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A Flawed Analogy to Morality

Leah Libresco has responded to my recent post on objective morality. I’ll pull out some of her comments that need responses.

What I don’t understand is why Bob sees his conscience as worth listening to.

Leah imagines that I have a choice. My mind is programmed to give much weight to the moral evaluation that comes from the conscience. It’s not the only input—for example, I might not aid that old person who dropped a package if I’m carrying something fragile or important myself and can’t risk dropping it—but it’s a major input.

Leah goes on to wonder about mechanical brain implants or drugs that would override or mimic the conscience. Sure, that’s increasingly possible.

Here’s the parallel that comes to mind for me. Suppose I’m communicating with Leah using public key cryptography. I get a message from Leah that’s encoded with her secret key. What else can I do but assume that it’s really from her? Once I hear of a security breach (maybe some hacker is out there, mimicking other people), I will no longer trust signed messages like this. But until then, I have no choice but believe that it’s from Leah.

This brain-implant thought experiment would work the same way. “What’s that? My conscience says that I ought to hit that cute little baby? All righty!” If it looks and quacks like a conscience, I’ll assume that it’s a conscience. As you can imagine, I can’t see any way to verify what my conscience says against an external, objectively true answer. (But of course this comparison would be ridiculous. If I had access to an infallible source, I’d use that and not bother with my imperfect conscience.)

Maybe my view of how the mind works is more machine-like or more rigid than Leah’s. Am I missing how the brain is configured?

Leah imagines another experiment.

“Hey, Bob,” I say. ”I’ve got a pretty nifty computer program here. It can give you advice about what to do when you’re not sure about a moral problem. In long-duration clinical trials conducted here in the present, people who did what the black box told them whenever they asked it a question were more likely to have children than people who ignored the black box’s advice, people who weren’t given a copy of my black box, and people who were just given a magic eight ball hidden in a black box. (I had a devil of a time getting an IRB to approve all those control groups, but I wanted to be thorough). Would you like a black box of your own?

I’m not sure why Bob should turn me down

Meh. Having more children doesn’t have much appeal. My DNA may have more interest in your offer, but I don’t care what it thinks. What shapes DNA and what motivates the mind are different things.

The box I’m offering him is optimized according to pretty similar criteria as the conscience he trusts because it was shaped by evolution.

My conscience has my mind on a pretty short leash—it’s just how the brain is wired. My mind listens to my conscience but doesn’t worry much about the origin of things. Improving fertility has little appeal.

Leah responds to one of my points by referencing some of the words I used.

“Rise above” presupposes some dimension of height. “Hone” implies some form that we’re getting closer to by paring away extraneous material. If you have a sense that more is possible, then you must have some expectation that an external standard exists, and that you have some kind of access to it (even if it’s as limited as our access to physical laws, which we have to painstakingly deduce).

Hmm—am I appealing to an external standard? Let’s think about this.

Morality obviously changes—slavery was moral (that is, acceptance was widespread) and now it’s not, legal alcohol was immoral and now it’s not, and so on. But Leah asks if I see not change but improvement. Sure, morality changes, but can we claim that it’s improving?

Society always sees the change as improvement—otherwise, why would it make the change?—but by what standard do we claim it’s an improvement? We look back with mild horror at what passed for acceptable morality in society in the past, but why think that what we see today is more than simply change?

Here’s another parallel. We’ve all seen jiggle puzzles (also called dexterity puzzles) like the one in the photo above. It’s a handheld box with a picture and a few small ball bearings. The picture has tiny wells that can each hold one ball bearing, and the goal is to carefully move the box to put certain ball bearings (they sometimes have different colors) into the correct wells.

Consider a popular model of morality that parallels a jiggle puzzle. Once we’ve correctly figured out a moral issue (say: concluding that slavery is wrong), we’ve placed that ball bearing in the correct well. That problem is resolved once and for all, the ball bearing isn’t going anywhere, and we can move on to worry about placing those other ball bearings.

But why imagine that this is a valid analogy? Why imagine that we were objectively wrong on slavery before and we’re right about it now? Sure, we think we’ve got it figured out … but different societies in centuries past thought that they had it figured out too, but they came to very different conclusions. “Morality” is a moving target.

My ongoing challenge to those who imagine objective morality: resolve an as-yet-unresolved moral conundrum (abortion, stem cell research, etc.). They can’t do it, and yet they hold on to their claim. One of us is missing something. Am I phrasing the challenge correctly?

The definition we’re using for objective morality is “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.” If these values exist and are reliably accessibly to almost all adults, we should all be singing from the same songbook. Since we aren’t, I think the problem is that we’re not using the same definition of “objective.”

Any thoughts?

The true measure of a man
is how he treats someone
who can do him absolutely no good.
— Samuel Johnson

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Richard S. Russell

    My main thot is that you guys are wasting your time.

    Moral standards are opinions, not facts. There’s no way you can conduct experiments to find out what opinions the real world holds, because the real world doesn’t HAVE opinions. Therefore, there is no “morality test” equivalent to, say, “How fast does this rock accelerate when I drop it?”, which permits ANYBODY to arrive at the correct conclusion about that particular law of nature.
     
