

                That’s a good, practical way to identify well-being. But as far as defining it or its constituents in detail, for the purpose of establishing universal and objective criteria by which to measure it…

                My question about the first rule could apply to adults, too. I almost used Republicans, with their manifestly deleterious economic theories, as an example instead of my daughter.

                And the problem in the case of Republicans is compounded by the fact that they’re not only hurting themselves by shrieking “taxes schmaxes!”, they’re also hurting third parties.

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                And the problem in the case of Republicans is compounded by the fact that they’re not only hurting themselves by shrieking “taxes schmaxes!”, they’re also hurting third parties.

                And, because they’re causing harm not (merely) to themselves but to others, it then becomes permissible to do unto them that which they do not wish done unto them to the minimum extent necessary to stop them in their dastardly deeds.

                In our political system, that means voting them out of office.

                One can fantasize about a Bachmann / Palin presidency that devolves into a Fourth Reich Theocracy that warrants armed revolt, but I’d like to think that’s still the realm of Hollywood B-movies.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 28, 2011 at 2:37 am | Permalink

                I’ve yet to fully flesh out how to deal with fringe cases such as minors.

                How about based on the best research relative to when a person is capable of critical thinking? (Leaving aside, for the nonce, my contention that a sizable proportion of the population never is.)

                IIRC, psychology is now contending that most people really aren’t able to fully appreciate the possible consequences of their actions until at least their mid-twenties. (Which is why, of course, so many of our soldiers are recruited at 18.)

              • Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                Well, if we’re going to award full rights to some and withhold them from others based on critical thinking capability, there probably shouldn’t be a “when” involved. The metric would have to be applied on an individual basis. I’ve known 16 year-olds who have more foresight, better analytical skills, and are more responsible, than some middle-aged people. You’re absolutely right: very many people are never really able to think like that.

          • Marella
            Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

            The point is that living in such as society puts everyone at risk of being murdered which decreases everyone’s happiness. Thus it is not possible that the murdering society is the most utilitarian. People have to know they are safe to be happy.

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      I come up with new questions to ask you about this each time you bring it up.

      Is it more optimal for human life to, say, care about dolphins’ feelings? Or our livestock? If they can provide us with everything we want from them while we treat at least some of them badly*, how is this sub-optimal for us?

      Presumably there will be those who care more about animal treatment than others, but as long as they aren’t a majority or don’t hold power, that won’t affect what humanity’s overall strategy should be.

      *Keep in mind I’m not asking about treating them very badly, because I suppose that more humans will be compelled by compassion not to do so. But what if our animals live in overcrowded stocks, or have diseases that aren’t too gruesome to look at and don’t affect what we need them for? – is the question.

      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        I’ll admit that I’ve yet to figure out how non-human animals fit into things.

        I have no squeamishness about taking antibiotics and “murdering” countless billions of my bacterial cousins. I would go to great lengths to protect Baihu’s health and happiness. I eat meat, but I oppose cruel treatment of livestock, such as overcrowding and cutting of chickens’s beaks.

        The animal question is particularly clouded by all sorts of practical considerations. These animals would die horrible deaths if the were “freed.” They would not live at all were it not for humans. Indeed, they have become dominant species the likes of which are unprecedented in the history of the planet because of humans.

        I would support legal protections for other apes comparable to those afforded to humans, but I’d laugh at you if you suggested that chimps should have the right to vote.

        In short, I’ve yet to figure out that particular moral calculus.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • raskolnikov37
          Posted August 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

          It really sounds here like you’re trying hard to justify something you already do and want to continue doing, namely, eating meat. And I think you misunderstand Harris, if I may say so. See, the issue is well-being of “conscious” creatures. This is the basis upon which Harris’s morality is founded. And really, how could it be otherwise? After all, the only thing that can ever matter to any creature, at any time, and at any place, has to exist at the level of the brain. We can work outward from there. Now, a bacterium can in no way have consciousness, and thus, can safely be ignored here (so you can rest easy about “murdering” them). But animals with more developed nervous systems must factor into the “moral calculus”, as you put it, because they have the ability to suffer. This isn’t guesswork: it can be, and has been demonstrated time and again that many other lifeforms on this earth have a certain capacity to suffer to varying degrees. If you disagree that the suffering of conscious creatures is a good basis for a moral system, then I can see why you’d be puzzled by the rest of Harris’s argument, and I don’t think we’ll have a fruitful discussion.

          • Posted August 24, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

            It really sounds here like you’re trying hard to justify something you already do and want to continue doing, namely, eating meat.

            Eh, no. Sorry if I implied that. I have problems with cruelty, waste, and conspicuous consumption, and those are as prevalent in the meat industry as in any other. But Baihu is an obligate (and enthusiastic) carnivore, and the chicken I’ll be eating (part of) for dinner in a bit would have eagerly gobbled up any meat — including non-chicken chicks — it could get its beak on. If there’s a fundamental moral problem with carnivory, I’ve yet to discover it, and I’ve had plenty of vegans try to explain it to me.

            See, the issue is well-being of “conscious” creatures.

            But, again, that’s a top-down skyhook.

            Like it or not, individuals are selfish. They’ll always place themselves first. Where morality emerges is when self-interest aligns with the interests of others.

            Make an argument why a peasant in Mongolia shouldn’t make stew of her hen once it stops laying eggs. What’s in it for her? I don’t think you or Sam could come up with a moral explanation why she shouldn’t, except for some sort of feel-good story about how she should show gratitude for the chicken for all the eggs it gave her, and that’s simply not rational.

            Similarly, what’s in it for Joe six-pack that he shouldn’t slap some burgers on the grill in preparation for the big game?

            In both cases, you can make an unassailable argument that they shouldn’t be making stew out of that annoying door-to-door Jesus salesman. (Well, okay. Almost unassailable.) But not one against meat-eating.

            (Yes, yes. Factory farming causes environmental damage, uses lots of petrochemicals, all the rest — but those are arguments against pollution and overpopulation, not against eating meat.)

            And, again, all this assumes that the animals don’t suffer. We have laws and regulations that’re supposed to ensure that’s the case. When it’s not — as happens too often, granted — that’s again an argument for better regulatory oversight.

            After all, similar problems exist in almost every other manufacturing industry, but I’ve yet to hear anybody suggest we should stop using cell phones because of the downstream pollution that comes from semiconductor manufacturing. No, the (proper) response is to clean up the manufacturing plants, implement proper waste management systems, and all the rest.

            I’m probably starting to ramble a bit, so I’ll shut up now.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • raskolnikov37
              Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for replying. I remember reading about Bertrand Russell where his brother was introducing him to Euclid’s geometry and the axioms upon which it is based. Bertrand asked his brother, “What if I don’t accept these axioms?” And his brother responded: “Then we can’t continue.”
              I think that we’re at the same junction, here. If Sam Harris believes that the suffering of conscious creatures ought to concern us, and considers this an axiom, then we’re free to either accept it or not. To me it functions beautifully as an axiom because it is, to me, self-evidently true. What else could morality possibly concern itself with if not the suffering and/or well-being of conscious creatures? Now, there are people who would refuse to accept this as axiomatic, but so what. Many of the axioms upon which science is based are routinely rejected by people; this in no way prevents biology or chemistry or physics from being done.
              Indeed, human selfishness, and human nature more generally, make a perfect attainment of a complete abscence of suffering unattainable. But, again, so what? As Harris mentions, there is a moral landscape with peaks and valleys. Individuals and societies should strive for the peaks (the well-being of conscious creatures) and avoid the valleys (suffering of conscious creatures) so far as that is possible.
              The example of Joe Six-Pack eating a burger does not pose a problem. We can work it out quite easily. The killing of a cow for food should be weighed by its consequences to all conscious creatures involved. It’s clearly not doing much for the well-being of the cow. Joe probably increases his well-being because the burger pleases his taste buds and leaves him feeling full and contented. The raising of livestock also has serious environmental consequences that affect other conscious creatures who depend on the health of the environment. Also, eating meat has health consequences for Joe which also affect the society in which he lives, i.e. health care costs. If we do the math, eating a cow is clearly immoral, but that does not make us meat-eaters bad people. Why not? Well, because there is a moral landscape. Joe is not a monster who should be mentioned in the same breath as Jeffrey Dahmer, but, at the same time, he’s not quite as morally perfect as, say, a Jain monk who brushes aside insects so he doesn’t step on them.

