How Ethics Is More Like Physics Than Faith

Most people are not specifically trained in moral philosophy. They are not expert in technical distinctions such that they could tell you with any kind of systematic coherence the exact reasons that morality must be obeyed but they just know and feel that it should. When pushed for an abstract “metaethical” explanation of their morality they will typically flop too far in the direction of either absolutism, relativism, or pragmatism. And in either case they will think their position is obviously true according to common sense and in practice think and act as though most of their actual moral judgments are equally just “common sense”.

But, philosophically speaking, morality is not simply a matter of some universal “common sense”. Cultures rather radically shape what commonly seems sensible to the people who live within them. While there seem to be some basic general moral categories that are cross-culturally universal to our brains, the moral economies set up to interpret and apply those categories in practice can be drastically different from each other.

It is for such reasons as these that I think we need to culturally detach to a fair degree and not just do moral philosophy in such a way that simply tidies up our prejudices. We should be willing to go to levels of abstraction that are indifferent to the particularities of our own culture as much as possible, rationally assess the meaning of value and, within an understanding of value in general, assess what makes norms in general valuable.

Then we can reassess our own norms for how they actually lead to what is rationally identifiable as valuable. And we can look at other norms, even ones that drastically differ from our own, and figure out in what ways they actually attain genuine value too, even if they do so by ways that would repulse us or be rejected by our norms. And we can also look and see whether their norms or our own objectively fail to attain to what is of rationally identifiable value and critique our own norms and others not simply from within the terms of the moral prejudices with which we just happened to be raised but by a standard capable of distancing itself from that.

Those are ambitious goals. They require difficult and controversial philosophy. Most people have different preoccupations and areas of expertise. They do not have the time, inclination, and/or the acuity to work out answers that solve these problems. And yet they make moral judgments, the ultimate truth of which depends on answers to these problems. Are they being irrational when they do this? Can they make rational judgments about moral particulars without having an adequate, philosophically grounded metaethics? Or do they just have faith in their values?

First, let’s clarify the difference between faith and other kinds of uncertain belief. Faith entails an implicitly or explicitly willful belief that is obstinate in the face of counter-evidence and goes so far as to disdain changes in belief as a matter of principle. Faith also usually involves trusting as a matter of principle in dubious authorities disproportionately more than their actual, demonstrable expertise warrants.

Is all moral judgment like that? Well, prima facie, there are some ways that the average person (and even most philosophers, if we ask for Nietzsche’s opinion or my own) does the same thing in believing moral propositions as he or she does in believing religious propositions by faith.

For one thing, there is a default deference to culture and tradition in many people’s moral beliefs that looks similar to how they form and maintain religious beliefs. For another thing, people frequently argue about moral issues emotionally and with appeals to emotions, similar to the way they defend their religious positions. As with their religious beliefs, quite often people will refuse to immediately change their moral beliefs even after receiving what look like indisputable refutations of them that show they are internally inconsistent, unfair, harmful, or in some other way seemingly wrong.

With moral and religious beliefs alike people think and behave with a higher degree of felt certainty than their conscious analyses of evidence would seem to warrant. Both moral and religious beliefs have enormous consequences for people’s lives. They frequently lead to the most fundamental and life-determining commitments, they influence some of the most decisive choices people ever make, and they lead to some of the deepest feelings of personal satisfaction or personal despair people ever feel.

And despite this enormous influence of moral and religious beliefs on people’s lives, the ordinary person does the shallowest conscious investigation into the rational correctness of those beliefs. And not only are these most vital matters not rigorously examined intellectually, but just as countless laypeople in the pews every Sunday pooh pooh the value of abstract theology as a way to know God, laypeople of all creeds and none dismiss moral philosophy as a waste of time not even worth studying because it is assumed to be either too hopeless or too unnecessary.

So, are most people just faith-believers when it comes to morality? Is the average atheist still guilty of faith in moral fictions, even as he or she might be clean of faith in religious ones? Some philosophers would say yes. Nietzsche would not only say yes that ordinary people believe in morality by faith but even go much further and say that even many philosophers who claim to examine morality rationally are self-deceived and actually just the protectors of a faith. I think I can show textually how Nietzsche thinks he (or the philosophers of the future whom he influences) can break with this pattern and determine a genuinely better value standard for not only assessing but deliberately creating genuinely better moralities.

For my part, I do not think that it is generally correct to equate moral decision-making with faith-based thinking and here are my reasons why.

There are two senses in which someone could be said to know with respect to morality. On the one hand, someone can have theoretical knowledge and a mastery of numerous technical truths with respect to morality which can be aids in coming to better specific conclusions about specific moral problems than the average person, unaided by philosophical clarifications, would. But, on the other hand, someone can be knowledgable about morality as a matter of competence at moral evaluations and decision-making, even where technical theoretical competence is missing (or, even, badly carried out).

To use an analogy: I am embarrassed to admit this but I do not know a thing about calculus. I dropped out of that course as an apathetic high school senior and never returned (to my eternal regret). So I cannot do the basic physics calculations that explain how the angle and the speed at which I should duck my head to avoid a ball of a specified speed, direction, and angle from knocking me unconscious. But even without the slightest real knowledge of theoretical physics or basic college level math, I am rationally competent not only at evading your average errant projectile but also at not bumping into objects, not tripping, and not getting hit by cars (except for that one time in February).

I can do this without a physicist’s competence at explaining precisely how how to navigate the world. It takes engineers who understand the basic theoretics and applications of physics to design robots who can get through doors. But I can get through them well enough because of to the ways that natural selection has geared my mind to work automatically. Had this “know-how” kind of knowledge required a conscious awareness of physics in order to be achieved, then no animal would have lived long enough to reproduce itself, and the millions of generations of evolving organic life leading to the humans who finally figured out theoretical physics would have never happened.

So the average human has a genuine, workable, truthful, and innate common sense knowledge of the very basics of the physical world and how to make a range of physical decisions correctly and knowledgeably. This knowledge is not as precise as a physicist’s understanding. It certainly does not make physics irrelevant if we want to build better tools for making a better world. Our common sense understanding is workable enough for everyday life but that does not mean when physicists explain that the more fundamental workings of the physical world are wildly counter-intuitive to our everyday experience of it that they are wrong for countering our trusty old common sense that works well enough for us in evading flying objects, doorposts, and objects on the floor. We could never engineer computers or go to space or split the atom using common sense.

Well, it is similar with morality. The process by which we evolved certainly did not yield us a perfect, abstract, theoretical understanding of what is of genuine value and what norms we should live by that is programmed into every brain. But it inevitably gave us a set of feelings responses and basic categories of judgment that help us automatically discriminate a number of goods from a number of bads. We naturally have pro- reactions to countless things that are generally good for us and con- reactions to countless things generally bad for us. We constantly make automatic cost-benefit analyses which are about as good as our judgments about how to avoid bumping our heads on door frames.

