January 03, 2007

Coin Toss Morality

Awhile back I had a dialog with a cousin where we discussed the merits of different ethical systems. He is something of an agnostic, so I was keen for him to recognize morality as an objectively real concept that he must work into his thinking. To this end, I asked the leading question, "Why not just flip a coin for each moral decision?" Now, this may sound flippant (no pun intended), but I think it begins to expose one of the problems of ethical theory.

You could say, as my cousin did, that this simply removes reason from the equation and replaces it with chance. But what is it that reason can do that chance cannot? Flipping a coin certainly qualifies as an ethical system, but why is it a "bad" or "wrong" one? You can certainly use "reason" to lay down the options, manage the coin toss, and implement the resulting decision.

I think the real problem is that the outcome of a coin-toss moral decision can clearly lead to undesirable results. Think of the following situation: Your neighbor's toddler wanders over into your yard (you've left your gate open) and falls into your pool. Do you, heads, save her or, tails, wait for her parents to come retrieve the corpse? You know what to do and you don't need an ethical system to help you out. You know that the coin toss may lead to the wrong decision.

Ideally, you want your ethical system to act as a sort of formula for helping you to get to correct decisions, and it is most helpful when the situations are complex. But the entire system can come crashing down if it runs afoul of your moral intuitions. A well placed reductio ad absurdum can prove the shortcoming of the theory. For instance, you might at first hold to a utilitarian ethic that whatever promotes the happiness of the majority is what is "good," but then it could be pointed out that the torture for sport of a single human could give a large (depraved) viewing audience a large sum total of happiness. For most people, that would put an end to that moral theory (and for those who it wouldn't I haven't got much more to say here).

The point is that we seem to have preexisting moral intuitions, and we will never be satisfied with any ethical system that does not accommodate them. (Well, perhaps not entirely true, since we also have competing selfish desires that we often seek to rationalize.) I would argue that in our ethical theories we are simply trying to systematize our moral intuitions.

A chance ethical system cannot do the trick if it is true that there are right and wrong answers. If there are indeed objectively right answers to moral questions, then reason is certainly an ally, since it can help us to assess the conditions and marshal our intuitions, but it does not in itself make the answer right. Neither does an ethical system make right answers; it can only (if legitimate) help us to navigate through real passes with real reefs and currents. But you could never say that any ship of history had hit a reef unless you were first willing to admit that things such as ships and reefs actually existed. That's a very big pill to swallow for anyone committed to a purely material world, where truth and ethics extend no farther than the will and imagination of the biochemical flukes we call "humans."

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17 Comments:

At 1/04/2007 2:42 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

If there really are no morals, it seems like pragmatic egoism would be the way to go. Even without moral obligations, there are still certain rules it would be in our best interest to keep and to force other to keep.

Lemme ask you a question, Paul. You mentioned that moral theories are ways to systemetize our moral intuitions, and that when our moral theories come in conflict with our intuitions, we get rid of the theories instead of the intuitions. We usually argue against them by using a reductio ad absurdum.

Well, I've used reductio ad absurdum arguments a lot when talking about morality, but I've gotten the same response from several different people. They'll all say that my argument is just an appeal to emotion rather than a rational argument. For example, if I say something like, "If there are no moral obligations, then there's nothing wrong with mother stabbing and father raping," they take my pointing out the heinous nature of things like mother stabbing, father raping, torture, etc., as an appeal to emotion.

So my question is how would you respond?

I've been thinking about writing a blog on this subject since it has come up so much. I wanted to show that there is a difference between a moral intuition and mere emotions. One way I thought about doing it is to use an example. A person would be far more emotional if their own child was murdered than if somebody else's child was murdered on the other side of the globe, but they would intuitively recognize that one is just as bad as the other.

A person who thinks there's nothing wrong with murder may change their mind if their own child is murdered. In that case, you might say emotion was the cause for the change in mind, and not reason. But when they change their mind, they don't just think murdering their own child was wrong; rather, they think murdering any child is wrong. With the distinction above I showed between intuition and emotion, it seems evident that while emotion plays a part in the change of mind, the part it plays is to cause our moral intuitions to rise to the surface. It still doesn't equate emotions and intuitions.

I have a few other arguments, but I wanted to know if you had any thoughts on it.

 
At 1/04/2007 7:57 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

As you both know from previous discussions my overview of morality is quite different from either of yours. however, I do want to pick up on one thing. I wonder whether reason and moral intuition influence each other over time in a kind of process of reciprocal refinement. Of course, these moral intuitions must also harness emotion in order to change behaviour. I am still skeptical about the causal connection between ones moral stance and ones meta ethical philosophy.

 
At 1/05/2007 2:17 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam,

"If there really are no morals, it seems like pragmatic egoism would be the way to go. Even without moral obligations, there are still certain rules it would be in our best interest to keep and to force other to keep."

I'll have to agree with you to a point. If morality is not objective, and there is no one above us who cares about our behavior, then individually there isn't much to constrain you from doing whatever you feel like doing. Of course, you have to worry about the practical negative consequences from society and it's not fun to piss off those who you are fond of, so some personal ethic would tend to emerge. As far as a formal ethic for such a person, it may be more for the sake of keeping order in society rather than to guide ones own behavior. We are much more conservative when it comes to other people.

"I've used reductio ad absurdum arguments a lot when talking about morality, but I've gotten the same response from several different people. They'll all say that my argument is just an appeal to emotion rather than a rational argument. . . . My question is how would you respond? "

First, I will say that I like your thinking on this, i.e., that the situation helps to awaken the person to their intuitions by way of their emotions. Perhaps an analogy could be used of sleep or diet. We need to eat — we are designed to eat — but would we do so if not for hunger? Normally, hunger comes at the appropriate time, but sometimes we can dull it or suppress it or push beyond it. At such times a well placed visual or aroma cue can bring it on in full force. Same with sleep. Sometimes we need sleep but we are pressing too hard to really feel it. A nice boring task or moment to relax will bring on the feelings that witness to the truth of our state. Maybe our emotions are like that for other realities, which leads to a question for those who argue against the appeal to emotion.

Why should they have these emotions in the first place?

Where do emotions come from and why do they seem to be so interminably bound up in behaviors that we commonly understand to be morally invested. Courage and valor make our hearts swell. Love and mercy bring tears to our eyes. Oppression and injustice make us angry. Insults and rejection make our hearts ache.

Do we have emotions with no cause? No. We have them in conjunction with situations. And of course our minds must understand the situation before the emotion is employed. But when we do this (unconsciously perhaps), we are doing so according to some prior standard. If someone were to knock my child down I may or may not get angry depending on if they are saving him from a projectile of just being mean. So, my emotions will follow the morality of the situation: gratitude on the one hand vs. anger on the other. Of course, I must first have established in my mind that one action is good and the other bad. How we know such a thing comes back to the very center of the debate.

