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Explanation for Objective Morality? Another Fail.

Let’s revisit the question of objective morality. We have another contestant who thinks he can convince us that objective morality exists.

But before we consider that, here’s Christian apologist Tim Keller to set the stage:

The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

“They ought not have done it”? How do you know?

This is the problem with how this topic is typically handled within Christian apologetics: a compelling example is thrown out like chum, and we’re supposed to infer ourselves into the apologist’s moral viewpoint. This is insufficient. Don’t make the remarkable claim of objective morality (Keller’s “moral standards exist, outside of us”) without evidence.

Enter our contestant …

Let’s give a warm welcome to J. Warner Wallace of Cold Case Christianity. He interviewed me on his podcast once, and we’ve had occasional email exchanges. He’s unfailingly polite and a good reminder to all of us that dialing back the anger makes one’s arguments more palatable.

In a recent post, Wallace first notes that the simple moral dictates that we find in the Ten Commandments (don’t kill, don’t lie, etc.) are insufficient because sometimes these actions are justified. How do we escape from this moral morass? He offers this rule:

When we simply insert the expression “for the fun of it” into our descriptions of these moral actions, we discover the objective moral foundation to these claims. [With this applied to killing and lying], we’ve just discovered two objective moral absolutes.

So we shouldn’t kill or lie just for fun.

I confess that I’m unimpressed. Do we now have a useful moral roadmap where we didn’t before? Does this rule illuminate issues that frustrate society like abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and capital punishment so that the correct path is now clear to all?

Nope. We’re no wiser than we were before. The point of this exercise is only to toss out yet another example that we can all agree to. Keller pointed out that exterminating Jews was bad, and Wallace points out that killing or lying without justification is bad. I’m sure we all agree with these claims, but this isn’t news.

And the correct answer is …

The problem, of course, is the remarkable claim of moral truth grounded outside humanity—“moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not” as William Lane Craig defines it. Why would you pick this explanation? A far more plausible explanation is morality as a combination of

  • a fixed part (moral programming that we all pretty much share since we’re the same species) and
  • a variable part (social mores).

This explains morality completely without an appeal to the supernatural.

Wallace next anticipates some reactions to his position.

If morality is not objective but shared, what do we do when two groups disagree?

Wallace first imagines Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

When a society defines an objective moral truth and the vast majority of its members agree, on what basis can a lone reformer make a call for change?

Obviously not through an appeal to a single objective moral truth. If such a truth were accessible to all of us, how could we be in disagreement? Or does Wallace imagine that objective moral truth is simply inaccessible? But if it’s inaccessible, why bring it up?

Wallace puzzles over how MLK could’ve caused change, but where’s the difficulty? History tells how it happened. America is not a simple democracy where the majority rules. We have a Bill of Rights that protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority. We have a free press. And we have a long history of (slowly) changing our minds on moral issues.

The majority opinion is that and nothing more. The moral claim “Jim Crow laws are wrong” is grounded only by everyone who agrees with the statement. It’s not objective moral truth.

Next, what about two societies that disagree? He gives as an example the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals, during which a prosecutor said, “There is a law above the law.” Okay, I get it—that sounds like an appeal to objective morality—but that appeal is no more supported by this guy than by Wallace himself.

Since morality changes, doesn’t this overturn the idea of objective morality?

Wallace gives an anecdote about four witnesses with conflicting descriptions of a purse snatcher. Does this disagreement mean that there was no purse snatcher? No, Wallace says, and similarly, disagreement about what objective moral truth is doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

Wow. I feel like I’ve walked through Alice’s looking glass. If we can’t agree on this objective moral truth, then what good is it? It’s useless. The “Big Book o’ Moral Truth” is locked up in God’s library, and we can’t access it.

Wallace might’ve given us slightly more than other apologists, but this is woefully insufficient to overturn the obvious natural explanation of morality.

Can God make a rock so heavy that hitting His head with it
would explain the change in personality He underwent
between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
— commenter GubbaBumpkin

Photo credit: Art Resource

About Bob Seidensticker
  • RichardSRussell

    “Explanation for Objective Morality? Another Fail.”

    It is objectively immoral to use fail as a noun, but what else would I expect from a heathen infidel like you?

  • John Gills

    re: four witnesses. Akira Kurosawa explored this question in his masterpiece “Rashomon” starring Toshiro Mifune.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I’ve heard of that classic but haven’t seen it. Still, purses and purse snatchers are things that we know about. That people argue about the thief’s hair or clothes isn’t especially surprising. To map that onto a discussion that includes supernatural grounding means that the analogy has been stretched beyond the breaking point.

      • MNb

        Worse: I have owned it for four years or so and still haven’t seen it! And Seven Samurai is one of my all time favourites.

  • Rain

    Even if he proves a god, he still has a long ways to go to prove objective morality. Both are impossible to prove, since what the heck is a god and how the heck do you prove objective morality. So I guess he might as well just keep on doing a lot of all talk and no beef and getting paid for it.

  • Greg G.

    Wallace gives an anecdote about four witnesses with conflicting descriptions of a purse snatcher. Does this disagreement mean that there was no purse snatcher? No, Wallace says, and similarly, disagreement about what objective moral truth is doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

    What if the witnesses don’t claim to be eyewitnesses, they probably weren’t born where the purse snatching happened, they aren’t from the country where it is said to have happened, one story seems to be a composite of fictional purse snatchings, two copy the first word for word in some places while contradicting it in others and embellishing it in others, and the fourth seems to do all of the above but only quotes from imperfect memory? Then can we doubt there was a purse snatcher?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      And the story comes from a language and culture that is not that of the original story milieu.

  • Rick

    So how do YOU explain any morality as it arose from naturalism and evolutionary processes?

    • Greg G.

      Consider a species that cares for its young. If there is a benefit to be gained by expanding the caring instincts to a wider group and the instincts are heritable, then that gene pool will expand.

      Dogs have a sense of fairness. They can be trained to do a task without getting a treat but if they see another dog getting a treat for the same task, they will stop doing the trick without getting a treat. Capuchin monkeys pay attention to the quality of the treat and will throw a lousy piece of cucumber away if another monkey gets a grape for doing it.

      We have an instinct for survival, we prefer pleasure to pain, and we prefer others treat us accordingly. Our own sense of fairness gives us the idea that we should treat others how we would like to be treated. The mutual benefits of this arrangement can be the difference between life and death when death is an ever present possibility.

      It’s really not so hard to figure things like this out when you realize godidit isn’t a valid answer.

      • Rick

        Which all proves the point—atheists can’t point to anything as objectively “wrong.” Yet we all have a sense of what it is. Christians point to that as a conscience that is part of our nature as God intended. You don’t. That isn’t a QED for either side. Differing perspectives that both can’t be correct.

        • RichardSRussell

          Nothing is “objectively wrong”, so of course we can’t point to any such thing. Right and wrong are 100% matters of opinion, not demonstrable fact. Only a religionist would think otherwise.

          There is ample non-woo-woo explanation for why “we all [!] have a sense of what it is”, and Bob provided that explanation above. Did you not read it?

        • Greg G.

          You asked for a sense of morality as it arose from naturalism and evolutionary processes. I did that. You’re shifting the goalposts.

          First define “objective” as it is used with morality. Then, how would we know what objective morality is? How does a god solve the problem? Having the god define morality is simply that god’s subjective morality. How do you know that God’s morality is better than Satan’s morality? You need a sense of morality to make the distinction, but if you think it comes from God, your argument is circular.

          If humans came from spiders instead of monkeys, it would be immoral for a mother to not eat the father of her children as he would be a threat to them. There are (or were) tribes in the mountains of New Guinea who considered it immoral to not kill a stranger in your territory because food was so scarce, the person was there to take food from your family or to plan an attack on you and yours. That would seem objectively moral to them and it would be easy to have a god that confirmed the idea.

