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Word of the Day: Survival of the Fittest

What Would Jesus Say?The term “survival of the fittest” did not initially come from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, though later editions did use it. It was first coined by Herbert Spencer, after reading Origin.

While a convenient phrase, it can be confusing. “Fit” in biological terms doesn’t mean what we commonly think (strong, quick, or agile, for example) but refers to how well adapted an organism is for an environment. Think of it as puzzle-piece fit, not athlete fit.

Creationists sometimes use the phrase to mean that might makes right or that the most savage or ruthless or selfish will survive. On the contrary, rather than might makes right, cooperation can be the better approach. And even if evolution did have some bloodthirsty aspects to it, how does that change whether it’s an accurate theory or not?

NewScientist magazine says:

Although the phrase conjures up an image of a violent struggle for survival, in reality the word “fittest” seldom means the strongest or the most aggressive. On the contrary, it can mean anything from the best camouflaged or the most fecund to the cleverest or the most cooperative. Forget Rambo, think Einstein or Gandhi.

What we see in the wild is not every animal for itself. Cooperation is an incredibly successful survival strategy. Indeed it has been the basis of all the most dramatic steps in the history of life. Complex cells evolved from cooperating simple cells. Multicellular organisms are made up of cooperating complex cells. Superorganisms such as bee or ant colonies consist of cooperating individuals.

Note also that evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive; it simply says what is the case and doesn’t provide moral advice. “I’ll model my morality on evolution” makes as much sense as “I’ll model my morality on the fact that arsenic kills people.”

Creationists sometimes twist Darwin’s The Descent of Man to argue that he favored eugenics. Darwin’s damning paragraph said, in part, “hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” In the first place, whether Darwin ate babies plain or with barbeque sauce says nothing about whether evolution is accurate or not. In the second place, the very next paragraph clarifies Darwin’s position about denying aid to the helpless.

Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

“Survival of the fittest” is a handy description of natural selection as long as all parties understand what it means.

Photo credit: EvolveFish

Related links:

  • “Survival of the fittest,” Wikipedia.
  • Michael Le Page, “Evolution myths: ‘Survival of the fittest’ justifies ‘everyone for themselves,’” NewScientist, 4/16/08.

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Orbital Teapot

    Hi Bob,

    Sure, cooperation makes sense in animal societies but… always within the in-group. Evolution favoured altruism toward the in-group and xenophobia at the same time. And we do see in our species that most people are selective in their love for the neighbor…

  • Bob Calvan

    Note also that evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive; it simply says what is the case and doesn’t provide moral advice.
    That is true evolution is descriptive tool it tells us what ” is” the case not what “ought” to be the case. Morality is a prescriptive case. It tells us what “ought” to be the case. Can’t get an “OUGHT” from an “IS” . that is a logical falacy. Ergo the atheist can not account for morality. Only the Christian worldview can.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’m afraid I’m not convinced. “Christianity (for which I won’t bother providing evidence) has the answer!” isn’t a compelling argument.

      As for how the atheist explains morality, it seems pretty straightforward to me. Evolution gave us moral instincts (the ones that are shared across cultures–the Golden Rule, for example), and the various societies have added their own moral customs (what “honorable” means, for example).

      That’s where morality comes from.

      • Orbital Teapot

        Hi Bob S,

        Yes. Evolution gave us selfishness, xenophobia and lust as well. Does it mean we should indulge in them?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Sometimes. No lust? No babies.

          The right amount of xenophobia and selfishness are necessary in a well-developed person.

          An excess of any good moral instinct is probably bad, and a lack of all bad moral instincts might be bad as well.

  • Bob Calvan

    Evolution gave us moral instincts (the ones that are shared across cultures–the Golden Rule, for example), and the various societies have added their own moral customs (what “honorable” means, for example).

    Nope . Logical falacy. Evolution is descriptive tool it tells us what ” is” the case not what “ought” to be the case. Morality is a prescriptive case. It tells us what “ought” to be the case. Can’t get an “OUGHT” from an “IS”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Can’t get an “OUGHT” from an “IS”

      Move beyond one-liners to actually engage in the conversation.

      Evolution gives us the our moral instincts. Where’s the problem?

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        Lack of logic, evidence, or rational for your conclusion.
        There’s your problem.

        But, since you don’t care about what you think, I suppose it makes sense that logic, evidence and rationality are not part of your blog posts.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          More honest engagement and less bile, please.

          I’ve addressed this concern in below.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          Pointing out that you do not, and have not used logic, reason or evidence is not “bile”. It’s simply the truth.

          If you can’t take critiques of your non-arguments, I suggest you don’t make them.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Dude–you’ve gotten identical pushback from fellow Christians! How do you think they evaluate your style?

          Heck, what do you think Jesus thinks of your style? Or do you pretend that you’re following in his footsteps?

          I take all comments seriously, and the rage behind many of your comments annoys me. Not what I look forward to when I get up in the morning. But it does amuse me to see how you spit on the goals of the typical Christian evangelist, to convey the truth of the Christian message in a loving and winning way.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          Dude–you’ve gotten identical pushback from fellow Christians! How do you think they evaluate your style?

          Where have I received such “identical” pushback?

          I take all comments seriously, and the rage behind many of your comments annoys me.

          At this point, the repetitive nature of what you say, usually makes it so my responses are almost automatic. Sure, there are some exceptions, but most of the time things are now fairly rote for me.

          But it does amuse me to see how you spit on the goals of the typical Christian evangelist, to convey the truth of the Christian message in a loving and winning way.

          You’ve heard the Christian message in far more loving and “winning” ways than I could ever offer it. You’ve long since rejected it. I’m not trying to “evangelize” you Bob. You’ve been evangelized to already, by people far better than me. I have only two goals here.