    You are as likely to find “objective moral standards” as the world’s 5000 separate religions are to find consensus, because it’s all opinion!

    • machintelligence

      I beg to differ. Using an ethical test called the trolley problem,
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem
      ethical standards do seem to exist both within and across cultures.

      The trolley problem was first imported into cognitive science from philosophy in a systematic way by John Mikhail,[9] who began testing trolley problems on different groups of people, including children and people from non-Western cultures, when he was a visiting graduate student in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Mikhail hypothesized that factors such as gender, age, education level, and cultural background would have little influence on the judgments people make, in part because those judgments are generated by an unconscious “moral grammar” that is analogous in some respects to the unconscious linguistic grammars that support ordinary language use.[10] Preliminary results pointed in that direction, and Mikhail’s initial findings have been confirmed and expanded to more than 200,000 individuals from over 100 countries.[11]

      • jose

        So humans have that in common. That’s a piece of information about humans, not about an external standard of objective morality. The thing is you don’t need that external standard to explain why humans respond in the way described by those tests.

  • Curt Cameron

    That’s my take on this too, Russell. Morality is, pretty much by definition, one’s opinion on the proper course of action. And how can an opinion be absolute? That doesn’t even make sense. Even if every person on the planet has the same opinion on an issue, it’s still not absolute in any sense.

    Even if there is a God, morality can’t be absolute. His opinion is just his opinion – I have mine, you have yours, and he has his. Just because this God character can torture someone forever doesn’t make his opinion “absolute.”

    I just don’t get what’s so hard to grasp about this for so many people.

  • DrewL

    Bob as a subjectivist:

    Society always sees the change as improvement—otherwise, why would it make the change?—but by what standard do we claim it’s and improvement? We look back with mild horror at what passed for acceptable morality in society in the past, but why think that what we see today is more than simply change?

    Bob as a gay marriage rights activist:
    Christians were a positive force for social change.

    In fact, marriage was most recently redefined in the United States less than 50 years ago when laws against mixed-race marriage were overturned. Perhaps society has matured so that we can expand it again to include all consenting adults.

    Open-hearted Christians have a chance to reclaim that revolutionary spirit that guided them a century ago.

    The time has come for marriage equality in Washington. The time has come to approve R-74.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2012/10/christianity-supports-same-sex-marriage/

    The second Bob really needs to listen to what the first Bob is saying.

    • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

      I think Bob should be just as troubled about this as I am about the fact that (1) when I’m trying to be scientifically correct I say that terms like “north” and “down” are meaningful only in the vicinity of the earth’s surface and that it’s better to consider the earth as going round the sun than vice versa, but (2) in ordinary usage I’m happy to say “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west” even though that’s nonsense according to the principles set out in (1).

      • Typhoeus

        If I am correct in my analysis of your comment, that was an excellent, concise, and humorous way to refute DrewL’s comment. Kudos.

  • David

    I would say that morality is not a moving target but a thing which is slowly revealed over time. There’s no contradiction in thinking that human beings start out with the realization that murder is bad, and then move on to the badness of slavery, and then eventually to the badness of abortion. Its not that morality is moving but that we’re slowly moving towards a better understanding of it.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      David: so morality is objective, grounded outside humans? Show us. Show us why the naturalistic explanation for morality is insufficient.

      Your sketch above is possible, but it looks like nothing more than wishful thinking.

      • David

        I’d say that the naturalistic explanation takes a huge leap of faith. For example, it takes a huge leap of faith to arrive at self awareness, judgment, and choice from electro-chemical phenomena in the brain. Chemistry is deterministic–you control the variables and you always get the same outcome. Consciousness and conscience are non-deterministic: given a particular crisis, you could go one way or you could go another; you’d have to think things through before you decide. Its not that there isn’t a fundamental correspondence between firing synapses and consciousness activity, but to say that we’ve sufficiently unpacked and labeled consciousness in naturalistic terms is simply not true. Likewise, with morality, the naturalistic explanation is insufficient. There’s more I’d like to say, but I’ll have to check in later….

        • keddaw

          “Consciousness and conscience are non-deterministic: given a particular crisis, you could go one way or you could go another; you’d have to think things through before you decide.”
          Thinking things through IS an electro-chemical process…

          to say that we’ve sufficiently unpacked and labeled consciousness in naturalistic terms is simply not true”
          Consciousness of the gaps much?

        • David

          Since its unexplained, its a gap for both of us. I’m perfectly free to explain the mystery with a non-materialistic explanation.

        • David

          “Thinking things through IS an electro-chemical process…”

          All you can prove is a correspondence between thinking and synapses firing. You could say with almost complete certainty that one has to do with the other, but you can’t prove that their identical. Our experience of life suggests that humans make decisions while chemicals react–between those two things is a chasm which materialists can’t explain. All they have is confidence that they will explain it one day. That’s what I’d call a “science of the gaps.”