          A universe with no sentient beings would have no morality, objective or not. A universe with one omnipotence couldn’t have one either as morality is an interactive thing. If there are multiple beings, the morality is relative to the vulnerabilities of the beings. If they were immortal, killing would be impossible as traveling at light speed. We consider killing to be immoral because we are able to be killed and we don’t want that. We consider stealing to be wrong because certain things are difficult to obtain and we can’t conjure it out of thin air. Is it even moral to “own” things we take from the environment? We don’t consider it wrong to steal air at least while there is plenty of it freely available.

          There is no objective morality. That’s why I can explain why there is none and you can’t give a rational definition for it.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          How do you know that God’s morality is
          better than Satan’s morality?

          And since our world has good stuff and bad stuff in it, how
          do we know that the Guy in Charge is the good one and not the bad one? The flipped argument looks just as strong.

        • MNb

          -atheists can’t point to anything as objectively “wrong.”
          BobS always has denied that claim and so do I.

          “Yet we all have a sense of what it is”
          Senses are by definition subjective. Good job, Rick. In that other post you asked me something; now I have a question for you. How can homo sapiens determine which value is objectively “good”? What standard do you use? What kind of evidence will you bring up?
          You must show this in a similar way that homo sapiens has found out that Newtons laws of gravity are objectively “correct”. What’s more, you have to objectively specify in which circumstances your values are objectively “good”. Newtons laws of gravity don’t apply in certain circumstances and we know exactly in which ones.
          If you can’t we can safely reject the idea of objective morality.
          Good luck.

    • Rain

      You forgot to say “ergo Jesus”.

      • Rain

        In case Rick was wondering what the heck I was talking about: “Ergo Jesus”–it’s a new one hour comedy show where everyone in the show twiddles their thumbs and says “You can’t explain that. I’m throwing in with Jesus” for an hour and then at the end they all jump up and say “ergo Jesus!”, and then the audience laughs their tails off.

        • Rick

          Sounds like a yuck fest. Thanks for the tip!

    • Cafeeine

      As a very loose analogy, morality serves as a social immune system, it tends to isolate and remove from the social body elements (ideas, behaviors, people) that are destructive to that social body, as well as discourage their existence in the first place.

    • RichardSRussell

      The same way evolution explains pretty much every characteristic we see in every living creature on the planet. Those who had it gained some kind of increment to their survival value as a direct result of having it, and they eventually outbred those who didn’t, thereby passing along that tendency to their descendants.

      For instance, cannibalism may seem like a pretty good idea from a standing start. After all, in any human community of any size at all, someone is always dying, and they’re a source of protein that you don’t have to go out and hunt down, so you’d think they’d be a natural food source. But not only is cannibalism not widespread, it’s widely viewed as some kind of “moral” horror, when all it really is is the natural consequence of all those corpses being safe houses for a ton of human-specific pathogens that more than offset the nutritive value of their former host.

    • Pofarmer

      Well, look around at all the other species that don’t, well, automatically kill their young, operate in groups, form social bonds, etc, etc. If you don’t find that it’s common by evolution, then how DO you explain it. ‘Cause all those other creatures aren’t supposed to have souls.

  • MNb

    I agree with Keller that the nazi’s ought not to have done it. In a similar way many christians have done things they ought not to have done. I suggest Keller to teach his co-believers first. The world will improve enormously. As soon as he has succeeded I’ll take his argument seriously. Then I’ll ask him about the Israelites and the command they received from his god. They ought not to have slain the Kanaanites, Amalekites and all the others either, don’t you think?
    Reconvert, Keller, if you’re serious about this.

    “So we shouldn’t kill or lie just for fun”
    The nazi’s didn’t kill the jews just for fun either. They did it because they thought the world would be better off. So must I conclude that according to Wallace the nazi’s were justified?

    “The majority opinion is that and nothing more.”
    Here I disagree. It’s all about power. Having the majority behind you is a source of power of course, but there are other ones. The nice thing about modern societies is that we have developed ways to fight for power without falling back on violence. Dirty games a plenty though. In this respect I’m an adherent of Macchiavelli.

    “There is a law above the law.”
    The actual Nürnberg charter is more ambiguous and can be interpreted without referring to objective morals.

    “four witnesses …”
    False analogy. Wallace first has to prove that there actually is an objective morality. He can’t. That’s why we can understand how comes that the accounts of the four witnesses conflict. We can’t understand though, if there is a god given objective morality, why that god hasn’t told unambiguously all humans all over the world.

    • RichardSRussell

      The part about the 4 witnesses reminded me of my own blog post from back in 2009, “The Flat Tire and the Gospels”, which I commend to you:
      http://richardsrussell.livejournal.com/2009/02/22/

      • Ron

        Person 1: The rear tire.
        Person 2: The left tire.
        Person 3: The one with the puncture.
        Person 4: The one with the scuff marks.

        Flat Tire Apologist: It was the left rear tire with the puncture and scuff marks. Harmonization for the win, baby! :)

        • RichardSRussell

          8^D

  • RichardSRussell

    Under the previous essay, I posted an analysis of why the Christian God, with its 4 claimed ultimate characteristics, is logically impossible.

    The same deal holds true for “absolute objective morality”. You can always find 2 moral claims and plunk them down in the ring against each other. Is it morally acceptable to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving child? No easier to answer than “Can God change the future he knows is going to occur?”. In each case, you’ve got a tenet that must hold true pitted against a different tenet that also must hold true.

    This same situation arises in constitutional law, most paradigmatically in contests between what seem like 2 absolute requirements of the Bill of Rights: freedom of the press vs. the right to a fair trial. If you have a criminal defendant who’s being reviled in the local press for supposedly committing some repugnant, heinous act, how do you find a fair, unbiased jury? Yet on what basis can you stop the media from covering the case? Here, tho, nobody is making any claims of absolutism. As a purely practical matter (since decisions under law are forced on us by real life and can’t await some hypothetical future balance scales in the sky), the judiciary recognizes that such things must be subjected to a balancing test, which invariably involves some human judgment.

    Religion pretends that such conflicts between “absolute” principles never occur, just one more area in which it instinctively gravitates toward the simple-minded error rather than the complicated truth.

    • Grotoff

      I don’t get it. The answer to “Is it morally acceptable to steal of loaf of bread to feed a starving child” is obviously yes. When the right to life and the right to property are in conflict, the right to property always loses. Of course. What kind of monster would argue otherwise and on what grounds?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        That’s a helpful nuance. We don’t get that from “Thou shalt not steal,” unfortunately.

      • RichardSRussell

        What kind of monster? A religious literalist. Jesus may have said “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” and “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”, but those are more along the lines of suggestions or attitudes or tendencies, not the unambiguous “Thou shalt not steal.” of the 10 Commandments, which comes without escape clauses, footnotes, or case histories, probably because it was authored by the propertarians who owned everything at the time.

        You may have heard it said — by people of all religious and philosophical persuasions, not just the fundies — that “The ends don’t justify the means.” To which I issue the challenge: “If the ends can’t justify the means, what can?” And that’s when the religiots start hauling out their dogma and pointing to it.

        Steal the bread. Feed the kid. Fuck the 10 Commandments.

        • Grotoff

          “Thou shalt not steal, unless I totally tell you to massacre an entire ethnic group and take their land. That’s totally cool.”

          I’m not suggesting that religious texts provide a basis for moral authority. Only that the singular nature of reality and sapient experience inevitably leads to objective standards of some sort.