Bottom line is that the emotions merely expose the inherent moral beliefs that one presently has. It is valid to evoke them in someone, by way of the reductio ad absurdum, if you suspect that they are blowing you smoke about what they really believe. If someone has strong emotions counter to what they claim to believe, then they've got a mystery to unravel. If someone objects that you are appealing to emotion, simply ask them if they do indeed have strong emotions in line with your example. If so, then suggest it is because they are in actuality mirroring their moral beliefs. Maybe they think those beliefs ought to be recalibrated, but they at least seem to believe those things at the moment.

Psio,

I'm not really sure that you can say that "moral intuition" can be refined, since it is supposed to be a form of innate knowledge of an objective moral standard. You could certainly use reason to assist you in working through a particular situation to apply your intuitions. I've previously used the example that keeping a person in a cage runs against our moral intuitions. However, if we add the knowledge that a particular person in a cage is a serial killer, then we can play one moral intuition against others that cry for justice and security.

I suspect that you ultimately believe that our intuitions are just byproducts of evolution, or perhaps cultural imprints. The former would make them more like instincts, which only evolution (or medication) could adjust, not reason. The latter would not be so much intuitions as beliefs and knowledge, which reason could certainly adjust.

 
At 1/05/2007 6:30 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
You are right that I think that morals are a result of evolution but I don't think that they are byproducts. I think they are necessary developments for a social species with metacognitive abilities.
The reason that I wonder whether a refinement process is possible is that I regard our moral intuitions as a product of inference systems in the brain. Like a lot of cognitive systems thay can be 'tweaked' by experience.
I think morals are culturally evolved within parameters set by objective features of the world. For example, it is no surprise from the evolutionary perspective that father raping and mother stabbing is universally considered to be wrong. It is often argued that realising that the universe does not care and that morals are products of human brains, tends to undermine the emotional constraints and drives that help moral intuition influence behaviour. Hence people look for a cosmic gaurantor of objective moral value. I have never found this particularly convincing. Does the realisation that romantic love is linked to the urge to reproduce rob us of its meaning? Of course not.

 
At 1/07/2007 12:35 PM, Blogger JELyon said...

I've tried to be thoughtful, hopped up as I am on anti-histamines and caffeine and four hours or so of sleep...

Anyhow - response (either thoughtful or incoherent) at smooinaghey

 
At 1/07/2007 1:07 PM, Blogger JELyon said...

addendum:

I recently heard the following on my local NPR station - podcast available:

[link]

Morality
Show #203
Friday, April 28, 2006

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? We peer inside the brains of people contemplating moral dilemmas, watch chimps at a primate research center share blackberries, observe a playgroup of 3 year-olds fighting over toys, and tour the country's first penitentiary, Eastern State Prison. Also: the story of land grabbing, indentured servitude and slum lording in the fourth grade.

 
At 1/07/2007 5:24 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I think you are trying very hard to justify your moral intuitions (or evolutionary instincts) as being the best and most practical ones according to some natural constraints. So, for you, it's like asking why a river has decided to take one course over any other seemingly possible course — the answer being because it is simply following gravity and geography.

The problem is that many other creatures have very different moral instincts from our own, surviving and reproducing quite successfully (evolution is only concerned about these things, after all). You may find the human way of doing things to be superior, but as a materialist you cannot make that statement.

For one, there is no "best" or "right" in such a world, only best and right according to a person's (or species') own definition of such terms. For another, what you are claiming to be best just happens to correspond to your own feelings about the matter (your intuitions or instincts). How convenient to say that this is what is really and truly best! Is it not likely that whatever instincts you happened to have, that you would equally be justifying those as the ideal? You may try to employ reason to "objectively" refute that possibility, but, according to materialism, even your mental processes and what you find to be logical and reasonable are things that have been delivered to you by a chance-driven process with very loose and self-serving constraints (i.e., natural selection).

Even if there could be an ideal morality in a purely material world I'm not sure how we would ever come to know it (or have an affinity for it).

 
At 1/07/2007 7:14 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
I think you are trying very hard to justify your moral intuitions (or evolutionary instincts) as being the best and most practical ones according to some natural constraints. So, for you, it's like asking why a river has decided to take one course over any other seemingly possible course — the answer being because it is simply following gravity and geography.

I don't think that is fair. I don't think I am having to try as hard as those who need to invoke a moral arbiter in the sky. Your river analogy I would tweak this way: the particular details of meandering might be analagous to cultural variation, but the general course has objective constraints.

The problem is that many other creatures have very different moral instincts from our own, surviving and reproducing quite successfully (evolution is only concerned about these things, after all). You may find the human way of doing things to be superior, but as a materialist you cannot make that statement.

I don't need to make that statement and I see no problem. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that we have the guns.

For one, there is no "best" or "right" in such a world, only best and right according to a person's (or species') own definition of such terms. For another, what you are claiming to be best just happens to correspond to your own feelings about the matter (your intuitions or instincts). How convenient to say that this is what is really and truly best! Is it not likely that whatever instincts you happened to have, that you would equally be justifying those as the ideal? You may try to employ reason to "objectively" refute that possibility, but, according to materialism, even your mental processes and what you find to be logical and reasonable are things that have been delivered to you by a chance-driven process with very loose and self-serving constraints (i.e., natural selection).

Every definition has a domain. 'Best' and 'Right' certainy do exist in my world, but the frame of reference that informs the domain is radically different. We can only do our best to interpret the world and try to do what is right. You have a morality delivered to you by authority figures quoting things written by people. It is a chance driven self serving cultural process. About 90% of people who are religious have the same religion as their parents, yet the different religions say mutually contradictory things while claiming universal truth. How convenient that you happen to have been born into the culture that has the correct view of what is truly best!

Even if there could be an ideal morality in a purely material world I'm not sure how we would ever come to know it (or have an affinity for it).

I think we try our best. I try to do this on the basis of the evidence, reason and honest emotion linked to moral intuition. One of us thinks they have access to absolute moral truth. I know which of us I would find more scary. Striving towards an ideal in the knowledge that one can never truly even conceptualize it adequately is one thing. Thinking you have found it is an illusion.

 
At 1/10/2007 12:55 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I think we are making no headway here. You are beginning to make comments that are tangential to the main point or are essentially avoiding it.

In response to the tangents:

I am not just appealing to an arbiter in the sky to justify my moral speculations; nor am I simply taking these things on blind authority. Christianity resonates with my moral intuitions — it makes sense of them in a very specific way — and has a respectable intellectual and historical pedigree. I honestly believe that pure materialism has no basis for objective claims to morality, and many secular philosophers agree. And I don't think it necessary to argue the particulars of a transcendent metaphysic in order to have a principled discussion over whether or not something more than matter and energy is required to ground objective morality.

