Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape and Universal Utilitarianism

I’ve heard that Sam Harris has a new book, The Moral Landscape, coming out soon. In it, he argues that there is an objectively best way for us to live together in a way that produces the greatest well-being for all – i.e., an objective morality – and that we can discover what it is through science:

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people — given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?

(See also.)

I’m tremendously excited by this, because not only do I agree wholeheartedly with this argument, it sounds (at least to me) almost exactly like the moral system of universal utilitarianism which I proposed in “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick“, my own essay on nonreligious ethics! (And that essay, I’d like to point out, was first posted in 2001.)

Harris has it exactly right. Because we are all the same species, because we all live in a world with the same unchanging natural laws, there are universal facts about human biology and psychology which hold true regardless of time, place or culture. It follows directly from this that there are objective truths about which ways of organizing society do, or do not, produce the greatest well-being for humans. And those truths are discoverable by the same method we use to discover objective truth about all other aspects of the world, namely the scientific method.

Harris’ metaphor is the “moral landscape”, similar to the metaphor of the “fitness landscape” used by evolutionary biologists. It’s as if we imagine an infinite (or at least very large) flat geometric plane, and assume that every possible means of organizing human society is assigned to a point on that plane, with societies that are similar in important ways occupying adjacent points. Then we add a third dimension to that plane, namely height/depth, and assume that the height of a given point represents the degree of well-being which that society produces for its inhabitants. Some societies will be high peaks of happiness and prosperity, while others will be deep valleys of misery. It’s our task to figure out the lay of the land near our present location so that we can move uphill toward a higher peak.

Of course, I don’t think there’s any direct influence of my essay on Harris’ book. I just think that these are ideas that are bound to occur to anyone who thinks rationally about morality (and in fact, we’d expect an objective morality to be independently discoverable). There are objective truths about human nature, and we can discover these and make our society more in accord with them. Granted, this assumes that our goal should be to maximize human welfare. But this is no more problematic, philosophically speaking, than the fact that science must begin by assuming the principle of induction, even though we can’t absolutely prove that it works.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jim Lloyd

    The book is out, in both hardback and audiobook. The latter is read by Sam Harris himself. I’m now on my second listen. It’s really a superb book.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    In it, he argues that there is an objectively best way for us to live together in a way that produces the greatest well-being for all – i.e., an objective morality – and that we can discover what it is through science:…

    I have not read the book, but the criticism i have seen has been based on Harris “smuggling in” value choices in his assumptions. Is morality really unambiguously defined as “producing the greatest well-being for all”? That’s quite an assumption. Sure, we should let our value choices be informed by the best scientific information available, but when it comes right down to it, we are still making value choices.

    Also, consider how the definition of “all” has changed historically. It used to be that “all” meant all adult males of the dominant race who own property. It is only later that the definition was broadened to consider the interests of non-property owners, women, children, etc. Even today, there is difference of opinion on how much consideration should be given to the welfare of animals. At this time, no one seems to have devoted much time to worrying about the welfare of plants.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    In case it’s not perfectly clear: if you are smuggling in value choices, then your morals are not truly “objective.”

  • Bob Carlson

    Harris has it exactly right. Because we are all the same species,…

    In fact, we are all Africans, as was eloquently illustrated by Richard Dawkins in this interesting panel discussion I viewed yesterday.

  • TomG

    Ayn Rand was a very controversial novelist and writer, but I mention her here because of 2 central ideas she kept hammering on all her life:
    1. The notion that there is a God is pernicious and detrimental to humanity’s ability to improve our lives.
    2. Morality can in fact be determined from the basic nature of humanity and what we require as rational beings – without recourse to mystical pronouncements we have to accept on “faith”.

    I’m not saying she was correct in all particulars, but she deserves credit for being among the earliest atheists to get to the heart of the matter.

  • http://sacredriver.org Ash

    Reginald, all values are subjective by definition. What Harris proposes is that science can help determine which range of values is more likely to produce higher levels of well-being. Harris simply gives examples to show the relationship between morals and well-being and a general outline for what science can look at. I strongly suspect that if science determined that one of Harris’ personal values was shown to decrease well-being, he would attempt, at least in principle, to jettison it and look for a replacement.

  • Grimalkin

    @Reginald Selkirk – Harris spends the first third of his book addressing this issue. To butcher his argument, it’s essentially that we always have to start with an assumption. You cannot mathematically prove that it is wise to use proofs in mathematics, for example (again, totally butchering Harris’s argument, please do read the book!). So yes, you have to start with a value judgement that the well-being of conscious beings is a good place to start. Harris argues that it is the only starting point that makes sense (the experience of non-conscious beings, by the very definition of consciousness, is not particularly important).

    And honestly, I agree with him. Like Ebon, I’ve been arguing for this basis for morality for a very long time. I think that most of the “but what is it *really* based on!” criticisms are simply pedantic without really considering reality. We obviously need a moral system – not just for ourselves personally, but also to inform how we should structure our society. We cannot function without one.

    So knowing that we have to choose a moral system, what are our choices? We have religion, which is essentially just venerating certain people and going along with whatever they say (baseless personal opinion becomes enforced on an entire society, whether it contributes to the well-being of all or none). We have individual moral sense, which is very much informed by our culture and not necessarily consistent. Both of these systems have led to the ‘white males only’ sorts of moral systems that we’ve so often had in the past. They clearly don’t work.

    What Harris is proposing, and what I’ve been proposing for years, is that we use actual research rather than opinion to make our decisions. What maximizes well-being within a society? As Harris says, keeping half your population oppressed clearly isn’t producing happy and productive societies. Even within societies, we see that couples where both partners are feminists tend to have happier and longer marriages – so equality between genders clearly contributes to individual and social well-being.

    The benefit of Harris’s proposal is that, even though you start with an assumption, everything that follows is actually based in reality. Science is the same way – you have to start with the assumption that the laws of the universe are fairly consistent, that gravity doesn’t suddenly start dropping stuff up instead of down, etc. Once you accept that assumption, everything else is able to follow.

    @Ebon – The criticism I have always received when I propose this basis for morality is that it’s “utilitarian.” That’s it, no other explanation, as though the fact that something is useful automatically makes it bad. It’s quite odd.

  • Valhar2000

    @Ebon – The criticism I have always received when I propose this basis for morality is that it’s “utilitarian.” That’s it, no other explanation, as though the fact that something is useful automatically makes it bad. It’s quite odd.

    I know, but it is true: some people find utilitarian morality unspeakably offensive. I cannot even begin to understand their thinking. After all, what possible basis could there be to evaluate a moral claim if not that?

  • Grimalkin

    @Valhar2000 – What possible basis could there be to evaluate anything? Does it have a use (even if that use is simply to be pleasing) or not?

    I’m very much confused as well.

  • F

    While I really appreciate the writings of Sam Harris and I am curious about his new book, I don’t see at a first glance nothing new here (the role of science aside).
    Utilitarianism was already presented in various forms and shapes (e.g. Stuar Mill, Singer) and it is prone to various critics.
    For instance: to know what ‘well being’ is, to know what ‘happiness’ means is the same as knowing what good is? Or at least closely its related.
    I am skeptical about these visions of ethics.
    I think that we can decide as people or human being what we want for us, for our society and for our future and thus we can define our own ethic/moral and our own ‘well being’ fitness function. Its time to grow up.
    The book Practical Ethics of Singer was a eye opener for me.
    Anyway, i am looking forward to read Harris book. Probably it will surprise me.

  • Kaelik

    The problem isn’t that he’s smuggling in the assumption that the well being of conscious creatures is our goal. That is an issue, but more importantly, and completely unaddressed by Harris, is that he is smuggling in a definition of well being.

    My mother and I have consistently disagreed from as long as I was old enough to talk to her about what constitutes well being. And that’s my mother, who raised me and is very similar to me genetically. If we can’t agree about what does and does not constitute well being, then how can we expect their to be an objective consensus?

    Harris takes the old “Well I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” attitude towards well being. But that’s not sufficient, and is instead incredibly susceptible to internal intuition bias.

  • Grimalkin

    @Kaelik – No, he doesn’t. He says that we have trouble defining it completely now, but that there have been a lot of advancements in the field of neuroscience that can compensate for the “but I enjoy beating my wife!” sort of individual goal. He’s essentially saying “morality is a scientific question and we will one day be able to answer it through scientific means, but that day isn’t quite here yet.”

    He does also allow for multiple answers to the same questions. So your idea of what makes you happy and your mother’s may both be perfectly legitimate, equally good ways to achieve well-being.

    One thing to keep in mind, however, is that “well-being” doesn’t necessarily mean “happiness.” I may feel really happy if I eat a tub of ice-cream right now, but my long-term well-being (especially half and hour from now) may not agree.

    Further, I would say that there are many things we *can* say about morality and the most utilitarian way to structure a society right now, with the benefit of research that shows us what policies work and which simply don’t. In other words, we can easily see the gross social characteristics that tend to produce overall well-being, even though we aren’t sophisticated enough to decide the minutiae yet.

  • http://360skeptic.com/ Andrew

    Because no values are absolute “givens,” even those that have been inadvertaintly or by necessity “smuggled in,” all can be evaluated. And discarded if necessary. This week I have been making a multi-part review of his book at my blog, 360 Degree Skeptic. Today I discussed the real-world consequences, and the possible testing of these, that even religious moral teachings entail.

  • Sarah Braasch

    No, no, no.

    I just got done with my second read of Sam’s book.

    I found it incredibly interesting and well-written, but I couldn’t disagree more.

    Just when the courts were coming around to my way of thinking: that morality has no place in the law (as evidenced by Lawrence v. TX and the recent gay marriage District Court decision)

    This is not the path.

    Sure. We might topple religion (actually, I don’t think we will), BUT then we’ll be fighting over whose morality to impose upon one another instead of whose religion to impose upon one another.

    We’ll have morality wars instead of religious wars.

    Why are atheists bending over backwards to attempt to show the religionists that, “Look, see, we have morality too. We are good people too. We can come up with morals too.”

    Who cares? We have much much more important things to do with our time.

    One problem:

    You can make facts and statistics say just about whatever you want.

    For example:

    In the aftermath of the slew of gay suicides in the US recently — how often have you heard the statistic about how much more prevalent teen suicide is amongst gay teens as opposed to straight teens.

    What do the religionists say: “See, this is scientific proof that it is immoral (contrary to one’s wellbeing) to be gay.”

    We’re just starting to get the courts in the US to realize and to say that one’s personal moral judgment is an entirely unjustifiable and wholly inadequate basis for legislation.

    Let’s not turn back the clock.

    In the gay marriage case in CA, the anti-gays folks rolled out truckloads of statistics and facts and figures.

    The judge didn’t buy it (thank god), but still.

    My point is that I think Sam is right on this count:

    Just because an answer doesn’t exist in practice doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in principle.

    I agree.

    But, if the difficulty in finding the answer in practice approaches infinity, then impracticality approaches nonexistence.

    Even for the stuff that seems obvious to us (a no brainer) like FGM.

    And, how would you base a legal system on that?

    Scientists arguing about what constitutes and promotes well-being in peer reviewed scientific journals isn’t going to make for great legislation.

    I think there are better ways to organize our societies and legal and political systems.

    I think this is a complete waste of time and effort and resources.

    Let the religionists worry about morality.

    We have more important things to do.

    Look around — societies that fetishize the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad are not exactly flourishing.

    Let’s not follow their example.

  • Sarah Braasch

    That’s funny.

    I think I just employed Sam’s methodology to show that his goal is immoral.

    So, attempting to establish an objective morality is immoral.

    We can show (with evidence and reason) that societies that base themselves upon categorizing human behaviors as good and bad suck.

  • Grimalkin

    @Sarah Braasch – Why do you assume that being concerned with morality means that we should be concerned with categorizing human behaviours as good and bad? Sam Harris wasn’t talking about whether or not we let people have casual sex, he was talking about using real scientific research and applying it to the social level. So if basing a society on categorizing human behaviours sucks, then using Harris’s concern for well-being would lead us AWAY from that path, not towards it.

    You say that scientific findings won’t make for great legislation and that there are better ways to organize our societies and legal and political systems. Such as? How can we decide whether the death penalty is good or bad without science? It’s precisely the scientists arguing in peer reviewed scientific journals that tells us that the death penalty is not conducive to a peaceful and violent crime-free society (and the reason why most industrial nations have abandoned the practice). What possible other basis could we have for making such judgements?

  • Andrew G.

    Just when the courts were coming around to my way of thinking: that morality has no place in the law (as evidenced by Lawrence v. TX and the recent gay marriage District Court decision)

    That’s a ridiculous position; morality and law are by necessity entwined. (To see this, consider that if everyone behaved morally, we would have no need for criminal law at all.)

    The problem with things like anti-sodomy or anti-gay-marriage laws is not that they’re improperly mixing morality and law, it’s that they’re mixing false morality and law. To a moral realist, the claim “Sodomy between consenting partners is not immoral” is a claim that has a truth-value which can in principle be determined from the real world; likewise for the claim “Sodomy should be illegal”. (Note that it’s possible for an act to be immoral, but for a law prohibiting it also to be immoral.)

    The fact that a substantial proportion of Americans believe that gay marriage is wrong is no more useful as evidence that it is wrong than the fact that many Americans believe in special creation of humans is useful as evidence against common descent.

    Look around — societies that fetishize the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad are not exactly flourishing.

    How is this a counter-argument? One can equally argue that too great a concern for the private actions of others is in itself immoral – not least because people are different, and one person’s “eww, ick” may be another person’s ecstatic bliss.