Just as our standard issue programming is good enough to get us to reproductive age and a couple decades beyond, and further requires greater technology to make much longer lives ordinary, so similarly our intuitive feel for social relationships, nutrition sources, and other basics of value discernment are good enough to have created and maintained countless societies, and those societies have not only aided the perpetuation of the species but have in many cases successfully transferred knowledge through generations so that the whole species could learn and improve together.

Our natural sense for what is basically good and basically bad is in many cases pretty effective (i.e., pretty good). It is hardly as random or arbitrary as beliefs that are obstinate against evidence and based on sheer deference to unjustified authority. We do naturally trust the authority of tradition too much in determining the good from the bad. But this natural conservatism is not entirely irrational. There are vast ways that having a default trust in the tradition protects us against dangers we would have no way of anticipating but which our ancestors discovered and built traditions to protect us against.

This is why we who aspire to be moral and social reformers through our philosophies and our activism must very carefully study the mechanisms by which even ideas and institutions which have observable negative consequences serve other goods and figure out how to systematically assure that those goods are still held up without their traditional supports.

Our abilities to value and to lay down norms are also wonderfully helpfully malleable. We can now, through philosophical reasoning (by which I mean not only sophisticated and formal philosophy but the extensive debating about philosophical issues that nearly all people engage in whether they recognize they are doing philosophy or not) vastly refine our judgments about good and bad. We have for centuries been developing better theoretics and better techniques for both understanding and practically improving human flourishing (which is our ultimate good, as I would argue on the theoretical level).

Most people are competently and truthfully identifying good from bad in most cases. There are contentious points of disagreement of course. But they are not in all cases. And even where they exist they assume basic categories of value in common. They understand implicitly that minimal health and maximal excellence are goods and that what that serves them is for the best and what harms them is for the worst. Everyone gets this, innately, regardless of the wildly different implicit and explicit social structures they develop for distributing which goods to which people under which conditions, etc.

Even with naturally crude and unjustly socially constructed value judgments and norms, for centuries people have successfully discriminated the basics of good and the basics of bad well enough to live to reproductive age and a couple decades thereafter and to thrive in a number of human excellences as much as the state of their culture at the time afforded.

And just as we can navigate the world well enough for minimal survival and perpetuation of the species with our natural brain mechanisms but require theoretical physics to engineer robots and computers that can replicate those processes, so also we must go from our “good enough for minimal survival and perpetuation of the species” daily value judgments to much more theoretically sophisticated and technically engineered structures to create truly just and maximally flourishing societies. They do not just spring up, whole-cloth, out of “natural” human interactions. And nor do they maintain themselves or readapt themselves to new circumstances “just naturally” either. They take scrupulously careful socialization, and re-socialization through an endless process of thinking, experimenting, educating, legislating, experiencing, and reevaluating.

And just as we have vastly improved our theoretical and technical mastery of the physical world, I submit that we have made similarly enormous theoretical and technical strides in terms of discerning good and bad with respect to morality and politics. We have identified and now work increasingly to counter grave evils that used to be matters of “common sense”. And just as enormous theoretical anomalies and physical limitations still confront physicists, so do very hard theoretical disagreements and hard practical choices still confront ethicists and legislators and everyday people.

And, of course, with ethics, we have incentives towards immorality which further complicates issues. And just as natural common sense physics is often an obstacle to clear thinking about theoretical physics and technical engineering, requiring rigorous retraining of the minds of physicists and engineers, so also a whole host of both natural and traditional common sense assumptions are a positive obstacle to thinking in the best value terms against the temptations of numerous cognitive biases which were fit for our minimal survival but are counter-productive to our maximal flourishing.

This is why, unlike a lot of many timidly over-conservative philosophers, I want to follow Nietzsche’s advice and assess morality not from within its terms but from broader value categories that are more theoretical, even when they are counter-intuitive to morality’s own flawed “common sense” internal categories and to tradition.

But nonetheless, I submit that as a practical matter, our trust in our natural and socially shaped common sense value judgments are usually trustworthy, in most matters, and are not simply a matter of faith, but are instead worth calling knowledge in many instances. This is true even if we have big controversies related to the biggest theoretical and practical issues. Most of our value judgments do not posit wild and unverifiable things like supernatural agencies or miracles. They are really much more practical and conducive to reality than that. In many cases they quite effectively manage our social relationships, our health, our careers, etc. We do viscerally and emotionally respond against challenges to our value judgments. But this is because most of our value judgments constitute the preconditions of our own thriving and so our brains are rigged as a matter of default to treat our value feelings as vital matters on that account. So we, quite understandably, require powerfully effective arguments and time to ruminate and be careful before we change our values.

But, as an empirical fact, we do change them and we quite often do so as influenced not only by social and political pressures but by rational considerations. We change them both individually and collectively, through experiments and reevaluations by members of every class in society and in every social context, from the academic to the intimate to the political, and through a long and ongoing process of experience and abstract reason and power struggles, all interacting with each other in a feedback loop, which on the long arc of history seem to be leading towards greater justice.

With all this in mind, a takeaway analogy: People who use the free speech that they take for granted to disparage moral philosophy as useless, superfluous, and incapable of progress since it does not function like a natural science are as naive, as historically and practically ignorant, and as guilty of practical contradiction as those religious believers who use the internet to talk about how science can not attain any genuine truths because it cannot square its own metaphysical foundations or tell us about the meaning of life.

Your Thoughts?

I figured out the germ of this post as I brainstormed with James Croft about how moral knowledge might be possible even without an airtight metaethics during our written dialogue a few weeks ago.

I have also written a few posts on how faith is a corruption of the reasonable traditionalism that morality should be constrained to in the following posts:

I think that centuries of moral stagnation and regressions can be blamed as much faith’s corrupting moral traditionalism just as much as the stagnations and regressions of science and philosophy have long been the fault of that same corrosive.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Jeff Dale

    Well-reasoned, well-written, and a pleasure to read. Simply outstanding.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    Noam Chomsky has posited that the very ability to make moral decisions at all is part of our predisposition as humans, part of our nature, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it at all (I just returned most of my Chomsky to the wild whence it came, ie used bookstores, so I’m at a loss as to provide a reference.) I believe he dovetails a lot of his ideas of moral development with his ideas of generative linguistics.

  • Sheila G

    Great article, thanks! Another calculus loser here; I did not take it in high school as it wasn’t offered; I quit maths after Algebra I, Geometry, and AP Algebra II.

    And my BS degree only required that I take College Algebra, so that is the only college level math course I took. With so many other courses required in general chem, organic chem, biochem, anatomy, physiology, zoology, etc. plus all the dumb required electives, I didn’t have time for Calculus. Still regret it too; it seems that an educated person should have taken at least Calc I.