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

                …a Jain monk who brushes aside insects so he doesn’t step on them.

                …including trypanosome-bearing flies so that they may go on to spread leishmaniasis, etc.?

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

                Diane’s reply demonstrates the basic fallacy in Sam’s axiom: namely, it’s a self-contained contradiction.

                I think all of us here can agree that cats are conscious creatures capable of suffering. And cats will suffer if their diets aren’t almost exclusively meat. But a meat diet requires that other conscious creatures suffer and die so that the cat does not.

                You can find examples of this all up and down the food chain, anywhere you care to look in the moral landscape. Athletes would be miserable without shoes, but (currently) the only way to get those shoes is by exploiting third-world laborers who suffer as a result. For that matter, who here has not suffered at work as a result of a slave-driving boss?

                The only way Sam’s goal can be achieved is with Jesus’s help, when he comes back and the lion lays down with the lamb.

                All that, of course, most emphatically doesn’t mean that I endorse suffering. Rather, it means that I recognize that simply making reduction of suffering axiomatic to be an effort in futile contradiction.

                It also places an unrealistic burden on the individual. Sam’s morality makes it my own personal responsibility to reduce the suffering of a rat deep in the Amazon basin as it’s being swallowed alive by a python. How absurd!

                What I can be responsible for, what I do have control over, are my own actions as they relate to my own wellbeing. And, it just so happens, that what I logically must do to maximize my own wellbeing is a pretty darned close match for our intuitive moral sense. I must not harm other humans, except in self-defense; otherwise, they will seek to harm me. Swatting flies? Not a problem, logically or intuitively. Indeed, both logic and intuition indicate that, generally speaking, the fly should be swatted.

                Where Sam is getting confused is that it’s in my own best interests to see to it that my neighbors are happy, even if that means some short-term sacrifices to further long-term goals. Sam extrapolates from that, but incorrectly and excessively. African wildebeest are not my neighbors, and it is in nobody’s interest but theirs to protect them from the suffering they receive at the jaws and claws of lions and crocodiles. Indeed, since I’m rather fond of lions, it’s even in my interest to see that the suffering of the wildebeest continues indefinitely. It’s most emphatically in the lions’s best interest, after all.

                Cheers,

                b&

      • steve oberski
        Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        Think of it as expanding the scope of your in group.

        As human beings abandon tribal customs our in group continues to expand to include people in other tribes, of other religions (or lack of), different races, languages, customs and sexual preferences.

        One common feature to every incidence of genocide is to consider the victims as less than human and not have the ability to experience pain.

        Too the extent that non-humans can experience pain and well being, we dehumanize ourselves by treating them badly and this results in less than optimal society.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink

      I have no prior knowledge of Marks, but I don’t see the conflict between that and what I’ve read today. He adheres to what he likes, and presumably likes for some or other reason.
      As opposed to believing himself to detect a superhuman rightness mysteriously inherent to the cosmos with no additional steps required.

      (That the latter option rings hollow doesn’t seem to interfere. That is what would make it less preferable.)

      • Kharamatha
        Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:36 am | Permalink

        Second sentence in parentheses ambiguous. “That” refers to first clause of prior sentence, and does not refer to second clause of prior sentence.

  3. Margaret
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    He claims to be a philosopher and it took him this long to realize that morality is not some Platonic ideal “out there” somewhere as an embodied capital-M Morality? And in his shock at this he is totally giving up the word “morality” (small-m) as the name for human values-based reasoning? Ouch.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      He doesn’t simply reject a Platonic (human-independent) morality, but any moral facts whatsoever. There are plenty of philosophers who believe there are moral facts and many who believe that they are ordinary natural facts about the world. Despite the abuse that is regularly heaped on it, Moral Naturalism is a reasonable–if yet unproven–account of morality. I’m not saying he’s wrong, but the position he’s rejecting isn’t a ridiculous as you make it sound.

  4. Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I think the problem here (and Blackford has touched on this) is that subjective and objective, at least in the sense we are using here, do not have a sharp distinction. Vanilla vs. chocolate is purely subjective. The law of gravity is purely objective. The wrongness of cold-blooded murder falls somewhere in between. It depends on certain assumptions which are arguably subjective, but a) we can safely count on these assumptions to be nearly universal, and b) given those assumptions, the rest follows logically (and objectively) from there.

    By a very strict definition of objective, okay, sure, I guess it’s not because it depends on certain assumptions which in theory a human might reject. But I don’t think it’s useful to therefore shunt it off into the realm of the purely subjective.

    More useful I think is to qualify somewhat by saying, within the context of our species, objective right and wrong does exist. It is not necessarily objective outside that context (though it may be more objective than some of us think) but within that context, it’s not useful to call it subjective or relative.

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      People always leave out the sociopaths….

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 24, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        Who can be remarkably successful…

      • Charles Sullivan
        Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

        And for good reason. They add more suffering.

        • Charles Sullivan
          Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

          Most of us are appalled by people suffering (harshly, especially) unnecessarily.

          David Hume and Adam Smith both liked the fact that our social nature inclined us to have empathy, or what Hume and Smith would have called, Fellow Feeling.

          But Hume pointed out that our “moral judgments”, may have more to do with a feeling or sentiment (or even attitude) than they have to do with our ability to reason morally.

          Moreover, with Hume’s is/ought distinction we get the following: (a bit long, I know):

          “Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case.

          The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.

          Here is a matter of fact; but ’tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.

          Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar’d to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind[.]

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

          Some can become very successful, esp. as politicians, CEO’s and the like.

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      I had the same thought as the one you express in your last paragraph. Just because the universe will keep on keepin’ on regardless of what I do does not mean we can’t describe my actions as beneficial or deleterious, especially when considered in their local context.

      I make a similar argument about artistic evaluation. No, the universe does not have an opinion, and there are no Platonic ideals floating around out there, but we can certainly determine if a piece of art was the result of superior intellect, insight, or skill.

  5. Mirik
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    That piece was amazingly stupid (though the man itself might be smart). I second the comment that if it took his THIS long to realize & he still gets his somewhat wrong just because he doesn’t like the use of a word in a certain context that others already understood it as. That’s just willfully obstinate.

  6. Mirik
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    One more thing, it never fails to amaze me how atheists, living their whole life ‘moral’ as it is, always have to make a big deal out of it. If you’re already acting selfishly when it is required because you understand consequences (basically nothing more is required for Sam Harris’ definition of morality via consequentialism), why confuse yourself with all these definitions?

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Please give an example of an atheist who is “always have to make a big deal out of it” & what is the “it” of which you write ? I ask because I’m having difficulty understanding your post.

  7. Patrick
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    “I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.”

    That paragraph is the key to understanding his point. When he differentiates himself from people who “believe in morality,” he’s talking about people who would disagree with that paragraph. He’s talking about people who would believe that its possible for a fully informed, properly reasoning person to have different preferences from the “right” ones.