          1. To expose your arguments as being false, or unintellectual, or invalid, or just plain non-existent, so others know not to be taken in.

          2. I still have this hope that at some point you’ll be willing to come to the conclusion that your atheism is, if not false, at least a choice that you’ve made.

          I haven’t lost all hope for you in general Bob. Who knows what will happen in your life. I have lost all hope of ever convincing you of anything, or even having a remotely intellectual conversation.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Where have I received such “identical” pushback?

          http://www.apologetics.com/forums/ubbthreads.php

          my responses are almost automatic

          Yeah, I’m not surprised.

          You’ve heard the Christian message in far more loving and “winning” ways than I could ever offer it.

          You do know that it’s more than just me who sees your comments, right? You’re representing Christianity to all who read your stuff.

          I have only two goals here.

          1. To expose your arguments as being false

          That’s an odd goal. You know they’re false even before you read them? It’s almost like you have an agenda or something.

          … you’ll be willing to come to the conclusion that your atheism is, if not false, at least a choice that you’ve made.

          A choice? My brain weighs the options and concludes that one option best explains the facts. How does choice come into it?

          I haven’t lost all hope for you in general Bob.

          That’s nice, I guess. But you do appreciate that I’m unlikely to ever say, “Whatever it is that gives RRF his charm, his kindness, his love of live … I want some of that!” Your attitude doesn’t draw me to the Christian life, and the same is doubtless true of those who read your stuff.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          You do know that it’s more than just me who sees your comments, right? You’re representing Christianity to all who read your stuff.

          Indeed. Of course, debating with atheists is a rather small slice of the Christian life, and that’s really all I’m “representing” here.

          You seem to have this odd idea that all Christians should be meek and mild and humble at all times. This isn’t true.

          That’s an odd goal. You know they’re false even before you read them?

          So far, they almost all have been. (There are some exceptions) I do try to look at your arguments with as open a mind as possible, but the stats are really not in your favor.

          A choice? My brain weighs the options and concludes that one option best explains the facts. How does choice come into it?

          You’ve chosen what your biases are. What assumptions you will make. How closed or open your mind is. I know you don’t realize it, but you have.

          I know you deny my existence, but once upon a time, I once was an atheist. I made very similar non-arguments to the ones you made. Over time, I came to realize that the reasons I made these arguments were not due to an intelligence behind the arguments, but due to emotional / subjective choices I have made.

          I know you can’t see that you’ve made choices. That doesn’t mean you haven’t. It just means you can’t see them.

          But you do appreciate that I’m unlikely to ever say, “Whatever it is that gives RRF his charm, his kindness, his love of live … I want some of that!”

          Indeed.

          Your attitude doesn’t draw me to the Christian life, and the same is doubtless true of those who read your stuff.

          That may be. I’ve long since despaired of “drawing you to the Christian life” Bob. Far better people than me have tried. I have very simple goals. If I can just make you think about your arguments, and just frankly open your mind a little bit, I’ll have done anything and everything I’m capable of.

          I’m a poor evangelist. No question about it. I’m not trying to evangelize you though. Just trying to get you to think.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          You seem to have this odd idea that all Christians should be meek and mild and humble at all times.

          No, my odd idea is that defending your worldview by being an a**hole makes your worldview unattractive.

          I know you deny my existence, but once upon a time, I once was an atheist. I made very similar non-arguments to the ones you made.

          I don’t deny your existence or that you were an atheist. I’m pretty sure that you didn’t make similar arguments to me. How do I know? Because if you did make those arguments and now see the glaring flaws in them, you’d pass along that information.

          I’m a poor evangelist. No question about it. I’m not trying to evangelize you though. Just trying to get you to think.

          You are indeed a poor evangelist. But here’s a tip: by simply not being a jerk, you would make your arguments much more attractive.

          I can’t imagine why you would think that raising my blood pressure would make your argument more compelling.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          I don’t deny your existence or that you were an atheist. I’m pretty sure that you didn’t make similar arguments to me. How do I know? Because if you did make those arguments and now see the glaring flaws in them, you’d pass along that information.

          That’s what I’ve been doing! The main reason I can respond so quickly to your arguments, is you aren’t saying anything I haven’t heard, or said myself before.

          The fact that you seem blind to the fact that all I’ve been doing, time and time again is pointing the flaws your arguments, pointing out where you make invalid logical conclusions, pointing out where you have no evidence or support, pointing out where you use the same type of arguments you despise in others… is really just sad.

          I can’t imagine why you would think that raising my blood pressure would make your argument more compelling.

          If you take offense to what I’ve said, the solution is to deal with it. If you take offense when I say you haven’t offered evidence.. well offer some. If you take offense when I say you have an invalid non-argument.. well state your argument clearly and without rhetoric.

          You act as though all I ever do is post ignorant hateful comments. Other people can , and have seen that my critique of your arguments are often dead on.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          is really just sad.

          Ah, well. More “Christian” condescension.

          Your arguments are like those of any Christian. But how would an ex-atheist who had previously held that view respond? Quite differently, I think. Quite compellingly, I think.

          If you take offense to what I’ve said, the solution is to deal with it.

          I’ll just offer one other option: that you could make your case in the thoughtful, un-hateful way that other Christians have.

          Other people can , and have seen that my critique of your arguments are often dead on.

          And that’s not what I’m talking about. That Christians agree with your argument doesn’t surprise me. But do Christians agree that your violent approach is an effective advertisement for the Christian lifestyle? That’s the question in my mind.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        I’ll just offer one other option: that you could make your case in the thoughtful, un-hateful way that other Christians have.

        How might I do that? Let’s take this blog post of yours as an example. While I agree with the main subject of your blog post concerning fitness (I’ve said this), and I agree that instincts are part of morality, but not all, or even a large part of morality, and I think that you seem unable to understand that, as the fact that your repeated bringing up of the idea that “evolution gives us instincts!’ demonstrates. You seem to be think that’s all you need to argue, and you seem to miss it when I, or others point out that instincts are not by themselves moral, and that more is needed.