  • http://poundhillnorthindependentcrawley.freeforums.org Richard W. Symonds

    Don’t be too dismissive of “Common Sense” Philosophy – it has a rich tradition:

    Thomas Reid (1710-1796)

    Scottish Philosopher of Common Sense

    Five Principles of Common Sense Philosophy

    1. “The existence of everything of which I am conscious”

    2. “That the thoughts of which I am conscious are the thoughts of a being which I call myself, my mind, my person

    3. “That those things did really happen which I distinctly remember

    4. “Our own personal identity and continued existence”

    5. “That those things do really exist which we distinctly perceive by our senses, and are what we perceive them to be”

    • Ysanne

      I don’t mean to be dismissive or such, but these are pretty much the principles that lead to people believe in magic and ghosts and “otherworldly” stuff.

      3. “That those things did really happen which I distinctly remember
      [...]
      5. “That those things do really exist which we distinctly perceive by our senses, and are what we perceive them to be”

      This total reliance on the brain’s interpretation of signals resulting from sensory organs’ interaction with the physical world gives wrong results as soon as the signals are caused by some other mechanism than the one implicitly expected by the brain’s processing patterns.
      Easy and harmless examples: Inadequate stimuli (e.g. pressing your palms to your closed eyes produces visible patterns even though there’s no light), disorders (e.g. tinnitus).
      Not-so-harmless examples: Magic tricks while claiming it’s actual magic, manipulatively employed optical illusions, drug-induced hallucination.

    • Ted Seeber

      Wow, I really do disagree with the Scottish notion of common sense. I don’t believe any one of those 5.

  • machintelligence

    Another great post. Don’t feel too bad about the lack of calculus, You can do a great deal of useful science in the biological and other non “physical” sciences without it. I waded through more than a year of calculus and analytical geometry and barely used it afterward. Statistics and statistical inference are far more useful.
    I have always been more interested in descriptive ethics than prescriptive ethics. I think you are quite right that humans have an evolved moral instinct. This is, in fact, a lot like the language instinct, where children learn to speak the grammatically correct language of whatever culture or tribe they happen to be raised. Perhaps ethics is more like biology than physics.

    I am a big fan of Dan Dennett and Steve Pinker (I have read most of Steve’s books on language, although not with compete comprehension.) Since my training is largely in biology, I am not nearly as well grounded in philosophy. I am working my way through the Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcasts. I am over 25 episodes in (thanks for the link, Daniel).

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    Dan,

    I wonder if you would consider a modification of your simile: ethics is more like civil engineering than like physics.

    Physics is not per se about how to make things or improve the human condition: as a physicist, I myself, for example, am interested in the problem of how to model fermions on a lattice. Other physicists are interested in the inner structure of neutron stars, in the nature of gravitational waves, etc. None of us are interested in these subjects because we expect them to have any practical value, and it is a good bet that they never will have any practical value. All we are trying to do is understand how nature works, and, when we get a solid result, there is really no choice involved: that is just how the world is.

    On the other hand, consider a civil engineering project like building a bridge. *If* you do not want the bridge to fall down, you had really better take into account the relevant laws of nature! But, you don’t have to. You could choose to build a bridge designed to fall down (maybe you are making a movie based on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, and you need it to fall down!). We have, in Kant’s terms, a “hypothetical imperative” here: *if* you want the bridge to stand, then build it this way.

    Morality seems to me like bridge building: *if* you want humans to live long and prosper, *then* there are certain rules of interaction you will want them to adopt.

    A hypothetical imperative.

    Famously, of course, Kant disagreed with this and maintained that morality is built upon a “categorical imperative.” But, also famously, no one has managed to dispose of the Humean argument against deriving an “ought” from an “is” in a way that seems convincing to most people.

    So, as a physicist who has also done some engineering, I suggest to you to modify your simile accordingly.

    What do you think?

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Dave, a major part of my point was that there is a level of value assessment that it is not merely hypothetical imperatives for practical matters but about intrinsic values themselves for their own intrinsic theoretical interest. Hence the allusions to theoretical physicists. I did specify that it was the engineers who actually do the building, so I don’t see where it’s that misleading. I also specified that others who do the actual implementing and working out of some of the pragmatic particulars.

      On moving beyond hypothetical imperatives: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/10/19/from-is-to-ought-how-normativity-fits-into-naturalism/ and http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/01/24/effectiveness-is-the-primary-goal-in-itself-not-merely-a-means/

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The other thing I was trying to do with the analogy to the theoretics was draw the parallel to the ways that our common sense breaks down on the theoretical level in both disciplines. My point was only that that does not make either discipline illegitimate nor does it make common sense morality or common sense navigation of the world matters where we have “no knowledge”.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan,

      I read the essays you linked to. I do not want to write a critique here in your comments that is even longer than the essays, but there are some very obvious lacunae in your arguments.

      For example, you wrote:
      >It is simply this: it is a practical contradiction for a being to reduce or destroy its own net functional effectiveness. It is simply illogical.

      Well… I personally disapprove of suicide, which is surely the most extreme way “for a being to reduce or destroy its own net functional effectiveness.” But it is hard for me to see how suicide violates any law of logic – excluded middle, modus ponens, you name it.

      Indeed, I have seen many quite logical arguments for suicide in certain situations: altruistic suicide to save others’ lives, suicide to avoid extreme unremitting pain, etc. I don’t buy those arguments (I reject their premises in one way or another), but they are not “simply illogical” in the standard sense of “logic.”

      The choice not to commit suicide is not imposed by “logic”; it really is a choice. It is a choice I am certainly willing to make (even in the hard cases I mentioned above), but it is not like an objective law of nature, which is not a choice for me at all.

      Part of the problem with approaches such as yours is an equivocation in the phrase “objective values.” “Objective” can mean either “not up to human choice at all; completely independent of human subjectivity” or it can mean “not completely arbitrary, having some connection or grounding in reality beyond any single individual’s subjectivity.”

      The laws of physics are (we hope!) “objective” in the first sense: we hope we are not just choosing laws of physics that make us happy. Moral values, and human values in general, are only “objective” in the second, limited sense – i.e., the facts of human nature are certainly relevant to the values we choose to pursue: those values are not usually completely arbitrary, but, still, we have a lot of choice.

      These two senses of “objective” are not the same thing.

      What you have shown (it is easy to show!) is that human values are somewhat “objective” in the second sense, not in the first.

      The problem is that this does not satisfy Leah, and millions of others like her.

      As Leah wrote in the comments section to her famous June 18, 2012 post:
      > To say that some human-constructed thing (whether math or morals) is useful kinda presupposes some goal or purpose that is human-independent that you think this constructed thing serves.

      She wants values that are “human-independent.” She wants “objective” in the first sense, not the limited second sense.

      And, that is why your arguments cannot satisfy her and why she wants God.