    • Dominic
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      I think he sort of reflects my world view. I too clam amorality, but that does not mean I constantly transgress social conventions. So yes, the universe is indifferent, & what we do as thinking (?!) beings is try to give ourselves & our lives meaning. Ultimately this is of course doomed to vanish into nothingness (failure would be too judgmental a term), perhaps with the universe, but that does not matter either. Yet I still care about the world I will leave behind!
      🙂 I remain therefore a cheerful pessimist!

  8. R.W.
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Why is the red-hot issue of Prof. Toynbee’s abrupt withdrawal from the Great Debate with W. Lane Craig being totally ignored around these parts?

    The silence is deafening!

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-
    design/prominent-brit-atheist-polly-toynbee-pulls-out-of-debate-with-william-lane-craig/

    • Kevin
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Maybe he took my advice.

      Ever since Craig announced that if god ordered genocide, then it by definition MUST be a good and right thing, I have advocated staying as far away from him as possible. If for no other reason than one’s own personal safety.

      Or perhaps everyone is wising up. Craig is nothing more than a showman, using the same 5 debating tricks he used in college. Why give him an audience?

      • Kevin
        Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        BTW: Craig’s standard schtick has been thoroughly vetted and refuted over and over and over again. Were I ever to be invited to a “debate” with him, I would insist on going first.

        My opening statement would be something like this:

        “I am going to cede the remainder of my time for opening statements to Mr. Craig. However, whenever he abuses science in the name of religion, whenever he makes a statement of fact that is not in agreement with our knowledge of science, whenever he makes a leap of logic past what can be claimed to what he merely asserts as true without evidence, I will blow this air horn.”

        And then I’d sit down, air horn at the ready.

        • R.W.
          Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          Well, what’s being reported is that she’s acknowledged that, after viewing some video clips by Craig, she suddenly got cold feet, which, if true, is very disconcerting.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

            “what’s being reported is that she’s acknowledged that, after viewing some video clips by Craig, she suddenly got cold feet, which, if true, is very disconcerting.”

            Well, what’s reported at Uncommon Descent is often inaccurate. But even if this one is, it’s not terribly disconcerting. It doesn’t reflect well on Toynbee for accepting without being familiar with Craig, but it doesn’t provide any support for Craig’s position. Craig puts on a good debate and I haven’t seen anyone yet who’s done a good job demonstrating to the audience that Craig’s arguments are not only unsound, but just plain silly.

          • Kevin
            Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

            Why “concerning”?

            I have long acknowledged that Craig is a master debater. He’s a showman, and his ability to bafflegab his way though a “debate” is legendary.

            If Craig were to promise to modify his presentation to fit with the current science (which he has not done despite being corrected over and over and over again on issues related to cosmology and physics), there might be some point to this bit of theater. But Craig refuses to do so, so there is no reason to argue with a man who quite deliberately misrepresents the facts, and then LEAPS from that misrepresentation to assertions that are FAR beyond what is rationally available to him. (In other words, there are ‘laws’ of the universe, therefore Jesus is totally real.)

            The US First Amendment gives everyone the right to a voice. It does not give them a right to an audience.

            In this case, shunning a man who willfully and deliberately misrepresents science in the service of religion is the best possible approach.

            • R.W.
              Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

              Ya know, I spent the entire day reviewing his debates, and I will say this about him: The dude is without peer in his ability to make a totally insane argument seem reasonable at first blush.

            • Claimthehighground
              Posted August 24, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

              Kevin: thanks for noting Craig’s debate skills.I hope he runs for office. I will go to the tea party group he’s charming and shout: “William Craig is a master debater.” They’ll have the tar & feathers out in no time.

          • frank sellout
            Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

            Why give these people a platform? When they come with a credible scientific theory that confounds evolution, then they will be worth debating. Besides, what would a debate between Craig and prominent Atheist solve? It would be a complete waste of time.

            • Kevin
              Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

              Craig is one of those perfectly willing to acknowledge evolution happened pretty much as scientists say it happened (though I’m sure he’s of the Francis Collins “god directed” mode). He’s no creationist.

              His primary egregious misuse of science is in the service of the various forms of the Cosmological Argument, of which the Kalam is his favorite. He’s been told in person that the sources he quotes as authorities backing his contentions do no such thing — including BY THE AUTHORITIES HE QUOTES — he has yet to modify his presentations.

              The whole point of Craig is to try to make belief in Jesus sound “reasonable”. The way he does this is by a simple sleight-of-hand trick. He first tries to establishment of the “reasonableness” of belief in the Spinoza/Einstein god (eg, a god that doesn’t intervene in human affairs) by egregiously misusing physics and cosmology, and more recently Bayes’ Theorem. It’s bafflegab all the way down.

              From there, he then proceeds with the huge unfounded and unsupported leap to his view that this means Yahweh is the god of all gods, and Jesus was totally real, bled real blood for our “sins”, and was resurrected. All from a faulty premise with zero supporting evidence. His is the grandest “leap of faith” one has ever seen.

              And he does this all while stating in public that even if all of his science “knowledge” and all of the logical arguments put forth were proved to be unassailably 100% false, he would still be a Christian. Because he firmly believes the number one “proof” of god is one of the great logical fallacies of all time — argument from personal experience. As if $cientologists, Hare Krishnas, Heaven’s Gaters and every other crackpot cultist didn’t rely on precisely the same argument to sell their snake oil.

              He’s a Jesus salesman, pure and simple. Funny though, through all of the debates with all of the various atheists, skeptics, humanists, whatever…I’ve never ever heard of even one of them converting to Christianity at the end of it. His arguments sound convincing in “real time” coming out of his mouth, especially to the under-educated in the nuances of his arguments and the sciences he misuses. But they’re ultimately empty — when you have time to look behind the curtain, you see the humbug right there where he’s been all along.

  9. Greg Esres
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    “This sounds to me like a distinction without a difference.”

    I think there is a difference. The idea that there is an objective right/wrong tends to make one judgmental. There is an objective standard in which you fall short.

    I see what Marks is doing is encouraging the flame of compassion to ignite by blowing on it gently.

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      The notion that being judgmental is always bad and always to be avoided is very wrong. Context matters, and not being judgmental is bad and wrong in some contexts, and good and correct in other contexts. So I disagree that Marks is achieving anything worth achieving by making that distinction, it remains a distinction without a difference. I am unimpressed with Marks thinking, its simplistic. I agree with a previous post that points out that subjective versus objective is a false dichotomy because both qualities can be simultaneously present in aspects of a particular multi-faceted context/scenario.

  10. Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    “Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast..”

    Yeah, so what? Morality has always arisen from perceived need and desire. All that suggests is that human morality is, in fact, founded on human needs.

    I enjoyed Ben Goren’s comments: “Being a psychopathic mass murderer-rapist…is not an effective way to thrive in a society such as ours, and a society in which such were the norm would wither and die as opposed to one in which civility and compassion ruled the day.” So true. Imagine an entire race of murderous despots, all ruthlessly vying to be king. The only possible outcome is one lone survivor (or none). Yet even the last two challengers would have to first contemplate their chances of survival, or happiness, after knocking off the other, and recognize the sense in a more political settlement.

    Quoting from JC above: “His ‘head’ is his secular and rational consideration of what consequences actions can bring. If some consequences are more desirable than others, as in factory farming, that’s not much different from morality.” Right information about the world is key to developing a practical moral view. (Kudos to scientist like JC for contributing to our increased understanding about the world!).

    This last point is eloquently stated in a TERRIFIC essay called “The Ethics of Belief” by a William Clifford, written in 1877. The first section is called “The Duty of Inquiry”, and I quote it all the time to theists as a kind of call to action..to explain to them why I insist on debunking their erroneous beliefs. And I highly recommend it to everyone here.