    In the aftermath of the slew of gay suicides in the US recently — how often have you heard the statistic about how much more prevalent teen suicide is amongst gay teens as opposed to straight teens.

    What do the religionists say: “See, this is scientific proof that it is immoral (contrary to one’s wellbeing) to be gay.”

    Which is easily countered by comparing the suicide rates against countries where homosexuality is not stigmatized to the same extent as the US. If it was immoral to be gay, then suicide of gay teens would be as bad a problem in every country, and in every part of the US, rather than being related to the degree of acceptance of homosexuality in society.

    The existence of bad arguments from religious nuts is no reason to ignore the possibility of good evidence-based argument about morality.

  • MissCherryPi

    This whole argument pretty much sums up a large chunk of “Why I Am Not An Atheist.”

    The objective morality Harris describes is not self evident to many people, including atheists. It is self evident and real to me, and so I feel the need to identify as part of a group that uses fiat for it to exist. An unorthodox definition of theism for sure.

    Perhaps a more accurate term would be “anti-nihilist militant agnosticism.” Unitarian Universalist is catchier and trendier, however. So I go with that.

  • Kaelik

    @Grimalkin:

    “No, he doesn’t. He says that we have trouble defining it completely now, but that there have been a lot of advancements in the field of neuroscience that can compensate for the “but I enjoy beating my wife!” sort of individual goal. He’s essentially saying “morality is a scientific question and we will one day be able to answer it through scientific means, but that day isn’t quite here yet.”"

    And he’s objectively wrong, except when he begs the question by defining well being to be the things that he likes.

    It’s not that we have trouble defining well being right now, but it’s possible to define it correctly with more evidence. “Well being” is not Pi, to be ever more accurately understood. All definitions of well being are equally arbitrary and without use, until you make the subjective decision to attempt to realize one over another.

    Saying “Well being is what is best for the society” or “Well being is purely an individual concern, and we can only aggregate what is best for the largest number of members of the society, while being the least bad for the others” or anything else, even aside from the fact that both of those smuggle in other aspects to their definition (like what makes a society or individual well), are both equally arbitrary definitions of well being that you cannot pick between without a subjective assertion.

    You can’t objectively define well being at all, and you can’t get a majority to agree on any subjective definition, much less everyone.

    “He does also allow for multiple answers to the same questions. So your idea of what makes you happy and your mother’s may both be perfectly legitimate, equally good ways to achieve well-being.”

    No, this isn’t about what actions would make each of us well. This is about what constitutes well. It is impossible for me winning the lottery and never working again to both objectively make me well, as I would assert, and objectively make me less well, as my mother would assert. It is not that we have different things that make us each happy, it is that she believes that contribution to society is essential to my well being, and in fact, everyone elses, and I believe that this is not only not a necessary contribution to my well being, but completely superfluous.

    “One thing to keep in mind, however, is that “well-being” doesn’t necessarily mean “happiness.” I may feel really happy if I eat a tub of ice-cream right now, but my long-term well-being (especially half and hour from now) may not agree.”

    It’s almost like I already know that, but it doesn’t solve any problems, and instead creates them, as demonstrated by the fact that many people believe that someone is more well for having contributed to society, but been less happy because of it, and others disagree.

    Hedonism vs Moral obligations doesn’t go away by adding other things that could be well being besides happiness, because people still disagree over the definition of well being.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ok. So, we’re going to use real scientific research and apply it to the social level.

    So, if all of the real scientific research shows that gays (at this point in time in the US) are really really struggling (that scientific measures of their personal well-being are extremely poor — i.e. they kill themselves, they suffer disproportionately with mental illness, they struggle economically, they have more health problems), how should we apply that scientific research to the social level?

    One person says that we should criminalize being gay.

    One person says that we should advance the field of gene therapy so that we can eradicate gayness.

    One person says that we should implement hate speech and hate crime legislation to criminalize anyone who thinks being gay is bad.

    Who’s right? Whose morality wins?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I question your statement that most nations have eradicated the death penalty, because it has been shown to be counterproductive.

    I would have to do some research, but I’m not sure that this is entirely accurate.

    I think most nations have abolished the death penalty, because it is contrary to the paradigm of individual human rights as established by international human rights and humanitarian law.

    The goal of our legal system is (in my mind, for the most part) and should be maximizing individual liberty.

    This is neither classical libertarianism nor anarchy.

    My freedom to live my life as I wish is dependent upon my residing within a secure and highly functioning society.

    I think we should devise a legal / political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.

    Look around — as societies move away from fetishizing the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad and move towards employing their legal / political systems to maximize individual liberty (i.e. as societies move away from theocracies and move towards democracies), they also move towards the flourishing end of the societal spectrum.

    Also, if morality is not the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad, then what is it?

    And, yes, Sam wants to maximize well-being, but how does he want to do this?

    By using evidence and reason to categorize human behaviors as good and bad.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Love your comment, MissCherryPi.

    I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I love it nonetheless.

  • Sarah Braasch

    And, in my mind, Sam is saying:

    Good equals promotes well being.

    Bad equals hinders well being.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I know I have to stop commenting, but kaelik, I agree with you completely.

    And, I want to cut some folks off at the pass.

    I’m not saying that my version of well-being is maximum liberty.

    And, that everyone should conform to my version of morality and that behaviors that promote individual liberty are good and behaviors that hinder individual liberty are bad.

    I’m saying that, because kaelik is right, we have no other choice but to allow people to define their own personal morality for themselves, to the greatest extent possible.

    And, because I want to avoid the conundrum of categorizing behaviors as good and bad, I think we should employ game theory. (The push-pull of the counter-majoritarian and majoritarian (moral majority) elements of our current legal / political system attempt to approximate this, IMO, but we can do better.)

    I can’t define well being other than in purely subjective terms.

    But, I can define freedom (or at least the lack of freedom) in purely objective terms.

    I want to perform an action, and I am either constrained or not.

  • Andrew G.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I question your statement that most nations have eradicated the death penalty, because it has been shown to be counterproductive.

    I would have to do some research, but I’m not sure that this is entirely accurate.

    I think most nations have abolished the death penalty, because it is contrary to the paradigm of individual human rights as established by international human rights and humanitarian law.

    In the UK, the death penalty for murder was abolished in two stages; in 1965 it was abolished for a five-year period, with a provision allowing Parliament to make the abolition permanent, which was done in late 1969. The arguments made in Parliament at that later time focused quite strongly on the crime statistics of the previous years, which did not show any increase which could reasonably be attributed to the abolition.

    It was not until much later that the death penalties for other offences (treason (1998), piracy (1998), naval arson (1971), espionage (1981)) were abolished. You could argue that this is not significant due to the rarity of those crimes (no-one was executed for any of them after 1946), but it does reinforce that the primary drive behind abolition was practical rather than ideological. The matter was regularly debated in Parliament up until 1998; this answer to a written question in 1996 is probably typical of the position 1969-1997:

    The Government have no plans to review its policy towards the sixth protocol to the European convention on human rights. The Government believe that the question of the reintroduction of capital punishment for murder or its abolition for those offences for which it is still available are matters for Parliament to decide. [HC Deb 12 November 1996 vol 285 c124W]

  • Andrew G.

    Ok. So, we’re going to use real scientific research and apply it to the social level.

    So, if all of the real scientific research shows that gays (at this point in time in the US) are really really struggling (that scientific measures of their personal well-being are extremely poor — i.e. they kill themselves, they suffer disproportionately with mental illness, they struggle economically, they have more health problems), how should we apply that scientific research to the social level?

    One person says that we should criminalize being gay.

    One person says that we should advance the field of gene therapy so that we can eradicate gayness.

    One person says that we should implement hate speech and hate crime legislation to criminalize anyone who thinks being gay is bad.

    Who’s right? Whose morality wins?

    If we criminalize being gay, we know from the evidence that we will substantially reduce the well-being of many people with no gain. (People don’t stop being gay just because it’s illegal.)

    We have no reliable evidence that gayness could be eradicated by gene therapy, so that solution is off the table (and if in some hypothetical future it became possible, there is an argument against it in that artificially reducing human diversity is itself immoral).

    Option 3 is a caricature; no-one is proposing criminalizing anyone who merely thinks that being gay is bad. You clearly understand this, so why are you putting up such an obvious straw man?

    Isn’t it obvious that everyone in society is better off when rational policies are adopted aimed at reducing discrimination against minorities of any kind? Certainly a good hate-crimes law might result in some dissatisfaction amongst potential gay-bashers, but this is easily offset by the much larger benefit to potential victims.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Andrew G.,

    Yawn.

    You are talking around yourself in concentric sophistry circles.

    What I clearly understand is that hate speech and hate crime legislation criminalize thoughts, not actions, but I’ve explained this in detail on other threads here so many times that I loathe doing it yet again.

    The point about gene therapy is hypocritical, because we also happen to be talking about a hypothetical future in which we will have sufficient evidence to make it possible to categorize all human behaviors as good and bad, because they either advance or inhibit well-being, whatever well-being means. And, if I had evidence that artificially reducing human diversity promoted well-being, because it reduced divisions and tribalism and, therefore, minimized war and genocide and slavery and torture?

    I guess I’m going to need to hear more about all of this evidence that we will substantially reduce the well being of many people with no gain if we criminalize being gay.

    What if I could show you evidence that forcing gay people to hide their gayness and assimilate into hetero society improves all of those theoretical statistics that I mentioned previously? They kill themselves less frequently, they make more money, they suffer fewer health problems, they suffer less from mental disorders?

    What then?

    You’re using lots of expressions about how things are obvious and evident.

    I think that brings us back to Kaelik’s excellent comment.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Instead of all of these pointless arguments about what is and is not moral or immoral, isn’t it easier and better to do as the Supreme Court did in Lawrence v. TX, and as the CA District Court did in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, and just say that one’s personal moral judgment is neither an adequate nor a justifiable basis for legislation?

  • Sarah Braasch

    In other words, no one cares what Dick or Jane thinks is moral or immoral.

    I know that I certainly don’t.

    I’m so sorry. I’m banishing myself now.

    I know that I’m probably becoming annoying.

    Have a good night.

  • Andrew G.

    What I clearly understand is that hate speech and hate crime legislation criminalize thoughts, not actions,

    Correctly framed, they don’t do this to any greater extent than any other criminal law does. (“Intention” is a necessary component of most crimes, after all.)

    The point about gene therapy is hypocritical, because we also happen to be talking about a hypothetical future in which we will have sufficient evidence to make it possible to categorize all human behaviors as good and bad, because they either advance or inhibit well-being, whatever well-being means.

    You might be talking about that, but I think most people recognize that knowledge is always incomplete.

    And, if I had evidence that artificially reducing human diversity promoted well-being, because it reduced divisions and tribalism and, therefore, minimized war and genocide and slavery and torture?

    For one thing, reducing genetic diversity substantially increases the risk of extinction, which is pretty much by definition the maximally immoral action possible.

    For another, you don’t have such evidence and aren’t likely to, since historically many major wars have been fought between populations distinguished only by geographical location and sometimes culture, and not genetics to any significant extent.

  • Andrew G.

    Instead of all of these pointless arguments about what is and is not moral or immoral, isn’t it easier and better to do as the Supreme Court did in Lawrence v. TX, and as the CA District Court did in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, and just say that one’s personal moral judgment is neither an adequate nor a justifiable basis for legislation?

    Nobody in their right minds considers that one’s personal moral judgement is a basis for legislation. (“Personal moral opinions” would be a better phrase.)

    The point of any moral realist position is that “personal moral opinions” can be factually wrong. You are arguing as though there can never be anything more to morality than those opinions, whereas Harris’s (and Ebon’s, and Carrier’s, and any number of other ethicists’ *) position is that there really is a basis on which to say that some ethical statement is more or less true than another.

    We don’t (reasonably) grant people’s opinions on factual matters any privilege over what we see in the real world, so why should we do so for their moral opinions?

    * – according to the philpapers survey, professional philosophers run about 2:1 in favour of moral realism over anti-realism, slightly higher in the fields of normative ethics and applied ethics

  • Sarah Braasch

    I can’t believe I’m getting sucked into the hate crime discussion again. No. Ok. I’ll just say that mens rea (mental intent) and motive are two separate things. Criminal law makes mens rea an element of the crime but NOT motive. Not until the recent implementation of hate crime legislation. Now motive is an element of the crime. This is thought crime.

    Mens rea just means that you intended to hit someone, for example. It doesn’t include the motive — why you intended to hit someone. Mens rea is important as an element of the crime in criminal law, because we don’t punish people for doing things accidentally or while under duress, or, at least, we punish them less severely, because they are less culpable. In the Model Penal Code, mens rea is defined as purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently having done something.

    But, now we are punishing people for their motives. This is thought crime. Before, you could bring motive in as evidence that it was more or less probable that someone did something purposely, etc., etc., but it was never an element of the crime. Now it is. Shame on us.

    I guess I’ll be in the minority yet again then.

    A position I’m familiar with.

    Ok. I really have to run.

    Thanks for the great discussion. Good night.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I’m not saying that we should favor people’s moral opinions.

    I’m saying that we should disregard them all together.

    I’m saying that the whole conversation about morality is a waste of time.

  • Explorer

    Personally, I think we should stop talking about “morality” and “ethics” altogether. They are religious fantasies. “Right” and “wrong” are no more real than God, Satan and fairies; they are but constructs of the human mind.

    What really exists are preferences/goals/ends and means to those ends. Determination of what the goals are (not “should be”, *are*) can only be done at the level of the individual intelligence. The universe doesn’t care. These individual goals can be modified by experience, including interaction with other intelligences. Self-interest, enlightened or no, plays a key role here.