      Of course, if Leah were anywhere near as smart as she thinks she is, she should have realized long ago that the Euthyphro dilemma proves that God will not work either. That kind of objectivity for values cannot exist. In the end, you just gotta choose. You cannot pawn that choice off on “logic,” “religion,” or anything else.

      And, personally, I find “some goal or purpose that is human-independent” that we are all supposed to serve more than slightly horrifying.

      Perhaps that is why I never did agree to be baptized, join the church, or “accept Jesus as Lord and Savior” despite the eighteen long years that my parents forced me to attend a fundamentalist church when I was a child.

      But, that is a story for another time.

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

      P.S. By the way, I was following Leah’s blog for a brief time last summer: it was obvious even then that she intended to convert to Catholicism. I don’t see how anyone who has followed her blog could have been surprised by this at all. The media stories should have been titled “Long-time Catholic Blogger Finally Tells the Truth.”

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Morality is truly objective in the sense that for the beings we are it is conducive to our objective flourishing, whether or not we take an interest in our flourishing. Wherever there are beings of our type in our type of circumstances, there will be the same objective morality. As long as it is independent of particular subjective feelings, that is sufficient to be objective. A definition of objective that requires that it take no account of circumstances whatsoever, either of the person’s or people’s peculiarities where these are defensibly morally relevant or the needs and challenges of the person or people, would be much more than objective, but absolutist (and wildly unjustified). I don’t think it is coherent for Leah if she wants absolutism. I cannot fathom how a virtue ethicist, by definition could be an absolutist. Virtue ethics is rooted in Aristotle who judiciously defended an objective ethics that was also situational through and through. He avoided the temptation to lay down absolute, circumstance independent rules. Virtue theory takes into account that some moral choices do vary with subjects—they just do so objectively based on particular subjects’ objective needs.

      Also, practical contradictions are a matter of logic. Everyone knows that it is illogical to give a multiple choice test and simultaneously hand out to the students the answer key of letters. Doing this makes the test an untrue test. I am simply arguing that being a human requires functioning as human. Undermining this functioning in oneself is a similar practical contradiction. And it is also a practical contradiction to do actions which undermine all of one’s other desires, like attacking the very powers which constitute us. The question of when to die is more complicated and requires more of my system to address. It’s covered as part of this post: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/17/why-be-morally-dutiful-fair-or-self-sacrificing-if-the-ethical-life-is-about-power/

      I also have a post entirely on suicide, which includes a section on euthanasia. But I am not publishing it yet.

    • jesse

      I think Dave has outlined the problem with the term “objective” that I have gone back and forth with Daniel before about.

      That is, any morality is a bit dependent on the person’s (or whatever it is — I am trying to include aliens and other creatures here) circumstances and thought-process. I already brought up to Daniel the problem of other thinking beings for whom maximal human flourishing might be completely detrimental. To me that’s where the idea of a morality that doesn’t depend on human values that we basically decide on pretty arbitrarily falls apart. After all, why is maximal human flourishing an “objective” good? It isn’t good for some others who share(d) this planet with us. The Neandertals aren’t happy.

      You either assume moral laws just are in the way that relativity or certain mathematical properties of geometry just are or you assume that we made it up — that it exists nowhere but in our heads, perhaps as an emergent function of a certain amount of brain power in one place.

      Here’s the thing with physics: long ago we found that there is no privileged frame of reference. That is, relativity demonstrates pretty clearly (and the shine of gold, the fact that GPS works the way it does is empirical proof) that you can’t have an “objective” frame of reference. You just pick one and go from there. I could calculate the mass and lifetime of a muon in a cosmic ray relative to the sun, the Earth, or a neutrino that happens to be zipping by that day. The first and second calculations are a hell of a lot easier to do (assuming I am doing them on Earth). But they aren’t any more accurate, necessarily.

      I see ethics the same way — and if you’re talking about it being like physics — there is no privileged frame of reference.

      Now one of the things about relativity, though, is that it works. And it works because it can predict things. It doesn’t matter that there is no privileged frame. The class of phenomena it covers is still pretty darn good.

      Ethics never seems to work that way. Not only is there no privileged frame, you can define away even your own frame, as it were. The very definition of “maximal human flourishing” falls apart for me whenever I try to apply it in the real world.

      Daniel keeps bringing up the phrase, “maximal human flourishing” and references maximal use of our powers as humans. But what those powers are, defining them — that’s where problems arise. Give me any society — any at all — that human have come up with and I can tell you that it provided for maximal human flourishing. All I have to do is define that quality in some way that fits. Why is Inuit society any less conducive to maximal human flourishing than ours? They outlasted us, and may do so in the future. Same with Rome. Slave societies were remarkably stable, by modern standards and they produced some of the very moral philosophers that Daniel has read. Heck, Aboriginal societies did things we might not consider terribly ethical, and the same is true of peoples in Papua New Guinea, and they lasted for 40,000 years. So they must have done something right.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Daniel keeps bringing up the phrase, “maximal human flourishing” and references maximal use of our powers as humans. But what those powers are, defining them — that’s where problems arise. Give me any society — any at all — that human have come up with and I can tell you that it provided for maximal human flourishing. All I have to do is define that quality in some way that fits. Why is Inuit society any less conducive to maximal human flourishing than ours? They outlasted us, and may do so in the future. Same with Rome. Slave societies were remarkably stable, by modern standards and they produced some of the very moral philosophers that Daniel has read. Heck, Aboriginal societies did things we might not consider terribly ethical, and the same is true of peoples in Papua New Guinea, and they lasted for 40,000 years. So they must have done something right.

      I don’t understand why the fact that other many cultures have done something right is completely compatible with my point. Did you not grasp that that was a driving thrust of this piece—that inevitably humans have a workable knowledge of what is good and right for us that is minimally valuable and successful even without any higher order theory? Are you interested in actually understanding the point of this specific post? Or do you just want to falsely equivocate that a scalar standard of greater and lesser achievement with an absolutist standard and just equate my standard with an absolutist one that way and say that, somehow, I cannot account for other good societies just because I think there are ways to say some are better than others.

      YES, Rome had fantastic achievements. But it would not have been even greater if it could have figured out how to maximize flourishing for even more people and not had its overall flourishing boost dependent on the existence of a slave class? Of course, a culture which cannot only maximize its overall achievements but distribute them more widely is better than one with only one of those two goods. What is controversial about that? And of course a civilization enduring for longer (assuming its not supplanted by a better one) is better than it dying out. The only difficult value choices are hypothetical ones of long term minimal stability vs. short term maximal flourishing. But even these take place in a larger context of human history. So what if a particular civilization becomes greater than most but also quickly burns out. If in the sweep of human history the results of its brief and rapid expansion of human potential is that it leaves its neighbors or successive generations the tools to move forward, then it’s in the long run quite successful. Rome is still successful today insofar as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and (so) even we today benefit from its achievements and built on them.