        • RichardSRussell

          As Bob points out (accurately, I think), consensual standards are not the same things as objective standards.

        • Grotoff

          What is consensual about stealing bread? I’m sure plenty of bakers would object.

          But facts about the brain make it clear that sapient existence comes before “property rights”. Even if everyone thought that it would be wrong to steal for any reason, based on the brain they would be wrong. Objectively wrong.

        • RichardSRussell

          I don’t know what “facts about the brain” you’re referring to. Brains harbor opinions, and rightness vs. wrongness is simply an opinion, on which different brains will differ. (For example, as you accurately point out, bakers don’t share in the consensus you originally cited about the desirability of feeding the child at the price of stealing their property.) There’s nothing objective about it; it’s purely subjective.

        • Grotoff

          Of course there is. The bakers are wrong. Their suffering, at the level of their brains, from their lack of a piece of bread to sell is more than compensated from the recovery from suffering that the brain of the starving child experiences.

          In this case, the relative change in welfare is obvious and the question simple. One can easily imagine other moral situations where the changes in welfare more complicated and more difficult to resolve. This means that in practically terms there is no clear way to map out some moral situations. But there is also no practical way to count how many air molecules were in your room at 1:30PM August 1st. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer, that there isn’t an objective truth. And we can know what the answer isn’t. The answer isn’t 2. And it isn’t 2^10^10. We can also know what moral choices are wrong.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          We can also know what moral choices are wrong.

          You’re saying that moral truth is objective and we can know it? Show me. Show us how ordinary citizens can access the moral truth of conundrums like abortion or capital punishment.

        • Grotoff

          Simple. Brain states. Can a killer’s brain be fixed so that his welfare increase and the welfare of the communities as well? How does one balance that welfare with the welfare of the victim’s loved ones? Balanced again against any others who may commit similar crimes. Then you make the decision. It’s complicated, and perhaps currently infeasible. But not impossible.

          Abortion is much easier. Murder constitutes the unjustified termination of a sapient organism. When does a human, during development, first start to exhibit the qualities of sapience? When does the brain “boot up” so to speak? Around the 24th week in gestation. If one would like, push it back a few weeks for safety. The vast vast majority of abortions occur before this time. After this time, one must weigh the welfare of the child with the danger to the welfare of the mother. Not easy, but simpler than with the capital punishment case.

          Objective answers to moral questions.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Can a killer’s brain be fixed so that his welfare increase and the welfare of the communities as well?

          Let’s go to a tougher challenge. You said, “If 99.99% of people thought that Jim Crow laws were fine, they would still be wrong.”

          Just making up numbers, let’s say that a state has Jim Crow laws, and it’s 20% African American and 80% white. Yes, everyone can see that the Jim Crow laws impose on the African Americans, but who says it’s a net negative? It might sound pretty good from the standpoint of the white folks.

          You might well launch into a complicated argument to show the white folks that progress for society overall, them included, would be better with more progressive laws, etc. But is this your “objective moral truth”?

          Abortion is much easier.

          Sounds like we’re of like mind on the abortion issue. But you’re arguing as any pro-choicer would argue. Where’s the accessible objective moral truth? You will convince precisely zero pro-lifers with this argument. How can it be objective?

          We must have very different definitions here. You’ve achieved your goal by watering down “objective moral truth” so that it means almost nothing.

          I repeat: why make this weak argument? The non-supernatural, non-objective argument explains things just fine.

        • Grotoff

          Jim Crow laws have negative effects on the welfare of white citizens as well. They blind poor white to rapacious nature of the wealthy, co-opting them against their own interests by employing racial animus. Further, racist attitudes are a negative brain state. Unnecessary and unfounded hatred stressing and destabilizing brains should be eliminated when we seek to improve sapient welfare.

          And on abortion, I am not suggesting that the position I laid out is simply one of many. It is the only moral position. It is immoral to be concerned with lumps of cells without sapience over a woman with sapience. It is likewise immoral to ignore the sapience of late stage fetuses, and pretend that their welfare does not need to be balanced against their mother’s. One can disagree with how different welfares should be balanced, but it is objectively true that one must do so.

          How is this not objective moral truth? What are you looking for to define “objective moral truth”?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          And on abortion, I am not suggesting that the position I laid out is simply one of many. It is the only moral position.

          Sure, according to you. And when you try to convince someone to change his mind, you fail.

          We’re in the same boat, except you seem to imagine that your argument is objectively true. That’s an odd kind of “objective truth” given that it convinces no one.

          I assume that your definition of objective moral truth isn’t “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.” If not, what is your definition? I fear we’ve wasted a lot of time thinking this term has different meanings.

        • Grotoff

          Actually, I have succeeded many times in changing minds on the abortion issue. I find that acknowledging the validity of concern for the wellbeing of fetuses with active brains is an excellent way to moderate the emotions involved. Some, however, persist in woo-woo fantasies about zygotes with amorphous sapient qualities like a “soul”. There, they are also identifying a sapience whose wellbeing should increase, but it is a sapience that only exists in their minds. That kind of delusion can clearly not be argued away.

          Yes, that is my definition. The wellbeing of sapients has an objective measure that is true whether or not anyone believes that such is the case.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I don’t know what we’re talking about anymore. You reject
          the definition of objective moral truth that I was using and substitute your own. OK.

        • RichardSRussell

          “Of course there is. The bakers are wrong.”

          But that, too, is simply your opinion. It’s a judgment call on your part. There’s nothing objective about your opinion on objectivity, either. There is no test in nature that will produce the conclusion you desire, unlike the count of air molecules, which is at least theoretically knowable.

          You say we can “know what moral choices are wrong.” I will concede that you can “assert which moral choices are wrong”, but simply asserting something loudly and forcefully doesn’t make it true.

        • Grotoff

          Brains are how we test. Brain states are knowable, and it is objective whether or not a brain state constitutes suffering or wellbeing.

          I suppose you would argue that Aztec human sacrifice and American slavery were moral acceptable practices. That if a culture had a practice of blinding 3rd sons, it would be simply our opinion that this practice is morally wrong. In fact, it would be presumptuous and arrogant of us to impose our moral decisions on them.

          If that’s the case, then I’m perfectly fine with presumption and arrogance.

        • RichardSRussell

          Even if it were remotely true that there is some objective way of telling whether a brain state constitutes suffering or wellbeing (think of a masochist in the throes of passion, for example), you’re still back to the question of whose brain state matters, the baker’s or the child’s. Because they’ll react differently to the theft of the bread, don’t you agree?

          Besides, you’ve imposed yet another value judgment atop your previous one, this one being the presumption that suffering is worse than wellbeing. Ever hear of the term “runner’s high” or “feel the burn”? It’s self-induced suffering for a longer-term goal.

          Just because you can pile your opinions higher, deeper, and more self-referentially still doesn’t make them objective, you know. They’re still only opinions.

        • Grotoff

          Those who love to experience pain likely suffer from a brain deficiency. Even that were not the case, it’s easy enough to say that wellbeing does not need to uniform across humanity. Some people like chocolate and some people hate it. Forcing some people to eat chocolate would undermine their wellbeing, even though it would buttress the wellbeing of others. I don’t see how this challenges the brain states inherent to the individual. A masochist being tortured does not experience the same brain state that a normal person would.

          Brain states are not opinions. They are readings of objective activity.

        • RichardSRussell

          “Some people like chocolate and some people hate it. Forcing some people to eat chocolate would undermine their wellbeing, even though it would buttress the wellbeing of others.”

          Exactly! So is eating chocolate moral or immoral? It’s solely a matter of the opinion of the person eating it, and it will vary from one person to another.