Additionally, it is invalid to make the common objection that people believe in religion merely because it is transmitted to them by their culture — and especially to extend the argument by implying that no religion is valid as a consequence. While this may indeed explain the religious sentiments of a large sector of any population (who tend to be "religious" only in a cultural sense), you have surely yourself seen many counter-examples to this phenomenon. For example, many atheists were raised Christian, many Christians were raised by atheists, many Christians are found in Hindu or Muslim cultures, and I myself was raised Christian, abandoned it, and came back into a different theological tradition. (Although I will admit that the idea that "I was Christian only because it was what I had been taught" fueled some soul searching in my youth.)

More in response to the point of the argument you say things like this:

'Best' and 'Right' certainly do exist in my world, but the frame of reference that informs the domain is radically different. We can only do our best to interpret the world and try to do what is right. . . . I think we try our best. I try to do this on the basis of the evidence, reason and honest emotion linked to moral intuition.

You cannot do what's "best" and "right" unless such things exist, and you can only use reason and evidence to guide you toward a tangible thing (much as a map and compass do no good until you have a destination). You haven't really established that thing; you're just appealing to it self-referentially. If that thing is dependent upon human inclinations and cultural conventions, then we're really not talking about the same thing. If you want to suggest that best and right stand apart from sentient minds and would apply to all comers, then you're building castles out of vapor as a materialist; especially since even if you identify some practical standard for "right," it can always be asked why it is right to follow the "right." Even if evolution supposedly gave me certain urges, I do not see any moral incumbency to actually follow them (assuming I am able to override them).

I think in the end that your ethic must boil down to some form of self-preservation (very evolutionary), but I believe that you know intuitively that there is something far more noble than this. That feeling is either a useful fiction foisted upon you by your biochemistry, or it is a signal of transcendence.

 
At 1/10/2007 7:54 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
I think we are making no headway here. You are beginning to make comments that are tangential to the main point or are essentially avoiding it.
I will have to respectfully disagree here, I apologise if I have caused offense or have seemed irrelevant and will bow out of this one after this post.

I am not just appealing to an arbiter in the sky to justify my moral speculations; nor am I simply taking these things on blind authority. Christianity resonates with my moral intuitions — it makes sense of them in a very specific way — and has a respectable intellectual and historical pedigree.
This I agree with and I have said so before in reference to your well put cases. I ask that you pause and reflect on how symmetrical my comments about this topic have been to your own. You are not just appealing blindly to an arbiter, but the bottom line is that you think that I have no basis for my morals.
I honestly believe that pure materialism has no basis for objective claims to morality, and many secular philosophers agree.
I'm with the other secular philosophers, clearly. I am trying to explain why.

On your ruling that it is invalid of me to bring up the percentage of people who share the religion of their upbringing, again I respectfully disagree. If you are claiming access to universal moral truth, the fact that a small minority of people convert or don't fit the trend does not invalidate the criticism.

And I don't think it necessary to argue the particulars of a transcendent metaphysic in order to have a principled discussion over whether or not something more than matter and energy is required to ground objective morality.
Well, it was you who specifically laid claim to a better solution that is a particular one, so criticism of this is relevant in my view. Remember you said:
"How convenient to say that this is what is really and truly best!"

I think it is possible to have a principled discussion about a viable materialist ethics without implying that your interlocutor is just going with what is convenient.

You cannot do what's "best" and "right" unless such things exist,
There are modes of existence that do not require anything external to humanity but they are forms of existence nonetheless. Verbs exist. Why should I follow my morals if they are human constructs? Well, why do anything at all? We have to want to. I can't undo the complex effects on my psychology that morality has any more than I can unlearn how to interpret speech. So your question about why we should follow 'right' is somewhat academic.
Again, apologies for any irrelevance, we disagree so fundamentally that it is at the frame of reference level and my view of what is relevant is not likely to coincide with yours either.
I wish you well.

 
At 1/14/2007 2:26 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I apologise if I have caused offense or have seemed irrelevant and will bow out of this one after this post.

No bother, and no offense taken. I just felt like it wasn't a good volley and neglected the meat of what I offered.

the bottom line is that you think that I have no basis for my morals.

I hope you do not think I’m saying that you cannot be a "good" person and be concerned about matters of virtue (though I could argue that you are missing some key ingredients in order to be counted good in God's eyes). What I am saying is that you have no basis for claiming that the standard of morality that seems reasonable to you is one that applies to all other human beings (or any other sentient creature we might encounter). Further, you can never call those who violate your moral system "evil" and mean it in any way other than a label for those who are in set B rather than set A. This means that "good" and "evil" are categorically the same as, say, those who like steak vs. squid. To call set B "evil" you must appeal to a higher standard — a standard that is not simply the criteria for dividing people and behaviors into their two sets. Others would divide those sets differently than yourself, but what is it that makes your criteria the right one that all must respect?

Let me re-quote some stuff I used in the comments under another blog post.

"Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says 'Love they neighbor as thyself,' they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory" — Michael Ruse (atheist)

"We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn't decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me. . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality." — Kai Nielsen (atheist)

Richard Rorty says that “when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form ‘there is something within you which you are betraying . . . something beyond those practices which condemns you.’ ” This is because there “is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves.”

If you are claiming access to universal moral truth, the fact that a small minority of people convert or don't fit the trend does not invalidate the criticism.

First, I am not simply appealing to my particular brand of theism to ground morality; I am making the argument that our moral systems are built upon our moral intuitions, and that our intuitions are reflections of a universal standard, and that this standard cannot be called "objective" or be incumbent upon us unless it is transcendent, and a transcendent standard implies a transcendent source with desires, intentions, and a means of insuring justice. I am making a philosophical case, which some atheists have even made, so my personal religious affiliation has no bearing in this.

Second, I would suggest that it is more than a small minority, especially if you consider the fact that a liberal of any given religion is not really an adherent to that religion and most people in any given culture follow their religions only in a liberal, cultural sense.

Third, your criticism is not a logical defeater to either religion in general or Christianity in particular; it is simply a cultural observation. You will have to add more premises to your argument to make a logical case out of it.

Remember you said:
"How convenient to say that [your evolution delivered morality] is what is really and truly best!"

I think it is possible to have a principled discussion about a viable materialist ethics without implying that your interlocutor is just going with what is convenient.


I will admit that this comment was more rhetorical flourish than argument, but what I said in conjunction with this was a very important point.

If your reasoning mechanisms and your moral instincts were shaped by forces beyond your control (evolution), which are not themselves "moral," then how could you be expected to think and feel any other way then you do about morality (which you basically admit below) and by what right do you call your particular human brand of morality the objectively right one?

Additionally, I could apply your own reasoning back upon you (in relation to being raised in a religion): Do you just believe your morality to be true because it is the prevailing morality of the culture (or species) in which you find yourself? That is no reason to believe that it is true or best.

There are modes of existence that do not require anything external to humanity but they are forms of existence nonetheless. Verbs exist.