      But to the extent that it is not an either or choice between minimal stability and maximal flourishing, the question is easily answered, flourish as maximally as we can without crossing lines that destroy minimal long term stability much more prematurely than is necessary.

      All the questions you raise Jesse are interesting ones, but they don’t undermine the basic theory. They just mean we have problems to solve using the theory. It’s not only false but intellectually lazy to say that because there are problems that require challenges we should over-exaggerate the situation as one of utter subjectivity and relativism, rather than constructively assess where there is objectivity within the way we think and work out from there to solve the problem questions in a way that actually could have bearing on clarifying issues for us.

    • Ted Seeber

      You are right to some extent, Dave. However, I’d suggest that you’re confusing ethics and metaethics, as well as how human beings learn. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge is a good example- when it was designed and built, it was decidedly NOT built to fail- the harmonic resonance with the wind in that area was a total mistake.

      But it’s a mistake we learned from- and the NEW Tacoma Narrows bridge that is in place today takes the wind into account.

      Engineering CAN inform physics- which then in turn informs the next round of engineering. In my example below regarding Catholic morality- Christ’s parables didn’t come with interpretation pre-attached. We’ve had to tack 2000 years worth of empirical research on to it to come up with something vaguely rational. And the errors inform us as much as the triumphs do.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Ted Seeber wrote to me:
      >Engineering CAN inform physics- which then in turn informs the next round of engineering.

      Yes, that is my point. Engineering *is” objective in what I called the second sense of the word: i.e., it does have some connection with facts about external reality, but those facts do not completely determine what we do. Engineers rely on physics, but physics does not tell them what the goals of the engineering project are – that has to come from human choice.

      Morality works the same way: ultimately, it involves human choice, but once those choices are made, facts about reality are of course relevant to how to achieve the chosen goals.

      An awful lot of people are determined to spill a lot of ink (or bits) over which of these enterprises is truly “objective” or not. That really seems a waste of time, given that we are just dealing with different meanings of the word “objective.”

      I’ll add that most of metaethics seems focused on finding a surefire way of making sure that humans will be motivated to follow the dictates of morality: Will utilitarianism do it? Rational egoism? Virtue ethics?

      Of course, we all know the answer: There is no surefire way to make sure everyone will behave ethically all the time. It’s a fool’s quest. Better to ignore the reams and reams of metaethical nonsense and focus on the nitty-gritty social-psychological issue of how to encourage people to behave ethically a bit more often. We can actually make some progress on that issue!

      Dave

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I’ll add that most of metaethics seems focused on finding a surefire way of making sure that humans will be motivated to follow the dictates of morality: Will utilitarianism do it? Rational egoism? Virtue ethics?

      No, most metaethics really is not about actually motivating people. It’s about figuring out in what ways we can say true/right things and false/wrong things when it comes to the basics of norms and values. Metaethicists understand full well that not everyone will act either morally or well, we just want to explain why and in what way it would be correct to say they are wrong not to. This could be something that the wrongdoers can fully grasp and admit to, even if they are totally unmotivated by it.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote to me:
      >A definition of objective that requires that it take no account of circumstances whatsoever, either of the person’s or people’s peculiarities where these are defensibly morally relevant or the needs and challenges of the person or people, would be much more than objective, but absolutist (and wildly unjustified). I don’t think it is coherent for Leah if she wants absolutism.

      No, I don’t think it is coherent, but the quote from her does seem to show that this is what she wants: “human-independent.” And, it certainly does explain why she became a theist – i.e., she really will not get this from any coherent non-theistic philosophy.

      Of course, the Euthyphro dilemma shows that Leah will not get it from any coherent theistic philosophy, either, but she seems not to be smart enough to realize this (yes, everyone, I know Leah is smart in the sense of having good enough SAT scores to get into Yale – but being SAT savvy is not all there is to being smart).

      By the way, you can find essays around the Web arguing that the Euthyphra dilemma does not apply to Christian theism: They all boil down to “It does not apply to our God, he’s is beyond argument, so there!”

      Dan also wrote:
      > Also, practical contradictions are a matter of logic. Everyone knows that it is illogical to give a multiple choice test and simultaneously hand out to the students the answer key of letters. Doing this makes the test an untrue test.

      Well… I actually do that with my kids! (We’re homeschooling.) I suppose you are basically relying on a definition of “true test,” so that my tests are “untrue” by definition. Spell that out in detail in your argument on morality, and it will just turn out that you are defining “true human” to mean a dude who thinks like you.

      I do not think that line of argument will be very persuasive to all those “untrue humans” who happen not to think as you do.

      Dave

      P.S. I am actually sympathetic to your aretaic (“human flourishing”) approach to morality. I just do not think you gain anything by arguing that “logic” and “objectivity” force this view of morality on people. Better to acknowledge that it is a choice and explain why it is an attractive choice.

    • jesse

      @Dave — I’d even argue that Euthyphro’s dilemma is pretty incomplete. That is, during the whole dialogue there is an underlying assumption that gods have to like certain things — well, let’s just say I think Socrates would have been shocked to meet a devotee of Huitzilopochtli or Kukulkan, and the philosophical underpinnings of most of Greek mythology smply make no sense at all when transposed to a culture like that of Mesoamerica. (This is part of your point, I know). But it is an interesting illustration of what happens when your philosophical and ethical assumptions are wildly different.

    • Ted Seeber

      If Leah is looking for absolutism, she would have been better off becoming a Westboro Baptist than a Catholic.

      Absolutism is a heresy.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote to me:
      >No, most metaethics really is not about actually motivating people.

      Well, it is certainly true that meta-ethicists are hardly stunning motivational writers! But, the various conventional answers in meta-ethics are usually posed in such a way as to eliminate the problem of justification in a way that, supposedly, shows why ethics as conceived by the meta-ethicist would indeed motivate rational human beings: rational egotism, utilitarianism, moral intuitionism, etc.

      Except, of course, that they all fail for obvious reasons, usually reasons that are, in essence, secularized versions of Eythyophro (e.g., “How do you know that what is utilitarian is really right?”).

      Why not just admit it has been a ludicrous failure and return to the real world: All human societies have moral rules, and, as you yourself have pointed out, it is easy enough to see why all human societies have such rules given objective facts about human evolution, human sociology, game theory, etc.

      So, just deal with the reality that you yourself keep pointing to– the evolution, sociology, etc. – that actually does motivate human beings and that does explain the sources of morality, and sweep all the meta-ethical nonsense into the dustbin of history where it belongs.

      Of course, then all you philosophers would actually have to look for a real job.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Dave, if your mind is so closed to philosophy, you can stop reading this blog any time you like. It’s not going to change on your account, no matter how condescendingly and contemptuously you treat me.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote to me:
      >Dave, if your mind is so closed to philosophy, you can stop reading this blog any time you like. It’s not going to change on your account, no matter how condescendingly and contemptuously you treat me.