          Simply saying that we can look at whether the pleasure or pain centers in the brain are being activated may be objectively knowable (tho very imperfectly with our current technology), but that in no way tells us whether what’s activating them is good or bad. I’m sure that the sadist who’s busy torturing his victims has his pleasure centers lighting up like crazy.

        • Grotoff

          It’s not a matter of opinion. You didn’t decide to hate/love chocolate. You just do. It’s a matter of brain states.

          It’s not simply a question of pleasure and pain. You are quite right that people often have to mover through pain to achieve higher states of welfare. But it is a question of brain measurement. We are obviously in the early stages. But that does not mean that such can not be measured eventually.

          The sadist’s wellbeing must be balanced against the wellbeing of his victims, obviously. If they are all masochists, then his behavior is moral.

        • RichardSRussell

          You continue to make assertions as if they are blatantly obvious and beyond question, when they are nothing of the sort. They are mere assertions — your opinions — without any grounding in objective reality. If confronted with the question of how long it will take a rock dropped off the Empire State Building to hit the ground, we can find an objective answer to it. You are all over the map on what we can expect from experiments in stealing bread, liking chocolate, and enjoying sadism. You have no objective reality to back up a single thing you say.

          SImply saying “We can measure brain states” (which is a pretty dubious proposition in itself) does not explain, for example, why we need to balance the sadist’s wellbeing against that of his victims. Who says we need to do such a balancing act? You? Or some “objective” reality?

          It’s just your opinion, which you desperately keep trying to say has some objective basis. But you’re unable to name or identify what that basis might be, other than the uselessly vague “measurable brain states”. This continues to ignore the fact that, even if we could measure such brain states accurately, people’s differ from each other, and we’re right back to where we started: “Whom do we believe?” IOW, “Whose opinion matters?”, not “Where do the facts lie?”

        • Kodie

          You are assuming it’s a successful bakery and the loss will not matter. You don’t know the baker’s situation. It might be his last loaf of bread and he needs to make a sale to feed his kid. Is it moral to steal one man’s last loaf of bread to feed your child?

          To avoid dilemmas like finding it necessary to steal in order to eat, people can sign up for public assistance. Then you get taxpayers complaining about theft. I do not think it is ok to steal a loaf of bread to feed your child. It is a last resort and I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it, but is it moral to steal a loaf of bread to feed your child if you spent all your money gambling? It’s not moral to let your child starve to pay for your poor handling of cash, but I have to think theft in that case should not be the first and only idea you have to solve that immediate problem. This is why homeless people will sit on the sidewalk and beg for small change from kind strangers rather than walk into a store and shoplift the food they need. Since we still prosecute for theft, I don’t know that having a dire excuse is considered.

          In summary, it is more moral to feed your child than to let them starve. Thieving to solve that problem is still looked down upon as society has worked to address those problems so people do not feel the need to commit crimes in order to solve them. Stealing should be the absolute last way. Victims of theft still have an involuntary loss and their victimization should not be minimized by degree, such that, given the chance, someone else would voluntarily donate what the would-be thief needs, or involuntarily be taxed to support assistance programs.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Grotoff: I think that saving a life by stealing bread is a wise compromise. You think so, too. So far, so good.

          Now: how does this get us to objective moral truth? I don’t see the connection. I still see zero evidence that such a remarkable thing exists.

        • Grotoff

          It stems from one universal principle. Sapient welfare should increase. This is certainly as much of a faith statement as “the world exists in an objective way” but it is also as widely shared. Plenty of people disagree with who counts as fully sapient, and what sorts of welfare come before others. But they don’t disagree with the general principle. Even the sociopath agrees, though he views himself as the only truly sapient being whose welfare has value.

          When you conceptualize morality in terms of the welfare of sapient beings, then you need to ask whether behaviors or situations have objective effects on welfare. Obviously, the precise measurement of welfare is a difficult (perhaps currently infeasible) activity. But we can tell when one level is certainly lower than another. We don’t have to pretend that racists have the same level of brain welfare as those comfortable with others.

          We don’t have to pretend that genocide is ever excusable because of the perverted welfare claims of the murderers.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Sapient welfare should increase. This is certainly as much of a faith statement as “the world exists in an objective way” but it is also as widely shared.

          Yes, it is widely shared. I don’t see where the faith comes in. If I said, “Sapient welfare should increase and then we’ll all get lollipops,” that would be a faith statement. If instead the vast majority of us have a sense of the golden rule that we get from our evolutionary programming, I don’t see the faith part.

          Let’s just stop at the widely shared observation. No need to imagine that it’s objective or transcendentally grounded or absolute in any way. What facts are left unexplained?

        • Grotoff

          “Sapient welfare should increase” is an ought statement. It’s a value statement. It likely does come from our shared evolutionary experience, but so what? That doesn’t make it true. It’s a faith position that we, as a species take.

          All moral choices proceed from there. How do you increase the welfare of sapients? That question has an objective answer. We know that welfare comes from brain states, and we know what states constitute an increase in welfare and which a decrease.

          The key here is an objective standard of behavior. Behavior is evaluated according to its effect on the welfare of sapient beings. Many situations are complex, but there are clear bounds. Random torture of people for individual pleasure is not moral.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          That doesn’t make it true.

          That doesn’t make it true in an absolute sense. It might still be true from your or my standpoint.

          It’s a faith position that we, as a species take.

          “It is the case that my moral programming dictates to me the golden rule.” Where is the faith? And why are you eager to apply the “faith” label?

          How do you increase the welfare of sapients?

          Am I missing something important in the word “sapient”? How about “human” or “person”?

          That question has an objective answer.

          What does “objective” mean here? The only interesting definition here is Wm. Lane Craig’s: something that’s true whether or not humans are here to appreciate it. If you simply mean “shared,” then why do you keep disagreeing with me?

          Random torture of people for individual pleasure is not moral.

          Based on … ?

        • Itarion

          Random torture of people for individual pleasure is not moral.
          Based on … ?

          Well, I have a system where you take a measurement of harm caused and benefit received. Since a torturer is receiving only emotional pleasure, while the victim received physical as well as emotional harm, more harm than benefit occurs, making the action of torturing evil.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Do you think that your system gives a result that is objectively true? By what definition of “objective”?

        • Grotoff

          But why should anyone care about our opinions? Sociopathic murderers don’t. If you are comfortable with relativism, then you will have to defend the murderer for acting under his own value system.

          “It is the case that my moral programming dictates to me the golden rule.” Why do you care? You are not a machine. Your impulses are under the sway of consciousness, an awareness and attention program. You have no obligation to follow through on deep programming like empathy. You can choose to ignore it. Why don’t you?

          I choose to employ empathy because I take the position that sapient welfare should increase. This is a fundamental principle, spurred on by my deep programming but affirmed by my consciousness.

          In the absence of humans, sapient welfare should still increase. If that means fully sapient dolphins or dogs or octopi, who cares? They still have brains.

          Morality = concerning sapient welfare. Torture destroys that welfare, objective in the brain. Thus it is immoral.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          If you are comfortable with relativism, then you will have to defend the murderer for acting under his own value system.

          Oh, please. I will attack with pleasure anyone who disagrees with my moral position just like anyone would. If I didn’t think they were wrong, then I’d have adopted their position.

          This is the laughably false dichotomy of objective morality or (I hope you’re sitting down) moral relativism. To avoid this deliberate obfuscation, I prefer simply to say that I reject the claim of objective morality.

          But why should anyone care about our opinions?

          I dunno. If you think that I’m a good source of opinions, then I guess you would. If I have a track record for useless opinions, then ignore them.

          Weird—it’s like you’ve never had a discussion with someone.

          You have no obligation to follow through on deep programming like empathy. You can choose to ignore it.