        So, to you, how I can I say that as far as I can see you have no argument, or evidence besides that which supports the one trivial point that most of us already agree on in a “thoughtful, un-hateful” way?

        I think that when you say that you want me to respond to you in a “thoughtful, unhateful way” what you really mean is “I don’t want you to seriously critique what I’m saying.”

        • Bob Seidensticker

          (I’ve said this)

          Yes, I saw that.

          I agree that instincts are part of morality

          I missed this part. All I inferred was that you agree that moral-like actions within primates are instinctive. But OK, now I see your position.

          instincts are not by themselves moral

          Is this just definitional? That moral actions can’t be driven by instinct? I don’t read that in the dictionary.

          If your point is not about definitions, then I don’t understand it.

          what you really mean is “I don’t want you to seriously critique what I’m saying.”

          LOL.

          Critique all you want. And in whatever way that you want. My suggestions and encouragement don’t have any impact, I suspect.

  • TheRealRandomFunction

    An excess of any good moral instinct is probably bad, and a lack of all bad moral instincts might be bad as well.

    One wonders how Bob settles what is a “good” moral instinct and what a “bad” moral instinct is, and what “excess” and “lack” are.

    Really though, there is no such thing as a “moral instinct”, much less a “good” or “bad” one. We have “instincts”, that’s it. Morality is heeding or following certain instincts instead of others in any given situation. As such, while Bob may be right when he says that evolution has given us “instincts”.. that really doesn’t get us anywhere. Now, we may have certain instincts that are “stronger” than others, but that does not make them any more “moral”. Just stronger.

    Bob also says that societies have given us “moral customs”. Since we’ve eliminated evolution as a possible source of morality, this is pretty much all we have from Bob. If morality is simply the product of societal choice then we run into a problem. Take an issue such as slavery. If morality is simply the product or societal choice, then slavery was never actually “wrong” when it was practiced. After all, society did not judge it wrong then. The debate over slavery was not, and could not have been, a debate of whether it was “right or wrong”, but a debate over whether or not we should practice it as a society anymore.

    • Orbital Teapot

      RRF is right. Morality is at another level than instincts, even pro-social ones. Evolution may have given us the right kind of brain to be moral, that is, it gave us some willpower and some useful feelings and thinking, but it falls short of morality stricto sensu.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      One wonders if RRF’s thoughts are aimed at the ether. Perhaps the ether will reply. Or perhaps he has no interest in a reply but is just thinking out loud. If he wants my input, one supposes he will make that clear.

      But then one observes that I’ve already responded to these points at apologetics.com.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        If I thought I would actually get an intelligent response from you, I would have asked for one. It seems better just to debunk your argument, and leave it at that. It saves me time, it saves you time, and it allows others to make up their own mind.

        If you want to respond feel free. Since you’ve apparently already responded before, it should take very little time for you to deal with what I’ve had to say.

        Or, you could just get on your high horse and ride away, leaving my critiques unanswered. It’s up to you.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      OT:

      Morality is at another level than instincts, even pro-social ones.

      Tell me more.

      I propose that some variant of the Golden Rule is part of our mental wiring. We don’t learn it; it’s part of our ROM–that’s why I call it instinct.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        I propose that some variant of the Golden Rule is part of our mental wiring. We don’t learn it; it’s part of our ROM–that’s why I call it instinct.

        One wonders what evidence Bob has for this. Or is this another case where Bob get’s to propose whatever he thinks is remotely plausible without any supporting evidence, and its up to others to absolutely disprove it?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          We know instincts exist. We see morality in other primates.

          The hypothesis explains the facts. Seems like a good start to me. It also has the (not insignificant) benefit of not imagining a supernatural being.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          We know instincts exist.

          Indeed. Your claim however was:

          I propose that some variant of the Golden Rule is part of our mental wiring.

          The mere existence of “instincts” does not prove, or even make it more probable that the Golden Rule is such an “instinct” or that it is “hardwired”.

          We see morality in other primates.

          We see behavior in other primates that we qualify as “moral”. There’s a difference.

          The hypothesis explains the facts. Seems like a good start to me.

          Given that you’ve said that even you don’t care about what you think about scientific issues.. “seems to me” is really rather meaningless.

          I could care less how it “seems to you”. Bring facts, bring arguments, or don’t even bother.

          It also has the (not insignificant) benefit of not imagining a supernatural being.

          Sure, this is a great benefit if you are a close-minded biased individual. No question. For those of us with an open mind, why is it a benefit?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          We see behavior in other primates that we qualify as “moral”. There’s a difference.

          I don’t see it. “Morality” is simply a category of actions. Eating your breakfast isn’t in that category; commiserating with someone who has experienced a loss is.

          Where do other primates get the desire to do actions that, if you did them, would be called “moral”? Seems like instinct is a pretty plausible source.

          I could care less how it “seems to you”. Bring facts, bring arguments, or don’t even bother.

          I control the horizontal; I control the vertical. You’ll take what I give you and like it. That’s the rule around here, I’m afraid!

          That human morality has an instinctive component is a hypothesis. Seems reasonable to bring it out for critique. Show me that it’s flawed … if you can. Otherwise, your “don’t even bother” sounds like I’m getting a little too close to the truth for comfort.

          Sure, [no need for a supernatural explanation] is a great benefit if you are a close-minded biased individual. … For those of us with an open mind, why is it a benefit?

          Because we have no other universally accepted example of a supernatural being. I could say, “Gravity has a natural cause, just like …” and then list any of a thousand natural causes of things that almost everyone accepts. When one says, “Jesus is supernatural,” there’s no “just like” list of other supernatural beings on which I can build my case of the supernatural nature of Jesus.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          I don’t see it.