      Actually, Dan, I have hope for you. You’ve basically got an empiricist spirit, and I think your ethical musings are largely on the right track. All of us need to just work a bit harder to get you beyond your logocentrism and to focus more on your empirical side.

      Many of us are just trying to get you to take a look at the whole philosophical enterprise from the outside and see that the problems may go deeper than you yet realize.

      Do you follow Chris Hallquist? I think Chris is a bit further along than you are with realizing some of the basic problems with the philosophical profession.

      By the way, your initial post on Leah’s conversion was, I thought, very fair and thoughtful. I don’t deny that philosophers have as much potential as normal human beings to make good points when they leave the baggage of their philosophical training behind them, and I thought that post was a nice example.

      Dave

    • jesse

      (Replying to Daniel)

      OK, let’s start with maximal human flourishing. I am going to be completely silly. I say that maximal human flourishing involves, uh, watching the Cubs. Because baseball engages so many intellectual and physical powers that we as humans have. You have to keep track of pitches, outs, balls and strikes, all that stuff.

      So that’s the maximal use of our faculties. It’s a really complicated activity. We have eyes and ears, after all, and Cubs games give some people pleasure to watch.

      That’s pretty silly, right?

      But I can’t come up with a logical reason why that’s any more important for people to do than read philosophy, or science, or build a house, even though I “know” that to be the case. Maybe our whole society should be geared so people can watch more Cubs games. I just can’t come up with a meta-ethical reason why that shouldn’t be so. I can use your very own standards of what constitutes human flourishing — I have done this before — and get a completely different answer. Obviously there are practical reasons not to do that, but I think you see the problem.

      That doesn’t happen in physics, Dan. This is why I feel like I am missing the plot completely. Even with relativity the answers (with no privileged reference frame) are consistent — you don’t get wildly differing pictures of the way the universe works if you apply physical equations in different reference frames.

      I have never encountered any system for discovering “objective” ethics that does that. Math can do it. Physics, biology, neuroscience can do it. Ethics never seems to work. I have followed your posts, Dan, and tried. but I feel like I hit a wall when I can’t say I know for sure that your ethics (metaethics, really) works the way I can say any scientific theory I am familiar with works. Maybe my thinking is hopelessly empirical.

      And again the relativity analogy: no privileged reference frame actually makes certain observations make sense. Could that be the case here?

      The only way it makes sense to me is to say there is no privileged frame of reference. That humans have evolved certain behaviors, like bugs and worms and fish, and some are helpful to survival and some not. Since we can think and are self-conscious, we aren’t bound to certain stimuli like nematodes. So we have to find some other way to live with each other.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Jesse,

      In partial defense of Dan, it is fairly easy to answer your questions: i.e.,

      1) There are certain goals that most humans most of the time hold: to wit,
      A) They want to survive
      B) They want their kids to survive and grow to adulthood
      Etc.

      2) There are certain broad rules of conduct that can enable most of the broad variety of goals humans do hold to be much better achieved:
      For example, a rule against swiping other people’s stuff both makes it more likely both that you will be able to watch the Cubs’ games on your big flat-screen TV *and* that Dan will be able to continue re-reading his favorite philosophy books to his heart’s content.

      These and other facts about the real world explain why all human societies do have something that could reasonably be called “morality,” and why, indeed, most humans most of the time are willing to follow moral rules.

      Dan’s problem is that what I wrote is not enough for him, even if elaborated in the much greater detail that is obviously possible. He want somehow to insist that people who do not assent to the rules of morality to which I alluded are not rational or objective or whatever.

      And, of course, that does not work. Someone could fully acknowledge the facts I laid out above and all the other obvious connected facts and yet still just choose not to adhere to morality without making any intellectual error. Of course, by definition, he would be making a moral error, just as someone who chooses not to adhere to the rules of chess is making a chess error, but that tautological fact does not tell anyone why they should adhere to the rules of chess.

      It’s amazing how many people – Leah, Dan, almost all religious believers – want to go further than the facts that are actually true. I am married into a Chinese family, and, from what I know of Asian philosophy and culture, they do not feel that same compulsion. So, perhaps as the West dies, this particular mental problem will disappear.

      Dave

    • DavidM

      Dan wrote to Dave: “Dave, if your mind is so closed to philosophy, you can stop reading this blog any time you like. It’s not going to change on your account, no matter how condescendingly and contemptuously you treat me.” – My two cents, Dan: it is really unphilosophical (irrational) for you to take Dave’s dismissal of philosophy so personally (this seems to be a bad habit of yours). Dave is a smart and basically respectful guy. He calls it as he sees it and his comments are grounded in what he regards as good reasons. You are not justified in reacting this way. That’s my view, not yours, but maybe it’s still worth considering? Keep your eyes on the prize, it shouldn’t be about your ego.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Dan wrote to Dave: “Dave, if your mind is so closed to philosophy, you can stop reading this blog any time you like. It’s not going to change on your account, no matter how condescendingly and contemptuously you treat me.” – My two cents, Dan: it is really unphilosophical (irrational) for you to take Dave’s dismissal of philosophy so personally (this seems to be a bad habit of yours). Dave is a smart and basically respectful guy. He calls it as he sees it and his comments are grounded in what he regards as good reasons. You are not justified in reacting this way. That’s my view, not yours, but maybe it’s still worth considering? Keep your eyes on the prize, it shouldn’t be about your ego.

      And everyday should you be personally admonishing me instead of discussing ideas?

      My point to Dave was not about my ego. My point was that coming to a philosophy blog to say you think philosophy is bullshit that should not be done is a waste of everyone’s time. That’s it. That has nothing to do with my ego.

  • Bob_In_Wales

    Very interesting read. Some thoughts. It seems to me that physics, indeed all of the sciences, have progressed because not only is argumentation allowed, it is encouraged. And people of all kinds and from all cultures have been and are involved, meaning that cultural and other assumptions get spotted, questioned and burned off leaving us to get at the core of how things really are. Perhaps this is the problem with morals and ethics. They have been too strongly tied to religion and the interpretation and re-interpretation of the same texts. What they need is what you talked about in your Freethinker article – people of all kinds civilly and firmly disagreeing while assuming that in the end they will find some common ground and seeking to join each other there. So whatever Ethics IS like I feel it SHOULD be more like physics in this sense. Second point. Religious ethics always seems to aim for THE TRUTH. Many scientists today seem to start from the assumption that what they are building are models of reality, models which are asymptotic to the truth but which may never get there and indeed even if they do we have no way of knowing that they have. And even more so much science is involved not just with making models and predictions but with determining confidence levels and error bars. We have this new theory and we have this level of confidence in it. It may not be right but we are pretty sure that the answer is somewhere in this area. Perhaps ethics should take a lesson. Rather than trying to work out the right ethics, should we be trying to simply work on them and improve them. Like building a better clock, you never know what the time actually is, but you can show by external checks that the new model keeps better time than the old. (In case you recognise it, this idea is partly pinched from Harris’s Moral Landscape, though I was fumbling in this direction myself before reading the book.)