          Wow—what planet are you from? You’re quite the Zen master who has made his intellect the master of his instincts. I’m in awe.

        • Grotoff

          So you are saying that you don’t care about whether or not your moral intuition has any correspondence with objective reality, but you are nonetheless comfortable with imposing your conclusions on others? Just straightening everything out here.

          I obviously don’t care even slightly about your opinions. Why would I? If you have something interesting to say about things that are real, backed by evidence, then I am all ears.

          People choose to ignore empathy everyday. You give money to every homeless man who asks? Ignoring some impulses and concentrating on others is the fundamental characteristic of consciousness.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          So you are saying that you don’t care about whether or not your moral intuition has any correspondence with objective reality

          No, I’m saying that I’ve seen no evidence than an objective reality (in the Wm. Lane Craig sense) exists.

          … but you are nonetheless comfortable with imposing your conclusions on others?

          I’m amazed that you’re amazed.

          If someone is crazy enough to like tomatoes, I’m a big enough man to just let that go. If they dislike chocolate, for me that’s just like water rolling off a duck’s back.

          On the other hand, if someone is beating up someone, I will take action. See the difference?

          I obviously don’t care even slightly about your opinions. Why would I?

          I dunno. If you say you don’t care, then you don’t care. But then we have the mystery about why you’re here wallowing in opinions that might as well be written in Farsi for all you care.

          Are we on the same page about what “objective reality” means?

          And clarify for me what we’re arguing about. I’ve lost track.

        • Grotoff

          According to your formulation, there is no difference. Your breaking up a fight is no different than if a homophobe walks by two men kissing, and he runs up and stops them. Who are you to impose your morality on the muggers?

          Moral relativism is just another kind of nihilism.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          According to your formulation, there is no difference.

          Then I guess you misunderstand.

          Who are you to impose your morality on the muggers?

          No one. And yet I’ll do it anyway. I don’t claim any objective truth behind my beliefs or actions.

          Moral relativism is just another kind of nihilism.

          Whew! Good thing I simply reject objective morality as being without evidence. That “moral relativism” stuff you mention is nutty.

        • randomfactor

          Those arguing for an “objective morality” typically mean by “objective”…”whatever god told me most recently.”

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I think they mean “whatever viscerally feels right to me.” In other words, objective is precisely subjective.

      • Greg G.

        How about if you stole from one starving child to feed another? When you can find an exception to moral behavior, it means it is contingent to the situation and that means it is not an objective moral.

        • Grotoff

          Just because a question is practically impossible to measure (which child is more important to feed in terms of their continued welfare) does not make that question without an answer.

          It is practically impossible to count how many air molecules are currently in your room. But there is a precise number.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Just because there may be precisely one answer to a question about nature gives you absolutely no support in this other domain, that of morality.

          Why keep flogging this horse when the natural explanation (morality isn’t objectively true) works just fine?

        • Greg G.

          When the stewardess is giving the pre-flight instructions for the oxygen masks, they always tell you that if you are traveling with a child to put on your mask first and then your child’s mask. I always think, “If you are traveling with two children, decide now which one you love the most.”

          If there were objective morals, there should be a way to decide which child gets to eat that piece of bread or gets the oxygen mask first. It is a subjective choice.

          Even if there were objective morals, how would people know? People who claim there is an objective morality always state it as their own preferences and abhorrences.

        • Grotoff

          An answer exists, if one could bore down to the most fundamental levels. Which child would have their welfare most sorely impacted by going without an oxygen mask? How does each child’s welfare factor into the welfare of those around them, including their loved ones?

          The gradient may be so miniscule a difference that there is no definite right answer. In science, one run into two answer that are only different outside of significant figures. AKA, the measurement is not precise enough. This does not suggest that a theoretical measurement could not at some point be more precise. But in the mean time, there is no answer.

          Morality is based on the welfare of sapient beings. Sapient welfare exists at the level of the brain. The brain is an objective organ. Why is this so difficult for pedants to wrap their minds around?

        • Greg G.

          Morality is based on the welfare of sapient beings. Sapient welfare exists at the level of the brain. The brain is an objective organ. Why is this so difficult for pedants to wrap their minds around?

          How is this different than what a sapient being would say subjectively? The universe may consider sapience objectively immoral because sapient beings make observations and it’s objectively wrong to collapse wave functions.

          Consider the Jainist position I posted elsewhere in this thread. They sweep the ground in front of them and walk hunched over so they don’t accidentally step on an insect. They won’t eat a vegetable or fruit unless it fell from the plant naturally. Their morality continues where yours leaves off and expands it to make it greater. If there is an objective morality based on sapience, then the Jains are wrong. Ants will run to cover if disturbed to keep from being crushed so the view of morality would most likely coincide with the Jains.

          Your position is based on subjective values, so is theirs and so is mine.

  • avalon

    The theist argument regarding morals isn’t really about morals at all.

    To summarize their position:

    1. your moral intuitions come from God (Intelligent Design vs evolution)

    2. in sticky moral situations your moral intuition may not be enough so check it with Divine Revelation (the bible ‘God’s Big Book o’ Moral Truth’ or direct contact with your mind, ie. prayer revelation).

    Intelligent design and divine revelation are the real issues.

    • MNb

      Yes, thanks to BobS’ article I have come to the conclusion that the moral argument pro god actually is derived from the cosmological argument. Everything must have a cause; there must be a first cause; morals must have an uncaused cause too; hence god.
      So the moral argument fails for the same reasons.

  • Itarion

    Of course, even though all of these attempts to determine an objective morality fail doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. I maintain, and will continue to do so, that each action has a measurable quantity of “good” to it, which is dependent upon both the action, and the circumstances in which it occurs.

    Take, for example, the legendary character of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich, and gave to the poor. Could he have found a better way to help the poor? Probably. However, theft from a person who has much is arguably less evil than a person who has very little. (As an interesting aside, this is substantiated in mirror in one of Jesus’ teachings, that a very poor woman donating her very last coins was worth more that all of the wealth that some rich merchants tossed into the pot.) This, to my eyes, has to do with percentages of wealth taken, and the ability of those taken from to continue to support themselves. I am not saying that one should go out on a stealing spree, as theft is by its very nature wrong – depriving someone of that which they have gotten for themselves through effort – but there are forms of theft that are less wrong than other forms.

    And across most governments extant in the world today, there are laws that forbid the same actions, murder, theft, etc. Whether they are properly enforced is a matter of opinion, but the fact remains that there are laws on the books prohibiting actions, and these laws, common between countries, are the laws that outline some of the objective morality that I contend exists, and which I believe can be discovered if someone were to take the time to actively study the phenomenon of “being good.”

    TL;DR – Objective morality exists, and is a measure of the relative amounts of goodness or vileness that an action adds to the world, and further can be discovered in the same manner as other, more physical aspects of reality.

    • Greg G.

      What are you trying to say? If stealing is objectively wrong, then stealing from the rich is objectively wrong. If stealing from the rich is “less evil” then stealing is subjectively wrong on a case by case basis.

      We don’t want things we worked to acquire being taken from us. We don’t want to die. We don’t steal from others or kill them and they return the favor. That’s morality.

      • Itarion

        My point here was not to attempt to defend theft from anyone, it was to use specific examples to outline a generalized form of my personal views of morality. I’m not saying that theft is ever good, in fact I literally stated the exact opposite: “theft is by its very nature wrong”. What I AM saying is that circumstances surrounding an action must be taken into account when determining the exact measure of evil that has been committed.

        In essence, an act is inherently good or evil, but factors surrounding the circumstances can change the exact degree to which an act is evil or otherwise.