        • Kodie

          It’s not so much an explanation as a satisfactory place-holder for you. Since you don’t actually know, you can be led astray by assuming it’s a real explanation instead of an illusion of one. You didn’t look behind the curtain to see what it is and you don’t even care – but you’re still saying what it is. This has led you to make the false assumption that there is no sufficient naturalistic explanation, already, without having that information available to you. You’re not free to pull explanations out of your butt and act like you know more than someone who admits they don’t know or that we all don’t know yet. This is a big problem I encounter among religious people – for some reason you think we’re at the pinnacle because you’re alive right now. No new information is forthcoming, we’re already where we were going. Because you haven’t been shown exactly where in the brain morality may come from, or even if such a thing is impossible to determine by scientists, you are shutting the case for yourself with a tidy non-material solution and you no longer have to worry about the unsatisfying feeling of not knowing. It’s in the total ignorance of human history of science and innovation, most of which benefits you. That’s not too many steps from believing people can be possessed by literal demons and cured by rituals and chanting. You might appreciate things like antibiotics and modern prostheses, etc., because being satisfied with an explanation isn’t the same as having one and it benefits you at least that someone else is still interested in finding it.

        • David

          Then, can I assume, that you know how electro-chemistry decided your breakfast for you this morning? Am I truly the only one in the dark about such things?

        • David

          But one other thing, why must I be the one who is smug and ignorant? What makes me the bad guy just because I don’t believe that science explains everything? Isn’t there room for me in the discussion too?

        • Kodie

          Only if you’re not rejecting a scientific reasons unknown based on the illusion that you know something else. Have you ever heard the expression “I’m only human”? It’s not because there are certain things man was never meant to know, it’s not because there is someone “out there” who does know all that we’re trying to discover, and it’s not because we’re never going to know so we ought not even try. You know what’s great about being a human is that some people are going to the trouble to find out so they can tell you, and there are limits and even the limits can be pushed, but there’s no book or fruit of all knowledge where we find out everything all at once. It’s not all up to you personally, it’s a collaborative effort, and you can be part of that effort or part of the support crew (i.e. have a non-science function in life), or cancel out that effort by denying it will ever happen and teaching everyone you know your fake answers (i.e. more of an anti-science function in life). The questions you want answers to and don’t have yet may frustrate you, but there are two ways to handle that – find out or pretend it doesn’t matter. If you’re not equipped to find out, you can at least wait patiently while humans are at work.

        • David

          I certainly don’t believe that I or anyone else knows everything. But why must science be the only basis for knowledge? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that there are other paths to knowledge?

        • Kodie

          Not about how the brain actually works.

        • David

          How the brain works is one thing, but surely you don’t reduce who you are to your brain. I don’t.

        • machintelligence

          If your brain isn’t who you are, how does that part communicate with the brain? You will find few dualists around here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqZa_3sqGKE

        • David

          You’re brain is part of who you are. But its just a part.

      • David

        Bob: (to continue), but I don’t know that it is helpful to consider morality as grounded outside of humans. It could be that morality is found only within the makeup of conscious beings (humans, God, angels, etc.); it is grounded within them and not outside them. Even then, it could still be considered objective just as we consider genes to be objective–they exist as objects in reality even though you can’t distinguish them from the actual organisms which possess them.

        • avalon

          Hi David,
          David:
          “It could be that morality is found only within the makeup of conscious beings (humans, God, angels, etc.); it is grounded within them and not outside them. Even then, it could still be considered objective…”
          avalon:
          This isn’t how theists define “objective”.

          David:
          “Its not that there isn’t a fundamental correspondence between firing synapses and consciousness activity,…
          All you can prove is a correspondence between thinking and synapses firing. You could say with almost complete certainty that one has to do with the other, but you can’t prove that their identical. Our experience of life suggests that humans make decisions while chemicals react…”
          avalon:
          When you say, “correspondence” do you mean they happen at the same time? Are you aware that the synapses firing and chemical reactions occur well before conscious awareness?

          avalon

        • David

          “This isn’t how theists define ‘objective’.”

          However, my idea comes from my reading of Thomas Aquinas.

          “When you say, ‘correspondence’ do you mean they happen at the same time?”

          Not necessarily a problem. I don’t make a full separation between body and consciousness. I just don’t think that studying the body can reveal the full picture. It can’t even reveal what’s most important.

        • David

          avalon,

          I want to completely modify what I said in response to your comment about synapses firing before conscious awareness. I also want to rely on that which I’ve picked up from Feser’s book _Aquinas_. There’s no particular problem in believing that the brain is the organ by which we have awareness. But the soul, according to Aquinas, is the organizing principle of the body–the “code” by which we develop a brain in the first place. The soul is immaterial. And so, even if my awareness is completely dependent upon material processes, the material processes are, themselves, dependent upon an organizing principle which is, itself, immaterial. This allows me to have concepts of things which transcend matter. It also allows humans to have a powerful intellectual grasp of material things which would be impossible if they were simply physical beings; physical objects blindly subject to the laws of physics.

        • David

          I should add that the soul is not to be confused with DNA which are like physical building blocks of a non-physical blueprint.

        • David

          (00ps) …physical building blocks used to construct a building on the basis of a non-physical blueprint.