          Surprise, surprise.

          “Morality” is simply a category of actions.

          Really? Morality is simply the action, and not the motivation?

          Let’s take two different scenarios.

          1. I give money to a woman out of the kindess of my heart.

          2. I give money to a woman in the hopes that she’ll sleep with me.

          If morality is just the action, then both these things are equally as moral.

          Where do other primates get the desire to do actions that, if you did them, would be called “moral”?

          Just because I call them “moral” doesn’t mean they are in fact “moral acts”.

          That human morality has an instinctive component is a hypothesis.

          I actually agree to that hypothesis. Where you go wrong, is you stop there. You do not realize that morality is not just instincts or culture. To you, “evolution gave us instincts” is a full and complete description of morality. It’s no better frankly than “God did it”. It explains just about as much.

          Bob, you quite frequently start off from facts that are quite true, or at the very least just reasonable. Your difficulty is that where you go from there is not supported by reason, or evidence, or additional facts.

          This is a great example. It is entirely reasonable to assume that evolution gave us certain instincts. Instincts to eat, to run from danger, to form bonds with others, and so on and so forth. From that though, you somehow conclude that all of morality is now just figured out. That the mere existence of instincts, is enough. When you are called on the fact that instincts are not, in and of themselves morality, you seem blind to this distinction.

          I could say, “Gravity has a natural cause, just like …” and then list any of a thousand natural causes of things that almost everyone accepts. When one says, “Jesus is supernatural,” there’s no “just like” list of other supernatural beings on which I can build my case of the supernatural nature of Jesus.

          So?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          If morality is just the action, then both these things are equally as moral.

          Morality is a category. Doing good is in the category “morality.”

          Just because I call them “moral” doesn’t mean they are in fact “moral acts”.

          Is there a difference?

          If primates do “moral” things because of instinct, it seems plausible that we do some of our moral things by instinct as well.

          You do not realize that morality is not just instincts or culture.

          What is missing?

          From that though, you somehow conclude that all of morality is now just figured out.

          Nope. That morality has an instinctive component sounds good to me, and biologists have put forward the idea. That doesn’t make it “figured out,” if by that you mean that everything is understood.

          So?

          So that’s a benefit for those of us with open minds (which was your initial concern).

          “Gravity is natural” rests on thousands of universally accepted examples of other things that are natural, but “Jesus is supernatural” rests on zero similar examples.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        Morality is a category. Doing good is in the category “morality.”

        Morality is a category of what exactly? This doesn’t deal at all with what I said. You implied that morality is simply a property of an action. I called you out on that, and gave you an example showing that just considering the action was not enough, that inward motivations must be considered as well. You ignored me.

        If primates do “moral” things because of instinct, it seems plausible that we do some of our moral things by instinct as well.

        Both primates and humans perform actions. We judge certain actions when performed by us to be moral, and others to be not moral, or wrong.

        The reason we may perform a specific action may have to do with instinct, but that doesn’t help us decide if an action was moral or not.

        The mere fact that we have instincts, does not give us morality, as morality is a choice between instincts. You seem unable to deal with this one fact, as you continually insist on the idea that the existence of instincts are somehow enough of an explanation for morality.

        Again, I agree with with you that we have instincts. We may even have them due to evolutionary processes. That says NOTHING about morality.

        What is missing?

        I have stated time and time again what is missing, and time and time again you have acted as though you haven’t even read a word I’ve actually written.

        Let me try one last time.

        What is missing? What is missing is the fact that morality is not just instincts, but is the choosing between instincts. The mere fact that a mother feels certain instincts towards her child means nothing. That mother still must make a choice as to which instincts she follows, and which she does not. Does she become a helicopter parent? Does she distance herself? Does she heed her instinct for her own pleasure and put that ahead of her mothering instinct for her child? THAT is actually morality. The mere fact that a mother has instincts, while true, is only the smallest, most meaningless part of a discussion of morality. You seem stuck there though.

        • Orbital Teapot

          Hi RRF,

          Sounds like we’re on the same page here.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          The reason we may perform a specific action may have to do with instinct, but that doesn’t help us decide if an action was moral or not.

          How do we decide? Doesn’t sound hard to me to figure out whether an action belongs in the “morality” bin or not, but perhaps we’re not talking about the same thing.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          We are not.

  • TheRealRandomFunction

    I will say one thing though. As to the actual topic of Bob’s post, the nature of the term “fittest” in “survival of the fittest”, Bob is actually correct. “Fittest” does not necessarily mean most ruthless, or savage or must physically fit or whatever.

    Even a stopped clock is right once a day.

  • Orbital Teapot

    To Bob S,

    Either right and wrong are merely products of evolution, “adaptations”, so that belief in them is a delusion, however useful it may be to spread our precious genes. Or they exist in themselves in such a way that they transcend the world studied by scientists.

    I mean, sure, psychological altruism exists. Sure, evolutionary biologists and game theorists have shown that reciprocal altruism makes sense. But those are spontaneous reactions and not moral choices stricto sensu. Moral choices suppose that we perceive the realm of values and that we strive to realize them. This is more than gut feelings. We do have good instincts. But we also have bad instincts (selfishness, xenophobia, greed, adultery). We need a superior standard to determine that good instincts ought to take precedence. Otherwise we (people) are nothing but machines in which different instincts wrestle and whose behavioral output depends on which instinct has the upper hand. That is not ethics: that is a soulless mechanism.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Either right and wrong are merely products of evolution, “adaptations”, so that belief in them is a delusion, however useful it may be to spread our precious genes. Or they exist in themselves in such a way that they transcend the world studied by scientists.