We've been through this one before. Verbs are tokens that represent something else. When we are speaking about reality (which you claim to be doing about morality), then the verbs we use represent real actions and relationships in the real world. If you were saying that "morality" is just a token for something we've invented for ourselves, then by atheistic standards I would agree. But it seems you are arguing that it is more objective than that.

Why should I follow my morals if they are human constructs? Well, why do anything at all? We have to want to. I can't undo the complex effects on my psychology that morality has any more than I can unlearn how to interpret speech. So your question about why we should follow 'right' is somewhat academic.

This is quite an interesting statement, which brings me up short because I can't decide which thing I want to say about it. So I'll say a few things.

* So you are admitting that you have no choice but to follow your intuitions and to think they are correct ones? But can you agree in principle that there is no reason to find them to be objectively best because there is nothing beyond yourself and your feelings to rule over such things?

* So, are you saying that people should just follow their intuitions if they want to, or are you saying that you just follow them because you want to? Either way, it does not begin to make the case that they ought to be followed because they mirror some standard that is the "right" standard for all.

* But there are plenty of people who go against the grain, and I suggest that you probably do in some cases as well. What will we say against those who do not follow the standard and care nothing for it?

Again, apologies for any irrelevance, we disagree so fundamentally that it is at the frame of reference level and my view of what is relevant is not likely to coincide with yours either.

Yes, most discussions really should be pushed down to their lowest level assumptions. Many people get caught up in the higher-level specifics where no progress is really possible coming from different worldviews. I don't think I'm guilty of that in this discussion. If I were saying that my Christian beliefs say that morality is objective and you don't believe in my God so you're wrong, then we'd be at an impasse.

 
At 1/14/2007 7:51 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
No bother, and no offense taken. I just felt like it wasn't a good volley and neglected the meat of what I offered.
One man's meat...

I do not think that the categories of 'good' and 'evil' are helpful within my frame of reference, 'right' and 'wrong' will do for me.
I think you are so wedded to the idea of an absolute transcendent moral standard that you cannot imagine how 'right' and 'wrong' can be fundamentally different, in my world view, from 'likes steak' and 'likes squid'. I view them as very different indeed. To illustrate, I would say they are as different as 'would rather drive on the same side as everyone else' versus 'would rather drive at random' is to 'would rather play Chopin on car sterio' versus 'would rather play Johnny Cash'.

I am making a philosophical case, which some atheists have even made, so my personal religious affiliation has no bearing in this.
I am not mentioning your religious affiliation to be personal, rather to make a philosophical point, which is that there is no universal moral consensus agreed upon by all religious affiliates. Then we are back to the 'how convenient you ended up in the religion/denomination that has it right' idea.

Second, I would suggest that it is more than a small minority, especially if you consider the fact that a liberal of any given religion is not really an adherent to that religion and most people in any given culture follow their religions only in a liberal, cultural sense.

I am not sure that this argues in the right direction for you. Perhaps you could clarify?

Third, your criticism is not a logical defeater to either religion in general or Christianity in particular; it is simply a cultural observation. You will have to add more premises to your argument to make a logical case out of it.
The criticism was made in order to put a narrow point about access to universal moral truth. On the wider question, a logical defeater of any religion is, I would suggest, unlikely.

If your reasoning mechanisms and your moral instincts were shaped by forces beyond your control (evolution), which are not themselves "moral," then how could you be expected to think and feel any other way then you do about morality (which you basically admit below) and by what right do you call your particular human brand of morality the objectively right one?

I think we just need to accept that you think you have access to absolute moral truth and I think the that the concept is not useful. We are human and morality is a human construct in my view. That is its realm, it cannot be other than a human brand. In either case there are elements beyond our control.

Additionally, I could apply your own reasoning back upon you (in relation to being raised in a religion): Do you just believe your morality to be true because it is the prevailing morality of the culture (or species) in which you find yourself? That is no reason to believe that it is true or best.

Although there is manifest cultural evolution and the influence of Reason. Perhaps if we accept that we cannot have 'best' in an absolute and objective universal sense, we can do what we consider is best, in the knowledge that this is all we can do and in the context that in the long term, we have seen progress. If you are wondering how we can measure progress if we have no universal standard to calibrate things, then that might be one of the reasons we cannot progress in our discussion. I think human universals based on axioms that are 'good-in-themselves' such as reduction of suffering do provide a starting point for ethics. Why follow them though if they are not written into the universe, for example by god? Because, we have powerful emotions and intuitions that are linked together that motivate us to do so. That not enough for you? It should be!

We've been through this one before. Verbs are tokens that represent something else. When we are speaking about reality (which you claim to be doing about morality), then the verbs we use represent real actions and relationships in the real world. If you were saying that "morality" is just a token for something we've invented for ourselves, then by atheistic standards I would agree. But it seems you are arguing that it is more objective than that.

Morals refer to real things too. Suffering is real. I don't see the problem with this model. The verb 'to embarrass' refers to the promotion of an emotion in somebody else. The verb is real, the emotion is real, they would all vanish if we went extinct. I repeat myself, but I would add, it is not the case that any culture can decree anything to be embarrasing, without any parameters at all. And embarrasment is probably one of the more culturally malleable emotions. I don't think moral outrage is.

Your final few comments about the statement that brought you up short seem to imply that I think that moral intuitions are the final and only arbiter. This is not so, rather, there is a process of reciprocal redefinition involving Reason, as I said.

Yes, most discussions really should be pushed down to their lowest level assumptions. Many people get caught up in the higher-level specifics where no progress is really possible coming from different worldviews. I don't think I'm guilty of that in this discussion. If I were saying that my Christian beliefs say that morality is objective and you don't believe in my God so you're wrong, then we'd be at an impasse.
Nor do I think I am guilty. However, if you genuinely think I cross the line and you want me not to post, say the word.
At its deepest level, there is such a link between how each of us feels strongly about morality and how we see the ultimate truths (or lack of them) about the world, that any progress we can make is a minor miracle.

 
At 1/17/2007 12:26 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I do not think that the categories of 'good' and 'evil' are helpful within my frame of reference, 'right' and 'wrong' will do for me.
I think you are so wedded to the idea of an absolute transcendent moral standard that you cannot imagine how 'right' and 'wrong' can be fundamentally different, in my world view, from 'likes steak' and 'likes squid'. I view them as very different indeed. To illustrate, I would say they are as different as 'would rather drive on the same side as everyone else' versus 'would rather drive at random' is to 'would rather play Chopin on the car stereo' versus 'would rather play Johnny Cash'.


Unfortunately, "right" and "wrong" do not quite capture the idea of morality. We could say there was a right and wrong way to tie one's shoes ("right" being according to convention and having some functional advantage). We could also say there was a right and wrong way for citizens to act ("wrong" being to rape and pillage). Without a moral framework that permits the concept of "evil," then the difference between tying your shoe with a granny knot and robbing your neighbor is simply a matter of degree, not of kind. "Evil" is a synonym of a different category of "wrong."