        • David

          oops, I meant genes, not DNA. I need to take a nap.

        • avalon

          Hi David,
          David says:
          “But the soul, according to Aquinas, is the organizing principle of the body–the “code” by which we develop a brain in the first place.”
          avalon:
          I would ask about DNA but you addressed that in your next comments.

          David says:
          “I should add that the soul is not to be confused with DNA which are like physical building blocks of a non-physical blueprint.

          (00ps) …physical building blocks used to construct a building on the basis of a non-physical blueprint.”
          avalon:
          So, you don’t believe you inherited your genes from your parents? Instead, there was a blueprint that put your genes together?
          In school I learned about heredity and the possible combinations of genes that could be passed on to one’s offspring. You’re telling me that was all wrong? Our genes could be in any combination due to some invisible blueprint? That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard! Shouldn’t you inform the scientific community so we can correct all those inaccuracies in the text books?

          avalon

        • David

          I’m not saying you don’t inherit your genes. I’m saying that your genes, along with everything else about you, operate according to an intelligible and vital principle. The soul.

        • Deven Kale

          I’m saying that your genes, along with everything else about you, operate according to an intelligible and vital principle. The soul.

          Determining if you’re correct in that our soul is in fact the model for our genes, this would require one of two things be true: That our genes be wholly different from our parents, or that our souls are in fact traits which we inherit from our parents.

          Science has proven that our genes actually do come from our parents. In fact, our genes are so predictably similar to our parents that someone’s parentage can be determined to something like 99.99% accuracy through them. This quite readily refutes option 1.

          I was taught, as a child, that we were all children of “God,” and that our parents here on Earth were merely accidental. Our souls recognized only “God” as our father, and our parents were simply teachers and caretakers for us until the day when we were to take care of ourselves and become teachers for more children of “God.” This means that our souls have nothing to do with who our parents are, and therefore refutes option 2.

          I think this rather clearly shows the impossibility of your assertion that our souls are the blueprints for our physical bodies. In fact, I would have to say that our souls, by necessity, have to be wholly independent of our physical nature. For them to be otherwise would negate many teachings of many churches. Far more than just the one example that I mentioned.

        • David

          Deven:

          I agree with some of what you say. God created the soul and your body, for all practical purposes, is inherited. But there’s no reason that the soul can’t work with preexisting material. If the soul were a sculptor and the body were a statue, the statue would be made of a material which the artist did not create and would hold certain properties which the artist cannot change (marble is different from clay which is different from bronze, etc). Nonetheless, the artist takes full credit for the statue, even though he/she did not create the entire thing from scratch.

        • Deven Kale

          David:

          If the soul were a sculptor and the body were a statue, the statue would be made of a material which the artist did not create and would hold certain properties which the artist cannot change. Nonetheless, the artist takes full credit for the statue, even though he/she did not create the entire thing from scratch.

          Perhaps, but it’s looking more and more like our genes shape more than just out bodies, but also our minds. Genetic factors are being shown to indicate a predisposition to all different types of behavior. The focus has been on “social contract” type behavior such as empathy, bigotry, and the like but the fact is that science is slowly chipping away at any need for an explanation of our behavior beyond chemistry.
          To use your own analogy, it’s starting to seem more like the sculpture self-assembles, and there is no need for a sculptor at all. I believe this goes to show that my original refutation of your claim that the soul shapes the body still stands, and you have yet to supply any valid arguments or evidence in favor of it.

        • Kodie

          Just makes me wonder why no Christian is nitpicking your claims for evidence that you don’t supply they way they get all super-nitpicky when they think an atheist has breeched a logical fallacy or contradicted themselves – I mean that we’re not always communicating perfectly and we love to have our flaws pointed out to us so we can regroup and refine what we’d said earlier, but it’s like, no pleasing some people. They live to find these errors and say nothing of substance. I do agree we should find the right answer but they tend to be so selective, hmmmm.

          Anyway, this soul, is it supposed to be material or immaterial? More material than actual material? How does it cross over and how does it cooperate with the material parts. How does a squirrel function without a soul? How much do you really know about how the brain works that you can dismiss how it makes up a person without a soul? Do some people not have souls, like identical multiple births or people who bargain with the devil? I don’t know how this works, so teach me step by step how you reached your conclusion, because – and I’m not trying to insult you – it just sounds really weak. You feel free to assume it’s true, but I have no reason so far to be convinced that you know what you’re talking about.

        • David

          Saying that a person has a soul is a lot like making the simple claim that a person is alive. If you are alive, then you have a soul. Even a genetic clone would have a soul. A soul is also the intelligible aspect to a person’s being–you could not understand yourself or be understood by someone else if you did not have a soul. If it were possible for a human to exist without a soul, he/she would be like a book with no words on the pages. Animals have souls too because 1) they are alive and 2) they are capable of being studied and understood; but there are some differences between the souls of humans and other living things.

          The interaction between the soul and the body is a subject on which different types of Christians differ. But I believe that, from the moment of conception, the human soul is that which gives life and movement to every aspect of the body down to the cellular level. The body decomposes when the soul leaves it. Souls are immaterial. In the case of animals, the soul and body cease to exist at the same moment. In the case of humans, the body can cease to exist while the soul lives on.