      So my choices are delusion or objective morality? I propose instead that we simply observe that certain actions have been labeled as a convenience by humans as “moral” actions. The dictionary makes no reference to objective anything.

      If you want to say that it’s a delusion to imagine that morality is objectively grounded if you don’t accept objective morality, sure. But rejecting objective morality (more precisely: asking for evidence for the remarkable claim of objective morality before accepting the notion) doesn’t mean that English can’t define a word that labels a certain category of actions.

      We do have good instincts. But we also have bad instincts (selfishness, xenophobia, greed, adultery).

      The issue isn’t good vs. bad instincts IMO but rather finding the right balance/amount for each. Too much altruism is bad; too little selfishness is bad.

      My goal is simply to use “morality” or “ethics” as it’s defined in the dictionary.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        The issue isn’t good vs. bad instincts IMO but rather finding the right balance/amount for each. Too much altruism is bad; too little selfishness is bad.

        How do you do this?

        • Orbital Teapot

          He cannot do this, because in his view there are only instincts wrestling with one another. And in such a battle, might makes right…

          What he needs is a standard above instincts.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RRF:

          Sorry–not following. Do what?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          As we’ve made clear, “might makes right” isn’t the only way things work. Cooperation is a terrific route to better survival odds.

          What is this “standard above instincts”? Something objectively true, I’m guessing? If that’s it, I need evidence that such a remarkable thing exists.

          Again, I don’t see how the natural explanation isn’t sufficient. Social animals like humans develop cooperation as one survival strategy. This gives things that we (typically) label as good moral values: honesty, a sense of fairness, altruism, and so on. Add to this society-specific values, and that seems to give us the modern civilized person. What’s missing?

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          Sorry–not following. Do what?

          How do you decide what is “too much” altruism, or “too little” selfishness. You seem to believe that if an instinct is too strong, or too weak, that that’s bad, or immoral. How do you decide when this imbalance occurs?

          Again, I don’t see how the natural explanation isn’t sufficient. Social animals like humans develop cooperation as one survival strategy. This gives things that we (typically) label as good moral values: honesty, a sense of fairness, altruism, and so on. Add to this society-specific values, and that seems to give us the modern civilized person. What’s missing?

          What I’ve been saying time and time again. You seem stuck on the idea that “instincts exist!” is sufficient explanation for everything with regards to morality. Yet, morality is not merely instincts. It is choosing between instincts. Evolution may explain why we have altruistic emotions and feelings at times. Yet, we do not always act on those feelings, and we do not even think its morally correct to act on those feelings all the time.

          You cannot seem to intellectually grasp the idea that “instincts exist!” is insufficient.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RRF:

          Yet, we do not always act on those feelings, and we do not even think its morally correct to act on those feelings all the time.

          We have an intellect. That’s what weighs the options and chooses the best route.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          We have an intellect. That’s what weighs the options and chooses the best route.

          Indeed. We do have an intellect, and it does weigh the options and it does choose the best, most rational, or most true option. Either way you define “best”, if we are using our intellect to make moral decisions, they cannot simply be formed by society. Otherwise all we are doing is picking our favorite flavor. That’s not the job of our “intellect”.

  • Orbital Teapot

    To Bob S,

    Do you at least agree that evolution is morally neutral, and therefore that its products (adaptations, spandrels) are not there because they are intrinsically good? I mean, you don’t believe in divine providence, after all.

    If you agree with that, please explain to me where you take your concepts of right and wrong? Are they just labels for specific instincts, with no objective value attached to them? Are “good instincts” no more meaningful than “feeding instincts” or “drinking instincts”?

    Because this is not how those words (right and wrong) are commonly used.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      OT:

      “Morality” is just a word that describes a category. It’s defined in the dictionary; nothing special about it. The definition says nothing about anything objective or transcendental. Are we agreed on that?

      Do you at least agree that evolution is morally neutral

      I think we’re in agreement. Evolution has no goal (good, bad, evil, noble, whatever). There’s no objective value in the results of evolution IMO.

      If you agree with that, please explain to me where you take your concepts of right and wrong?

      As I’ve said, my sense of morality comes from my moral instincts and from societal programming.

      Are they just labels for specific instincts, with no objective value attached to them?

      I see no objective value behind our concepts of good or bad. When I label something as “good,” that simply means that, from my position, I see that as good. Nothing objective here.

      Are “good instincts” no more meaningful than “feeding instincts” or “drinking instincts”?

      No more objectively meaningful, yes.

      Because this is not how those words (right and wrong) are commonly used.

      Huh? You’re saying that good/bad has an objective quality? Because that’s not how the dictionary defines it.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        I think that, to Bob, the mere fact that he feels certain things are right and wrong is enough explanation for him. After all he probably likes altruism, lots of other people seem to like it, so what’s the problem?

  • Orbital Teapot

    To all,

    What I believe is that evolution gave us a set of instincts for all kinds of things (which served to increase our inclusive fitness, as evolutionary theorists say). However, our moral sense (whose origin is not accounted for by naturalism) then gave the labels “good” and “bad” to those instincts, or to the use of those instincts , according to their moral worth or their agreement with objective values (which are not products of evolution).

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I don’t see why naturalism has a problem with explaining our moral sense. I also don’t see any need to bring the concept of objectivity (in the transcendental or supernatural sense) into the discussion of morality. The dictionary does fine without it

  • Bob Calvan

    My goal is simply to use “morality” or “ethics” as it’s defined in the dictionary.

    So are the definitions of “morality or “ethics” Absolutly true as defined by your dictionary? Or can they mean something else depending on ones subjective opinion of those words?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      So are the definitions of “morality or “ethics” Absolutly true as defined by your dictionary?

      If “absolutely true” means “supernaturally” or “transcendentally” true, then no.

      If “absolutely true” means “commonly though not universally accepted,” then yes.