        Perhaps a diagram will help. You will notice that various circumstances of theft are outlined – they are equivalent values taken in each. Notice how situation falls shy of being good. Also notice how they fall shy of being equal to murder, as murder is objectively more evil than theft. Also notice the lack of a scale, as I’m not currently trying to quantify the values numerically, just outline a potential theory of morality doesn’t come from “THE DIVINE MASTER.”

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Where would slavery fit on your chart? 200 years ago, many of the most educated people in the South would’ve put it on the Good side. I assume you disagree.

          Is there anything objectively righter about your position?

        • Itarion

          I would certainly like to think so. In that application of a coherent system of morality would allow for the eradication of much evil, were it to be generally accepted. Of course, that follows from the application of the system to itself, which of course NY system will say it is itself good.
          Alternatively, said system would be itself unchanging, but would remain coherent and consistent with progressive socials mores across the entirety of the timeline of its use.

          Now, in answer to your first question. This system of mine is based upon harm or benefit caused to sentient/sapient beings. The institution of slavery did, objectively, cause some great benefit to thinking creatures. At the same time, it had detrimental effects on an enormous population that is still feeling echoes of that institution centuries later. This harm is measurable in solitary instances, and from these instances conclusions can be drawn. Such as the vast majority of slaves do not benefit from the institution, and individuals are generally detrimentally effected to a greater extent than individuals beneficially effected. Thus the institution causes harm and should be considered evil.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Every society thinks it has morality figured out. Every society thinks that a society with different moral rules has it all wrong.

          The lesson seems pretty obvious: let’s have a little humility when we ourselves think that we’ve got it all figured out.

          Suppose society a century in the future has synthetic meat so that they can get a concentrated, high-quality, tasty protein source without the animals. They would look back on us, who raise millions of livestock only to kill them and (if you can believe it) eat them, as barbarians.

        • Itarion

          A fascinating thought, and even more so because meat, in the form of organs, has been created synthetically in laboratory research.
          http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jul/17/3d-printing-organs-money

          Alternatively, everyone goes vegan.

          However, I have not addressed for myself, and do not intend to address for myself any time soon, morality as it relates to the raising of animals for slaughter, because it just isn’t known whether animals are reasoning beings.

        • Greg G.

          Where do you draw the line for sapience? Is it the least sapient human? Do you include extinct human ancestors? Do you include Koko the gorilla? If the most sapient gorilla has greater sapience than the least sapient human, is it sapient only or does it apply to the whole species? If it goes for the whole species, can we then do the same for the lesser apes, monkeys, lemurs, etc. all the way down to jellyfish and Venus flytraps? It’s not a matter of the animal proving it is sentient, you would have to prove it is not. To be moral, you would have to assume every plant and animal is sentient and you are not sapient enough to find out whether the animal or plant is sentient.

          The most serious Jains walk hunched over sweeping the area in front of them to ensure they don’t accidentally step on a bug. Not only do they not eat meat, they must be assured that every piece of plant they eat was harvested after it had fallen from the plant naturally. They refuse it if it was picked.

          Do we really know if the next human is sapient? They may act sapient and we assume that they are. Some species eat other members of their species. Humans generally don’t. The fact that most of us have a sense that it is a horrible thing to kill and eat a sentient being, some people are not squeamish about it. So even that is subjective.

        • Itarion

          I draw the line where the line has been defined. Sapience, sentience are defined terms with generally Accepted meanings. Is a creature self aware? Hard to know, but it’s a yes/no answer, not a sliding scale, nor has it been shown to be anything but 99.9+% species wide, so if Koko the signing gorilla is included, all gorillas have at least the potential for sapience. But each species will be determined separately, as a Venus flytrap is clearly not a monkey.

          As for your assertion that all species are sapient until proven otherwise, no. That is in direct contravention to the basis for my hypothesis of morality is derived from, the scientific method, which proceeds from the null hypothesis. Basically, unless something is shown to be X, it is not X.

          What do the Jains have to with your argument?

          Epistemological existentialism doesn’t really do anything for me. Yes, I could question the reality of everything I experience, or I could act as though everything is what it appears to be until I see evidence that it is not. And finally, the whole point of my quantifiable morality argument is that is removes the personal subjectivity by looking at every effect to every possibly affected sentient entity.

        • Greg G.

          We are talking morality here, aren’t we? There are some elephants that pass the mirror test and some don’t. Is it because they are not self-aware or they aren’t curious about the spot? Something is either X or it is not X, whether we know it or not. All those planets were circling the stars before we constructed methods to detect them. Chimpanzees are no more self-aware now than they were before we developed a testing method. Animals that do not live in groups would not need to recognize individuals so they may not even recognize themselves in a mirror. That would mean their intelligence is different than yours but not that it is less worthy to be treated humanely. African Grey parrots are not monkeys either but they are very intelligent. Keas, from New Zealand I think, are said to be even smarter.

          I would consider “ignorance of sentience” to be a highly immoral excuse for a rationalization.
          I brought up the Jains to compare it to your philosophy of morality. If your theory of objective morality is right, then theirs is wrong, yet theirs seem to take morality to an extreme. If morality was objective, then what they are doing is the objective good and yours falls miserably short.
          We all base our morality on our subjective values. We see what generally works and learn. If we do what is objectively good, then it will always have good results. If the results are negative, despite our best intentions, that particular act was proven to be not objectively good. Can we think of any good moral deeds that never turn out bad?

        • Itarion

          Since some elephants pass the mirror test, the entire species should be considered at least capable of self awareness.

          A given animal are either self aware or not, and is treated as not until it has been shown to be, through the mirror test or otherwise. This is because the state of self awareness is more complex than the absence of that state.

          The intelligence of an animal or plant is only indirectly linked to its self awareness, as virtually every human is self aware, but a lot of them are objectively stupid as per IQ tests. Species wide high intelligence certainly increases chances of self awareness, but by no means a guarantee. However, classification within the taxonomic structure has nothing to do with self awareness, other than each species is to be considered on its own merits, which was my point in stating that a flytrap isn’t a monkey. There is no reason to say that all species are self aware just because one species is self aware.

          Ignorance is only immoral when it is willful, uncorrected, and used as a defense. If a species has been treated as non aware, then are later shown to be aware, then the correction is the important part. The ignorance is not an excuse or a defense, merely a reason, and the wrongs would still need to be addressed, in much the same way that the wrongs of slavery committed by 16th to 19th century New Worlders and Americans really still need to be addressed.

          If you really think about it, the Jain nonviolence and my own system are actually rather similar. The difference is mainly in the extent to which they are applied – They apply their system to all living creatures, whereas I apply my system only to self aware creatures. So, IF their system is the right one, mine falls short, yes, but hardly miserably when compared to a great portion of moral systems still circulated and used in modern times.

          As for good actions always yielding good results, I agree in the short run. In the long term, free willed agents will behave in a manner which is chaotic over any significant length of time. For example, suppose a man is spared from death. In the short run, this is good, as a self aware entity remains unharmed. In the long run, this free will agent might go on to commit a great number of atrocities. Do the actions of the spared agent then fall upon the agent who spared him, in any amount? And the inverse of the question, are there any evil moral deeds that never turn out good?

        • Greg G.

          Sentience can be defined as the ability to perceive, feel, or experience subjectively. How is it objective to judge sentience on the ability of self-awareness rather than the ability to suffer? These are not the same standard so they both can’t be the ultimate objectively truth. Why is one objective and the other is not?

          The answer is that they are subjective morals based on subjective values.

        • Itarion

          In that case, I’ve been misusing the word, and I apologise for the confusion. I am really concerned with self awareness, which has nothing to do with the ability to make judgement calls.

        • Greg G.

          Basically, unless something is shown to be X, it is not X.

          Thus, morality is not objective.