    Note that (in policy speak) we’re talking about outcomes here, not inputs and outputs. We value what happens for the mental states events ultimate give rise to in us, not for anything intrinsic to the events themselves. For most people their individual goals will be similar – to lead a life with more happiness and less suffering. What differs is what makes us happy and what makes us suffer (although even there, there will be large areas of agreement).

    The problem then is not in discovering what is right, but in arbitrating between differing goals and means to those goals. It is in the interests of all those who do not carry the biggest stick to agree to rules that will give them a “fair” chance of having their own goals achieved. Rawls’ veil of ignorance is instructive here. Effectively, this amounts to the same thing as Harris’ scientific utilitarian morality, but gives it a more stable footing, by removing appeals to “good” and “bad”. Morality is a myth.

    Sarah is right that game theory is probably the best tool to approach this space with. I am also more-or-less in accord with Sarah’s maximising liberty as a principle for law-making, except to note that it must be limited by the Lockean principle that one ought (i.e. it is in each of our enlightened best interests) to leave as much and as good of what nature provides for the next person. (That includes things like the atmosphere’s ability to sink carbon, for example.) This principle is becoming increasingly important as we reach (and in some cases already exceed) the planet’s capacity to provide for all our wants. Unrestrained growth will destroy us all, and that would not accord with most people’s inner mental state outcome goals.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hey everyone,

    I’m really enjoying reading the comments on this thread. I’m going to respond to as many people as I can, so this is a long one – please bear with me.

    @Ebon – The criticism I have always received when I propose this basis for morality is that it’s “utilitarian.” That’s it, no other explanation, as though the fact that something is useful automatically makes it bad. It’s quite odd.

    I’m given to suspect, Grimalkin, that this is the lingering influence of religion. Too many people think of morality as something established by fiat, a set of decrees that are just dropped on us from out of the sky with no justification given – and in fact, they think it’s essential to the nature of morality that this should be so. To people who hold this belief, the idea of morality being something you could figure out is deeply threatening, because if we understand the reasons why the rules are what they are, there’ll be no incentive to obey them.

    I know it makes no sense when described that way, but there you have it. It’s similar, I’d argue, to the way some people want to claim our minds are made of mysterious dualistic soul-stuff, and that if our brains instead work by comprehensible principles, that would somehow deprive us of real or meaningful existence. In both cases, it’s the influence of religion that makes people want mysteries to remain mysterious.

    My mother and I have consistently disagreed from as long as I was old enough to talk to her about what constitutes well being. And that’s my mother, who raised me and is very similar to me genetically. If we can’t agree about what does and does not constitute well being, then how can we expect their to be an objective consensus?

    This is an obvious fallacy, Kaelik. The fact that two people disagree, even if their disagreement is intractable, doesn’t prove that neither is right or that there’s no truth of the matter. There are creationists who will insist to their last breath that evolution is false; does that mean there’s no objective answer to the question of whether evolution occurred?

    The existence of bad arguments from religious nuts is no reason to ignore the possibility of good evidence-based argument about morality.

    Thank you, Andrew! That sums up exactly what I was trying to say. The real problem here, the one that’s clouding some people’s thought in this thread, is that religion has since time immemorial claimed morality as its sole domain and proclaimed itself the only arbiter of what’s good or bad for human beings to do. Now the atheist movement is starting to show this for the falsehood it is; but the problem is that some people, even some atheists, are so used to morality and religion being intertwined that they believe giving up belief in one means giving up the other as well.

    As it happens, I completely reject that. Instead, I think we can build a better morality, a real one, one that’s founded in reason and evidence rather than dogma and superstition. The problem was never that religion believed there were such things as “good” and “bad”. The problem is that it defined those terms in reference to the inscrutable will of a nonexistent supernatural being, rather than grounding them firmly in this life and this world, as Sam Harris and I do. As Harris says in the above excerpt, morality is really just the way of figuring out how we can best live together in harmony, of figuring out what ends we should cooperate to support in order to produce the best life for all of us. And this is a question that has right and wrong answers, regardless of what practical difficulties there may be in figuring out which is which.

    The goal of our legal system is (in my mind, for the most part) and should be maximizing individual liberty… as societies move away from fetishizing the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad and move towards employing their legal / political systems to maximize individual liberty (i.e. as societies move away from theocracies and move towards democracies), they also move towards the flourishing end of the societal spectrum.

    Hi Sarah!

    Well, let me start by asking a cheeky question (but with a serious point): Why do you value individual liberty? What is it about liberty that makes it an objective to be preferred, rather than any of the other qualities we might try to increase? Why (to be facetious) shouldn’t we try to maximize tyranny instead?

    Don’t think I’m disagreeing with you – I’m not. I do believe that liberty is something worth expanding to the greatest extent possible. The question is what reason we might have to think that way. This is a point I addressed in an older post on the roots of morality:

    If some proposed moral system claims that the ultimate virtue is something like justice or obedience or duty or piety, we can always ask why that should be, why we should choose that quality and not a different one. Granted, there cannot be an infinite regress of justifications; any chain of explanations must stop somewhere. However, we should not stop sooner than we have to. If we are truly to reach the roots of morality, we should keep asking the question of why as long as it can be meaningfully answered.

    If one devotes some thought to the matter, I believe it will become obvious that there is, and can be, only one answer. No matter what quality anyone proposes as the root of morality, it is always possible to ask why we should value that quality and not some other – except for one. There is only one quality that is immune to this question and that therefore can truly serve as the foundation of morality, and that quality is happiness.

    I’m in favor of liberty precisely because I do believe that greater liberty improves human well-being, and I believe this because I believe that each person is the best judge of what makes himself or herself happy. We should, therefore, grant every person in society the maximum possible freedom to pursue their own vision of the good.

    But in terms of your ultimate foundation for morality, I think happiness is a better one than liberty, and here’s why: even if you define the goal of law as maximizing liberty, you’ll still run into situations where people have incompatible ideas of what constitutes freedom, situations where granting one person’s goal requires restricting someone else’s. For example: What if I want to hike in a forest to enjoy its natural beauty, and someone else would rather cut it down and strip-mine the land for profit? Or what if I want to canoe on a lake in peace and quiet, and someone else would rather roar around on it in a motorboat, which kicks up so much of a wake that it makes canoeing dangerous?

    Or another one: What if workers at a factory want to strike for a better wage, while the owner of that factory wants to fire anyone who tries to organize? Whose liberty takes precedence: the workers’ to engage in collective action without retribution, or the owner’s to run his business any way he chooses? Whose liberty is more deserving of protection?

    Or this: I’m renting a house from a landlord, and even though I’m paid up on my rent and don’t throw loud parties, the landlord finds out I’m an atheist and wants to evict me. Should he have the liberty to do that?

    These are inescapably moral questions, and when you hit an impasse like any of these, there’s no way to proceed without some notion of whose wishes should take priority and why. If happiness is the standard, this is a dilemma that can be answered: you can determine, in principle, what course of action would produce the best results for everyone concerned, not just in this immediate situation but in the precedent that would be set for similar situations in the future.

    What if I could show you evidence that forcing gay people to hide their gayness and assimilate into hetero society improves all of those theoretical statistics that I mentioned previously? They kill themselves less frequently, they make more money, they suffer fewer health problems, they suffer less from mental disorders?

    If you could show us evidence of that, then we would have to consider it, of course. There’s nothing to be gained by willfully denying reality. The same would be true if you could show us evidence that forcing women into arranged marriages produces greater happiness for those women and their families in the long run, or that segregating the races leads to greater racial harmony and stability, or that denying freedom of speech to atheists causes a dramatic reduction in disease and natural disasters – if you could produce evidence for any of those propositions.

    But I don’t think there is any such evidence, nor do I think there ever will be. In fact, the reason I oppose all those practices is precisely because I think there’s vast amounts of evidence disproving them and supporting the opposite positions. I oppose those practices because I think it’s an incredibly well-established fact that each one of them leads to a dramatic reduction in human well-being and happiness, with no compensatory gain in other areas. After all, what other reason would there be to oppose something? Why else would you be against gay conversion therapy, arranged marriages, racial segregation, or state censorship, if not because you believed they were harmful and detrimental to human well-being and happiness?

  • Charles

    Harris assumes too much. Why should I care about “human flourishing” rather than my own. He thinks he can just define the problem away. In my opinion, ‘desirism’ is far more persuasive.
    http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11626

  • Kaelik

    @Ebonmuse

    “This is an obvious fallacy, Kaelik. The fact that two people disagree, even if their disagreement is intractable, doesn’t prove that neither is right or that there’s no truth of the matter. There are creationists who will insist to their last breath that evolution is false; does that mean there’s no objective answer to the question of whether evolution occurred?”

    Nice of you to dismiss my entire point in favor of selectively quotemining one part out of context to call a fallacy.

    I am not claiming that objective morality is impossible because two people disagree. I am claiming that the problem of “well being” is that people disagree about what constitutes well being, and there exists no objective way to declare one definition correct and another incorrect.

    There is an objective truth about the age of the universe. I can know this precisely because when arguments about the age of the universe come up, people appeal to objective facts about reality to dissolve those disagreements.

    But what hasn’t happened yet, is you, or my mother, or me, or Sam Harris, or anyone else in the entire world ever appealing to objective facts about the universe to assert that their definition of well being is superior to everyone else’s.

    It may be that this is the case only because people have failed to discover them. But until presented with some objective facts that lead to the elevation of a specific definition of well being above all others, I’m going to continue to assume that all the people who can’t come up with them can’t come up with them because they don’t exist.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ebon,

    I am giving very serious consideration to your points.

    This is fun. I don’t usually get to debate you. But, that’s because we mostly agree, I flatter myself to think.

    Ok. I actually want to start with your latter point, and I want to give a little more thought to your former.

    You love Andrew’s comment about how it’s stupid to ignore good evidence based moral arguments.

    Ok. Fine.

    And, you chide me, gently, for suggesting a theoretical in which I find solid evidence which could support a moral proposition, which goes against the moral grain for most persons, or, at least, for most of the persons reading this, most likely.

    You say I’ll never find such evidence, but if I did, you would have to consider it.

    And, I guess, I would have to say the same. Ok. If you find solid evidence for your moral arguments, I guess I would have to consider it.

    But, here’s the punchline.

    I’m the only one who realizes that I’ll never find my evidence. I know I presented a theoretical, which will never be an actuality.

    You don’t realize that.

    This is why I think the whole conversation is a complete waste of time. Not just a waste of time, but actually dangerous, and an obstacle to the development of a global society.

    And, even if you find a little evidence, there will be just as much contradictory evidence.

    And, all of the evidence will be able to be interpreted in ways, which are attuned to your moral intuitions and ways that will be diametrically opposed to your moral intuitions.

    Sure, in theory, if we spend the rest of humanity’s existence, and use our best minds and supercomputers, maybe, in a few millennia, after we’ve already killed one another, some super computer will gasp its last breath and in doing so will spit out the final compilation of all good and bad human behaviors.

    And, actually, I DO already have evidence that this is what will happen.

    A my point about the high suicide rate amongst gay teens. (Being employed by different camps in different ways to defend their various points of view.)

    B my point about Perry v. Schwarzenegger.

    Actually this is a PERFECT example of what will happen:

    In Perry v Schwarzenegger — the pro and anti gays camps both brought in bucket loads of statistics and studies and facts and figures and data, all of which said that both gay marriage will destroy the world and that gay marriage will be the bedrock upon which the future of humanity will flourish.

    What it came down to is this: the judge said — this is ridiculous. This is a personal moral judgment. It has no place in the law.

    So, even if you believe that there are objective moral answers in principle.

    Some people do. Some people don’t. I tend to fall on the don’t side of the matter.

    You will never find those answers. You are wasting your time.

    We have better ways to spend our few hours before we shake off this mortal coil.

    We have better ways to organize our societies.

    Much better.

    Our legal system is finally realizing this. Don’t let us atheists send us backwards.

    We should be the avant-garde ones pushing us towards the future.

    I think a lot of this boils down to wanting to have an answer when we get berated for not having morals.

    But, I just say to the religionists: Yeah, I know I have no objective or absolute or universal basis for a moral standard. Oh, guess what, neither do you.

    I hate to see atheists fall into this trap.

    Let’s not play this game with the religionists. It will be our swan song.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    The first thing I thought when I read the Sam Harris quote, is that some people would enjoy smashing each others heads in with large rocks. As long as it’s between two consenting adults, who are we to judge?

    Having said that, I think Sam Harris is onto something here. I watched a TED talk by him a while ago on this same topic and I was totally like “YES! He is singing my tune!”

  • Sarah Braasch

    And, do you want to know what the anti-gays camp from Perry v Schwarzenegger is saying in their appeal?

    That the judge wrongfully dismissed their EVIDENCE.

    The appeals court tends not to review facts — so this might be difficult. But still.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ok. So the harder question.

    Since I’m sticking by my morality is bogus, don’t waste my time stance, now I have to justify my candidate in the societal olympics without resorting to moral arguments.

    But, first — dude, you can not be serious with the happiness is immune to being questioned as the basis for morality? Cause watch me — right now — I’m questioning it.

    I think individual liberty is immune (well, I actually think my candidate is amoral, so it is really immune, because I am not suggesting it to be the basis of a morality at all), but I’m in the process of figuring out why, and writing something intelligent on the subject, and will probably get back to you on that tomorrow.

    This is actually why I decided to go back to school and get my PhD in Philosophy.