          To show you why I believe this is a tall order. But I’ll give you two reasons.

          First, I believe that there is more to life than matter. Matter can be studied but it doesn’t explain itself–it doesn’t explain why it exists in the first place. To me, it is convincing to assume that there is something at work, something non-material, which sustains the existence of all material things. And so, I believe in spiritual reality. Therefore, the idea of a soul (among other spiritual realities) is not far-fetched to me.

          Second, the idea of a soul corresponds to the way that I perceive myself. I believe about myself what I believe about the soul. 1) I’m alive, 2) I’m capable of being understood, and 3) I truly believe that I will survive the death of my body. Hope this helps!

        • David

          Deven:

          I certainly wouldn’t expect physical nature to operate in an inconsistent fashion. If everything works together in the physical body, down to the cellular level, and if it can all be mapped out in accordance with our psychological states, I say fine. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an immaterial infrastructure which scientific instruments cannot measure. If measuring physical data has the last word on the subject, then I lose. Oh well.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          David:

          This discussion of the soul explains your theology, but there is no reason to accept this as fact.

    • Kodie

      Everything is “revealed” over time by humans doing what humans do. Or are you writing your comments on a tablet with a chisel? No reason to set morality apart from the march of progress as we humans constantly improve everything for our benefit. Certain religious people tend to like to stick to a few firm old-fashioned ways that no longer fit – like rigid gender roles and not taking advantage of birth control, while controlling what marriage has evolved to mean for people not stuck in the past, or that we’re sexual beings in adolescence whether anyone tells us that birth control exists or not? Childhood has been extended, but the hormones don’t wait. When is that going to reveal itself? Clue: it has and they’re not looking at it. This morality that supposedly writes on the hearts of men informs people that their rigid ways are “right” and that humans all around them are defying it. Who got rid of slavery then, and still had a problem with civil rights of fellow humans going on another century after?

      This “slowly” reveals itself nonsense is just an excuse – doesn’t god want to reveal it within one person’s lifetime so they “get it”? Or does it have to take thousands of years and the normal pace of humanity figuring this stuff out one person at a time, pushing their own cultural boundaries a wee smidge while everyone holds it back? Could you imagine that all your preconceived notions about what’s been revealed so far will be erased when you get to heaven? Could you, say, when you get there, see the future unfurled before you and the “true” morality is not going disgust you? I am imagining a slave-owner gets to heaven (or maybe all of them went to hell, because, you know, immoral?) and sees civil rights and equality in agreement with what god had later revealed and doesn’t get sick to his stomach.

      I think this objective morality slowly revealing itself over thousands of years to be another excuse for the poor stewardship of your god and in complete ignorance of how humans solve problems – all problems – if there were a better way to do this, like a god, he might try to work out revealing it faster than humans could just think things through on their own.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Kodie:

        This “slowly” reveals itself nonsense is just an excuse – doesn’t god want to reveal it within one person’s lifetime so they “get it”? Or does it have to take thousands of years and the normal pace of humanity figuring this stuff out one person at a time, pushing their own cultural boundaries a wee smidge while everyone holds it back?

        Agreed. Moses came down from Sinai with the 10 Commandments, and there was no grace period. God didn’t just give warning notices for the first 10 generations until people understood that murder was bad (say).

    • Alan

      But the evolution of morality isn’t a linear progression. There are aspects and concepts that go back and forth over time within and across societies (alcohol consumption is a good example).

  • Paul King

    If society’s morals have changed to match our personal views of morality then certainly we can say it has “improved” in the same way that we make any moral judgement. There’s no need for an external standard unless we want to make a claim of objective improvement.

    Morality is an intersubjective phenomenon and the values underlying it, like fairness and empathy – and supporting “us” (but not “them”) are pretty much universal. Slavery on the American model required seeing the blacks as “them”, or rationalising that it was for their benefit (the former is clearly witnessed in the continuing problem of racism and segregation that followed the ending of slavery). Once you accept that the blacks are “us” the abuses of slavery become obviously wrong. The case for gay marriage likewise stands on the basic value of fairness – and on the strong emphasis of expecting the law to be fair – a value very strong in U.S. society, and one that underlay the Declaration of Independence.

    Once we understand that morality is intersubjective, and we understand the basic values that underly it we can have sensible arguments about morality without appealing to objective moral truths that somehow come from outside

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Slavery on the American model required seeing the blacks as “them”, or rationalising that it was for their benefit (the former is clearly witnessed in the continuing problem of racism and segregation that followed the ending of slavery).

      Slavery “may actually have been a blessing in disguise” because black folks were (eventually) “rewarded with citizenship in the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth.”