        • Itarion

          Non sequitur – it does not follow.

        • MNb

          “Is a creature self aware?”
          Crows are self aware. Good luck teaching them your objective morals.

        • Itarion

          Crows are evil? Explain.

        • MNb

          I would go a step further. I sincerely hope that the people that form that society in the future look back on me as a barbarian, just like I think Julius Caesar was a barbarian. Objective morals are an obstacle to progression in this department. Don’t look further than WLC for an example, with his insane Divine Command Theory.
          Note: I’m not saying that that future society will have improved morals; I only hope so. I think it very possible to fall back to the barbaric morals of the Spartans, the Romans, the Aztecs or the Papua’s. Like you wrote, those people without doubt thought their morals superior to our enlightened ones.
          So my hope does not imply an objective standard.

        • Itarion

          This seems a little sketchy, though. All societies consider all past societies barbaric? But past societies have encompassed a wide range of barbarism levels, including relatively enlightened criminal punishments, and all the way down to governmentally enforced baby sacrifices. This reasonably means that all societies consider all other societies to be barbaric. How, then, would a future society have “improved morals”, even in potentia, if every other society considers them barbarians, other than an objective standard which every society can be held up to and compared with?

    • MNb

      “I maintain, and will continue to do so, that each action has a measurable quantity of “good” to it”
      Alas you failed to provide an instrument to measure that quantity of “good”, directly or indirectly. To any natural scientist you’re talking out of your hat.

      • Itarion

        I take it, then, that you are any natural scientist?

        I would offer some measurements, but this is currently merely a thought experiment for me currently. Frankly, it’s likely to remain that way unless I can get some serious backing for study and quantification of the units and measurements in question. That said, the absence of details, minor or major, – and I will admit that the absence of any given units and such does qualify as a relatively large oversight – does not automatically nullify the entirety of an argument being made.

        Perhaps I should borrow the economic term, “utility” or “utils”. This measures the amount of utility/usefulness one receives from a given encounter, typically trade of goods/services. It basically amounts to the amount of time/effort/funding one is willing to put in to get a good or service. This unit might also be considered the amount of happiness, or enjoyment value, that results from the trade. I will be applying the unit, utils, to actions as well. We shall return to my original examples, various forms of theft.

        A rich person is stolen from. This causes a variety of psychological effects stemming from the violation of personal space (the home) and property (that which was stolen). However, studies have shown that wealth correlates with happiness only up to the point where one is not living from paycheck to paycheck, but has an account with money in case of emergencies. So, -2 utils, thus an evil act.

        A poor person is stolen from. The same psychological effects, -2 utils. Beyond this, there is the effect of less money, and since this person is below the threshold where wealth no longer correlates to happiness, there is a reduced happiness due to reduced wealth, for a total of -3 utils, a more evil act than that committed on the rich person.

        A rich person is stolen from by a poor person. Psychological effects, -2 utils. But there is an increase in the happiness of the poor person, due to the poor person now having more wealth, but still being below the threshold where wealth no longer correlates to happiness. +1 util, for a total of -1 util, a less evil act than that which was committed originally.

        But notice that all of these acts are still evil (have a negative util value). Suppose a wealthy person gifted money to a poor person. The wealth person feels good about themselves (+1 util), the poor person has more money still correlating to happiness (+1 util) totaling +2 utils, a good act. Thus, theft is shown to be a quantifiable wrong, while charity is shown to be a quantifiable good.

  • Grotoff

    So you are willing to say that Jim Crow laws are wrong only in the sense that they violate the written provisions of the 14th Amendment? There is no essential moral deficiency in putting down other humans for superficial and unchangeable traits?

    I don’t buy it. The welfare of sapient beings has objective demands on us.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I say Jim Crow laws are wrong. I’ve studied the issue a bit and have been influenced by my culture, and that’s my conclusion.

      That’s it. What else could I point to? I haven’t been in God’s library to check with his Big Book o’ Morals.

      You say that you don’t like Jim Crow laws either? High five, bro! We’re 2 for 2! Let’s check with other people and see if we’re onto something.

      And that’s how laws are made, though I’m sure you already knew that.

      Are popular moral sentiments like “Jim Crow laws are wrong” universal truths? Or are they simply universally shared because we’re the same species in the same culture? The latter explains things just fine without any appeal to the supernatural. I prefer explanations that have evidence.

      • Grotoff

        If 99.99% of people thought that Jim Crow laws were fine, they would still be wrong. They have objective real effects on human flourishing, and that is the only consideration. It’s not about opinions.

        Most people think being an atheist is morally wrong. There’s a lot a agreement on that. Is that right?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          If 99.99% of people thought that Jim Crow laws were fine, they would still be wrong.

          Huh?? How do you know?

          They have objective real effects on human flourishing, and that is the only consideration.

          And the people who liked Jim Crow laws obviously felt that they gave them a benefit in flourishing.

          This gets to an analogous point, made, I think, by Wm. Lane Craig. He said that if the Germans won and convinced everyone in 2013 that the Holocaust was right, it would still be wrong. Sounds like complete insanity to me.

          So Craig 1 (the one we know and love today) would know it was wrong even though Craig 2 (the one who’s been convinced by the victorious Germans) says the opposite. How does he know that Craig 1 is right?? Of course, he gives no argument to make this case.

          It’s not about opinions.

          Then what’s it about? Whatever it is (objective moral truths, for example), show me that it exists rather than merely asserting it.

          Most people think being an atheist is morally wrong.

          “Most people”? In your church? In America? In the West?

          I’ll grant that quite a few do.

        • indorri

          He said that if the Germans won and convinced everyone in 2013 that the Holocaust was right, it would still be wrong. Sounds like complete insanity to me.

          Not to me. The problem, it seems, is that you’re making the same mistake he does, but in the opposite direction. You are trying to make a reference into a referent.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I don’t see the problem.

          But I do see the Craig 1 vs. Craig 2 problem. Do you have a response to that?

        • indorri

          Sorry, could you explain that a bit more? I’m not sure which problem you see and don’t see.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          What I don’t understand is this statement from you: “you’re making the same mistake [Craig] does, but in the opposite direction. You are trying to make a reference into a referent.”

          And here’s the issue that you didn’t address (copied from my comment above):

          This gets to an analogous point, made, I think, by Wm. Lane Craig. He said that if the Germans won and convinced everyone in 2013 that the Holocaust was right, it would still be wrong. Sounds like complete insanity to me.

          So Craig 1 (the one we know and love today) would know it was wrong even though Craig 2 (the one who’s been convinced by the victorious Germans) says the opposite. How does he know that Craig 1 is right?? Of course, he gives no argument to make this case.

        • indorri

          Craig is trying to make the case that objective morality exists because there is some concrete entity called “morality” which exists independent of the universe. You seemed to be saying “there’s no such concrete entity, thus there’s no objective morality”. My point was that morality is a reference: it refers to a state of the universe (human well-being/suffering as the most simplistic explanation). It is not a referent (the concrete entity) in itself.

          This is why I didn’t address the Craig 1 vs 2 part: it has no meaning in my explanation. More specifically, a universe in which Craig 2 is wrong exists only if the universe is such that Craig 2 is wrong. It’s that simple. Whether he can be convinced otherwise is, technically, a separate issue.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          This is why I didn’t address the Craig 1 vs 2 part: it has no meaning in my explanation.

          It does in Craig’s.

          More specifically, a universe in which Craig 2 is wrong exists only if the universe is such that Craig 2 is wrong. It’s that simple.

          So you reject Craig’s claim?

        • indorri

          I reject his reasoning. I don’t reject his conclusion assuming the universe of Craig 2 is similar enough that the Holocaust caused human suffering similar to what was experienced in this universe.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          How can Craig’s conclusion–that Craig 1 is objectively correct and Craig 2 objectively wrong–be valid? I cannot fathom your reasoning.