I understand the difference between your examples: One is a matter of harmless preference; the other has some "negative" impact upon society. But I am suggesting to you that your criteria of civil order is itself, at the end of the day, merely a matter of personal preference. The fact that you share it with many other "reasonable" people is of no help to your philosophical case. And, in fact, you hold to such an ethic because it is so obvious to you that you cannot imagine it to be arbitrary, subjective, and in need of justification. This merely makes my case that we swim in moral intuitions and our ethical theories are soggy as a result. However, it does not make the case that it is the right, best, and universal ethic for which we may consider dissenters to be moral reprobates. That requires something more.

I am not mentioning your religious affiliation to be personal, rather to make a philosophical point, which is that there is no universal moral consensus agreed upon by all religious affiliates. Then we are back to the 'how convenient you ended up in the religion/denomination that has it right' idea.

I believe all other religions to be wrong (and not without informed reason), so it would not surprise me to see them differ from my own. Are you suggesting that if they did agree on moral issues that you would find "religion" compelling?

As it happens, most religions do agree on most moral issues. I know of few religions that advocates murder, theft, sexual promiscuity, ignoring the poor, etc. In fact, there is a great deal of agreement even on the more controversial issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Such similarities I would simply chalk up to shared moral intuitions, and I've even heard atheists shrug off the ethics of Jesus by saying things like, "Big deal. They are just obvious moral precepts that even Buddha taught. Nothing original." As St. Paul says, "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them."

There is quite a bit of moral consensus, which is shared by even secular humanists. Even you seem to be arguing for a sort of natural and self-apparent ethic. It is the differences in matters of fact that seem to confound the moral discussions, e.g., what is the best way to help the needy, are fetuses "persons," is there any purpose to sexuality, is there a God, etc.

I said: Second, I would suggest that it is more than a small minority [of people who reject the religion of their culture], especially if you consider the fact that a liberal of any given religion is not really an adherent to that religion and most people in any given culture follow their religions only in a liberal, cultural sense.

You said: I am not sure that this argues in the right direction for you. Perhaps you could clarify?


Not directly germane to the heart of our discussion. Just pointing out that being raised in a religious tradition does not make as many authentic converts to that religion as mere labels would lead one to believe. For example, in our American, "Christian" nation, according to the The Barna Group, the number of people who actually believe the core doctrines of Christianity is fractional, even among those who self-identify with Christianity. I am but one of millions of people raised in a Christian environment who shrugged it aside as soon as my hormones got the best of me (well, that's what did it for me anyway).

I think we just need to accept that you think you have access to absolute moral truth and I think that the concept is not useful.

This is not helpful and only argues from your conclusion. You believe that Christianity and its God is a fiction. Consequently, you believe that any morality that it asserts is born of its delusion and no better than secular morality. If you are correct about God, then I would have to agree. Unfortunately, I think that God has indeed spoken through the biblical tradition. So, yes, I think I have access to more moral truth than you do. You have only Natural Revelation and I have access to Special Revelation. But I know that is meaningless to you and so I seldom appeal to that, other than to point out something consistent with a point I've made on other grounds (as above).

We are human and morality is a human construct in my view. That is its realm, it cannot be other than a human brand. In either case there are elements beyond our control.

Well, there you go; morality is subjective after all! If the twists of evolution had gone a different route then we could have been a different creature with a different "brand" of morality. Now, if you're willing to admit that the moral urges that you feel now are no better (by atheistic standards) than what they might have been, then we are approaching agreement.

Seems like you are saying that what is "right" is simply following the path that your mind and instincts suggest to you. But I would suggest that this is simply one idea about morality that has no right to call itself superior to all others. You may prefer it, and seek to enforce it upon others, but you possess no moral leverage to claim that nonconformists are actually "bad" people. You can certainly use the word, but it means nothing more than those who hold to a different moral system than what you feel so strongly about. The commonly understood meaning of the word "bad" is a fiction (useful though it may be); it only has a subjective or cultural context.

Although there is manifest cultural evolution and the influence of Reason. Perhaps if we accept that we cannot have 'best' in an absolute and objective universal sense, we can do what we consider is best, in the knowledge that this is all we can do and in the context that in the long term, we have seen progress. If you are wondering how we can measure progress if we have no universal standard to calibrate things, then that might be one of the reasons we cannot progress in our discussion. I think human universals based on axioms that are 'good-in-themselves' such as reduction of suffering do provide a starting point for ethics. Why follow them though if they are not written into the universe, for example by god? Because, we have powerful emotions and intuitions that are linked together that motivate us to do so. That's not enough for you? It should be!

You're saying nothing more than this is how you feel (and think), no matter what the cause, and you can't deny your feelings. Well, that's great, but don't imagine your concern for the suffering in the world is anything noble or selfless. By objective standards (and evolutionary standards), the idea of surrendering our resources to help the sick and deformed is no more "good" than removing them from the gene pool. And civilized persons (such as Margaret Sanger and company, and Nazi ethical philosophers) have "reasoned" their way to different conclusions on this matter than you might. The fact that you probably don't feel good about the less genteel solution is beside the point; you're just a slave to your biological and cultural evolution, not a more "virtuous" person. You value thinking inside the moral box; others enjoy being free-thinkers. And to say that your ethical starting point "should be!" good enough for me is begging the question.

Morals refer to real things too. Suffering is real. I don't see the problem with this model. The verb 'to embarrass' refers to the promotion of an emotion in somebody else. The verb is real, the emotion is real, they would all vanish if we went extinct. I repeat myself, but I would add, it is not the case that any culture can decree anything to be embarrassing, without any parameters at all. And embarrassment is probably one of the more culturally malleable emotions. I don't think moral outrage is.

But you have missed something important here. To embarrass someone is simply an act and a reaction, which are certainly real and observable. But "morality" does not refer to such tangible things; it refers to the idea that doing such things is "wrong." It is that abstract, non-physical value structure that frames all human behavior which is to be explained.

Your final few comments about the statement that brought you up short seem to imply that I think that moral intuitions are the final and only arbiter. This is not so, rather, there is a process of reciprocal redefinition involving Reason, as I said.

Hmm... I didn't mean to suggest that you were completely bowing to intuition. It just seemed as though you were saying that you had no choice but to do so because you were bound up in their complex effects on your psychology, and that our moral compulsions serve as a sort of justifications for why we "ought" to follow them, i.e., we ought to behave in the way we feel like behaving. Seems like an example of the is/ought fallacy.

Now, are you saying that you would allow your "reason" to lead you to a conclusion that violates all your moral intuitions? I think not. But even so, your reason carries you to a destination according to some prior map, which I would suggest is moral intuition. Reason is simply a tool that must be manipulated to some end. You seem to worship the engine of Reason, but it goes nowhere without fuel, wheels, and a driver.