    Because I want to be able to fight for my candidate in the societal olympics.

    More later.

    Night.

  • Kaelik

    “Why else would you be against gay conversion therapy, arranged marriages, racial segregation, or state censorship, if not because you believed they were harmful and detrimental to human well-being and happiness?”

    Because they negatively effect me or people I specifically care about.

    So Ebonmuse, what is your definition of well being, since it so far appears identical to happiness, does that mean you reject all other considerations? How about the robot utopia where no one ever accomplishes anything, but lives in a state of constant happiness?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    “Why else would you be against gay conversion therapy, arranged marriages, racial segregation, or state censorship, if not because you believed they were harmful and detrimental to human well-being and happiness?”

    Because they negatively effect me or people I specifically care about.

    Now wait just a minute here!

    First of all: Are you saying you wouldn’t care about those things as long as they weren’t happening to anyone you personally know? Or do you mean something different by the phrase “people I specifically care about” than the obvious reading?

    Second: What is this “negatively affect” phrase? How is this not just the dreaded, undefined criterion of “well-being”, a principle which you’ve made it clear you firmly reject, smuggled into your argument under another name? You can’t appeal to a standard you don’t accept!

  • Kaelik

    “First of all: Are you saying you wouldn’t care about those things as long as they weren’t happening to anyone you personally know? Or do you mean something different by the phrase “people I specifically care about” than the obvious reading?”

    Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.

    “Second: What is this “negatively affect” phrase? How is this not just the dreaded, undefined criterion of “well-being”, a principle which you’ve made it clear you firmly reject, smuggled into your argument under another name? You can’t appeal to a standard you don’t accept!”

    Why do moral realists always get confused every time someone who is not a moral realist talks to them and start whining about how we are being moral realists.

    I like certain things, and don’t like other things. I want to obtain the things I like, and avoid the things I don’t like. That could be supposed to be a definition of “well being” to obtain what you like, and avoid what you don’t. But here’s the thing:

    I’m not proposing that my personal individual well being is in any way related to morality, and I am not proposing that my personal well being is based on anything objective at all, except generally the laws of physics and chemistry, applied to my subjective brain.

    I’m not claiming that my definition of well being “obtain what I do like, and avoid what I don’t” is a better definition of well being than anything else. I am just saying it’s the thing that I do.

    I’m also not claiming it as the basis for any system of morality, subjective or objective, because I understand the definition of morality to be something besides “the reason X happens” Since that would mean that neutrons are subject to the moral law of gravity, which is pretty silly.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    “First of all: Are you saying you wouldn’t care about those things as long as they weren’t happening to anyone you personally know? Or do you mean something different by the phrase “people I specifically care about” than the obvious reading?”

    Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.

    Well, I’m certainly glad we cleared that up. Anyone else have a comment they’d like me to address?

  • Kaelik

    “Well, I’m certainly glad we cleared that up. Anyone else have a comment they’d like me to address?”

    Oh goody, the old “Someone doesn’t agree with my personal feelings about what is good or bad, I guess I’ll just write them off and pretend that any facts the present don’t exist, and that they are generally incapable of understanding factual inaccuracy, because it’s impossible to be rational if you disagree with my subjective judgments.”

    Good thing I don’t do that, or I’d be very lonely.

    It’s precisely this reaction that all moral realists resort to when faced with any disagreement with their personal subjective feelings that makes me wonder how you people can even pretend to be moral realists.

    If there are no objective facts to cause people to support your moral intuitions over any one else’s, then how can you call your morality objective?

    This is literally identical to how William Lane Craig argues for God. “This premise is so obviously true that I don’t need to defend it, even though many people reject it. What, you disagree with my controversial premise? Then I guess there is no point in defending my premise, I just won’t have any conversation with you until you accept my premise.”

  • Mathew Wilder

    I’m actually with Kaelik here. I think moral realism is false. Reading about J.L. Mackie’s arguments first convinced me, but since then I have come across a few other philosophers who convincingly defend an error-theoretic view. I recommend Richard Garner’s “Beyond Morality” (almost all of which is available at beyondmorality.com), Richard Joyce even more (http://www-personal.usyd.edu.au/~rjoyce/onlinepapers.html), and Josh Greene the most (so far – only about 100 pages in using pdf pages) (http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Greene-Dissertation.pdf). Midway through pg 82-midway through pg 84 of the pdf pages is quite germane to mine and Kaelik’s comments.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Forgive a simple redneck like me for saying that if I wouldn’t want you doing it to me, I ought not do it to you, and that’s as moral as we need to get.

    Original? Not hardly. Workable? Yep.

  • David

    Once the Jesus is gone, the need/desire for morality still remains as an imprint of organized religion.

    Why should atheists be uneasy about admitting there are no “real” moral values? Because we do not want to look bad in front of judgmental theists? Please.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Sounds sensible to me Thump.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I was very happy to discover from Greene’s dissertation that I can reject the idea of objective moral truth while attempting to create a legal/political system that balances the individual and society and still call myself a moral nihilist.

    Or, at least, I think I can. I’m just not a radical nihilist. But, now I know that I am a moral anti-realist. I still don’t completely understand the term error-theory.

    There are certainly people participating in this thread who are more adept at philosophy than I.

    My philosophical musings probably sound like baby talk.

    But, I intend to remedy this state of affairs.

    I think even classifying the golden rule as an objective moral truth is going too far.

  • Rollingforest

    The problem with maximizing happiness (aka utilitarianism) is that it doesn’t take individual rights into account. The classic example of this is that if you have five teenagers dying from five different organ failures, then according to utilitarianism, you should find a homeless person, kill them, cut them up, and use their organs to save the five teenagers. Most people tend to support Kant in saying that even if this maximizes happiness it is still wrong because you have violated the homeless person’s individual right not to be murdered.

    The problem with maximizing liberty is that it often produces much less happiness as can be seen in some of the examples that Ebon gave. Another example is public schools (or the lack there of). A rich person maximizing liberty would say that the state has no right to take money from him through taxes to pay for a school that his children will never go to. But if we hold this position then we are greatly reducing happiness because of the number of poor students who don’t get to go to public schools and thus are much more likely to live in poverty for the rest of their lives.

    So we need to take a middle course that respects individual rights while also trying to maximize happiness. I agree with the basic libertarian principle that everything should be legal unless it hurts others. We just disagree on what hurts others.

    Ebon’s original point, that assuming that the goal should be maximizing human welfare is as philosophically valid as assuming that induction works, is a very interesting one. I think it is a good point, though I would point out that induction deals with the world which we at least have the sensation of seeing whereas morality deals with the more abstract values system. So while I’m not entirely comfortable with this comparison, I’ll be thinking about the pros and cons of it.

  • Andrew G.

    The problem with maximizing happiness (aka utilitarianism) is that it doesn’t take individual rights into account. The classic example of this is that if you have five teenagers dying from five different organ failures, then according to utilitarianism, you should find a homeless person, kill them, cut them up, and use their organs to save the five teenagers. Most people tend to support Kant in saying that even if this maximizes happiness it is still wrong because you have violated the homeless person’s individual right not to be murdered.

    I take a different tack in arguing this point. What would be the effect on society of allowing this to happen? Would it produce a net decrease in happiness as a result of the fact that no-one would be able to consider themselves safe from arbitrary organ harvesting? I would claim that the negative effect massively outweighs the positive one; therefore there is no need to appeal to “rights” to resolve the question.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yeah, I wasn’t trying to imply that the Golden Rule is objective. In fact, subjectivism is built into it.

    That doesn’t bother me, given that only a very few people desire pain or suffering, and then only in specific contexts.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I discuss the involuntary-organ-transplant scenario in an older post on universal utilitarianism.

  • Kaelik

    I prefer the Silver rule for the purpose of abstract, design your society arguments.

    “Don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you.” That way you aren’t explicitly telling me I should be engaging in SM play with everyone I meet, and I can choose not to do that.

    What people want done to them varies considerably from individual to individual, what people wish to avoid is more broadly agreed on, though not completely.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I’d be astonished if anyone I had met in person had made some of the remarks in this thread. However, this is the internet, and I’ve seen even worse.

    @Kaelik:

    Let me be the first to say that you’re either a troll, a hypocrite, or a sociopath. It is neither reasonable nor socially acceptable to say that the only person’s welfare or happiness that should be considered is your own. Why would anyone bother to take you seriously when you admit, with extreme prejudice, that you don’t care about their goals or happiness?

    Or are you one of those who say that individuals should have to force consideration of themselves onto others by whatever means or power is available to them? That this is the only system by which society can function? I’ve met individuals like this; the strange part is that their actions didn’t match their words in the slightest.

    @Sarah:

    You’re correct to imply that following evidence won’t ever lead us to the ultimate moral truth. However, that statement means nothing at all — the concept of an “ultimate” moral truth garners no power. This is the fundamental flaw in thinking of the world in discrete binary states. “Truth” is not a simple delineation of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. It is an infinite delineation of degrees; a continuous spectrum of possibility. While we do not, and never will, reach a state in which we can say we are absolutely right, we can as a civilization slowly progress toward being more right than we were before.

    This isn’t a fundamentally new idea. It’s exactly how all empirical processes work, including scientific induction. We progressed from the idea of a flat Earth to a round Earth, from a round Earth to an ovoid Earth, from an ovoid Earth to an Earth with countless imperfections in its overall shape. Our knowledge of the Universe and its origins has been refined in a similar way: a geo-centric Universe, then solar-centric, then galaxy-centric, up to an understanding of existing in a single arbitrary galaxy among the innumerable.

    Claiming that we haven’t, and never will, find evidence for or against particular moral systems or codes of ethics is silly. We have an abundance of such evidence already, formed by the history of human civilization. We know, for instance, that societies which practice slavery exact an enormous toll on their members. Whether we are measuring this toll in units of “happiness”, “liberty”, “justice”, or any other word you want to give to inherent good is utterly irrelevant.

    Just as importantly, by what standard are you claiming we judge behavior, since you are self-avowedly a “moral nihilist”? I know that you do not believe we cannot or shall not judge behavior, so there must be something to it. However, all you refer to specifically is the law and reason. Laws are purely rules made by people; they’re no standard unto themselves and no place to start from. Reason is useful, of course, but it suffers from a fatal defect when used alone. How do you know whether the conclusion of an argument from reason is, in fact, not merely logically correct but factually correct?

    Except in the instance of purely abstract concepts, like God or the integers and forms of mathematics, any reasoned argument must at some point touch on some aspect of the real world. At that point it becomes subject to empirical review. For arguments from reason which are logically valid (conclusion follows from the premises), this is normally done by challenging the accuracy of the premises.

    Upon what basis would you challenge the premises of a well reasoned argument, other than empiricism? If this is the only basis, then it follows that essentially all meaningful moral, ethical, and behavioral arguments are at their core reliant on evidence.

    To close the loop, what is the law and other constraints on human behavior to be based upon, if not meaningful moral, ethical, and behavioral arguments?

    @Ebonmuse:

    I agree that there must be some essential starting premise where we begin consideration. It makes no sense to talk of the direction of human beings and human society without some concept of a goal or principle in mind. Indeed, that may even be an outright contradiction.

    However, I see no particular reason to think that “happiness” is the only such basis where we could begin. I think it is possible to start from any concept which could be fairly regarded as an essential good. These include “justice”, “liberty”, “knowledge”, “peace/harmony”, and perhaps others. Happiness is the one particular idea that Bentham and Mill sourced to form the basis of Utilitarian thought. While the concept of spreading happiness is quite compelling, I do not see it as more compelling than other essential goods.

    It is interesting to think of the different sorts of societies one might end up with, if organized with the intent to maximize the various different essential goods. One can imagine, for instance, that a society organized around peace and harmony would end up looking rather different than one organized around liberty.

    In practice, I don’t think we should ignore any of the essential goods when making considerations of the worth of a particular action, set of behaviors, law, social structure, or similar. It is because some are ignored some of the time that Utilitarianism becomes criticized by Deontologists (as well as value theorists, authoritarians, and others). When you treat happiness and liberty both as essential goods which need to be balanced and considered, it is much more difficult to run into what I call “sacrifice conundrums”. That is, instances where sacrificing the happiness of one or a few people would greatly increase the happiness of many. These kind of scenarios are what Rollingforest was talking about in #51.

  • Kaelik

    @kagerato

    “Let me be the first to say that you’re either a troll, a hypocrite, or a sociopath.”

    Well since the definition of sociopath is “a disregard for the rights of others and unable to conform to what society defines as a normal personality” yes, I am a sociopath.

    I believe it is false to say that human beings have “rights” where rights are defined as anything objective, or inherent, as opposed to subjective and imposed. Since I believe this to be outside the scope of what “society” defines as a normal personality, that would make me a sociopath.

    But if I am correct about the objective lack of rights, then being a sociopath doesn’t make me wrong, in fact, it would make all non sociopaths incorrect.

    “It is neither reasonable nor socially acceptable to say that the only person’s welfare or happiness that should be considered is your own.”

    First of all, I did not say that anything should be considered, I state that the only thing that I do consider in making my actions is my own happiness. There are lots of people who act based on this consideration only, and there’s even a name for it, hedonism.

    Secondly, saying “You should only consider your own happiness in making your decisions” is equally as reasonable as the claim “You should consider every sentient being’s happiness” or “every conscious being’s” or “every being of your species” or “God’s” or any other moral theory (Okay, technically, that last one is less reasonable, since the objects of the other theories actually exist).

    They all stand on an unsupported and unsupportable assumption about what sort of things one should value.