    • davidjanes

      Some thoughts. It seems to me that physics, indeed all of the sciences, have progressed because not only is argumentation allowed, it is encouraged.

      I think a larger cause is that science, per se, largely restricts itself to conclusions that are falsifiable and subject to experimental confirmation. Not all domains of knowledge are so easily tamed.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Bob wrote:
      > And people of all kinds and from all cultures have been and are involved, meaning that cultural and other assumptions get spotted, questioned and burned off leaving us to get at the core of how things really are.

      Bob, I am a physicist, and my wife is a biologist: the truth is that the major contributors to natural science have been overwhelmingly Western males. A handful of Western females, and a smattering of East Asians and South Asians. Only one Muslim in modern times whom I can think of (Abdus Salam).

      Have you read Feynman’s speech on cargo-cult science ( http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/cargocul.htm/ ) ? Feynman was my own mentor in physics, and I was present when he first delivered the speech back in ’74. The take-away line is: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are
      the easiest person to fool.” The purpose of experiment is to prove your cherished hypothesis to be false, and almost all cherished hypotheses do end up being proven false.

      That attitude – that the name of the game is to produce ideas that can, in principle, be proven false, and then to do your best to prove that they are false – is quite alien to religion, and, I think, also alien to philosophy. Philosophers qualify and qualify, splitting hairs about exactly how they are using words, trying to protect their cherished systems. Scientists ruthlessly throw aside one cherished hypothesis after another, eagerly looking for one that will stand up to the most rigorous, definitive attempts at disproof.

      Completely different mindsets. Which is why philosophers tend to view us scientists (quite rightly) as crude Philistines and we tend to view them as jaded Mandarins.

      But, our crude Philistinism has produced the theory of relativity and evolutionary biology, not to mention antibiotics, jet planes, and cell phones. And, after more than two millennia, it is hard to find a single non-trivial discovery in philosophy that most contemporary philosophers will assent to.

      Dave

  • Ted Seeber

    I’ve seen something similar from the Catholic point of view: Canon Law is not Legislated, it is Discovered. That is, the experience of *trying* to live faithfully to The Deposit of Faith (which includes, but is not limited to, the Public Revelation of Jesus Christ, which includes Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture) gives us laboratory conditions in which we test out ethics. Sometimes that goes right (Bl. John Paul The Great’s Theology of the Body, in which the marriage practices of Poland were expounded upon for the whole world to see and emulate). Sometimes it goes Horribly, Horribly Wrong (The hippie era experiment with abandoning the vow of celibacy and the resulting coverup we now call the Sex Abuse Scandals). But always, we learn something from it, and that which we learn gets added to Canon Law.

    Virtue ethics MUST be empirical, or it will die. And the Vatican is well aware of that and has been practicing it for 2000 years now.

    • baal

      Ted…I find your arguments repulsive.

      Chiefly:

      Sometimes it goes Horribly, Horribly Wrong (The hippie era experiment with abandoning the vow of celibacy and the resulting coverup we now call the Sex Abuse Scandals

      I didn’t see a celibacy roll back in Vatican II and the Sex Abuse Scandals (on-going child rape and cover up scandal?) have occurred in every Catholic county going back so far as anyone has records. They clearly reach past the ‘hippie’ area. Further, what do you see in the roll back of social mores that suggests rape is ok?

      Worse, the Church is not learning from the current scandals. It’s retrenching in its Holy Authority and continues to buy-off priests silence and move cardinal rank and higher to non-extraditionable Vatican City.

      Your Just-So is hogwash.

      I also disagree on other points but they pale in relevance.

      / apologies on the tangent

    • Ted Seeber

      @baal- the actual records show that the grand majority of the modern form of the sex abuse scandals happened between 1964 and 1986.

      Previous to 1964, a raping priest would *very likely* get himself killed (just like any other child rapist in that era).

      And the hippie movement was worldwide.

      And there most certainly WAS a relaxation in the enforcement of the vow of celibacy- prior to 1964, yes clergy abuse did occur, but the man could no longer be clergy after that- none of this “let’s give him six months of intensive therapy then face him with his demons” crap.

      After 1992, you’ll find Canon Law on the subject *did* change. After 2002 it changed again. Now anybody *having contact* with children in the Roman Catholic Church, WORLDWIDE, has to have background checks and go through training to recognize illicit behavior. I know- because I had to do it just to be able to drop my son off at Sunday School.

      “Worse, the Church is not learning from the current scandals. It’s retrenching in its Holy Authority and continues to buy-off priests silence and move cardinal rank and higher to non-extraditionable Vatican City.”

      There has been no such thing occurring with priests who actually abused. They’re ALL in jail or confined to no longer being able to practice as priests, convicted or not. Cardinal rank and higher have *always* enjoyed diplomatic immunity under international law, just like other Ambassadors of other nations do and have done for centuries.

      So obviously you don’t have the faintest clue as to the changes in Canon Law on this subject- and as such your opinion is worse than useless, it’s actually a lie that isn’t supported by the facts.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Ted wrote:
      > (The hippie era experiment with abandoning the vow of celibacy and the resulting coverup we now call the Sex Abuse Scandals).

      I’m a child of the ‘60s, Ted. No, we were not about pedophilia – “sex among consenting adults” was our slogan.

      The Church owns the priest-pedophile scandal – don’t try to palm it off on us Baby Boomers.

      Ted also wrote:
      >Virtue ethics MUST be empirical, or it will die. And the Vatican is well aware of that and has been practicing it for 2000 years now.

      No, if the Pontiff were serious about getting to the bottom of the pedophile scandal, he would threaten excommunication for any member of the hierarchy who did not immediately turn over all Church records on pedophile priests to law enforcement.

      But, instead, Ratzinger would rather let low-level flunkies like Bill Lynn (recently convicted in PA) take the fall and spend a few years rotting behind bars.

      Putting “Vatican” and “ethics” in the same paragraph risks being oxymoronic.

      Which is why Leah’s joining the Catholic Church because of supposed moral issues is so risible. Would have made as much sense to have joined the Nazi Party.

      Dave

    • Ted Seeber

      “No, if the Pontiff were serious about getting to the bottom of the pedophile scandal, he would threaten excommunication for any member of the hierarchy who did not immediately turn over all Church records on pedophile priests to law enforcement.”

      Been there, done that. That’s exactly what the Vatican did. The lawyers got in the way and argued about it for a while, that’s what lawyers do, but all the records are not only now open to law enforcement, but a good many diocese have posted them on the web for the whole world to see.

      You are beating a dead horse, Dave.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Ted Seeber wrote to me:
      >The lawyers got in the way and argued about it for a while, that’s what lawyers do, but all the records are not only now open to law enforcement, but a good many diocese have posted them on the web for the whole world to see.