Finally, by your metaphysic, mind is merely a product of one rabbit-trail of evolution which is "designed" only for the promulgation of your DNA, not a fine-tuned machine designed to plumb the depths of cosmic Truth. You may prize the "Reason" from the mind which nature has bequeathed to you, but the baboon prizes his bright red ass too. {Ooh, did I really just say that? Should I leave that? Yes; makes a valid point. Okay, moving on.} By materialistic standards, there is no more justification for thinking that human reason is getting at something objectively real than that human morality is.

 
At 1/20/2007 3:49 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Without a moral framework that permits the concept of "evil," then the difference between tying your shoe with a granny knot and robbing your neighbor is simply a matter of degree, not of kind. "Evil" is a synonym of a different category of "wrong."

I prefer 'morally wrong'. It is not morally wrong to tie your shoe with a granny knot, so the distinction is made. I do not need the term 'evil'.

But I am suggesting to you that your criteria of civil order is itself, at the end of the day, merely a matter of personal preference. The fact that you share it with many other "reasonable" people is of no help to your philosophical case.
But if it is a shared thing by its nature, like language, it is not a matter of personal preference.

And, in fact, you hold to such an ethic because it is so obvious to you that you cannot imagine it to be arbitrary, subjective, and in need of justification. This merely makes my case that we swim in moral intuitions and our ethical theories are soggy as a result. However, it does not make the case that it is the right, best, and universal ethic for which we may consider dissenters to be moral reprobates. That requires something more.

Whereas you seem to need to invoke some abstract universal truth in order for you to be convinced that we can all agree as human societies that some things are wrong for non arbitrary reasons. I just don't buy that. I do not think your appeal to such things will be persuasive to those who do not share your belief. As you have admitted, there are relatively few of those. At least I can appeal to reason coupled with human empathy. I do not need an absolute and totally objective moral justification to call somebody to account, I can just do this anyway and I would not say that you have demonstrated that your position is more likely to persuade them.

I believe all other religions to be wrong (and not without informed reason), so it would not surprise me to see them differ from my own. Are you suggesting that if they did agree on moral issues that you would find "religion" compelling?

No I would not. I think that it is logically consistent for you to believe that the other religions are wrong, and for them to believe that yours is wrong. It is difficult to see how any objective fair person could decide which is right, except on the basis of faith and revelation.


You're saying nothing more than this is how you feel (and think), no matter what the cause, and you can't deny your feelings.
I am though. I am saying that what we feel and think has a non arbitrary relationship to reality otherwise we would not have survived. The thinking and feeling are not seperate either.

But you have missed something important here. To embarrass someone is simply an act and a reaction, which are certainly real and observable. But "morality" does not refer to such tangible things; it refers to the idea that doing such things is "wrong." It is that abstract, non-physical value structure that frames all human behavior which is to be explained.

I don't think I have missed an important thing here at all. If, as in my framework 'wrong' is a human construct, it is real in a way that is related to the way that something is embarrasing. Embarrasment is a real reaction to the properties that exist in certain behaviours or situations.

Well, there you go; morality is subjective after all! If the twists of evolution had gone a different route then we could have been a different creature with a different "brand" of morality.
You have contradicted yourself here. Morality cannot be entirely subjective and also dependent on evolution.
Also, evolution does not have free reign over how to get cooperating groups of sentient individuals to function.

Seems like you are saying that what is "right" is simply following the path that your mind and instincts suggest to you.
From my perspective that is all anybody can do including you. If I believe I am right I can try to persuade you and gain your understanding or evoke empathy. An appeal to a higher power that is not the one you believe in or that I judge says different things to those you accept is not going to help.

You're saying nothing more than this is how you feel (and think), no matter what the cause, and you can't deny your feelings. Well, that's great, but don't imagine your concern for the suffering in the world is anything noble or selfless.
I'm not quite saying that, in any case, it is difficult to see how god underwriting things confers nobility or selflessness on you either.

Hmm... I didn't mean to suggest that you were completely bowing to intuition. It just seemed as though you were saying that you had no choice but to do so because you were bound up in their complex effects on your psychology, and that our moral compulsions serve as a sort of justifications for why we "ought" to follow them, i.e., we ought to behave in the way we feel like behaving. Seems like an example of the is/ought fallacy.

It isn't a version of the is/ought fallacy. Sometimes we have to think hard about our moral intuitions and temper them with reason and judgement. However, no amount of reason alone is enough, we have to want to behave morally. Our intuitions are bound up with our psychology but so is reason.

Now, are you saying that you would allow your "reason" to lead you to a conclusion that violates all your moral intuitions? I think not. But even so, your reason carries you to a destination according to some prior map, which I would suggest is moral intuition. Reason is simply a tool that must be manipulated to some end. You seem to worship the engine of Reason, but it goes nowhere without fuel, wheels, and a driver.

I just think the phrase 'reciprocal redefinition' captures more of the complexity of the interrelationship than you have acknowledged here.

Finally, by your metaphysic, mind is merely a product of one rabbit-trail of evolution which is "designed" only for the promulgation of your DNA, not a fine-tuned machine designed to plumb the depths of cosmic Truth.
The fact that the mind is designed to track the kind of truths that could be apparent to our ancestors seems to fit the evidence. It is the triumph of reason that has allowed us access to any deeper truths.

By materialistic standards, there is no more justification for thinking that human reason is getting at something objectively real than that human morality is.

When baboons can make predictions that work, when they can get impressive stuff done on the basis of their red asses, then you will have a case.

 
At 1/24/2007 8:46 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I prefer 'morally wrong'. It is not morally wrong to tie your shoe with a granny knot, so the distinction is made. I do not need the term 'evil'.

Understood. But we are essentially talking about the same thing: something categorically different from shoe-tying "wrong." You just don't like the metaphysical overtones in the word "sin." But without some transcendent standard, "morally wrong" behavior is just that which society has judged to be contrary to its collective best interests (or some such measure). That's a very precarious base for ethics, but it's the best that materialism can do.

I said: But I am suggesting to you that your criteria of civil order is itself, at the end of the day, merely a matter of personal preference. The fact that you share it with many other "reasonable" people is of no help to your philosophical case.
You said: But if it is a shared thing by its nature, like language, it is not a matter of personal preference.


Are you suggesting that there is a right way to structure sentences, and there is a right sound to represent each noun or verb, and that language must be verbal, or that we even must speak? I suggest that secular morality is as contrived as any instance of language may be.

Whereas you seem to need to invoke some abstract universal truth in order for you to be convinced that we can all agree as human societies that some things are wrong for non arbitrary reasons. I just don't buy that. I do not think your appeal to such things will be persuasive to those who do not share your belief. As you have admitted, there are relatively few of those. At least I can appeal to reason coupled with human empathy. I do not need an absolute and totally objective moral justification to call somebody to account, I can just do this anyway and I would not say that you have demonstrated that your position is more likely to persuade them.