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/w_k_clifford/ethics_of_belief.html

  11. Kevin
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that he’s merely uncomfortable with the word “morality”.

    That’s a lot of hugga-mugga to go through in order to say that a word has been so tainted with god-botherness that it’s become slightly moldy and odoriferous.

    It’s not morality that he objects to — it’s calling behavioral norms “moral” or “immoral” that he has a problem with.

    The ultimate relativism.

  12. Charles Sullivan
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    This view perhaps bears some resemblance to Hume’s challenge to our understanding of morality. Hume’s challenge has been refined and modified over the last two centuries, but one contemporary version is Error Theory, a view that Brother Blackford seems to endorse.

    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-moral-evaluations.html

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Excellent link! For a more in depth treatment of similar issues (metaethics and also moral psychology) check out Josh Greene’s dissertation: http://j.mp/iH1P06

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      I have no idea what Blackford means by “objective” in that article. This is a problem that bedevils this area, people using terms like “objective” without giving any suggestion what they mean by the term.

      Error theory or skepticism about moral reality is the belief that there are no moral facts or moral properties. It doesn’t have any qualifications limiting that denial to “objective” facts or properties (whatever someone might mean by that).

  13. Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I would contend that the notion of morality is merely man’s attempt at defining and justifying one’s needs – the needs are the heart, and the head will then define those needs in the manner in which they can best be met depending on the situation – THUS SITUATIONAL ETHICS will always rule the day. The discourse that evolves in a social situation will be one of the variables that then determines how one chooses to express one’s needs. In the give and take of an argument around right or wrong, one most often will come up with what one believes is empirical evidence to support their position, rather than merely saying “…well, it meets my needs…” One of man’s needs, no doubt, is often to appear moral, and thus to appear to be on higher ground in discussions about right or wrong. Those that are dependent on scripture, of course, can fall back on those edicts – it meets their needs, and obviously they feel no need to support those beliefs with empirical evidence, since somewhere up there in the universe the absolute standards of right and wrong are floating about, and they have, of course, accessed them, ie met their needs. For those of us burdened with the task (NEED)of depending on empirical evidence for our beliefs, we have no floating absolutes, so we tenaciously pursue rational explanations which are in fact totally dependent on the unique nature/nurture variables that define our needs. For us to argue absolute moral principles rather than situational morality leads us to the notion that there exists outside of each human’s individual experiences a set of moral principles not dissimilar to the delusions of the theists.
    Believers become non- believers, and non- believers become believers because of changing needs. They may choose to redefine that in terms of morality due to the social/political nature of their life, but the foundation will always remain finding an outlet for one’s needs. Is this reductionist logic, circular reasoning, what not? Perhaps. It certainly then serves to beg the ? of free will, both for the delusionists, and we arrogant agnostics and/or atheists.

    Respectfully submitted in bemused resignation.

  14. TreeRooster
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Marks up to a point: there is a residual but crucial component to morality that must be axiomatic. I’m just not ready to entrust those foundational choices to my evolved psychology.

    That is, there are some ethical questions that must be answered based on prior decisions about the definition of right and wrong rather than upon calculating maximum happiness and well-being.

    Two points: 1) the definition of maximum well-being as the desired outcome is axiomatic. The science of morality doesn’t tell us that maximum well-being is desired–rather our own desires tell us that, and we decide to adopt that axiom.

    2) Maximum well-being isn’t quite enough. I believe the guiding principle is compassion and empathy–abstracted to any conscious being.

    Consider: should we destroy this small and backward aboriginal group in order to take their land? Assume it is within our power and it will allow for the happy life of our many, many children.

    Consider: should we allow a one-time only extermination of the bearers of demonstrably inferior genetics for mental capacity, so that our descendants will be able to build a happier more rational world?

    So I agree with Marks and JC in that the “heart” should be listened to–but I think that there must be an a priori commitment to an abstract good, like compassion, in order to make ethical decisions. The heart must be brought in line with the definition–if its born that way so much the better.

  15. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Three Things:

    (1) The problem with the article is that Joel Marks doesn’t really give any arguments for why he doens’t believe there are moral facts. He just gives as a bit of biography that he stopped believing in moral facts. I can imagine someone becoming agnostic about moral facts on the basis of a realization that the evidence isn’t good enough, but jumping to disbelief seems like a stretch.

    (2) I think he is right that he could get by abandoning moral vocabulary and only using the terminology of “like” and “dislike”. He would certainly be less persuasive in making arguments about factory farming though.

    (3) Since he doesn’t give his reasons for rejecting moral facts, I don’t know whether he retains the vocabulary of practical reason, believing that he ought to do X or Y. If he denies there are moral facts, but believes there are practical facts, I would be interested in knowing why he thinks there are facts of the one sort but not the other.

  16. Myron
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Marks simply seems to have metaethically converted from moral realism (a version of which is moral naturalism) and moral cognitivism to moral antirealism and moral noncognitivism.

    * http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/

    * http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism/

    * http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-cognitivism/

  17. John K.
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    In pondering morality type questions, I have found it necessary to apply a specific population to a concept of morality. As mentioned in earlier posts, in a population of one morality becomes a very strange discussion. A society that has slavery as a common institution could consider only the slave owners, and within that population the owning of slaves could be considered beneficial and moral. Include the actual slaves in the population you are considering, and slavery then becomes unequally beneficial and thus immoral. A nation at war can have a morality unto itself, but in the context of including the conquered people they are very immoral indeed.

    For a real objective (unchanging and absolute) morality to work, it will have to cover the conditions of a population of one and even zero, which I can’t make sense of. We can get close to an objective reality by considering humanity as a whole, but what then of the treatment of animals? We can then consider all animal life, even all life on our planet, to discuss morality, but I suspect many people will not be willing to do that. A morality including the well being of grass alongside the well being of humans can exist, but I doubt it will be very popular.

    Even in an “all of humanity” morality, we are still stuck with subjective ideas of what well being is or even the value of minimizing suffering. Natural selection gives us a grand illusion of popular preferences which can seem universal, like not harming children, but even the goal of maximizing human life is still an axiom that has to be decided upon.

    So morality requires a specific population and a subjective decision about which goals to achieve, and as such it cannot be truly objective.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      I pretty much stop speaking about morality when we reach the species border.

      I think one can behave ethically with regard to other species — but morally? Can’t for the life of me figure out how to do that – because they can’t communicate their needs/desires/wants in the least, and even if they could, their needs/desires/wants quite possibly would not be in their best interests.

      For example, I “own” a rescue parrot — he was going to be released into the wild by an uncaring person. If ‘George’s’ desires were to be known, I’m pretty sure he’d want to be released into the wild. Where he would probably last a grand total of 3 hours before being devoured. What’s “moral” about keeping George? Nothing. What’s “ethical” about keeping him? Not subjecting him to a terrifyingly short “freedom”.

      • John K.
        Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

        Ethical and moral are pretty fine distinctions. It does not seem like too great a stretch to refer to someone who adopts animals with the purpose of torturing them as immoral.

        My point is really that there are many moral codes out there, and deciding that one is objective is mostly an exercise in deciding your own moral code takes precedence over the codes of everyone else, ironically on largely subjective grounds.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 28, 2011 at 1:39 am | Permalink

          Ethical and moral are pretty fine distinctions.

          Thanks for that. Glad I wasn’t the only one having trouble envisioning the great gap Kevin finds between them.

          (No offense, Kevin. I’d be delighted to have you explain the difference clearly.)