      Source: Arkansas State Rep. Jon Hubbard.
      http://now.msn.com/jon-hubbard-calls-slavery-a-blessing-in-disguise-for-blacks/

  • avalon

    Hi Bob,
    Bob said:
    “My mind is programmed to give much weight to the moral evaluation that comes from the conscience. ”
    avalon:
    What you’re missing is that Leah agrees with you. BUT, she sees a different source: (Leah) “To the broader question, there’s no reason for Christians to expect atheists not to be good, since they don’t believe they are without God. Everyone has access, through God’s grace, to the natural law written on the hearts of man.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2012/10/bob-can-i-interest-you-in-transhumanism.html#comment-57296)
    That is, your conscience comes from God, not evolution. For the theist, mind and conscience are not brain-dependent, they’re God-dependent.

    Bob:
    “Here’s the parallel that comes to mind for me. Suppose I’m communicating with Leah using public key cryptography. I get a message from Leah that’s encoded with her secret key. What else can I do but assume that it’s really from her?”
    avalon:
    Leah feels the same way about moral intuitions. She gets a moral intuition encoded with a secret key. What else can she do but assume that it’s really from God?
    Bob:
    “Maybe my view of how the mind works is more machine-like or more rigid than Leah’s. Am I missing how the brain is configured?”
    avalon:
    What you’re missing is how theists think the brain is configured. For them, the brain is a receiver for the immaterial mind, the ‘seat of the soul’ and conscience is God’s voice in the soul.
    You and Leah continue to talk past each other because you two don’t agree on basic definitions of things like: “mind”, “conscience”, “brain”, and “consciousness”.

    avalon

    • Bob Seidensticker

      avalon:

      What you’re missing is how theists think the brain is configured. For them, the brain is a receiver for the immaterial mind, the ‘seat of the soul’ and conscience is God’s voice in the soul.

      OK, I see that, but what’s the reason (besides wishful thinking) for them to think that?

      • avalon

        Bob:
        “OK, I see that, but what’s the reason (besides wishful thinking) for them to think that?”
        avalon:
        Intuition. They intuit that their moral intuitions are from God. It’s circular thinking, I know…but that’s the reasoning. But they’re not that different from you or I. We know our moral intuitions are a result of random evolution, but we’re compelled to follow them anyway.

        avalon

  • avalon

    Bob,
    Here’s a suggestion for you: if you want to have a serious discussion with theists, why not assume their POV and discuss the logic of what THEY think?
    Let’s assume our moral intuitions really are messages from God received by our brains. This raises some questions:
    1) If moral intuitions come from God and are objectively true, then why aren’t other intuitions also objectively true? Why isn’t your intuition about the best flavor of ice cream objectively true? What makes moral intuitions different from ice cream intuitions?
    2) How does one recognize the source of an intuition? If some intuitions (like morals) come from outside our brains and others (like best ice cream flavor) come from within our own brain, how does one tell the difference?
    3) Is the brain simply programmed by God for moral intuitions or are those intuitions like messages received from God? If the latter, what is the means of transmission? Could it be blocked somehow? If the former, isn’t that what evolution did?
    4) Theists reject evolutionary psychology as a soft science incapable of objectively proving an evolutionary reason for brain-based morals. They use philosophy to argue for the objectivity of morals. But, is philosophy a hard science? If not, what objective science can they use to prove the objectivity of morals?

    avalon

    • ZenDruid

      I’m obviously not Bob, but I’ll play along.

      1) Intuitions are hunches. The capacity for intuition evolved to help people avoid danger. It is based on a cursory minimum of sensory input, and involves the imagination and the fear-response reflex. There may not be a hidden tiger moving the tall grass, but running from an imagined tiger is far less costly than ignoring a single sign of potential danger where the tiger waits. There is no implicit morality in intuitions; the morality emerges in the decisions made by the individual following the intuitive impulse.

      2) Intuitions originate in the primitive parts of the brain that we share with other mammals. In a nutshell, the limbic system is the locus of pleasure, pain, fear, lust, reflex and balance.

      3) No to both. What you have here is your cerebral cortex amusing itself with imaginative interpretations.

      4) Philosophy is not science, but it serves to integrate knowledge derived from science. Neuropsychology is growing very rapidly as a science. I understand for example, that researchers are training animals to accept fMRI testing to investigate live brain functioning. That and other lines of research are converging on the evolutionary explanation. Theists reject rational investigation of any type. No surprise there.

      Morality is correlated with personal behavior, in the sense of whether that behavior has positive or negative effects. Behavior, whether moral or immoral, is subjective. IMO, ‘objective’ is just a sneaky way of saying ‘authoritarian’.

  • keddaw

    Bob, you miss out a key component of your vision of morality – the intellect. If it was only evolution and society then society’s morality would become so deeply ingrained in a self reinforced cycle that it would never change – as it happens there are visionaries who, despite similar evolution and society, can see issues with what society is doing (in their opinion) and argue people round, starting movements that ultimately decide we shouldn’t imprison gay people, or treat people differently on the basis of their race… This is a key piece missing from your view.

    • Kodie

      Just like we still write letters that are carried on ponies and go outside to poop in a shed around a hole in the ground.

      • keddaw

        Because intellect isn’t involved in technological progress?

        Sorry, not getting your point.

        • Kodie

          I have no idea what you’re criticizing Bob about or arguing for.