But we don't all agree on everything, and we didn't agree in the past, and society will change its opinions in the future. And if evolution were true then there have and will certainly be behavioral changes. By saying that we don't need an "absolute and totally objective moral justification" you seem to be admitting that no such standard exists by which we could rise above our genetics and our present society to condemn any past reality or any future possibility. A very good case could be made (and has been made) from "reason" and misguided "human empathy" for eugenics, for the good of our species' gene pool and the reduction of suffering. Secularists offer no good criteria to guide such discussions other than using the utilitarian standards that happen to be in vogue at the time; there is no absolute right answer to these things. And any empathy that may cause you to feel one way or another is not a breeze from an undiscovered country; it is just an itch that the currents of nature or society have agitated in you. We may scratch that itch, but new ones will arise soon enough.

It is difficult to see how any objective fair person could decide which is right, except on the basis of faith and revelation.

I would say that you begin by looking at the historical claims and verify what you can. Also look at the claims they make regarding human nature and see if they fit. Scientific, philosophical, and subjective measures can also be applied, but this is all a separate discussion.

I said: You're saying nothing more than this is how you feel (and think), no matter what the cause, and you can't deny your feelings. . . . You're just a slave to your biological and cultural evolution.
You said: I am saying that what we feel and think has a non-arbitrary relationship to reality otherwise we would not have survived. The thinking and feeling are not separate either.


Two things: 1) The lion has survived quite well and its males eat the cubs of rival males. 2) Many think that the human species is blight on the planet and destined for self-annihilation.

I submit once again that your feelings and thinking about human morality is merely (by secular standards) a product of the material creature you happen to be. You cannot get outside your box, and since you are a materialist, there really is nothing outside the box anyway. It just seems to me that you basically agree with this point and that you are arguing that you just gotta go with the flow, and that includes making moral judgments and embracing useful fictions like virtue.

If, as in my framework 'wrong' is a human construct, it is real in a way that is related to the way that something is embarrassing. Embarrassment is a real reaction to the properties that exist in certain behaviours or situations.

Yup, real in the same way that stabbing someone makes them bleed, or massaging someone makes them relax. We're talking cause and effect here. Why we label some cause-effect relationships "wrong," and how fixed that label is, is the question though.

You have contradicted yourself here. Morality cannot be entirely subjective and also dependent on evolution. Also, evolution does not have free reign over how to get cooperating groups of sentient individuals to function.

Noop, don't think so. By "subjective" I mean that the subject feels like their way is best simply because it is their way. Doesn't much matter how that subject came to have those feelings.

Also, I don't think evolution cares about too much beyond getting your DNA passed on. If you rape the women and dominate the tribes around you it makes no difference to "nature" — long as it works. And nature is a veritable showcase of diversity in this regard; nature's not concerned with the "best" way, just "a" way. In fact, there are some who would indeed argue that behaviors like rape are very much a part of our genetic heritage. And such theses must be valid by materialist standards, since, being products of nature, there is nothing other than nature to which we may appeal for our explanations of every behavior we exhibit. But, golly, evolution is a magical wand: it can explain why we're good and why we're bad; why we're happy and why we're sad; why we work and why we play; why we're straight and why we're gay!

I said: Seems like you are saying that what is "right" is simply following the path that your mind and instincts suggest to you.
You said: From my perspective that is all anybody can do including you. If I believe I am right I can try to persuade you and gain your understanding or evoke empathy. An appeal to a higher power that is not the one you believe in or that I judge says different things to those you accept is not going to help.


Guess what dude: my mind and instincts tell me that there is a God in heaven. The majority of humans feel the same way, even if they say different things about Him/Her/It. I might even make the case that atheists are to the world of metaphysics what sociopaths are to the world of morality.

it is difficult to see how god underwriting things confers nobility or selflessness on you either.

I'm not (in theory) doing things for myself, my species, or my DNA — I'm not even concerned for my own life. And by Christian standards, I'm not even doing things to earn heaven or avoid hell, since my theology is not works-based (I try to be good because I love the Source of goodness, not to attempt to impress Him). Darwinian morality is ultimately selfish morality. But the "hero" who says, "what's in it for me," knows nothing of nobility. It is a meaningless word unless there is something beyond himself for which he lives and acts.

It isn't a version of the is/ought fallacy. Sometimes we have to think hard about our moral intuitions and temper them with reason and judgment. However, no amount of reason alone is enough; we have to want to behave morally. Our intuitions are bound up with our psychology but so is reason.

But given that we have certain intuitions (wherever they come from) and have a mind that operates a certain way, are you then saying that we "ought" to act according to the "best" application of those things? Where could that rule come from? Again, in a purely material world you are simply stuck with what nature has offered you ("best" or not). You can say, "What else can I do but use what I've got," and I'll agree with you by your own standard. But you really can't go calling someone "wrong" if they happen to find a way to break from the mold in which you feel so comfortable; they're just counter-cultural or maybe an evolutionary fluke. You may be drawn with every fiber of your being to think of some people as "bad," but unless you can make your standards into timeless, fixed truths, then they are really nothing more than distastefully "different."

I just think the phrase 'reciprocal redefinition' captures more of the complexity of the interrelationship than you have acknowledged here.

So you think society or your personal reasoning can change the moral instincts that evolution has delivered to you? Not much hope there while chicks still like to breed with "bad boys."

The fact that the mind is designed to track the kind of truths that could be apparent to our ancestors seems to fit the evidence. It is the triumph of reason that has allowed us access to any deeper truths.

Yes, it does seem that we are noble creatures with our hands on the tail of the dragon. But is all our thinking about ourselves and the universe really getting at Truth? Are we really superior to any other animal? Does evolution really care if our brains do anything more than feed, defend, and reproduce our bodies? Pursuing the arts and philosophies, and holding them so dear, seems a rather gratuitous development. One wonders how a mindless, material universe could produce the consciousness to know, love, and command itself.

When baboons can make predictions that work, when they can get impressive stuff done on the basis of their red asses, then you will have a case.

The point is that you seem to be egoistically impressed by the stuff that humans think and do, but all your love of "deeper truth" will not get you any more offspring than the baboon, who appears to be doing just fine by the only standard of measure for which evolution is concerned.

Psio, you seem to have a natural love for truth, reason, human dignity, rights, and moral principles. How wonderful it would be if such things were reflective of some greater reality. But in the words of Michael Ruse, a materialist, they are nothing more than an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is illusory. Your passionate feelings about them are just the mental equivalent to a baboon's sexual arousal.

On the Last Day there will be no excuses as God points out all the things you knew and prized that He had put there Himself. Perhaps your response might be, "But God, I thought it was genetic drift and natural selection that put them there. And I was just superficially exalting these things because they were useful for my survival."

"You are a very poor actor," He may reply.

 
At 1/27/2007 6:49 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
You just don't like the metaphysical overtones in the word "sin."
That's right, I don't think they are accurate.

But without some transcendent standard, "morally wrong" behavior is just that which society has judged to be contrary to its collective best interests (or some such measure). That's a very precarious base for ethics, but it's the best that materialism can do.