  18. MadScientist
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I think you may have missed a small distinction being made by Marks, and that is the lack of an absolute standard of morality. No generic class of action (such as killing another human being) can be “intrinsically evil” nor can any generic class of action be “intrinsically good”. What Marks has learned to accept is nothing new; philosophers and ethicists have discussed similar issues for over 2000 years. With the farming of animals he has learned to accept that many practices are repugnant to him but that the industries are not necessarily evil. I think that’s a good attitude and the sort we need for reform. People need to be fed and food needs to be affordable – perhaps something can be done so that those needs are met and the animals are treated better.

    I think Marks’ classifying himself as “amoral” is strange though; he seems to be rejecting the existence of morality simply because there is no absolute basis for it. Perhaps in the future he will move onto accepting a provisional objective morality – absolutes generally hamper progress rather than encouraging it. Even science eventually discarded the notion of absolutes and instead relies on empirical verifiability, self consistency, and predictive ability. Maybe Marks sees Morality as merely an illusion, just as many people see Free Will as an illusion. I can agree that morality is a human construct and not a measurable physical quantity, but that does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Numbers are mere constructs, and yet we can say that they exist because we can manipulate them using various rules and we find many practical uses for them.

    From the point of view of survival, it is reasonable to believe that on the whole we must naturally act to be good (at least to other humans), otherwise our very existence as a species may be threatened. What we think of as morality may very well have evolutionary roots. The lack of absolutes only means that there is no universal set of moral laws; it is up to us as a society to determine what actions may be moral or immoral and why.

  19. Joel
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you to the author for such a thoughtful critique of my Stone post … and also to the many commentators, to whom I also apologize for not studying all of their remarks since I have only just begun to review the 400-plus comments and emails I myself have received! So forgive me if I’m only repeating what someone else has said (or overlooking an objection from which I would benefit), but I would like to make one point, which applies as much to Sam Harris’s latest efforts as to Jerry Coyne’s post. You can’t get an ought from an is! (Hume said it first, of course.) When I came to desire the universal adoption of veganism on the basis of its anticipated consequences, and when I try to persuade others to become vegan on the same basis, I am not demonstrating that anyone has an obligation to become vegan. I am, instead, reporting what happened to me, and also making a prediction that others will react as I did, based on an empirical hunch (with a little knowledge of evolutionary psychology thrown in) that most human beings have some similar desires waiting to be tapped by appropriate inputs. This is not a moral theory. The equivalent moral theory would hold that said consequences of veganism make it obligatory to become vegan (or something like that). I used to argue like that (although on a deontic rather than consequentialist basis), but will do so no longer. I now view it as an illicit (albeit usually unconscious) attempt to buttress one’s personal (or group) preferences with some kind of Absolute or Objective Authority … which there just ain’t. Well, that’s my argument, anyway. Thanks again!

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      Joel,

      First, thanks for the words that have prompted such an interesting discussion. Shirley, this must be one of the rewards of your profession.

      If you make it to my remarks above, I think you’d be able to figure out that I’d accuse you of making a category error. Your veganism is an aesthetic choice, not a moral one. On the other hand, your (presumed) unwillingness to eat humans is indeed a moral choice.

      I’d be happy to elaborate….

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      You can’t get an ought from an is!

      As with “You can’t prove a negative,” this expression seems always to be asserted as if it were fact, not a debatable concept in itself. Also common with both is the argument from authority. The explanation mark makes the assertion look that much weaker, IMO.

      • Posted August 25, 2011 at 12:12 am | Permalink

        But this one is true.

        If you’re uncomfortable with making it a blanket statement, however, you can just take it on a case by case basis. Try getting from “People do not want to be murdered” to “You should not murder people.”

        It’s impossible without an intermediary step, in which the actor values treating people the way they wish to be treated.

        • Kharamatha
          Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink

          I assert that an “ought” without an “if” is a non-sequitur with lipstick. It deserves a shrug and little else.

        • Posted August 25, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

          Try getting from “People do not want to be murdered” to “You should not murder people.”

          It’s impossible without an intermediary step, in which the actor values treating people the way they wish to be treated.

          Eh, no. Intermediate steps are required, of course, but none requiring the actor to value anything but his own self interest.

          1. I wish to be free to do as I will.

          2. I want to kill Mr. Martin.

          3. But if I kill Mr. Martin, others will worry that they’re next and act to prevent me from doing likewise unto them.

          4. After having killed Mr. Martin, I will no longer be as free as I am today: either I will have to devote considerable resources to defend against all the others who are worried, or the others will succeed and I will be imprisoned or dead myself.

          5. Therefore, I ought not kill Mr. Martin.

          See? Not so hard. Ought from is in just a few simple steps.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • newenglandbob
            Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

            That isn’t ‘ought’ from ‘is’ but ‘ought’ from ‘to be’. 😉

            • Posted August 25, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

              …or not. In the words of the great man, “Do-be-do-be-do!”

              Cheers,

              b&

          • TreeRooster
            Posted August 25, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

            Now there are plenty of famous killers who committed their serial crimes unimpeded for a while simply because they did so anonymously. They had no worries about your step 3, since there was no way for them to be connected to the crime. Of course they are famous precisely because they got greedy (or secretly wanted the fame, or unconsciously wanted to be caught) and made errors, or simply killed too many times and were caught by statistics.

            However there are many more unsolved murders and disappearances than those explained by famous killers! How many anonymous killers are safe and sound simply because they are rational enough to kill once and stop?

            I think we really need more of a moral axiom than simply maximizing well-being, personal or otherwise. It will be a sky-hook: that’s what I mean by axiom, or “moral by definition.” There should be an a priori commitment to an abstract good, like compassion, or the desire for the well-being of others, in order to make ethical decisions. Axioms are not argued, they are just chosen.

            • Posted August 25, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

              You’re looking for a perfect, absolute fix. Evolutionary systems don’t work like that; they work in probabilities and distributions.

              Statistically speaking, being a serial killer is detrimental to survival and wellbeing. The individual is a greater risk of retaliation from others, and societies with higher concentrations of serial killers fare worse than those with lower concentrations.

              That’s all that evolution needs to weed out serial killers.

              Are there outliers who beat the odds? Of course. There are air molecules in the room right now whose kinetic energies equate to temperatures as hot as the surface of the sun. That doesn’t invalidate Boyle’s Law any more than the existence of “successful” serial killers invalidates my observation that being a serial killer is a decidedly sub-optimal survival strategy.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • TreeRooster
                Posted August 25, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

                Certainly, I agree. Thank goodness for way things are–that survival of the fittest in this world seems to select against cheaters and psychopaths in the long term.

                However, even in the short term (say the world was ending tomorrow), I’d still insist that by the axiom of compassion those outlying successful killers are acting unethically.

                More to the point: Say that at an evolutionary bottleneck the survival of the species depended upon taking a truly cruel course of action. Do you think that action would be justified in order to ensure the happy lives of future humans, or would it be more ethical to allow extinction?

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                More to the point: Say that at an evolutionary bottleneck the survival of the species depended upon taking a truly cruel course of action. Do you think that action would be justified in order to ensure the happy lives of future humans, or would it be more ethical to allow extinction?

                Only if the victims were willing.

                Unborn future generations have no right to demand your torture any more than your children or grandchildren do. If you elect to torture yourself or have yourself tortured for the benefit of your descendants, that’s your business.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • TreeRooster
                Posted August 26, 2011 at 3:47 am | Permalink

                “Only if the victims were willing.”

                Again, agreed. The ethical choice, the compassionate choice, trumps even survival of the species. Thus although it may be true that living by an ethical code as you describe is simply a good strategy (in a statistical, long time scale sense) it seems there is more to it than just foresight.

                Even when it means your own extinction, even when the entire human species will disappear, there are still actions prohibited by your ethics. To my eyes that looks like the underlying axioms of your ethical system put value on compassion, as opposed to survival.

                In ethics I’d say that axiomatic systems are outcome-equivalent if they logically lead to the same actions.