    “Why would anyone bother to take you seriously when you admit, with extreme prejudice, that you don’t care about their goals or happiness?”

    That is not true. I care about other peoples goals and happiness precisely as much as they effect my own happiness and goals, and no more. As to why they would bother taking me seriously? Well, possibly because I am not joking, and objective facts don’t stop being objective facts because the person saying them doesn’t value your happiness independently of their own.

    As for why they might wish to engage me seriously, if someone believes that objective morality exists, and has a goal of propagating that morality, they probably will have to deal seriously with people who value different things than them, in an attempt to convince them to follow the objective morality they are attempting to propagate.

    Or hey, they may just enjoy attempting to ground their beliefs philosophically, and enjoy the conversation.

    “Or are you one of those who say that individuals should have to force consideration of themselves onto others by whatever means or power is available to them?”

    You don’t always have to force consideration, sometimes someone else has already done that for you, sometimes they are far enough removed that whether or not they consider you is completely irrelevant.

    “That this is the only system by which society can function?”

    I believe it is the only system by which society does function, whether or not it can. Since I believe that most people only value others happiness as it effects their own, they just happen to be easily effected in this way.

    “I’ve met individuals like this; the strange part is that their actions didn’t match their words in the slightest.”

    I can’t speak for any specific others, but in my experience, the accusation of hypocrisy mostly stems from the inability to understand the complete implications of the worldview.

  • Mathew Wilder

    @Sarah: An error theorist subscribes to the view that all moral claims are false; this is basically because the way that moral claims would true is if there was something that made such claims true. Greene’s dissertation is attempting to show that there is no such thing to make true moral claims.

    The motivation for an error theorist is to attempt to account for how people use moral language. Error theorists’ are similar to noncognitivists in denying that there is an objective fact about the matter of morality, but split from noncognitivists because they (noncogs) say that moral language doesn’t attempt to be truth apt, while an error theorist says that moral language does attempt to attain truth, but systematically fails.

    This seems right to me, because I do think people are trying to assert something with cognitive content when they say “X is wrong” – they’re not just saying “Boo x” or “I don’t like x” or whatever. They’re saying it is wrong, it is not-to-be-done. I just don’t see where the “not-to-be-done”-ness” can plausibly come from.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    The notion that the law shouldn’t be informed by morality is an odd one. Mostly it’s because things like “don’t murder” are taken as givens. And yet, as recently as 25 years ago, things like “spousal rape” were not illegal in parts of the US; it wasn’t considered a crime. I think no one here is going to argue that spousal rape should be legal. But how are we determining that? That it’s “wrong”? It wasn’t considered wrong for thousands of years, why now?*

    My own take on moral systems is that they can be useful for giving us “should not’s”, but they run into trouble when they start dictating “should’s”. One example that sticks with me is a critique of Kant which points out that “tie your right shoe before your left” passes his two tests and would therefore be a “categorical imperative”, which is, obviously, absurd (For the curious, the critic goes on to propose that imperatives which fail to pass the tests are “should not’s” and things which pass them CAN be done, but aren’t necessarily “should’s”; it’s possible this is actually what Kant meant). Most empirical and rationalist moral systems do well with most moral dilemmas, at least the ones we face in our day-to-day lives. Most moral philosophy is sniping at other theories using bizarre and unlikely scenarios.

    *Because a woman is an autonomous individual who is having her autonomy violently violated and is being harmed (and that is immoral**); her “I do” from her wedding day is not a blanket “yes” extending to infinity.

    **I’m a bit partial to some of Kant’s work, although I’m much less sold on his “rational beings are ends in themselves, therefore casual sex is wrong” ideas (and don’t get me started on his “lying is always wrong” silliness, or his “proof” of God). In this case, you’d test the “I want to have sex with my spouse without their consent” maxim. Is such a world possible? I’m not convinced that it would be, but let’s say yes since it doesn’t matter as it definitely fails the desirability test (I don’t want my spouse to have sex with me without my consent!), therefore people should not have sex with their spouse without their consent.

  • Yahzi

    I’ve been making this argument for years. It is obvious once you realize morality is an evolutionary strategy. Of course there is an objectively best strategy, and of course it can be determined by science.

  • Sarah Braasch

    So, ok. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to your first question to me, Ebon.

    Why do I value individual liberty, and how can I justify my wanting to create a society based upon using game theory to maximize individual liberty w/o appealing to some notion of objective moral truth? Isn’t my legal/political game theory system to maximize individual liberty just another morality?

    Well, the reason why I’ve been giving this so much thought is because I’ve been thinking about how do we create a legal / political system that does not rely upon either morality or communitarianism. The reason why the US system works so beautifully (ok, it’s nowhere near perfect, but, we’ve done ok for ourselves) is because we have this push pull dialogue between the majoritarian elements (the electorate, the moral majority, culture) and counter-majoritarian elements (the judiciary, the bill of rights, law), which creates this somewhat precarious balance between the individual and society.

    So, I was thinking, how can we create this balance without appealing to morality and communitarianism.

    Because I abhor morality and communitarianism. I don’t like living in a society where I constantly have to be in conversation with mob rule. It irks me. It also irks me that we have to be engaged in constant ideological warfare. We are constantly fending off attacks by the moral majority, who are threatening to rule by tyranny of the majority.

    So, I became intrigued by applying game theory to the law to maximize individual liberty, because, I believe that this will create that balance between the individual and society without having to engage with the moral majority. I don’t want to have to care that my next door neighborhood thinks I’m going to hell, because I like having sex however I like having sex with whomever.

    But, that’s really just background.

    Ok, so, why do I value individual liberty. Well, I do value individual liberty. But, that’s beside the point.

    I am trying to create a system in which I don’t have to care about personal moral opinions. That’s all a moral viewpoint is is a personal opinion. I don’t want to have to care what Dick or Jane values. I don’t want to have to care what Dick or Jane thinks is moral or immoral, and I don’t want Dick or Jane to have to care what I think is moral or immoral or what I value either. Because Dick’s opinion is truly immaterial to me. I don’t care. And, I shouldn’t have to care. And vice versa. And, Dick’s opinion isn’t improved just because he can find a lot of other Dicks who share his stupid opinion.

    I want people to be able to do whatever the hell they want to do to the greatest extent possible. I want to map a liberty bubble for each citizen onto a 3D legal/political space, and I want to maximize the radius of that bubble.

    How is this going to create that much desired balance between the individual and society? Because my ability to do whatever the F I please is dependent upon the society in which I live. If I live in anarchy, I’m not going to be able to do as I wish. That much longed for balance between the individual and society will fall out of the exercise.

    I guess my answer to the question of why I want to maximize individual liberty is because I don’t think we have an alternative.

    Individual human beings are the atoms of society. Individual human beings are the least common denominator, objectively speaking. Individual human beings are the building blocks, objectively speaking. A human being is not a social construct. Everything else is illusory. Everything else is social construct.

    Where else would you start?

    Whether or not I am constrained in my behavior is not a subjective analysis. My freedom to act or not act can be objectively defined. My happiness or well being cannot be objectively defined. But, my liberty to do something or no can be objectively defined. It doesn’t matter what act I wish to perform.

    Isn’t this just another moral code?

    I don’t think so. But, if any of the philosophers perusing this thread want to help a girl out, it would be much appreciated.

    Morality is categorizing human behaviors as good and bad. This is exactly what I am trying to avoid. I neither wish to define good and bad (which I don’t think is possible, because I reject the idea of an objective moral truth) nor do I wish to categorize behaviors as such.

    And, finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, how do I justify my legal/political system (game theory to maximize individual liberty) without resorting to some notion of an objective moral truth?

    Short answer: I can’t. But, I’m not trying to.

    I guess I am taking the Kevin Costner approach to society building — “If you build it, they will come.”

    But, I am not motivated by hearing the voice of my dead grandfather, and anyway, I can only imagine what my redheaded, wife and child beating, hardcore JW, misogynistic dead grandfather’s specter would have to say to the likes of me anyway.

    But, I think this point really gets to the heart of the matter of why I, and many others, have issues with Sam’s book.

    It’s the inherent hypocrisy. It feels like a betrayal, to me, anyway.

    When he talks in his book about using evidence and reason to muddle through our worst problems, I’m on board. What other choice do we have? We’re on our own kids. When he rants against religion’s pretense at moral rectitude, I cheer and shout. We are the blind leading the blind, wallowing in the mud and the muck, feeling our way. And, closing your eyes to this fact does nothing to change it.

    So, why the 180 on morality? Now, all of a sudden, there are objective moral truths to be known, if we can just gather enough evidence? Sorry kids.

    Us atheists get that alluding to one’s imaginary friend is a poor basis for organizing our societies.

    Alluding to a fantastical categorical imperative is an equally poor basis for organizing our societies.

    Let go of the security blanket.

    Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

    When you ask me to justify my hypothetical legal/political system, what you are really asking me to do is justify it according to some objective moral truth, and if I can’t, you are going to reject it. You say that I have no way of forcing everyone to abide by it, because I can’t justify it.

    But, this is true for all of our human derived societies. We can’t justify any of them according to objective moral truths, because there are no objective moral truths.

    But, I can still argue for it.

    I think I’m going to think about this some more, but that’s good for now.

    Again, I am really interested in hearing what the philosophers have to say.

    My lowly education is only in engineering and the law. For now.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Thank you, Mathew.

    Can I be a half error theorist and a half non cognitivist?

    Because sometimes I think moral language attempts to be truth apt and sometimes I think it doesn’t.

    I think this is true for myself, because sometimes I say, “I think this is wrong,” and I mean should not be done, but sometimes I just mean “Boo this thing.”

  • Sarah Braasch

    Oh, sorry. I just confused myself.

    So, I guess if I am a half error theorist, then during the time that I am a half error theorist, I shouldn’t even be saying things like, “I think this is wrong.”

    So, I guess I am a non cognitivist.

    I’ll think about it.

    Here’s the thing.

    I want to be the kind of moral nihilist who rejects Greene’s morality 1 but works to create a legal/political system, which I guess could be described as his morality 2.

    So, in that case, I guess that I could still make statements like, “I think this is wrong.”

    But, does that make me an error theorist or a non cognitivist?

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    @Sarah: Well in that case you’re using “wrong” differently than (at least according to Greene) than most people; at least, I think that’d be his response. I agree that Greene’s morality 2 is something that I’d like to see realized, and I think that the legal system is the best vehicle for that.

    RE: Error theory vs noncognitivism, I think you could safely say that all error theorists are part noncognitivist, but not all noncognitivists are error theorists. I hope I didn’t state that wrong.

    Alluding to a fantastical categorical imperative is an equally poor basis for organizing our societies.

    Well put!

  • Rollingforest

    @Ebon: Let’s give a more specific example and see how utilitarianism stands up to it. Let’s say that the doctors participated in a secret program which kidnapped homeless people and cut them up in order to harvest their organs to save lives. These homeless people have no known family or friends, so no one notices they are gone. No one fears being taken because the program is secret and only the doctors know about it. Even the doctors don’t fear it because each one of them is given veto power over every potential organ harvest giving them the ability to save their family and friends (as well as themselves). The doctors further make sure to kill the homeless people suddenly so that there is no fear on the part of the homeless person either.

    So what is the right thing to do in this situation? As far as I can tell, I’ve taken away the fear aspect of the whole operation, thus solving that part of the objection to my first example. But under this scenario Utilitarianism says it is moral and Kantianism says it is immoral (because an innocent person is killed). I still think that most people would side with the Kantians, but I would be interested to hear the utilitarian’s response.

    Also, your claim (on the series of posts that you wrote about in post #54) that Universal Utilitarianism must include the claim that happiness build on a false belief can’t be counted, seems like a major tack on. This doesn’t follow from any other part of the theory. You argument that overall, false beliefs decrease happiness, so we should never count happiness caused by false beliefs, seems too broad. If a belief (say of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ type) increases happiness without increasing death, discrimination, or hate of science, then it isn’t clear that Universal Utilitarianism would be against it unless you make a general rule declaring that it is. I understand that as an atheist, you have a desire for logical thinking, but if your goal is maximizing happiness, then for much of the population, believing in a friendly deist God may actually make them happier. Just because “false beliefs are bad” holds generally does not mean it holds in all cases. A complex understanding of Universal Utilitarianism would seem to allow for some cases of false belief if it maximized overall happiness (again, unless you made a special rule saying otherwise).

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    These homeless people have no known family or friends, so no one notices they are gone. No one fears being taken because the program is secret and only the doctors know about it. Even the doctors don’t fear it because each one of them is given veto power over every potential organ harvest giving them the ability to save their family and friends (as well as themselves). The doctors further make sure to kill the homeless people suddenly so that there is no fear on the part of the homeless person either…. As far as I can tell, I’ve taken away the fear aspect of the whole operation, thus solving that part of the objection to my first example.

    Not in my moral system! I explained this in the original essay on Ebon Musings:

    The “potential” part of the formulation is one of the most important parts of universal utilitarianism, and so I believe it bears further explanation. First, it asks us to consider the moral value of our actions as if all relevant parties were fully aware of them.

    What this means is that, in my system, you have to evaluate the moral effects of a proposal as if everyone knew all about it. You can’t change the moral calculus by concealing relevant facts.

    Also, your claim (on the series of posts that you wrote about in post #54) that Universal Utilitarianism must include the claim that happiness build on a false belief can’t be counted, seems like a major tack on. This doesn’t follow from any other part of the theory.

    It follows from the part I just described. If a belief is false and a person knows that, it isn’t going to provide them any comfort. But we have to evaluate the moral effects of teaching that belief as if everyone did know that.