        • keddaw

          Bob says evolutions and society are all that go into one’s personal morality, but that would not be enough to make progress as society would encompass the evolutionary feelings as well as some stable rules for society and ‘progress’ would then cease. We need to add in individual reasoning (which can over-ride evolutionary instincts AND societal norms) in order to explain why people step outside of contemporary society and are able to convince others that what society has decided is, in fact, ‘wrong’.

          Wrong in this case being based on how whatever it is that is ‘wrong’ negatively impacts some value/preference/outcome that many people care about enough to try to overthrow the norm which they previously went along with.

        • Kodie

          I thought intellect was part of the evolutionary aspect. We don’t get stuck in a rut because we’re always thinking things up, over, and through. Not all of us at the same time, some need to be told or sold on the ideas that are strange to them, and not everyone is intellectually ready to move forward. I don’t know what you think evolution refers to.

        • keddaw

          Logical, rational reasoning is not a skill evolution gave us in our evolutionary kit bag. It is a learned skill, one we have a great aptitude for, but not one that is automatic, or even used particularly often by those who have learned how to…

        • Kodie

          Are you sure?

        • keddaw

          As sure as I am about all the other stuff I make up…

          If we go back to our ancestors it is fairly evident that evolution gave us an incredibly limited skillset. They were scared by fire but at some point one tamed it* – or found it tamed – and was able to use that to overcome fear and convince the rest of his group to overcome it too. From that fire was able to be used for lots of things, from cooking, to hardening wood for arrows, to smelting metal. Some accidentally discovered (smelting) some reasoned (torches).

          * Yeah, yeah, evolutionary just-so story, but it is to make a general point not say what actually happened.

        • Kodie

          I would say that logic and reason are not perfectly used, i.e. not everyone perfectly deduces every answer like a computer, but everyone uses the skill of it because that’s what makes us. If I show you a shortcut you could take here, and you never thought of it yourself, the only way you’re going to understand what I’m telling you is because you have the capacity of reason, one that wasn’t taught to you. You can measure the length of the path and change your routine, or you could say the way you go has a coffee shop that’s an advantage to you because you like to stop there. I used to work with a woman who refused to take a shortcut to our job from where she lived because it frightened her to go a different way or she might get lost. Being frightened is a reason, it’s not a great reason. She had her reasons for not being optimal about the route, and what the hell, I’m not carpooling with her, so I don’t care. I can’t even think of an example where there is no reason at all used. Eat the map? Yell at me for talking to you? Some people do that some times, but not all day in every situation.

        • Kodie

          (scenario): Heddaw responds.
          ——————–

          Yeah, you’re right, a baby would do that.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    My ongoing challenge to those who imagine objective morality: resolve an as-yet-unresolved moral conundrum (abortion, stem cell research, etc.). They can’t do it, and yet they hold on to their claim. One of us is missing something. Am I phrasing the challenge correctly?

    If you ever precisely define what a “moral conundrum” is and exactly what “resolved” means then you might have something. Both seem like fuzzy concepts in your mind. It seems that you assume that just because something cannot be known beyond controversy then it cannot exist.

    We will always have people rationalizing lying. Therefore we can’t really know it is wrong. Therefore we should just assume there is no moral principle around lying and truth-telling. It seems like you give a lot of power to the small minority who deny that lying is wrong. You are letting them completely destroy your pursuit of what is noble and good.

    • jose

      You respond to the lies by exposing the truth and calling people out, not by imagining a standard and claiming they’re making the standard cry.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Randy: I’m delighted to pursue what’s noble and good, but I use those words as defined in the dictionary, and “objective” isn’t there.

      If you think objective morality exists, tell me why my challenge is improperly worded. Or find some other way to justify your belief in it.

  • TheresaL

    Bob,
    Thanks for this thought-provoking series on morality. Could you clarify how you think differences in people’s opinions on morals arise from society? Society is made up of people, who were all subject to evolution directed by natural selection. What causes a society to change its moral viewpoint? Their evolutionary history doesn’t change.

    If I’m going to comment, I think it’s only fair to respond to your challenge, although I’m not certain I understand it correctly. Is the challenge for objective moralists to get everyone to agree on controversial issues? Regarding the two issues you brought up (abortion and stem cell research) I think almost everyone already agrees if you go one step back: it is wrong to kill an innocent human being. The controversy is over what qualifies as a human being, or figuring out when we need to apply that rule.
    It seems like you’re changing the question towards the end. Is morality objective? is where you started. Are the rules of objective morality known to everyone? is a separate question.