              • Posted August 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                To my eyes that looks like the underlying axioms of your ethical system put value on compassion, as opposed to survival.

                The end results may be the same, but the starting points are about as far apart as could be.

                Yours is, “Be nice!” Mine is, “Since you’re a selfish asshole, you should realize that being nice is the better bet if you want success.”

                Yours will work on people who would be nice anyway, but wouldn’t stand a chance with a sociopath. Mine might maybe perhaps work on a sociopath with adequate self-control.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • TreeRooster
                Posted August 26, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

                Point taken. Downside of trying to get people to base their ethics on compassion: those naturally lacking empathy will just not get it. Downside of a more self-interested but very rational approach: there will be extreme situations in which the really selfish ethic will suddenly lead logically to cruelty.

                Like you say, your way might convert more sociopaths than mine, while my way has little to offer to someone not already motivated by love (without bringing any afterlife into it.) Ironically, I maybe should be spending my efforts trying to convince people to be more self-interested–with the end goal of getting them to behave in more compassionate ways.

                As usual, though, the strategy indicated by game theory relies too heavily on the assumption of rational players. I’m afraid that too many people are willing to gamble against the odds in hope of that big cheater’s payoff. If selfish behavior (truly rational selfish behavior which lakes the long view) is declared ethical (because it has outcomes we all desire), then too many people make the illogical jump to justifying their cheating.

              • Kharamatha
                Posted August 27, 2011 at 12:56 am | Permalink

                “there will be extreme situations in which the really selfish ethic will suddenly lead logically to cruelty. ”

                When you say “extreme situations” have you accounted for compassion simply being abandoned under stress?

              • TreeRooster
                Posted August 27, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

                Sure, stress is one of the things that can on occasion push us to abandon rationality.

                I’m with Ben, that if survival of the fittest is gradually weeding out the irrational strain among us that can only be a good thing– by far more harm is done by irrational selfishness than by a few coldy logical sociopaths.

                I guess I’m just not patient though. If we can convince enough people to adopt the axioms of compassion now, then great amounts of suffering could be ended fast!

              • TreeRooster
                Posted August 27, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

                Oh, and I didn’t really answer your question. Yes, stress also causes us to abandon our ideals, not just our rational thought process. Maybe more so. Practically, living by a code has to be practiced, self-control has to be developed, in the hope that with enough training we can carry through even when stressed.

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 28, 2011 at 2:12 am | Permalink

                You’re looking for a perfect, absolute fix. Evolutionary systems don’t work like that; they work in probabilities and distributions.

                Exactly. But this is where I differ from you slightly, Ben. Evolutionary systems work because those probabilities and distributions result in variation, which is all that selection can act upon. Eliminate the variation and you have a very vulnerable species…

                Ages ago I learned about a concept called “genetic load,” which at the time was more descriptive than its current definition seems to be. In essence, at least when it was taught to me, it referred to that portion of the variation in the gene pool that, though it might not be esp. adaptive, might even be maladaptive most of the time, was maintained in a population at some low level because under some rare but not unheard of environmental conditions it was, in fact, adaptive.

                I usually avoid psych literature like the plague, but the way I understand current definitions of socio/psycho-pathology, it refers to a spectrum of behavioral presentations from the serial killer to (some of) the very successful politicians/national leaders. Makes sense to me that this trait is maintained in human societies because, under some circumstances, it’s highly adaptive. Actually, it’s more likely a spectrum of traits…Or perhaps something like the sickle-cell trait, i.e., something that a certain combination of alleles (not necessarily as simple as the hetero-vs.-homo-zygous sickle-cell phenomenon) is very adaptive under some circumstances; the narcissistic demagogue that can successfully mobilize millions, say. Unfortunately, selection for that combination also leads to the persistence of the other combinations that tend to be serial killers…(the behavioral equivalent of homozygous sickle-cell).

                Which is quite a bit like the suggestions TreeRooster and Tim Martin have put forth further downthread.

                In short, the crux of my disagreement with you is in your basing your argument on natural selection. I don’t think we’re gonna get to a rational ethos that way. If for no other reason than that the ‘prime directive,’ as it were, with NS is “survive;” exactly as in the bottleneck TreeRooster puts forth as an example. No survival, no species.

                I agree totally with your reasoning, just not with the evolutionary justification.

          • Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

            Intermediate steps are required, of course, but none requiring the actor to value anything but his own self interest.

            I didn’t say what you would have to value – I merely said that some value would have to be involved. I see that you agree.

            Furthermore, Joel Marks’ post deals with the difficulty of trying to convince others to do what you want. But the only way you can is if they want it too. You cannot prescribe something to someone, logically, without drawing on something that that person values. I am already of the opinion that there is something to your game theory conceptualization of morality. However, that does not change my point that values are where all the ‘oughts’ come from.

            Also, a few thoughts tangential to this:

            1) Ben provides a rational motivation (based on the value of acting in our own self-interest) for being good to others. This is his game theory conceptualization of morality, a specific example of which he gives above. In order to assess the viability of this theory, it’s necessary to consider where human motivations to do good come from. Ben seems to be saying that you start with the value to act in one’s own self-interest, and from there the rest more-or-less follows.

            However, are sociopaths not an excellent counterexample to this? Sociopaths are usually very smart people, who nevertheless treat other humans as objects to be manipulated for their own gain. This results in at least some of them being put in jail. So it seems to be an empirical fact that, without empathy, rationality itself is not enough to get people to be good to each other. We need to have the evolution-installed impetus for it, called empathy, else Ben’s moral calculus doesn’t work. The “best strategy” can only be the best if it is one that the bio-robots we call humans can be motivated to adopt. It may be true that sociopathic humans to not have the right programming to take up this strategy.

            (Furthermore, isn’t it possible that lack-of-empathy has stayed in the population because cheaters can prosper in any game, as long as their members aren’t too great? Sociopaths might be programmed to adopt a different “best strategy” than the rest of us.)

            • Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

              However, are sociopaths not an excellent counterexample to this?

              Give it time. Consider the state of affairs in Biblical and Hammurabic times; at least judging from the laws and the descriptions of the societies, one might be excused for thinking that most people who lived a few thousand years ago would be considered sociopathic by today’s standards.

              Evolution works in aggregates and averages. Statistically speaking, sociopaths and societies that foster sociopathy are at a disadvantage, but that doesn’t prevent outliers from experiencing local success.

              We need to have the evolution-installed impetus for it, called empathy, else Ben’s moral calculus doesn’t work.

              Empathy is indeed a powerful evolutionarily-instilled mechanism for performing moral calculus. We have amazing mechanisms for performing spacial calculus; look at how even young children can run and catch a ball at the same time. Our senses of empathy, compassion, fairness, indignation, and the rest are our brains doing equally-impressive game theory calculations. That doesn’t mean they can’t be improved on, of course — quite the contrary. We can enhance our moral senses just the same way we enhance our vision with telescopes and binoculars, our smell with chromatography, and so on.

              Furthermore, isn’t it possible that lack-of-empathy has stayed in the population because cheaters can prosper in any game, as long as their members aren’t too great?

              That may be part of the reason why they linger. The calculus needs to be able to deal with cheaters, of course, but the fewer cheaters the healthier the society as a whole. Give it time. You won’t live to see a world without sociopathy, but it’ll eventually happen if we don’t drive ourselves extinct first. Without bioengineering, it would take many millennia. With…who can say?

              Not that anybody reading these words will live long enough to find out, of course….

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

                Good answers.