      Ted, can you provide a link to a reputable, secular, non-Catholic news source that backs up that claim?

      We know from the Bill Lynn conviction in PA that his superiors actually ordered him to destroy records on pedophile priests. Fortunately, one guy kept a copy that law enforcement managed to get their hands on.

      At any rate, you failed to back up your bizarre claim that the ‘60s led to the pedophile priests: the Church owns this and no one else.

  • daniellavine

    Umm, I could only manage to skim but liked what I saw. The way I put it is this: at this point in history, theories of ethics should be descriptive, not prescriptive. Ideally, philosophers would consider moral and ethical problems as if they (the philosophers) were some kind of alien or computerized intelligence studying human beings in the abstract. On the other hand, most of us seem to be doing OK as far as the practice of morality goes, and I think your analogy with physics is a great explication of why that might be.

  • Steve Schuler

    Thanks for another thought provoking article, Dan. I’d also like to extend a big thank-you to the folks who have already commented on this article of Dan’s. Good thoughts! And that much more to think about.

  • http://realitybasedbrainponies.wordpress.com/ Brony

    When you say,

    We should be willing to go to levels of abstraction that are indifferent to the particularities of our own culture as much as possible, rationally assess the meaning of value and, within an understanding of value in general, assess what makes norms in general valuable.”

    What do you mean by “levels of abstraction?”.

    Also what do you mean when you use the term “controversial philosophy”?

    As far as I can tell my philosophy is as controversial as it gets. It’s no philosophy and yet it’s every one of them by itself because I don’t really read about philosophies as much as I experience them through others and I just take the pieces I like.
    My choice is based off of personal preference and an analysis of the outcomes of philosophies (such as the behavior of the adherents when relevant). I basically have a very few principles like “reduce suffering” and then I take everything that I think will get our species through its first carrying capacity saturation. Interaction concepts like “material harm” for example.

    Faith is a useless concept to me. Every time I see someone use the word I have to get them to define it, and at that point I discover that they want to pretend they are saying “justified belief”. It looks like a big cultural game to me where everyone knows that the only rule is “leave faith undefined” and then see how long the argument lasts.

    I became infinitely more and precisely moral after I left religion and so much for the better.

    “But I can get through them well enough because of to the ways that natural selection has geared my mind to work automatically.”

    Well, this part of the conversation might get weird for everyone. How are you on the hypothesis that someone might have a mutation that under some circumstances allows them to have altered access to the symbolic content of language? I’m not average. I don’t quite know how to define what I am but it’s not normal.

    In fact I think that might be an interesting thought. What would you think of the concept of Neurodiversity within your framework? What about the idea that we all have tweaks to how our brains let our minds do logic? What about those of us with tweaks that get little letter words added to our names?
    (Note, this is not a sensitive subject with me at all. Heck, I offered to send a language neurobiologist a copy of a discussion where I had some interesting things getting unconsciously dropped from my paragraphs.)

  • http://realitybasedbrainponies.wordpress.com/ Brony

    Oh yeah,

    Philosophy is the accumulated useful mind software from a particular place and time. It is always DOA because the world changes. So the moment it gets implemented it’s time to do a post-mortum and see what is worth keeping.

    What is worth keeping? the bits that let us reduce suffering while short circuiting instincts that make it harder for us to live together when times are tough. Like all the damn time.

    I never ask people what their philosophy is, I want to know what they intend to do about the ugly parts of human nature that their philosophy lets fester. For example I find that libertarians don’t like to discuss externalities.

    Religion is philosophies drunk older bother. Morality will only exist as a complete work when it is fully consistent with the function of the brain.

    http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/be76d3ca8d/argument-clinic-from-monty-python-from-greatest-comedy-sketches

  • machintelligence

    Not original with me, but I can’t seem to find a quote: Ethics is far to important to be left to religion.

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    By the way, Dan, one of the things that would really help in your intellectual maturing is if you would go back to school and take that calculus class you missed. You simply cannot understand modern science without grasping differential equations – and that means calculus.

    And, modern science is simply not consistent with the teleological, Aristotelian metaphysics that you employ. But, you cannot see that unless you learn calculus and physical science.

    Her attraction to a teleological/Aristotelian worldview, by the way, is one of Leah’s underlying problems that not that many of the atheist bloggers seem to have addressed: even PZ, although he is indeed a scientist, is in one of the “soft” sciences, and perhaps not quite as attuned as “hard” scientists to how obviously inconsistent the Aristotelian worldview is with modern science. (I know that PZ really does know this, but I do not think it jumps out at him quite as blatantly as it does for those of us in the “hard” sciences.)

    The atheist blogosphere is dominated by people who are not experts in the “hard” sciences and who therefore have some difficulty understanding how absurd the Aristotelian/ teleological worldview is.

    Leah admitted that her attraction to the Aristotelian/teleological worldview is what drew her over to the Dark Side, and I think the difficulty much of the atheist blogosphere has in seeing how wrong that worldview is therefore bears much of the fault for her fate.

    Incidentally, learning math alone is not enough: the real point is to really understand modern physical science. Math alone is not sufficient to understand why the teleological/Aristotelian worldview has been proven false – you need to grasp the physical science (for which calculus is a prereq). My understanding is that Leah herself knows a decent amount of math, but there has been no indication that she knows all that much physical science.

    Learn calculus and physical science, Dan.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • John Morales

      [meta]

      An excellent (and free!)resource: Khan Academy.

    • John Morales
    • John Morales

      [meta + OT]

      Harvard, even! ;)

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Nice to see you again, John!

      You wrote:
      >Dave, I make Salman Khan to be a bit of a Platonist, but he is a most excellent teacher.

      Well, almost everyone is a Platonist when he or she teaches math or tries to work out math. I think it is possible to take a somewhat empiricist approach to math, in principle, but almost no one thinks that way in practice. Perhaps, it is a bit like anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, as we all do, or, for that matter, the teleological language we tend to use in biology, even through we know it is inaccurate and that we could speak more accurately.

      And, yeah, I think Sal is a good guy.

      Dave

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    Dan,

    Ed Feser has just put up a post directed to you on just the points you and I have been debating. Ed is on the opposite side of the debate from me, and of course he is, unlike me, a philosopher.

    Nonetheless, Ed does clearly explain some of the same points I and others here have tried to make clear to you.

    I hope you will seriously engage Ed: perhaps you can take a fellow philosopher more seriously than a physicist!

    Dave

    • John Morales

      [meta]

      Dave, though you may nor recall, we’ve discussed this general issue before, though I could not properly adduce evidence of the utility of current philosophy (that which has not been co-opted by daughter disciplines) due to my ignorance.

      I do recall you admitted that science is based on philosophical ideas such as epistemology, ontology, empiricism and so forth.


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