As I have said at length, I think that there is more to it than that. In fact materialism in my view is the most secure foundation to ethics that we are likely to find. It is not the case that societies can arbitrarily make up any old ethical system and the reasons for this can be found in mathematics physics and biology. A transcendent standard in the form that you posit it is, I think, an explanatory fiction.

Are you suggesting that there is a right way to structure sentences, and there is a right sound to represent each noun or verb, and that language must be verbal, or that we even must speak? I suggest that secular morality is as contrived as any instance of language may be.

Language facilitates communication and is universal in the sense that all cultures have it. Further, although there are cultural differences there are similarities that are non arbitrary. Try to construct a language without verbs, nouns or where speakers can make up the rules of grammar as they go along. It won't work. Nor can you construct an ethics that says nothing about lying or keeping promises or about killing. Nor is it a coincidence that societies that promote the happiness and wellbeing of their citizens have very similar systems.

But we don't all agree on everything, and we didn't agree in the past, and society will change its opinions in the future. And if evolution were true then there have and will certainly be behavioral changes. By saying that we don't need an "absolute and totally objective moral justification" you seem to be admitting that no such standard exists by which we could rise above our genetics and our present society to condemn any past reality or any future possibility. A very good case could be made (and has been made) from "reason" and misguided "human empathy" for eugenics, for the good of our species' gene pool and the reduction of suffering.
But within the religious world view, historically and at present people don't agree on everything either. At least secular morality can deploy reason to try to persue things for everyone that are good-in-themselves. There is at least a chance of consensus based on a rational appraisal of evidence, whereas those who think there is a universal moral standard sadly cannot agree what it is and do not have a rational way of deciding. I would rather try to rise above our genetics without a skyhook. Modern secular consensus is against eugenics.

I would say that you begin by looking at the historical claims and verify what you can. Also look at the claims they make regarding human nature and see if they fit.
I have done this as honestly as I could and have come to the conclusion that the case for the existence of god is very weak indeed.

Two things: 1) The lion has survived quite well and its males eat the cubs of rival males. 2) Many think that the human species is blight on the planet and destined for self-annihilation.

I submit once again that your feelings and thinking about human morality is merely (by secular standards) a product of the material creature you happen to be. You cannot get outside your box, and since you are a materialist, there really is nothing outside the box anyway. It just seems to me that you basically agree with this point and that you are arguing that you just gotta go with the flow, and that includes making moral judgments and embracing useful fictions like virtue.

I am not sure what you are getting at in terms of the lion, as they are not moral agents on either a secular or religious basis. It seems to me that you want to belittle the materialist view with terminology like 'nothing outside the box'. Believe me, there is enough in here to be going on with!

I said: You have contradicted yourself here. Morality cannot be entirely subjective and also dependent on evolution. Also, evolution does not have free reign over how to get cooperating groups of sentient individuals to function.

You said: Noop, don't think so. By "subjective" I mean that the subject feels like their way is best simply because it is their way. Doesn't much matter how that subject came to have those feelings.

You have contradicted yourself again I think. If morality is in part a function of evolution then the subject feels that their way is best because their feelings have been influenced by a process that tracks aspects of the real world, like behaviours that objectively tend to promote cooperation.

Also, I don't think evolution cares about too much beyond getting your DNA passed on. If you rape the women and dominate the tribes around you it makes no difference to "nature" — long as it works.
That's the point though, in terms of the long game, it doesn't.

Guess what dude: my mind and instincts tell me that there is a God in heaven. The majority of humans feel the same way, even if they say different things about Him/Her/It.
True, and I think that the non existence of god coupled with shared human psychology is the most plausible hypothesis to explain these phenomena.

I might even make the case that atheists are to the world of metaphysics what sociopaths are to the world of morality.
Lol, good one.

I try to be good because I love the Source of goodness,
So doing things for love is noble because?

But given that we have certain intuitions (wherever they come from) and have a mind that operates a certain way, are you then saying that we "ought" to act according to the "best" application of those things? Where could that rule come from? Again, in a purely material world you are simply stuck with what nature has offered you ("best" or not). You can say, "What else can I do but use what I've got," and I'll agree with you by your own standard. But you really can't go calling someone "wrong" if they happen to find a way to break from the mold in which you feel so comfortable; they're just counter-cultural or maybe an evolutionary fluke. You may be drawn with every fiber of your being to think of some people as "bad," but unless you can make your standards into timeless, fixed truths, then they are really nothing more than distastefully "different."
I can call them wrong and I will. I did not write my own notions of right and wrong. I know by the application of reason on my moral intuition whether I have come to the conclusion that something is wrong. My interlocutor will understand what is meant even if they disagree. In the real world your situation is no different. You can claim that you have access to absolute moral truth, but most people simply will not believe you.

I said: I just think the phrase 'reciprocal redefinition' captures more of the complexity of the interrelationship than you have acknowledged here.

You said: So you think society or your personal reasoning can change the moral instincts that evolution has delivered to you? Not much hope there while chicks still like to breed with "bad boys."
The historical evidence suggests that this process of reciprocal redefinition has happened. Population genetics and game theory are a bit fiddly so I suspect there is more to it than chicks and bad boys.

But is all our thinking about ourselves and the universe really getting at Truth?
That is a tricky philosophical question. I can't answer it.

Does evolution really care if our brains do anything more than feed, defend, and reproduce our bodies? Pursuing the arts and philosophies, and holding them so dear, seems a rather gratuitous development. One wonders how a mindless, material universe could produce the consciousness to know, love, and command itself.

I think evolution is the best model we have to explain this. I don't think evolution has to 'care' in order for these things to arise.

The point is that you seem to be egoistically impressed by the stuff that humans think and do, but all your love of "deeper truth" will not get you any more offspring than the baboon, who appears to be doing just fine by the only standard of measure for which evolution is concerned.

I don't think the egoism point is fair. I ask you this though, what is the population of baboons compared to that of humans?

Psio, you seem to have a natural love for truth, reason, human dignity, rights, and moral principles. How wonderful it would be if such things were reflective of some greater reality. But in the words of Michael Ruse, a materialist, they are nothing more than an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is illusory. Your passionate feelings about them are just the mental equivalent to a baboon's sexual arousal.

Thank you, you seem to as well. It would be wonderful I agree. I think Ruse might be wrong. I think the existence of abstract universals, as found in arithmetic, is compatible with the non existence of god. Although ethical truths may never be as neat as arithmetic, their existence cannot be ruled out.

"You are a very poor actor," He may reply.
Well I am sincere, I have looked at the evidence as best I can and have come to an honest judgement. I do hope you don't have to face Allah or Shiva though.

 
At 2/01/2007 11:42 AM, Anonymous Tim said...

What a fabulous interchange! Granted, it seemed surreal that we ended up at "a baboon's sexual arousal," but it was fascinating, nevertheless. - Tim

 

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