      You do know how dictionaries work, right?

  • TheRealRandomFunction

    Since Bob thinks he’s following along with the dictionary, let’s actually go to the dictionary, shall we?

    Morality:

    1. conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.
    2. moral quality or character.
    3. virtue in sexual matters; chastity.
    4. a doctrine or system of morals.
    5. moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.

    First of all, we see that actions are not the be all and end all of morality. So Bob is incorrect about that. From the dictionary, we see that morality is conformity to “rules of right conduct”. Now a rule, is not an instinct. So Bob’s repeated insistence that somehow the mere existence of “instincts” are enough falls short of the dictionary definition of morality. Yes, we may have certain “instincts”. These instincts may be the product of evolutionary processes. As the dictionary itself shows, these instincts are not of themselves morality. Morality requires rules, and the idea of what “right conduct” is. Instincts by themselves cannot be right or wrong. They can be pleasing, or not pleasing, but that is different.

    The fact that evolution has given us a desire to (say) be altruistic does not mean that now altruism is a “rule of right conduct”.

    Now let’s look at “good” and “bad”.

    “Good”

    1. morally excellent; virtuous; righteous; pious: a good man.

    What are those things that are “morally excellent”? Instincts alone cannot tell us this. Instincts can make us want to do a certain thing, or not do a certain thing, but that’s it. As a society, we may arbitrarily decide “these things are morally excellent, and these things are not”, but that decision is fundamentally relative in nature.

    I think I’m talking to a brick wall here with regards to Bob, but hopefully others will understand what I’m saying.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Since Bob thinks he’s following along with the dictionary, let’s actually go to the dictionary, shall we?

      No mention of objective anything, like I suspected.

      From the dictionary, we see that morality is conformity to “rules of right conduct”.

      And how do I know that “It’s good to help someone” is a rule? Where did that rule come from? Instinct and societal programming.

      I think I’m talking to a brick wall here with regards to Bob

      Yeah, why do you bother? I’d not waste my time here if I were you.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        And how do I know that “It’s good to help someone” is a rule? Where did that rule come from? Instinct and societal programming.

        Did our morality come from “instinct and societal programming”? What evidence do you have for that? Instincts by themselves cannot get us to a rule. Society cannot come up with a rule to be sure, but that’s not a “right rule of conduct”. That’s just a fashion trend. Society comes up with all sorts of fashion trends all the time. Used to be that all men all wore ascots. Now we wear ties. Used to be that slavery was acceptable. Now its not. In some places we can drive on one side of the road. In other places we drive on the other.

        You (I doubt) don’t think of society’s idea that men should wear ties as a “right rule of conduct”. Why then do you think that societies idea of “slavery being wrong” is actually a “right rule of conduct”? They are both the products of society and our brain chemistry after all, nothing more.

        Perhaps you believe that a “right rule of conduct” (again, just sticking with the dictionary) is really only relative. Then in that case, when the society in the South thought that slavery was acceptable, it was. Eventually somebody didn’t like it, and he / she / they had enough might to convince others not to like it, and now a different society ruled that it was wrong. That’s it.

        I think Bob, you really do need to remember the following. It might help if you stick it on your bathroom mirror and repeat it to yourself every morning. I don’t see you getting it any other way.

        Just remember Bob. “Just because I think something is plausible, doesn’t make it true, or even supported by evidence.”

        Repeat that till it sinks in ok? Then you might become a little less ignorant.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Did our morality come from “instinct and societal programming”?

          You seem to be saying that there’s this thing called Morality, and we’re puzzling over how humans got there (or were able to tap into it, depending on your metaphor).

          I see it the other way around: We have instincts and social programming that are helpful for social animals. We simply label this helpful set of actions/beliefs “Morality.”

          when the society in the South thought that slavery was acceptable, it was.

          When slaveholder Jones says, “Slavery is right,” that means that it’s “right” from his standpoint. That’s it. It’s not a statement that goes beyond that. We could take a poll and find what Americans think of capital punishment or abortion or euthanasia. We could then say, “Americans think that it’s right that [poll results].” Again, that’s not an absolute statement but simply a statement that, from the standpoint of America as a whole, this or that is the right thing.

          Repeat that till it sinks in ok? Then you might become a little less ignorant.

          Your arguments are so attractive and winsome. You’ve got the gift.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          I see it the other way around: We have instincts and social programming that are helpful for social animals. We simply label this helpful set of actions/beliefs “Morality.”

          How do we do this labeling however?

          Not all actions, and not all instincts fall under the heading of “morality”. We are saying some of these actions/instincts are moral, and some are not. How is this being done? Do we simply label things moral, morally good/ morally bad at our whim? Whatever reason(s) we have are good enough?

          When slaveholder Jones says, “Slavery is right,” that means that it’s “right” from his standpoint. That’s it. It’s not a statement that goes beyond that.

          Yet, when moral difficulties come up, we cease to act at though this was the case. If Jones (or the majority of southerners) thinks “Slavery is right” and that’s just simply an opinion we cannot logicall tell him “No, you are wrong”. That would imply that he says slavery is acceptable, but we actually know that to him, its not.

          So your idea that morality is simply some random labels we put on things is contradicted by the way we use and deal with moral issues. Now, that could be wrong. It could be that really, there is no point in having a “moral discussion” as though one party is wrong, and one is right.

          Again, that’s not an absolute statement but simply a statement that, from the standpoint of America as a whole, this or that is the right thing.

          Really its just a statement of feeling. We could take a poll of American’s as to their favorite ice cream flavor and find out that America thinks strawberry is the best tasting flavor. That’s just a “label” as well.

          If morality is a “simpl[e] label” to a “set of actions/beliefs” then it is no different than any other “simple label” to “a set of actions or beliefs”.

          Your arguments are so attractive and winsome. You’ve got the gift.