  • Kaelik

    “What this means is that, in my system, you have to evaluate the moral effects of a proposal as if everyone knew all about it. You can’t change the moral calculus by concealing relevant facts.”

    And what objective reason is this system better than one that counts false belief happiness, or any other system. After all, we could propose a nearly identical system where some people are happier, so you can’t be claiming your system is objective superior to others because people are happier.

    So how about an objective reason to value what you value, do you have any of those, or are you exactly like every other moral realist, mistaking your personal values for things that everyone should value?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Yeah. I feel like a lot of people are missing the point.

    It is one thing to argue for a moral position and to present evidence and reason.

    It is another thing all together to assert that one’s moral position is objectively morally true.

    I can even be a moral nihilist of the noncognitivist variety and argue that something is “right” or “wrong” and argue for a legal political system to balance the interests of the individual and society and still reject the idea of objective moral truth.

    Take slavery. What everyone considers a no brainer.

    I knew in the 6th grade that the proposition that slavery is wrong is NOT objectively morally true. My middle school social studies teacher divided the class into teams to debate slavery. Yep. That’s right. Slavery. And, guess what? I won. Oh, BTW, I was on the pro slavery side.

    I guess that’s what I mean by letting go of the security blanket and not being afraid to get your hands dirty.

    You can argue that slavery is wrong from your subjective moral position. You can present reason and evidence. You will probably convince me — from my subjective moral position.

    But, you can’t make the case that the proposition that slavery is wrong is objectively morally true.

    This is the step too far.

    If scientists are going to hoe this row, then I think they should have to do what scientists do for all propositions, and employ the nomenclature of hypothesis, theory and fact.

    And, I think all moral hypotheses and theories should have to undergo rigorous testing and observation.

    So, I guess now the slavery morality hypothesis is begging for a lot of testing and observation and critique in peer reviewed journals.

    Saying that you KNOW that the proposition that slavery is bad is objectively morally true is no better than a Xtian fundamentalist saying that he KNOWS that the Bible is the word of God. A Xtian fundamentalist will also be able to present his evidence of what he knows to be true.

    Fantastic claims require fantastic amounts of evidence.

    Good luck.

    But, this is why I say that I don’t want to enter into this conversation at all. It is a waste of time. Time, which we don’t have to waste.

    We have better things to do with our time.

    Let the religionists waste their time arguing over the supporting and contradictory evidence for moral hypotheses and theories.

    I also worry that this is going to send our legal / political systems backwards, not forwards.

    Can you imagine? Opposing moral camps arguing the evidence in a court of law for the pro and con sides of a moral hypothesis or theory?

    Oh, wait. That just happened. In Perry v Schwarzenegger.

    At least the judge had the sense to finally say, after wading through mountains of evidence: this is stupid. This is a personal moral judgment. It has no place in the law.

    C’mon, atheists. We can do better than this.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    @Sarah:

    Liberty is valuable because it creates balance between individuals and society? Yes. I agree. However, this is just shuffling from one good to another. It’s as though I were asked why peace is a good thing, and my response was “it creates stability, predictability, and safety in which people can live their lives”. Yes, yes of course it does. That doesn’t answer why stability, predictability, and safety are good.

    The nature of this is that you have to start somewhere, with some premise. Some concept must be good in principle, by its very nature.

    The ‘alternative’ is delegating the decision-making power of “what is good” to an authority, to elected representatives, or the mass public. All of which can be and are done in practice. Yet this is merely abstracting the question around groups of decision makers. The means by which the people involved decide still rests on some premises, under the surface.

    As to “if you build it, they will come”? That’s all well and good to say; quite another thing to do. Even more tellingly, that’s a claim subject to empirical verification.

    You say that Harris has made a reversal on morality. I don’t see the evidence. From what I read, the argument appears to be religion was wrong about X and Y, therefore it’s wrong about Z. Logically, that does not follow. We should not reject every idea the religious present merely because it came from religion. That is simple guilt by association.

    I do not understand the reference to “fantastical categorical imperatives”. Where was there a mention of fantastical entities…? Furthermore, a categorical imperative is a Deontological construct. Utilitarianism does not adhere to that principle in the slightest.

    Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

    Considering the context of the previous statements, I end up reading this as “don’t be afraid to stumble in the dark, having no idea where you are going or why”.

    When you ask me to justify my hypothetical legal/political system, what you are really asking me to do is justify it according to some objective moral truth, and if I can’t, you are going to reject it. You say that I have no way of forcing everyone to abide by it, because I can’t justify it.

    But, this is true for all of our human derived societies. We can’t justify any of them according to objective moral truths, because there are no objective moral truths.

    P1. There are no objective moral truths.
    P2. (P1) is true for all human societies.
    P3. It’s not possible to force others to abide by an unjustified moral system.
    C. You can’t reasonably ask me to justify my own moral views objectively.

    It happens that (P2) and (P3) are just redundant and unnecessary. More importantly, this is question-begging. (P1), therefore (C). (P1) wasn’t shown anywhere; it’s merely been assumed.

    The reason why I write out the excess premises? Well, (P3) is obviously false. We’ve seen plenty of historical example to the contrary. (P2) is simply bizarre, in my view. Is this a veiled request for proof by contradiction? Are you admitting that you would be wrong if such a society were to be uncovered? And what are the criteria by which it would be judged?

    @Kaelik:

    If nothing else, you are remarkably honest.

    @Rollingforest:

    I don’t it’s fair to hold Ebonmuse to exactly the same standards of 19th century Utilitarianism. Views have evolved since then.

    Your scenario of secret shinobi doctors who can perfectly abduct people without drawing any suspicion — indefinitely — is deeply implausible. I reject the idea that this could continue for any long period of time without creating fear and uncertainty among the people.

    More importantly, though, this is all resting on an unproven premise. How is it that you determined that the organ ‘donations’ garnered from this abduction-assassination program are creating more happiness than they are destroying from the murders? Are you forgetting that it’s the net effect which is measured? Did you forget to count the homeless as people, with their own value, goals, and will to survive?

    What happens in practice is that you cannot make a formal measure of happiness. Indeed, this is one of the principle objections to Utilitarian thought generally. What we do in reality is try to approximate classes of happiness, rather than take measures. The change in happiness from ‘alive’ to ‘dead’ is a very big jump. On the other hand, the change from ‘maybe dying’ to ‘maybe surviving’ is a small shift.

    Furthermore, in cases of ignorance one tends to err on the side of caution. It is proper to think that since we do not know that stealth assassin doctors would increase happiness generally, we shouldn’t try to implement such a plan.

    As to happiness caused by false belief (delusion), let me ask you something: do you count bank robberies as earned revenue, for purposes of taxation? Do you see how this doesn’t even make sense?

  • Sarah Braasch

    kagerato,

    Hmmm. Let me think about your comments some more.

    I am not educated in philosophy, so my philosophical flailings probably seem infantile to anyone who is.

    But, I want to create an amoral legal system.

    This is my goal.

    So, in my opinion, I am able to justify it objectively, just not in accord with some objective moral truth, because none exist.

    Am I starting with the premise that individual liberty is good? I don’t think so. Maybe I am.

    Let me think about it.

    I do think one’s freedom to act can be assessed objectively, whereas one’s happiness or well being cannot.

    My point about fantastical categorical imperatives was meant to be cute.

    What I am saying is that it is not helpful to pretend that objective moral truths exist. This is just as unhelpful as pretending God exists.

    I think my biggest stumbling block is the point about whether or not I am starting with assumptions about individual liberty.

    Let me think about it.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    @Sarah: I think you’re right that happiness or well-being cannot be assessed objectively. If one comes up with a set of criteria (perhaps like Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach”) one can assess whether another is well-off according to those criteria; but why pick those in the first place? It is virtually a truism that there are as many gods as there are individuals who believe in them. I think the same can be said of morality; there are as many moralities as there are people who believe in morality. There just is no such thing as well-being simpliciter. If one can get everyone to agree to a set of criteria that constitute well-being, then one can set up an “objective” morality based on it; but such a system will not be true in the normal sense of the word since humans made up the criteria for well-being in the first place. Good luck getting even the majority of humans to agree on what constitutes “well-being.”

  • Kaelik

    @kagerato

    “If nothing else, you are remarkably honest.”

    See my point yet? As soon as people who talk about objective morality run into people who subjectively value different things than them, all conversation comes to a screeching halt.

    If I wanted to talk about color to a colorblind person, I break out the electromagnetic spectrum and start explaining.

    But when I ask people with theories of objective morality about what makes their particular set of values objective, they all disappear into a puff of smoke.

    Well, except theists, who tell me about their God, but that’s stupid, and wrong, and not what people actually mean when they say morality, but hey, it’s more than atheistic moral realists have, which is “Well fuck, I guess there is no objective fact I can point to that indicates or supports my position.”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Some follow-up thoughts:

    In Perry v Schwarzenegger — the pro and anti gays camps both brought in bucket loads of statistics and studies and facts and figures and data, all of which said that both gay marriage will destroy the world and that gay marriage will be the bedrock upon which the future of humanity will flourish.

    Hey Sarah, I have to admit I’m confused by this point. Yes, both sides in the trial cited various studies on the alleged positive or negative effects of same-sex marriage, but surely you can’t be saying that there’s no truth of the matter as to which one was right.

    What it came down to is this: the judge said — this is ridiculous. This is a personal moral judgment. It has no place in the law.

    Granted, I’m not a lawyer, and I’d have to reread the judge’s opinion to be certain, but I don’t think that’s what the ruling said. I’m pretty sure Judge Walker held that the law denying same-sex couples the right to marry was motivated by animus toward gays and lesbians, and that this isn’t a valid basis for a law, due to the equal-protection clause. Indeed, he devoted a substantial part of his ruling to findings of fact, some of which included evidence showing that children in same-sex partnerships suffered no unique harm and weren’t at a disadvantage compared to children raised by opposite-sex couples.

    But, first — dude, you can not be serious with the happiness is immune to being questioned as the basis for morality? Cause watch me — right now — I’m questioning it.

    Touché. :) OK, let me clarify: I’m not saying that happiness as the basis for morality can’t be questioned. I’m saying that happiness has a unique status among human desires, because it’s the only thing we desire intrinsically, for its own sake, and not instrumentally, as a means to an end. I would argue that everything else we desire, we desire because we believe it will ultimately bring us happiness.

    I am not educated in philosophy, so my philosophical flailings probably seem infantile to anyone who is.

    Not at all! I appreciate having this discussion with you. The only person whose view I’d describe as “infantile” is the one who says that he doesn’t care about what happens to anyone he doesn’t personally know (and I mean that literally: it’s like the infants who haven’t developed the concept of object permanence and think that anything they can’t see at the moment no longer exists).

    Also, I’m interested to see how you address my argument about the situations where two people have competing liberty interests, and granting the desire of either one will restrict the liberty of the other. Typically, these are also situations where choosing not to intervene at all means implicitly granting the desire of one side.

    I mentioned a few of these: using the wilderness for recreation vs. using it for strip-mining; protecting the right of workers to unionize vs. allowing business owners to fire employees for any cause; allowing landlords to discriminate on the basis of race or religion vs. protecting people’s right to seek lodging in any apartment they choose. And, need I add, what about the French burqa ban? Wasn’t that a situation where you argued that other concerns outweighed the restriction on individual liberty which that law represented?

  • Sarah Braasch

    I have to give this some more thought and come back.

    Everyone keeps addressing me as if I am just trying to create my own moral code and that my objective moral code values liberty instead of happiness or well being.

    That is the last thing I want to do.

    I want no part of the conversation about morality or values. I want to obviate this conversation.

    So, I need to think about it some more to make sure that this is not what I’m doing.

    Regarding Perry v Schwarzenegger –

    This is my interpretation, for sure.

    The judge went thru all of the “facts” at length.

    Because he had to.

    I actually think that the anti-gays camp is right about that point — the judge completely dismissed their evidence. It’s not that they didn’t have any.

    But, ultimately, in my, perhaps, not so humble opinion, the judge was really saying, and he does outright say it, that this is a personal moral judgment that has no place in the law.

    But, yeah, I actually do think you can not say that one side is objectively morally correct and one side is objectively morally wrong. I can say that one side is subjectively right or wrong. But, it doesn’t matter how much evidence either side compiled, they can not prove that they are objectively morally correct. This is why morality has no place in the law. This is why trying to say that we can make objective statements about morality is so dangerous. Seriously. Our legal system is finally realizing this. Let’s not go backwards. The moral majority already control the democratic process. The law and the courts are supposed to be a counterbalance to the moral majority. But, if we say that the moral majority can wield the power of the courts, because they can objectively show themselves to be morally correct, with enough evidence, then we’re really in trouble. Do you know who would love this? Scalia. Individual rights will take yet another hit in the US.

    Regarding burqa ban, my use of international human rights instruments, etc. –

    I’m an idealist, but a pragmatic idealist.

    I work with the tools at my disposal at this point in time.

    However, as I mentioned above, I think the majoritarian / counter-majoritarian dialogue inherent to the US legal / political structure is a very rough approximation of game theory in its attempt to achieve that balance between the individual and society.

    A lot of the issues I fight for confuse people, because they see them only as moral issues.

    I don’t see them as moral issues, because I don’t see morality as having any place in the law.

    However, I see them as issues of optimizing our democracy and achieving / maintaining that balance between the individual and society in our system as it currently exists.

    i.e. the burqa ban (gender desegregation in the public space), affirmative action, etc., etc..

    I have to give this some more thought.

    I love this discussion.

    Thanks to all.

    More later.