                For my discussion of society I was assuming that its members would have a modern understanding of humanity and the universe. But really, to know this topic fully would entail considering the different outcomes that could be reached by societies comprised of various types of members. Well-educated and well-adjusted humans in modern times I think are fully capable of adopting the kind of strategy you describe. But the calculus works out differently with less-educated and less-developed members. You’re plugging different numbers into the equation with people who are less able to delay reward, for example, or who are more insecure. The strategies such people adopt will be less conducive to creating the best society humans can. And humans living in such ignorant times as those of the Bible must be similarly limited.

                So humanity has taken a long time to reach the heights it has, and there are still greater peaks to strive for. We haven’t yet reached the apex of what we’re biologically capable of. Ben, I see you as saying that the “best strategy” for human society is only possible if humans themselves develop to the point where they are psychologically capable of embracing this strategy. This was impossible for Bronze Age humans. It’s less impossible for modern day humans, but we still aren’t there yet.

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

                Actually, I think the calculus would remain the same; just the inputs and outputs would differ.

                For example, even in Biblical times you still shouldn’t do unto others that which they don’t want done unto them. You might not realize that that’s the case and shoot yourself in the foot by doing so anyway.

                The Exception states that you may step on other people’s toes to the minimum amount necessary to stop them from violating the First Rule. Today, a simple, “Gee, you’re really creeping me out,” might suffice; in Biblical times, you might have had to draw and use your sword to get the point across.

                Ben, I see you as saying that the “best strategy” for human society is only possible if humans themselves develop to the point where they are psychologically capable of embracing this strategy.

                No, I’m saying that I see this as the best strategy, period, and you would be well advised to both adopt it for yourself and promote its widespread adoption amongst others. The advancement comes in with the relative degree to which people adopt it.

                “Why don’t all you non-Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879 heretic scum go on a murderous rapacious rampage?” the godbots constantly vocally wonder. It’s because we’re all already following the strategy to a large extent. It’s just in our best interests to follow it even more closely, is all.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kharamatha
                Posted August 26, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink

                I see an analogue to left-handed athletes. They are believed to prosper in tennis because they are few. If playing against a left-handed opponent were the standard game, tennis-players would learn to play against left-handed opponents.

                When they are many, they are less successful. When they are few, they are more successful.

                If everybody cheated, cheaters would also be cheated.

              • Posted August 26, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

                Yes, that’s an apt comparison.

                But also note that, given one society in which everybody cheats (say, Afghanistan or Somalia) and another in which cheating is much rarer (the Western world), the society with cheaters will get out-competed by the society without.

                Clearly, the society needs mechanisms to deter cheating; we call those laws, social norms, etc.

                Cheers,

                b&

          • Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

            2) It’s interesting that values, and not facts, are required in order to “get someone to do something.” That is, you can tell someone all the facts you want about how much a person suffers when they are raped, but that alone will not give them any motivation to fight against others being raped, unless that person values diminishing the suffering of others.

            So why does motivating people to act always come down to values? Well, there’s something I always point out when I’m trying to explain that we don’t have contracausal free will, and that is – people always act in accordance with their conscious goals, or their basic urges. They never ignore both. If you’re trying to put a deck on your house that requires the screwing-in of hundreds of screws, you will choose a screw gun over a screwdriver every time, because your goal is to not foist extra work on yourself. There is no sane human who says “My goal is to get this job done as quickly and easily as possible. Therefore I will use a screwdriver.” Why? Because once we make goals, we are programmed to act in accordance with them (and an organism could not survive any other way).

            Values and goals are more or less the same thing. If I value diminishing my own suffering, it is the same as saying that my goal is to diminish my own suffering.

            So appealing to a person’s values is like appealing to the fundamental “do this” part of our program. Facts inform behavior, but values guide it. If you want someone to do something, you need to tap into what guides their behavior.

            Evolution tapped into it with the advent of mirror neurons and other mechanisms that forced us to feel others’ suffering as our own! That’s what made us (non-sociopaths) concerned with doing good to others.

            • Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

              If you’re trying to put a deck on your house that requires the screwing-in of hundreds of screws, you will choose a screw gun over a screwdriver every time, because your goal is to not foist extra work on yourself. There is no sane human who says “My goal is to get this job done as quickly and easily as possible. Therefore I will use a screwdriver.”

              Oh, but you would if you were jobless and penniless. That $100 tool would buy a staggering amount of rice and beans for your children.

              And you also might do it by hand for the Zen of it, or because you’re recreating the experience of your forebears, or because you’re doing the job a hundred miles from the nearest power transmission line, or to win a bet, or for any of a host of other reasons.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                You’re bringing up the same non-rebuttals that believers in free will do. All you’re doing is considering what happens when you add competing goals and biological urges into the mix. My point is that the weights of these goals in the human program will determine our output. And, to give the most simplistic example, a person who’s goal is to finish the job quickly and easily and *doesn’t experience any other mitigating factors* will always choose the screw gun. Imagine someone who didn’t – such a person would be ill-equipped for survival, and we would probably think there was something wrong with them.

              • Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

                Fair enough.

                b&

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 28, 2011 at 1:18 am | Permalink

            QED

        • Posted August 25, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          Then whence “ought”?

          All there is is “is”.

          Or is the argument really that there are no “oughts”?

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 28, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink

            Seems that way to me, too.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 28, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink

          But this one is true.

          Not if you’re an ethical naturalist. (Narrow sense.) (Not that I am, necessarily. Just trying to argue philosophy with philosophy.)

          If you’re uncomfortable with making it a blanket statement, however, you can just take it on a case by case basis. Try getting from “People do not want to be murdered” to “You should not murder people.”

          Seems to me it should be more like getting from “shall I murder Bob?” to “no, probably not.” Is “it’s potentially more trouble than it’s worth” a value judgement or simply a rational weighing of pros and cons?

      • Posted August 25, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        “…explanation mark…”

        Let me guess: smartphone autocorrect?

        🙂

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 28, 2011 at 2:22 am | Permalink

          ROFL!

          Gah, I SO want to lie…but in a thread about morality…?

          Not smart-phone–more like dumb-brain.

    • Charles Sullivan
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

      The problem might be due (in part) to your attachment to deontology rather than consequentialism (Singer makes a pretty good case on the conseqeuntialist front).

    • Posted August 25, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      Ho Joel, I like the cut of your jib. 😉

      I like it probably because I have made a similar observation about my own vegan diet*, and the desire to promote it to others on the basis of “morality”, or what is right for other non-human animals to be able to experience. If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that morality is a form of aesthetic appraisal of behaviour and relationships. What we describe as moral behaviour is really behaviour that we have an appreciation of, either in ourselves or that which we experience with others. Conversely, any behaviour in ourselves or in others that we describe as “immoral” is really a negative aesthetic reaction to observed behaviour.

      Seeing animals suffer (or just knowing they do) due to human behaviour when alternatives exist makes me feel sad; an aesthetic appreciation as far as I can see. Ben has referred to a vegan diet as an aesthetic selection, but a non-cannibalistic one as a moral selection, whereas I do not see the distinction. Just because the subject of one relationship is non-human does not change the calculus to me; both are really aesthetic selections. Cannibalism is repugnant to me, but the breeding and controlling animals so we can ultimately end them for our own selfish reasons is also repugnant to me. Possibly different levels of aesthetics, but it feel like aesthetics all the way down.

      It also follows from the aesthetic way of thinking of morals that I cannot convince others to see things my way because it is “the right way to think”, in the same way I cannot convince others that the music of Yello is great. I cannot impose my tastes on others, but at least I can explain the reasons I have them.

      * I don’t describe myself as a vegan, as there is too much social baggage and assumed moral judgementallism that goes with calling you what you eat, or don’t eat, as the case may be. I just happen to be a person that has a vegan diet.

  20. Diane G.
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    (subscribing)

    • Charles Sullivan
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      Or not.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

        LOL if that’s the joke I think it is!