          It might be best if you focused on the truth or falsehood of my arguments. That’s sort of what an intelligent debate is about.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          How do we do this labeling however?

          We need a name for those actions that affect other people. Let’s call it … oh, I dunno … let’s call those actions “morality.”

          we cannot logicall tell him “No, you are wrong”.

          I don’t see the problem, either with the logic or with actually doing it. We can easily confuse our motivations (“everyone knows that X is wrong” vs. “it’s objectively true that X is wrong”), but “you are wrong” comes very easily to the lips.

          By “you are wrong,” all we’re really saying is “I feel that you are wrong.”

          It might be best if you focused on the truth or falsehood of my arguments.

          I will if you will. Deal?

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          We need a name for those actions that affect other people. Let’s call it … oh, I dunno … let’s call those actions “morality.”

          So morality is only those actions that affect others?

          If I drink myself to death.. that’s fine right? I’m not really affecting anyone else.

          By “you are wrong,” all we’re really saying is “I feel that you are wrong.”

          Got it. So if someone breaks into your apartment, and steals your stuff and you catch him doing it.. you “feel” that what he’s doing is wrong. It’s not actually wrong in any real sense.. its just a feeling you have. Much like the feeling that ice cream is delicious.

          What gives you the right to act on these moral “feelings”? Or can you even act on those “feelings”?

          I will if you will. Deal?

          That’s all I ever do.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          So morality is only those actions that affect others?

          Webster’s defines “morality” as “conformity to ideals of right human conduct.”

          It’s not actually wrong in any real sense.

          “wrong in any real sense” = “objectively wrong”?

          Hey, if you can ground morality in something outside the human mind and show that this is objective, go for it. Because you haven’t makes me think that you agree with me that we have no reason to point to objective morality.

          Much like the feeling that ice cream is delicious.

          Does ice cream preference fit into “ideals of right human conduct”? Not for most of us. So I guess that ice cream preference isn’t morality.

          That’s all I ever do.

          LOL! You’re a funny guy.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          Webster’s defines “morality” as “conformity to ideals of right human conduct.”

          Indeed. So, why did you earlier say:

          We need a name for those actions that affect other people. Let’s call it … oh, I dunno … let’s call those actions “morality.”

          Is morality a name for those that affect others? Or conformity to right ideals of human conduct?

          Also, in that definition, there is the word “right”. If morality can only exist in terms of personal perspective, then what is this “right”? It cannot mean “true”, as in the “right answer”. Right has never been used as a synonym for useful.. so what does it mean to be a “right ” rule of human conduct?

          Does ice cream preference fit into “ideals of right human conduct”? Not for most of us.

          Why not? If morality is nothing but the product of instincts and societal choices.. well my favorite flavor of ice cream is nothing but the product of instincts and societal choices. I would expect my brain to lump both things in the same category. Yet it doesn’t.

          Either I, and all of humanity is having a mass delusion, and thinking that something exists when it does not, or there must be an actual difference between a choice between ice cream flavors and a moral choice. What is this difference?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Is morality a name for those that affect others? Or conformity to right ideals of human conduct?

          Where did the “right ideals” come from? From human minds. The same minds that cobbled together a label for that category.

          If morality can only exist in terms of personal perspective, then what is this “right”?

          Right from the perspective of the person who labeled something “right.”

          my favorite flavor of ice cream is nothing but the product of instincts and societal choices. I would expect my brain to lump both things in the same category. Yet it doesn’t.

          These questions are mindless. Perhaps you’re not stating your question clearly so that I can see what you’re actually saying.

          Why are you startled at the idea of putting things that affect people in one bin and other things in a different bin?

  • Bob Calvan

    If “absolutely true” means “supernaturally” or “transcendentally” true, then no.

    If “absolutely true” means “commonly though not universally accepted,” then yes.

    I see so Bob’s truth is relative to his subjective opinion. Well Bob at least you are a consist moral relativist. Morality and truth are all relative to Bob.. Notice Bob’s answer that absolute truth could be true or could be false ( which refutes the Laws of Logic) .

    Bob is the answer you gave that absolute truth can be true or false . Absolutely true? or Absolutely false? Sure is hard to get the Tar off you.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Does absolute moral truth exist? Show me.

  • TheRealRandomFunction

    You know, it must be so hard to be Bob sometimes.

    To be so wise, so enlightened, so full of facts and arguments that just demolish the Christian faith.. yet seemingly unable able to convince a soul to follow the one truth path of atheism.

    He prides himself as being a hammer.. but so far from what I’ve seen.. none of the nails are cooperating! Don’t they know that when Bob hammers home with one of his masterful arguments.. they should just agree?

    Those crazy theists.. daring to think differently on issues. So.. crazy.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for spending a part of your busy day here. Your frequent touches of fairy dust make life more pleasant for all of us.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        Always glad to be of service.

  • Orbital Teapot

    To all,

    Well, maybe we should use a dictionary of philosophy or ethics rather than a general dictionary.

    I still think that ordinary people and most philosophers use the words “right” and “wrong” differently from Bob S. I mean, when a thinker says “infanticide is wrong”, she is not just expressing instinctual feelings. She is making a truth-claim, one that is objectively true. Because her statement that “infanticide is wrong” is something else than “I hate infanticide [owing to my instincts]“.

    To take a familiar example, I’m disgusted when I imagine two men having sex. It must be an instinct or more probably my education. But that is irrelevant to whether homosexuality is right or wrong. I’m also disgusted when I imagine people eating insects, but I don’t think there is anything wrong in that (objectively).

    • Bob Seidensticker

      She is making a truth-claim, one that is objectively true.

      Someone needs to justify this claim that objective moral truth exists (and that we can reliably access it). Alternatively, let’s drop the concept from our conversation.