    Must go ponder the meaning of the word value.

  • Alex Weaver

    Sarah Braasch – Why do you assume that being concerned with morality means that we should be concerned with categorizing human behaviours as good and bad?

    A little late to the party here, but the word “Morality” seems to have some very peculiar and specific connotations, for some people, that aren’t shared with, for instance, “ethics.” I don’t get it either but I’ve observed it before.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ok, but, if you are going to make a comment like that, then you have to define morality. (And, I don’t necessarily have to agree with your definition.)

    If morality is not the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad, which most people on this site seem to be more or less ok with, then what does it mean?

    We are, or were, discussing this subject in the context of critiquing Sam Harris’ latest effort, The MORAL Landscape, and having read the book, I think I am pretty safe in saying that his definition of morality is not entirely foreign to mine.

    Yes, he places these behaviors in local context (thus, the landscape), but, even treated locally, he is still asking the question: is this behavior good (promotes “well being”) or bad (hinders “well being”)?

  • Alex Weaver

    It is in the interests of all those who do not carry the biggest stick to agree to rules that will give them a “fair” chance of having their own goals achieved.

    I’d argue it’s in the interest of also in the interests of those who carry the biggest stick if they have to sleep.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    If morality is subjective, then in what sense is one society better or worse than another? How is, for instance, Saudi Arabia worse than France? Or, how is American society today morally better (in regards to women, let’s say) than in 1800?

    You might not be able to give some sort of “absolute objective” moral standard, but I think we have the tools and the ability to say “A is more/less moral than B”. In some cases. As Dennett points out in one of his works (I want to say Freedom Evolves but it might have been Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), calculating which is the “most moral action” in any given situation is a foolish endeavor, because the variables are too ridiculously numerous.

  • Ishryal

    Personally, I don’t think one can have a system of governance and social integrety without addressing morality. So long as a society needs to make a decision over the actions of it’s members, it must handle how it plans to address the justification for that decision. Morality is categorising human endevours into groups by which we can make decisions upon… regardless of the basis you make those decisions. One person may say happiness should be the basis, the next says freedom should be etc, but it still boils down to having to make a decision on conflicting scenarios that will result in an outcome that society prefers.

    Most courts already deal with morality… I would have thought that was obvious. They are having to make a decision on a predefined categorisation and outcome, which is the very essence of morality. Should this person be considered an offender because they killed someone IS a moral question. These decisions are easy since there’s a long history or case law and most of the moral categorisations have already been put in place and largely accepted by society (eg, murder is bad).

    If we look at courts that are dealing with matters of individual rights and freedoms, then I think that they are moral questions as well. Should X be barred from marriage is a moral question if you have a society that has based their morality on the sexual habits of it’s citizens (which historically we have). One group says the outcome of this categorisation (homosexuality) is bad, the other says it’s not bad, so the court must make a decision on how the future outcomes of such conflicts will be resolved. The difference being is that these moral ‘questions’ have not been successfully categorised (or are being recategorised) with the desired outcomes. In these cases, justifications are critical so as to prevent future over rulings. Being able to objectively justify these decisions adds more weight and makes it harder for the decision to be overturned.

    Consider the following:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”

    There’s two things I would say about that line… 1: being ‘equal’ is a moral decision… the question was asked is being equal a good thing or bad and has been categorised as being good. 2: if objective morality is not important, then the above statement is false… it is not self-evident, they are not truths, they could at best be subjective, and if that’s the case then your entire country, government and legal system is based on shaky ground. It would be struck down with the first legal challenge, rendering the entire document void and thus giving the colonies back to England and making a mockery of your Bill of Rights.

    But then it’s all just irrelevant anyway. Want to change the outcome of the categorisation? Change the basis by which you categorise things or find more objective justifications for your alternative decision. There is evidence, but not all evidence is equal.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    @Sarah: You have a ridiculously pragmatic mind lol. I love it! I’m in agreement with you re: the legal system and morality, and so are basically all major philosophers of law (see Brian Leiter’s SSRN page) – the only counterexample is Ronald Dworkin, but Leiter escoriates him convincingly) agree that law is a separate sphere from morality, even if there may be some overlap.

  • bbk

    Wow – this post sparked some serious discussion! Why did I think that I’d have to come in here and rile things up…

    There’s something that strikes me the wrong way about this theory of morality. It’s a system where the assumptions beg the question no matter how objectively we follow through with them. The most that I could agree with is that our subjective value judgements should be informed by scientific research.

    For instance, in his TED talk, Sam Harris says that scantily clad women on magazine covers are immoral. The basis of his thinking is that it could cause psychological harm to his daughters, that it would make them feel ashamed of their bodies and twist their idea of the sexual expectations placed on them by men. But hold on there! What about the men who smell like crap because Unilever uses women to sell obnoxious deodorants and soaps that cause hair loss? Or, why focus on women’s body image and disorders that affect a small minority of women and not on the “princess culture” of narcissistic women that some psychologists fear has become an epidemic? Why is it necessarily wrong to see scantily clad women on magazine covers – period? What if even the scantily clad women are a symptom of a repressed culture – why can’t women walk down the street topless on a hot day? If the magazines are a lie about what women should look like when they’re scantily clad, then there’s an easy way to remedy that. And why should it be juxtaposed with cultures that bury women up to their waist and stone them to death while at all other times force them to cover themselves from head to toe in ugly formless garbs?

    He tried to give a talk advocating for an objective morality and instead used it to further his own self-serving, subjective, unscientific, and at times misandric point of view. Why is that? Maybe because science only ever answers the questions that we actually ask. Even if the relevant science exists, most of what passes for objective, scientific thought comes to us through word of mouth and heated debate. So in that sense, we already have exactly what Harris wants. And that’s the best process that we’re ever going to have. There’s no magic light switch that we can flip and suddenly enable his idyllic system.

  • Kaelik

    @themann1086

    “If morality is subjective, then in what sense is one society better or worse than another? How is, for instance, Saudi Arabia worse than France? Or, how is American society today morally better (in regards to women, let’s say) than in 1800?”

    In the sense that you subjectively prefer one thing over another, and you mistake your subjective preference for a moral superiority.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    @Ishryal:

    I think you are right to say Jefferson made several (indeed, many) moral determinations in the Declaration. However, the most striking phrase of that line in the context of this discussion would probably be “self-evident”. Jefferson was in part a great writer because he understood his audience, and that there was no reason to waste time and words explaining why he thought liberty, equality, and unalienable rights were good things.

    Naturally, this doesn’t answer the questions of people who would challenge that liberty, equality, and rights are good. However, structured this way, the Declaration states its premises up front and in the clear for all to see. I think the vital utility in doing so should not be understated.

    @bbk:

    I have not listened to the TED talk you speak of. However, if your summary is accurate, I would say Harris is indeed begging the question and possibly even contradicting himself. If one of your premises is “scantily clad women on magazine covers” are psychologically harmful, you need to show evidence of that first. Even if we take that as given, we have to be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. You’re right to challenge what the fundamental cause of any such harm is, and it takes a rather detailed study to determine the answer convincingly.

    As to a magic light switch; naturally, such a thing does not exist and never will. However, I have strong doubts that the status quo is the “best process we’re ever going to have”. Certainly, I think as a society we could spend far more time on investigation and learning about other people, rather than taking “word of mouth” and catch-phrases in “heated debate” as the basis of knowledge.

  • bbk

    @kagerato. Yes I agree that we could do better, but the problem still remains that we won’t achieve an “objective morality” rooted in perfect scientific knowledge. The best we can do is discredit crazy miscreants who are bent on spreading their lies. That’s why I side with New Atheism over accommodation. At best, Harris actually agrees with this and his whole entire book is about making New Atheism palatable to theists and Humanist accommodationists by advocating some ideal all the while failing to point out that the only thing we can really do beyond our imperfect science is to actively seek to eradicate the alternatives that are even worse. The most charitable way I can describe this tactic is that it’s a bait and switch, a stone soup of sorts. But I think it goes a little beyond that and actually claims that we could achieve something truly objective.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Kaelik,

    So the moral belief that women are second-class people no better than children as opposed to thinking they’re equal, is just the same as preferring apples to bananas? That’s patently ridiculous.

  • Sarah Braasch

    themann1086,

    But, you know how we criticize religion for claiming divine authority that doesn’t exist? You know how dangerous it is, because when you claim divine authority that doesn’t actually exist, you can justify any behavior?

    Same thing for claims of objective moral truth.

    You can make all of the subjective arguments you want; you can use evidence and reason. You will probably convince me of your arguments.

    But, we shouldn’t pretend to know things that we don’t know.

    And, I worry about how this could impact the legal system.

    Do you know who will be happiest if the atheists concede the existence of objective moral truth?

    Religionists who wish to subjugate women.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Can we please be careful with the use of the word “Objective?” Objective is not the same as universal or absolute. Objective need not carry the same meaning as the ideal object hiding in a cave somewhere that Aristotle (I think) talked about.

    Also, morality is a real thing – it’s a descriptor for behaviors that we find in all societies, including other (non-human) animals. Which, BTW, is something that no one has yet brought up. We do see moral behavior in animals. Why? Because it is tied to social species and interaction within societies. Is it objectively wrong to murder everyone else so that one can hoard all the food? Well, let’s see if that works for other species and works biologically. If one murders all others, then one can not reproduce and that species/group dies out. Objectively, this is not a good course to take in order to survive as a species/society.

    Lastly, for those who object that people bring all kinds of “evidence” to court or other situations to argue that homosexuality is wrong, why would your objective not also butress arguments by creationists that claim that they have equal and competing evidence for Genesis? The reason is because the evidence in question favors one side over the other. Let’s not pretend that simply because some people may misinterpret evidence (willfully or not) that it throws all evidence into question. So, why can’t we use evidence to inform our moral decisions?

  • Kaelik

    @themann1086

    “So the moral belief that women are second-class people no better than children as opposed to thinking they’re equal, is just the same as preferring apples to bananas? That’s patently ridiculous.”

    There are many present distinctions between the comparison of women as equals to apples vs bananas. One that does not exist is that both of those are merely preferences of individual beings that have no grounding in any objective thing outside their own personal values.

    Many religious people find it patently ridiculous that there is no god. But yet, when they say I am being patently ridiculous asking for evidence of god, I don’t just say “Oh well, I guess you are right, god does exist.” I continue to ask them for evidence of god.

    So yes, you think it’s patently ridiculous to say that women as equals vs women as chattel is merely a matter of subjective preference. Great. Do you have any evidence that the superiority you see in the first case is grounded in anything outside the subjective preferences of people?

    If not, how do you differentiate between things that you find patently ridiculous because they are wrong, vs other (religious) people finding things patently ridiculous because they were raised to believe the opposite?

    I can point to many people, past and present who would agree with you that women as equals vs women as chattel is not merely a matter of subjective preference. They would plainly state that women as chattel is objectively more moral than women as equals.

    How am I to believe one of you and not the other without some kind of evidence?

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    Yes, let’s be careful how we use the word objective.

    Moral rectitude is never an objective fact. It is only ever a subjective opinion.

    Kaelik? Help? Mathew? Where are my moral anti-realist philosophers?

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “Also, morality is a real thing – it’s a descriptor for behaviors that we find in all societies, including other (non-human) animals. Which, BTW, is something that no one has yet brought up. We do see moral behavior in animals. Why? Because it is tied to social species and interaction within societies. Is it objectively wrong to murder everyone else so that one can hoard all the food? Well, let’s see if that works for other species and works biologically. If one murders all others, then one can not reproduce and that species/group dies out. Objectively, this is not a good course to take in order to survive as a species/society.”

    If you want to define morality as “good for the propagation of the species/culture” then you may be able to argue for an objective morality. On the other hand, most people will reject your definition of morality, as we already have a word for that it’s called fitness, and when most people talk about morals, they aren’t just talking about good for society/cultural reproduction. Women as chattel has proven to be a highly effective system of continuing many different species, yet most atheistic moral realists reject it as immoral.

    If your version of “objective morality” cannot tell me why I should subject my subjective preferences and values to it’s standard, it doesn’t not meet my criteria for morality.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,

    Moral rectitude is never an objective fact. It is only ever a subjective opinion.

    I’m surprised to hear you say that considering that discussion we previously had on this wherein you agreed that moral rules can be objectively defined and determined. I believe I used the example of having objective rules of poker. We certainly can and do have objective moral guidelines (saying god says so is not objective, however). How we derive those objective moral guidelines can and should be tied to empirical observation. Do you disagree with that?

    Kaelik,

    If you want to define morality as “good for the propagation of the species/culture” then you may be able to argue for an objective morality.

    Even if you want to go with self-preservation a la the moral nihilism/sociopathy that you seem to embrace, you would have to agree that propagation of the species is a good thing. If not for that, you would not be having this discussion.

    On the other hand, most people will reject your definition of morality, as we already have a word for that it’s called fitness, and when most people talk about morals, they aren’t just talking about good for society/cultural reproduction.

    What you aren’t understanding is that morality is wrapped up in that idea of “fitness.” Do some research into the morality of other social animals and you might see what I mean.

    Women as chattel has proven to be a highly effective system of continuing many different species, yet most atheistic moral realists reject it as immoral.

    Because we also hold to the idea of innocent until proven guilty – in a sense. The onus is on the person seeking to usurp another’s rights and person to make the case that it is necessary to do so and works in a pragmatic way better than the alternative. From where I sit, the evidence seems to indicate that equality is better.

    If your version of “objective morality” cannot tell me why I should subject my subjective preferences and values to it’s standard, it doesn’t not meet my criteria for morality.