        (I subscribe to Jerry’s view.)

  21. Kharamatha
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    “Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.”

    Welcome to the dark side. Your complementary cookie shall be forthcoming.

  22. Richard Wein
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    And that’s exactly what Sam Harris sees as “objective” morality. You can argue about whether Sam’s criteria are good ones, or whether they can be applied in many circumstances, but all Marks has done has rename “morality” as “those things that have good consequences.”

    Harris has redefined the word “moral” to mean “maximises well-being”. If you buy into Harris’s definition it’s going to look like anyone who says “X maximises well-being” is saying “X is moral”, only in different words. But that just shows the absurdity of Harris’s definition.

    Imagine a theist says: “X maximises well-being, but it’s immoral because God has forbidden it.” According to Harris’s definition this theist is not just mistaken but contradicting himself. But, when read in a normal way, there’s nothing self-contradictory about it.

    But why have more compassion and respect for people, if it’s not the right thing to do?

    “Why have” is ambiguous. It could mean “why should he have” or “why will he have”. Marks isn’t saying there’s any reason he should have more compassion. He’s giving causal reasons why he probably will have more compassion.

    At the end, I think Marks makes clear that while abandoning the notions of right and wrong, he still thinks that some things are better to do than others because they have better consequences.

    But the passage Jerry goes on to quote doesn’t use the word “better” or any equivalent. Marks just states his own preferences. It’s also important to note that the words “good” and “better” are ambiguous. They can be used in both moral and non-moral senses. There seems to be the following progressive conflation in Jerry’s mind: “I prefer X” == “I think that X is a better outcome” == “X is morally better”.

    Judging by the quoted passages, Marks has been very careful to make his meaning clear. Jerry has taken Marks’s clear statements, paraphrased them with ambiguous ones, and then misinterpreted the ambiguous statements. To be fair, I realise that these sorts of semantic issues are tricky. Many good philosophers get them wrong too.

    • Richard Wein
      Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

      Damn. I failed to close my first blockquote properly. What a mess!

      • Lyndon
        Posted August 25, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        Well-stated Richard.

        “Harris has redefined the word “moral” to mean “maximises well-being”. If you buy into Harris’s definition it’s going to look like anyone who says “X maximises well-being” is saying “X is moral”, only in different words. But that just shows the absurdity of Harris’s definition.

        Imagine a theist says: “X maximises well-being, but it’s immoral because God has forbidden it.” According to Harris’s definition this theist is not just mistaken but contradicting himself. But, when read in a normal way, there’s nothing self-contradictory about it.”

        Your example is a little dramatic for effect, but if we start analyzing even the non-religionist use of moral language we will surely arrvive at similar problems. The anti-realist about moral facts or moral properties is not condemned from making any statements about what will help human beings or Americans build better (more prosperous, more equal, acceptable and comfortable lives for the most people, etc.) societies, or from advocating for such improvements.

        Language aside, Sam Harris is right in the ways that the present scientific and brain information can help us reform our moral (social) conceptions, most pointedly by helping us understand what it means to be a human being.

  23. gillt
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    At the end, I think Marks makes clear that while abandoning the notions of right and wrong, he still thinks that some things are better to do than others because they have better consequences.

    And honestly Mark’s probably always had these reasons and motivations behind his convictions and likely resorted to them in his arguments for or against whatever it was he was passionate about, despite his morality.

    Were Mark’s previous views on morality so impoverished and absolutist that he was hobbled from arguing rationally and objectively about his convictions?

    I welcome the personal growth and insight but I wonder why it’s taken a philosopher so long to come to this conclusion.

  24. Posted August 26, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    No, if EVERYBODY cheated, no one would be cheated and rules would evolve (change), ie, the traveling and palming rules in basketball which are now totally different than in the 50’s, 60’s. Rules, laws, whatever are ever evolving, just as morality and ethics are ever evolving dependent on the ever evolving situations individuals and social groups find themselves in, and what appears to meet the needs of the social group.

    No absolute morality, ethics, right, wrong, good, bad,etc., just individuals and social groups meeting ever evolving needs that are determined by the seemingly infinite and unique variables that have created us, and which continue in each micro second as we evolve towards who knows what. Nihilism, hedonism – perhaps, but then beauty, good bad, right, wrong, etc. is always in the eye of the beholder. Go Bulls. See ya.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted August 27, 2011 at 1:03 am | Permalink

      “No, if EVERYBODY cheated, no one would be cheated and rules would evolve (change), ie, the traveling and palming rules in basketball which are now totally different than in the 50′s, 60′s.”

      This seems to presuppose that every cheater will use the same cheat, in addition to not minding it being used against them. It is plausible for a human to not mind punching another in the face, while at the same time mind being punched in the face by another.

  25. Chris
    Posted August 26, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    “G. Eliot. — They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.

    We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth–it stands and falls with faith in God.

    When the English actually believe that they know “intuitively” what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.”

    Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

    One could easily substitute too many materialist ethical theories for ‘English’ in the last sentence above and more or less describe the current state of ethical argumentation, which has yet to accept that Nietzsche was right. Marks may have his words wrong, and still cling to sentimental ethical theories about animals, but he’s right about morality. Moral realism is a non-starter. You might not like it, but them’s the facts (whatever those are).

  26. Luke
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I think Marks’ piece is being misrepresented here. There is a distinction between what one wishes to happen (the “will”) and what one thinks should happen (right and wrong), the second usually being based on one’s morality. When moral realism is abandoned the two can be reconciled. These ideas were all well developed by Nietzsche in the 19th century! It’s perfectly consistent to not want animals to suffer (based on one’s will) and to inform others of the facts of their suffering, without claiming it to be right or wrong. By providing people with the information he is trying to convince them that this is “wrong”, he is informing them and asking if this is what they “will”?

    • Luke
      Posted August 28, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Whoops, that should read: By providing people with the information he is NOT trying to convince them that this is “wrong”, he is informing them and asking if this is what they “will”?

      • Posted September 3, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        Thank you, Luke. Several others have interpreted my remarks as I intended them as well. I apologize to them for just replying to Luke, but I’m still trying to reply to all the folks who emailed me. Also, you will find my response to the 400 comments I received at the Stone at a new post at The Stone that just went up yesterday. I am so pleased by all the good thinking that has generated this multi-logue at Why Evolution Is True. But I do think a number of folks missed the rather key point that I am not offering a desirist analysis of morality but rather a desirist alternative to morality. But I’m also sure that I have failed to do justice to some of the critical commentary in the above string. Of course I will continue to ponder …

        One additional personal note: Several folks have wondered aloud how a philosopher could have taken so long to arrive at this insight (such as it is). The answer is very simple: Professional philosophy has become an area of specializations within specializations. My specialization was normative ethics and then applied ethics; thus I kept moving further and further away from meta-ethics as I became more and more engrossed with pressing ethical or practical problems of the day. The meta-ethics was simply bracketed. I could not take seriously that the “absoluteness” of morality could be questioned. Then came my “anti-epiphany”: suddenly realizing that I was mistaking the strength of my own feelings for the Truth of Morality. Human oh so human. I thereupon commenced the study of meta-ethics in earnest, and and here I am.

  27. Morgan
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    As I see it our ethics and morals are our guide to the society we live in. the most basic: no killing, no stealing etc, at least in the own tribe or community, are universal to most cultures on our planet. If we were creatures that lived solitary our moral “map” would most likely look different. And it’s still evolving. Now we think it’s bad and un ethical to think of other ethnic groups as non equal or that women sholdn’t have the same rights as men, and many other finer points of our civilisations evolving ethics are added (and remowed)…I think this article here points to the “core” of morals/ethics.


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