    • avalon

      Hi TheresaL
      TheresaL says:
      “Regarding the two issues you brought up (abortion and stem cell research) I think almost everyone already agrees if you go one step back: it is wrong to kill an innocent human being. The controversy is over what qualifies as a human being, or figuring out when we need to apply that rule.”
      avalon:
      That’s not the controversy at all. I agree everyone knows it’s wrong to harm other people. But everyone also knows it’s wrong to tell other people what to do with their own body. Not causing harm and bodily autonomy are both good things. The controversy is which is BETTER.
      If morals were objective (like math, for instance), then we’d have an objective number value for each good thing. For example, not causing harm may have a good value of 8 and bodily autonomy has a good value of 7. Abortion would be objectively wrong because 8 is greater than 7.
      The reason morals aren’t objective is 1) we each subjectively decide what number value to place on moral rights and wrongs, and 2) these values can change under different situations. How bad is a lie? Won’t it depend on the situation? And couldn’t it be good, suppose a lie saved millions of Jews from the Nazis?
      So, even though we agree on basic, individual things like not causing harm, being fair, protecting our groups, etc. we often find these things in conflict and must choose one good over another. How we choose depends on the subjective importance we place on each in any given situation.

      avalon

      • Bob Seidensticker

        avalon: Good critique. I agree that it is the interplay of these goods that makes the issue complicated.

        And I’m still puzzled why people continue to make claims for accessible objective moral truth. Why do they do that when admit that we disagree on moral issues?

        • DrewL

          And I’m still puzzled why people continue to make claims for accessible objective moral truth. Why do they do that when admit that we disagree on moral issues?

          Why do people write gay marriage op-eds that make claims for accessible objective moral truth? Especially when they admit we disagree on moral issues?

          The question still looms over this whole conversation.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I make no such claims.

        • DrewL

          I’m just amazed you don’t see the problem with claiming to be a subjectivist, but arguing EXACTLY as someone with objective moral beliefs would argue.

          The solution is simply to let consenting adults resolve these questions themselves.…
          It’s reprehensible to stand in the way of what love is here.
          The time has come for marriage equality in Washington. The time has come to approve R-74.

          Previously you justified this by saying that these strong statements clearly implied a preface of “It is my opinion that…” Yet in not providing the more subjectivist qualifiers, it seems you’re intentionally trying to deceive your reader into thinking you HAVE accessed objective truths about these issues: it’s clearly a letter written solely with the intent of moralizing and you are speaking in imperative statements. I certainly don’t see any notion of the proper response to gay marriage being a difficult-to-pin-down “moving target.”

          I don’t think Lewis is right on morality, and William Lane Craig is worse. But when you say you reject objective morality, you don’t get to pick it back up from the toolbox whenever it is convenient for you. As is, you’ve written an op-ed that incorporates a type of moral reasoning Lewis/Craig would have no problem with. Bob the armchair philosopher might not get along with Lewis/Craig, but Bob the social reformer for some reason can’t help but argue in a very Lewis/Craig-compatible way.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Drew:

          But when you say you reject objective morality, you don’t get to pick it back up from the toolbox whenever it is convenient for you.

          Next time the thought that I embrace objective morality pops to mind, remember that I don’t. I suggest a deep breath or lying down until the thought goes away. Try to understand the issue from my standpoint, as someone who rejects objective morality.

          If a question or observation remains, go for it, but perhaps this discipline will help avoid some of these frantic claims of hypocrisy.

        • DrewL

          Clearly I’m dealing with Bob the armchair philosopher here. I look forward to the next time Bob the social reformer drops by….

        • Kodie

          DrewL – Why don’t you offer your services to David?

        • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

          DrewL, is there anything Bob could say or do that would convince you that he really means what he says and isn’t a hypocrite and a liar on this issue (as you have repeatedly accused him of being, though never in quite those words)?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Theresa:

      What causes a society to change its moral viewpoint?

      Everyone’s a little different, and society is buffeted by outside forces. I simply imagine a chaotic system, where the cause of change is quite complicated.

      Is the challenge for objective moralists to get everyone to agree on controversial issues?

      Yes. That’s my interpretation of morality that’s (1) objective (everyone would agree if they were only given the facts) and (2) accessible (it’s not locked up inside God’s library, for example).

      The controversy is over what qualifies as a human being, or figuring out when we need to apply that rule.

      Yes, that is the challenge. And we still haggle over what the correct answer is.

      • TheresaL

        I think the answer to what qualifies as a human being is more a matter of biology than morality . But regardless, you’re focusing on the disagreements while not acknowledging the fact that there is mostly agreement: that it’s wrong to kill an innocent human being.
        I’m not convinced that the definition “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not” means that everyone knows how to correctly apply moral values in every circumstance. You can have objective, and for the most part accessible, morality without this requirement.

        • avalon

          Hi Theresa,
          TheresaL says:
          “But regardless, you’re focusing on the disagreements while not acknowledging the fact that there is mostly agreement: that it’s wrong to kill an innocent human being.”
          avalon:
          Do you believe it’s wrong for others to decide what you should do with your own body? Do you believe it’s wrong for others to decide important questions that impact your life?
          These are the questions which compete with the question you asked. It is simplistic to ignore them and pretend they don’t exist. You’ll never get anywhere trying to convince those who disagree with you if you just ignore their concerns.

          avalon

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Theresa:

          there is mostly agreement: that it’s wrong to kill an innocent human being.

          If “innocent human being” = fertilized human egg cell, then I’m afraid we disagree. I have no problem allowing the mother the choice to kill the cell.

          You can have objective, and for the most part accessible, morality without this requirement.

          “For the most part accessible”? Why not just drop the hocus pocus and have a natural explanation, which explains the facts as well as a supernatural one.

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