      Because her statement that “infanticide is wrong” is something else than “I hate infanticide [owing to my instincts]“.

      And yet “infanticide is wrong” could be a universally accepted moral instinct instead of a universal moral truth. Either one explains the facts, and the former is much more plausible.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        Someone needs to justify this claim that objective moral truth exists (and that we can reliably access it). Alternatively, let’s drop the concept from our conversation.

        Fair enough.
        Let’s just stick with the idea that all morality is just a set of labels. That if you say “Its wrong for you (me) to sleep with my wife.”, its just wrong from your standpoint.

        Now, to someone else, it might not be “wrong from their standpoint” to sleep with your wife. It might be perfectly fine. It’s certainly not illegal to do that. If someone does sleep with your wife, what cause for anger do you have? Sure, you may have certain feelings, but that’s it. You dislike the idea of someone sleeping with your wife, he’s fine with it. You dislike eating insects, other people are fine with it. You don’t try to stop other people from eating insects right? Why would you stop someone from sleeping with your wife? Your morality is just a “label” after all.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          If someone does sleep with your wife, what cause for anger do you have?

          I must not understand your question because it seems naïve. Why do you suppose someone would be angry at this? This is the flawed concept of moral relativism.

          You dislike the idea of someone sleeping with your wife, he’s fine with it.

          And, in my mind, guess who wins the argument–his view or mine?

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          And, in my mind, guess who wins the argument–his view or mine?

          There is no “argument”. There is no argument between a person who’s computer, when starting MS-DOS goes to the D: drive, and one who goes to the C: drive. Or between someone who likes strawberry, and someone who likes blueberry icecream. Or the fact that in England people drive on one side of the road, and in America its another. Nobody thinks that its morally wrong for the English to drive on the left, or to start up on the D: drive, or to eat blueberry ice cream.

          Yet you think there’s an actual argument between someone who thinks its ok to sleep with your wife, and you, who thinks its not. That in that situation one of you is “right” and one of you is “wrong”, even though as you’ve implied before.. if you think its wrong for someone to sleep with your wife.. well its just wrong “to you”, or “in your perspective”. Just as a certain flavor of ice cream may taste bad “to you” and “in your perspective”.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          if you think its wrong for someone to sleep with your wife.. well its just wrong “to you”, or “in your perspective”. Just as a certain flavor of ice cream may taste bad “to you” and “in your perspective”.

          Some things are in the moral category and other things (ice cream preference, for example) are not.

          From an absolute standpoint, I’ll agree that “that is wrong” and “strawberry is the best ice cream” are no different. But that’s not the standpoint we’re talking about.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          Some things are in the moral category and other things (ice cream preference, for example) are not.

          Great! How do you tell which one is which?

          You have certain feelings about ice cream preferences. You have certain feelings about someone sleeping with your wife. You say one is morality, and one is not. What is your criteria for telling the difference?

          From an absolute standpoint, I’ll agree that “that is wrong” and “strawberry is the best ice cream” are no different. But that’s not the standpoint we’re talking about.

          What standpoint are we talking about then? Yours? Your standpoint is meaningless. Just as my own personal feelings are meaningless in a moral argument.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          What is your criteria for telling the difference?

          One is in the yummy category and the other is in the how-we-treat-other-people category.

          Obviously. So why ask the question?

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          One is in the yummy category and the other is in the how-we-treat-other-people category.

          Why is one in one category, and one in another? They are both nothing but feelings about things or actions. Why put one in simply a “feeling” category and one in a “morality” category?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          If it’s hard for you to see the difference, I don’t know how else I can explain it. Sorry.

        • TheRealRandomFunction

          If it’s hard for you to see the difference, I don’t know how else I can explain it. Sorry.

          I can see that there is a difference. Obviously you can too. Given your idea of what morality is however, there really is no difference between them.

          So how can you explain how we both see a difference between them, when in fact there is none? You have never once answered this question. It might be nice if you did.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Given your idea of what morality is however, there really is no difference between them.

          No, morality is in the “Morality” category and ice cream is in the “Tasty Snacks” category. Clearly different things that belong in different categories.

  • Orbital Teapot

    To all,

    In all these posts, Bob S has shown his inability to distinguish between fact and value (which is a prerequiste to start any talk about ethics). He reduces right and wrong to instincts and pieces of behavior rather than recognizing them for what they are: transcendent values. He asks for evidence for the objectivity of values, but none exists in the way he would expect. We don’t find a value in the same way we find a new particle or a new species of worm. We posit the objectivity of values because it’s the best way to make sense of our moral intuitions, of our moral language and of our moral practices.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      He reduces right and wrong to instincts and pieces of behavior rather than recognizing them for what they are: transcendent values.

      That’s it? That’s your evidence that transcendental/objective/supernaturally grounded moral truths exist? You just assert it?

      I’m afraid that doesn’t work for me. We probably agree that some moral questions seem so deeply profound that we might easily imagine that they’re transcendent (that is, coming from somewhere outside us). But, as I’ve said, that they’re simply universally shared instincts explains this just as well. And is a lot more plausible.

      We posit the objectivity of values because it’s the best way to make sense of our moral intuitions, of our moral language and of our moral practices.

      I disagree. That we have a shared (because we’re all the same species) moral instinct (similar to the instinct we see in other primates) explains what we see and has the benefit of not requiring that we posit anything supernatural.

      • TheRealRandomFunction

        That’s it? That’s your evidence that transcendental/objective/supernaturally grounded moral truths exist? You just assert it?

        Is that what Teapot said? Or did he say this:

        We posit the objectivity of values because it’s the best way to make sense of our moral intuitions, of our moral language and of our moral practices.

        That’s a lot different from “we just assert it”.

        Not only do you seem to be unable to understand the difference between facts, feelings and values, you don’t seem to be able to understand the English language.

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