        • Grotoff

          Seriously? If the Nazis won and convinced everyone that they were right to massacre the Jews, that would make them right? Are you on drugs?

          The pro-Jim Crow forces might make such a claim, but they would be wrong. Objectively, based on their economic situation but also because of the brain.

          I am an atheist. I find Craig’s cosmological argument for god to be laughable at best. But that doesn’t change the fact that truth exists.

          The world exists. This is an unsubstantiated claim. It is impossible to prove the reliable or objective existence of the world with other tools of that purported existence. I must take the existence of the objective universe on faith. This is the kind of faith that I have in morality.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          If the Nazis won and convinced everyone that they were right to massacre the Jews, that would make them right?

          Not in an objective sense. Every claim “X is right” comes with a platform. From the standpoint of those who are convinced that X is right, X is right. That doesn’t make it objectively right, however.

          The pro-Jim Crow forces might make such a claim, but they would be wrong.

          They say they’re right; you say they’re wrong. OK, got it.

          But you seem to be taking an additional step: saying that you are objectively right (or something like that). Clarify.

          Objectively, based on their economic situation but also because of the brain.

          Based on their economic situation, oppressing an “other” might be terrific. If jobs or water or housing were scarce, what’s the objective insanity in wanting more for me and my peeps? I suspect we’re on the same page with the moral issues, but don’t pretend that any observer would think their actions completely without merit.

          that doesn’t change the fact that truth exists.

          Is 1 + 1 = 2 objectively true? I suppose so. But that’s not the topic. We’re not talking about objective truth but objective moral truth.

        • MNb

          “If the Nazis won and convinced everyone that they were right to massacre the Jews, that would make them right?”
          How exactly are you going to convince Julius Caesar the Nazis were objectively wrong? You see, he did exactly do that to the Eburones.
          It’s easy to convince him that gravity attracts and not repels. With some education we can teach him the necessary maths that describes Newton Laws. That’s what objectivity means. These facts were true back then just as they are now.
          But morals? Which objective standard do you have to tell JC that the genocide he committed according to his own De Bello Gallico was wrong? He was actually proud of it.

    • Greg G.

      The welfare of sapient beings has objective demands on us.

      I don’t buy that. The demands might be objectively the best way to support the welfare of others but it is a subjective goal. We have to make the choice. At some point the population may reach the carrying capacity of Earth. Things that seem immoral now will have to change. If the morals were objective, the species would be handcuffed to allowing unchecked growth of the population. Hopefully, they’ll come up with something better than turning people into Soylent Green on their thirtieth birthday.

      • indorri

        The demands might be objectively the best way to support the welfare of others but it is a subjective goal.

        And? It’s a subjective goal to identify animals with certain features and call them by their name in a particular language, but that does not change the existence of those features. The motivation of an actor is irrelevant to whether or not an action supports the welfare of humans.

        That complicated situations may require us to choose between more than one immoral action and that it may be difficult to determine which will harm humans the least doesn’t impunge on that.

        • Greg G.

          The features of an animal are objective facts. It sounds right to help others but is it right to help others without taking care of ourselves? There must be some limits and we can only set them subjectively. If doing the least harm was objectively moral it would be immoral to rest until you were the tiredest person alive.

          When you are doing the calculus in a complicated situation, would you consider whether which of the beneficiaries act the most moral? Would you help the giver or the cheater, all other things being equal? It would be immoral to do that in an objective morality.

        • indorri

          The features of an animal are objective facts.

          So are the causes of human experience of well being.

          It would be immoral to do that in an objective morality.

          Why? Zero-sum games are as subject to the effects of the well being of humans as well. Helping a cheater rarely benefits all humans, cheater included, in the long run when dealing with a zero-sum game.

        • Itarion

          And that’s assuming that this world is a zero sum game, ie for someone to be born someone else has to die and for someone to be happy someone else must be unhappy. For the most part, the assumption that anything is a zero sum game is a mistake that ends up costing a lot of people a lot of… well, everything, really.

          Furthermore, there is a reproduction rate that maintains a steady population, and a lot of the first world countries have a rate hovering right around that point. (2.1~ children per couple.)

        • Greg G.

          Are we talking about objective morality and subjective morality? I don’t disagree with much of what you are saying.

          Maximizing human benefits seems like a good thing to me but I think it is subjectively good but not objectively good. BOptimizing the human population was maybe not such a good thing for Neandertals. From their perspective, it was disasterous. I can’t see that they would be wrong. If our benefit was objectively good, Neandertals, bears, and elephants would have to agree if they set aside their subjective perspective.

          When we set aside our subjective perspective of morality to examine it objectively, it seems to vanish.

        • MNb

          “Optimizing the human population” certainly is not a good idea for many exterminated species. We only begin to grasp that idea; I can’t say I have come to terms with it. Why is killing a dog wrong and killing a mosquito not? Or killing a plant, like a vegetable? Objective morals don’t help here.

        • MNb

          “So are the causes of human experience of well being.”
          You’re wrong here. A cause of human experience of your well being might very well be a cause of my suffering. I gave the example of hiking in natural parks above.
          This is true even in extreme circumstances. Not eating generally is a cause of human experience for suffering indeed. There is an excellent Japanese movie though from the 80′s (I’m too lazy now to look up the title) that shows an old woman living in a mountain village who decides that her time has come, climbs a mountain and starves herself to death. The other villagers try to stop her. If they had succeeded though they would have made her suffer. So not eating contributed to her well being.

        • indorri

          A cause of human experience of your well being might very well be a cause of my suffering.

          You do realise that doesn’t refute my point right? What is the medium by which humans experience suffering?

        • MNb

          It refutes your claim that your morals are objective. Suffering depends on the subject that suffers.

        • indorri

          And some people are allergic to peanuts. That doesn’t mean there isn’t objective nutrition. Again, by which medium do humans experience suffering?

          You’re confusing “simple” with “objective”.

        • MNb

          And that’s a false analogy.
          You’re question is irrelevant btw. That’s why I don’t answer it.

        • indorri

          How is it a false analogy? You said the question is irrelevant, but the answer to that question illustrates why it isn’t a false analogy.

    • MNb

      “The welfare of sapient beings”
      is a subjective idea by definition. Hiking might contribute to the well being of many people, it certainly doesn’t contribute to mine.

  • SparklingMoon-

    Just as people belonging to every nation of the world have been blessed with physical features such as eyes, noses, mouths, hands and feet, so have they been blessed with inner faculties, and among every nation there are people,
    good and evil, depending on their moderate or immoderate use of those faculties.

    it is not the function of religion to change the natural faculties of man or to turn wolves into lambs; its purpose is to guide man in the proper use of his natural faculties in keeping with the demands of time and place.

    Religion is not meant to change people’s faculties; its aim is only to guide them to their proper use.Instead of laying stress on any particular faculty, such as mercy or forgiveness, it should enjoin the use of all of one’s faculties.

    No human faculty is in itself evil, it is their wrong or immoderate use that makes them so. A person cannot be condemned on account of his natural faculties
    unless he misuses them. In short, the Eternal Bestower has endowed nations with natural faculties in equal measure.(Four Questions by Mr. Sirajuddin, And their Answers by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed.)

  • Guest

    If I wasn’t allowed to lie for fun, I wouldn’t be able to play diplomacy, or mafia. There would be no practical jokes. April fool’s day would be abolished. Sarcasm would be impossible (since you’re saying a thing you don’t really believe). We could not tell small children about Santa Claus or the Tooth fairy. Yeah, this sounds like a great idea!


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