    It’s not my fault that you are incorrectly using the word “objective.” You don’t have to agree with it for it to be objective. Just as you don’t have to agree that 5 card draw is the best poker game for the rules of that game to be objective.

    Additionally, I would add that the idea that bringing objective evidence to the discussion should help to persuade your moral attitude is what is under discussion. Do you agree or disagree that your moral attitudes should be swayed by objective evidence? I’d like to know an answer to this before I even try to start talking about what evidence there is or isn’t.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I can’t help but imagine the religionists snickering behind closed doors and laughing amongst themselves while rubbing their hands together at our enthralled befuddlement over the existence of objective moral truth.

    This is why I say that the whole conversation about morality is a complete waste of time. Not only a waste of time, but an obstacle to the development of a global society.

    Don’t we have better things to do?

    It’s a weird, ironic paradox that most people fail to see.

    You want to say that there is an objective moral truth; you want to say that you have an objective, factual basis for condemning other cultures on moral grounds. But, in so doing, you are actually affirming and strengthening the position of the cultural relativists. You are actually strengthening and affirming the position of the moral relativists.

    This is why I not only reject the notion of an objective moral truth; I reject the whole idea that the notion of morality is relevant. It’s irrelevant.

    Who cares? I don’t. I don’t care about my next door neighbor’s irrelevant opinion about whether the way in which I choose to conduct my life is moral or immoral.

    Do you? Do you want to have to care what your next door neighbor thinks is “good” or “bad”?

    But, wait, he has evidence.

    This is not the way forward for humanity.

  • Jim Baerg

    FWIW I’m part way through reading this e-book on natural ethics

    I’ll see how well the authors justify any particular ethical system as ‘natural’ or possibly even ‘objective’.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    Here’s where I may require a philosophical assist, but

    when we were discussing poker playing, we were talking about whether or not one could, theoretically speaking, create an objective moral code, and we agreed that one could.

    And, here’s where I’ll try to refer to Greene’s work. Green defines two different moralities. A moral anti-realist rejects the idea of an objective moral truth, but might still wish to promulgate a legal / political system (which could be construed as an objective moral code, but I am actually trying to create an amoral legal system), which defines the relations between individuals and between the individual and society.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    I guess I would also want to ask you:

    if saying godsaidso is not objective, why is claiming a fantastical categorical imperative compelled you to create your objective moral code objective?

  • bbk

    @OMGF I don’t think it’s important to split hairs at that level. As soon as someone opens their mouth and utters a patently subjective opinion as an example of objectivity, they blew their case. Morality is such an animal.

    Take a look at economics. Moral issues tend to be at the center of economic study and that’s why economist maintain their objectivity by making a clear distinction between normative and positive statements. It’s only when you add subjective opinion about what the world should look like that you can start making normative statements about the moral value of an economic system or policy. Any economist will tell you that economic theory, on its own, has nothing to do with morality. And yet, economics is probably the one field besides neuroscience where we can study human well-being in a truly scientific manner. So the question is, if adding morality to economics makes it subjective and economists go out of their way to shield their work from this temptation, then how can Harris explain that adding economics to morality would make the morality objective?

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Sarah,

    Can we please stop with the bullshit “OMG IF WE ADMIT TO OBJECTIVE MORAL TRUTHS WOMEN WILL BE SUBJECTED” slippery slope argument? It’s a distraction, and it’s irrelevant to whether or not we can have some objectivity in morals.

    Kaelik,

    I can point to many people, past and present who would agree with you that women as equals vs women as chattel is not merely a matter of subjective preference. They would plainly state that women as chattel is objectively more moral than women as equals.

    How am I to believe one of you and not the other without some kind of evidence?

    There’s plenty of evidence! A few examples: females and males occupy, for all intents and purposes, the same distribution of abilities and qualities. Males and females have similar cognitive facilities, notably consciousness. Treating one group as worth less than the other is unfair. I can’t justify this morally because if the shoe were on the other foot I’d be (rightly) upset at being treated less for a bad reason.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “Even if you want to go with self-preservation a la the moral nihilism/sociopathy that you seem to embrace, you would have to agree that propagation of the species is a good thing. If not for that, you would not be having this discussion.”

    Define “good thing.”

    I would not exist if no life existed, so clearly, life existing is subjectively a good thing for me, assuming that I want to exist. That doesn’t make it an objectively good thing.

    Subjectively, I don’t care what happens to other people who are not me, except do far as it effects me, so there is no reason for me to do anything at all to stop a comet from striking earth and killing all human beings two hundred years from now. So while you can demonstrate that subjectively I should care about the past propagation and survival of the species, I have no subjective reason to care about it’s future.

    But since you think it’s objectively a good thing, I’m confused, why is it objectively good from more human beings to continue to exist?

    “What you aren’t understanding is that morality is wrapped up in that idea of “fitness.” Do some research into the morality of other social animals and you might see what I mean.”

    What you don’t understand is that you have never defined morality. The “morality” of social animals begs the question that morals exist. If you want to define certain behavior as moral, and other behavior as immoral, and then talk about how every time an animal does something, it’s being moral, that’s fine as far as it goes, but it all rests on the fact that you are defining specific things to be moral or immoral based on your own subjective preferences.

    “Because we also hold to the idea of innocent until proven guilty – in a sense. The onus is on the person seeking to usurp another’s rights and person to make the case that it is necessary to do so and works in a pragmatic way better than the alternative. From where I sit, the evidence seems to indicate that equality is better.”

    “We” don’t hold to the idea of innocent until proven guilty if you define morality as what is best for the propagation of the species. Instead, if you define morality as “what is good for the propagation of the species” then innocent until proven guilty has to be first proven to be better than any alternative for the propagation of the species, before you can declare it to be a moral premise to base further moral conclusions off of. But there seems very little to indicate that is the case. It seems that innocent until proven guilty, and guilty until proven innocent have very little effect on the survival of the human race.

    “It’s not my fault that you are incorrectly using the word “objective.” You don’t have to agree with it for it to be objective. Just as you don’t have to agree that 5 card draw is the best poker game for the rules of that game to be objective.”

    Try to learn to read before talking. I said you have to give me a reason to subject myself to these moral rules. In the game of poker, I subject myself to the rules of poker, because otherwise, I’m not playing poker.

    But poker is quite obviously a subjective game. There is nothing objectively superior about one set of cards to another, except that subjectively people agree to it. Two one dollar bills is objectively more than one one dollar bill because there are two of them, and this is mind independent, but a twenty dollar bill only has more value subjectively, because we invest it with that value in our head.

    That factor that makes something objectively true instead of subjectively true is the very fact that it remains true independent of the beliefs of people, yet no such evidence has been presented in favor of your moral theory.

    “Additionally, I would add that the idea that bringing objective evidence to the discussion should help to persuade your moral attitude is what is under discussion. Do you agree or disagree that your moral attitudes should be swayed by objective evidence? I’d like to know an answer to this before I even try to start talking about what evidence there is or isn’t.”

    Are you even trying to pay attention? I have repeatedly asked for some kind of objective evidence. No one has any. They can only say “well, I feel it’s wrong, so it must be wrong.”

    If someone demonstrated to me the existence of moralons, particles that resides in our bodies, and were destroyed by doing some acts, and multiplied by doing other acts, then the distinction between those two acts would be an objective one. But if someone tells me that they personally feel really bad about me commiting some act, that would be a subjective morality.

  • Sarah Braasch

    themann1086,

    You just tickled the religious communitarians in the US to the tips of their toes.

    They’ll see you in court.

    Enjoy.

    And, you were so concerned about the rights of women a minute ago.

    The problem with moral condemnation is that it is an unwieldy beast that has no problem biting the hand that feeds it.

  • Kaelik

    “There’s plenty of evidence! A few examples: females and males occupy, for all intents and purposes, the same distribution of abilities and qualities. Males and females have similar cognitive facilities, notably consciousness. Treating one group as worth less than the other is unfair. I can’t justify this morally because if the shoe were on the other foot I’d be (rightly) upset at being treated less for a bad reason.”

    Um… no. First of all, females and males don’t have the same distribution of abilities and qualities, like, at all. They are objectively representative of different distributions of abilities and qualities. We choose to say that these different distributions are not of significant difference to represent differing “worth” as a person.

    Some people choose to view the quality “having a penis” or “upper body strength” as being more important. What objective evidence can you point to that these distributions are of objectively similar “worth” as a person. Hint Hint: First you will have to define the worth of a person objectively. Good luck.

    Protip: the fact that you subjectively would feel bad if you were treated as an inferior is not objective evidence. It is literally the definition of subjectivity.

  • Camus Dude

    The problem with moral condemnation is that it is an unwieldy beast that has no problem biting the hand that feeds it.

    Agreed!

    Richard Garner, one error theorist philosopher, has a whole chapter in his book Beyond Morality about how to influence others in ways we desire, societally speaking, while still abolishing morality (or, as Josh Greene would put it, abolishing morality1 but not morality2):

    Now in Chapter Ten, fortified with a better understanding of the factors that lead us around, and that allow us to lead others around, we are ready to ask which of these devices and techniques we want to exploit, and which we want to avoid, as we interact with others.

    http://beyondmorality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/CHAP10__2009_Double_Spaced.pdf

    The majority of the book (the penultimate chapter is for some reason not online) is worth reading, and, unlike much metaethics, is also eminently readable even to those with little to no background in philosophy. (At least I think; I have a philosophy background, so perhaps my assessment is askew.)

  • Sarah Braasch

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that women already suffer subhuman status in the US based upon moral grounds.

    We need more morality? Really?

    Frankly, I could use a little less.

    And, if you think, no problem. I am happy to go to court with all of my evidence. I will prove my moral rectitude.

    Then, I seriously suggest thinking about accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior and Redeemer, because you are going to need to call upon divine assistance to gather enough evidence to prove your moral rectitude. And, clearly, you don’t have a problem believing in imaginary entities, if this is the case.

    Again, I can think of lots of other things we should be trying to do, like, I don’t know, saving humanity, but that’s just my subjective moral opinion.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I have limited time right now, but to respond quickly to a few points (I’ll get to others later):
    Sarah,

    I can’t help but imagine the religionists snickering behind closed doors and laughing amongst themselves while rubbing their hands together at our enthralled befuddlement over the existence of objective moral truth.

    I don’t see why they would considering they don’t actually hold to an objective standard if they claim it comes from a god – Euthyphro’s dilemma anyone?

    You want to say that there is an objective moral truth; you want to say that you have an objective, factual basis for condemning other cultures on moral grounds. But, in so doing, you are actually affirming and strengthening the position of the cultural relativists. You are actually strengthening and affirming the position of the moral relativists.

    Huh? If I show that we have good, rational, empirical reasons to not allow such things as FGM, how does that help cultural relativists?

    Do you? Do you want to have to care what your next door neighbor thinks is “good” or “bad”?

    But, wait, he has evidence.

    But, that’s not quite what we’re saying here. What we are saying is that societies function under rules that help hold society together, morality being part of those rules. Shouldn’t we base our morality on evidence and empiricism instead of what some imaginary god says?

    And, here’s where I’ll try to refer to Greene’s work. Green defines two different moralities. A moral anti-realist rejects the idea of an objective moral truth, but might still wish to promulgate a legal / political system (which could be construed as an objective moral code, but I am actually trying to create an amoral legal system), which defines the relations between individuals and between the individual and society.

    Once again, however, we see “objective” being misused. Other than that, I’ve not talked at all about the legal system, just about what ways we can form moral codes and how those codes should be formed.

    if saying godsaidso is not objective, why is claiming a fantastical categorical imperative compelled you to create your objective moral code objective?

    Where did I say that? It’s not my position that I’m compelled to do anything. It’s my position that morality exists (as a descriptor for how societies work in part) and that we can form our morality and should do so in accordance with empirical fact, not with fanciful religious dictates.

    I’ll try to respond to others later, although it might not be until tomorrow.

  • Camus Dude

    @OMGF

    Once again, however, we see “objective” being misused.

    Greene is not misusing “objective”, nor is Sarah. (Or at least, not if one knows how he defines it. He may be using it differently than you, but I would hardly say that’s misuse.) I would suggest reading Greene’s dissertation (and his explanation of what he, and me and Sarah, mean when we say “objective”). Greene’s writing is a paragon of clarity and also very interesting (and at times even entertaining).

  • Sarah Braasch

    I second that, Camus Dude.

    Please everyone read Greene’s dissertation.

    He writes in an incredibly accessible style.

    And, we obviously have some philosophers participating here who can elucidate any unclear issues.

  • Camus Dude

    Oh, one more comment just popped into my head. I think it’s a mischaracterization of Kaelik to say (s)he’s a sociopath, even though (s)he used that term too. Despite some controversy about the disorder, it is recognized as a psychological disorder, not a result of beliefs about morality (or, at least, not usually a result of beliefs about morality). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisocial_personality_disorder

    I doubt that just because Kaelik isn’t a moral realist doesn’t mean that suddenly Kaelik’s psychology changed. Nor did mine, nor did Sarah’s when we came to the conclusion that moral realism is false. We still have the same “moral emotions” (so to speak) as we did before. We still empathize with our loved ones, we still enjoy things, we still value things and experiences and other people. Greene and Garner both emphasize this in their work – arguing that moral realism is false in no way entails that one stop feeling the way one feels.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Again, I second the Camus Dude.

    I was kind of shocked by how negatively everyone responded to Kaelik.

    Especially since I can’t think of anything Kaelik said that I don’t agree with.

    C’mon atheists. We’re supposed to be all about rejecting orthodoxy. (Yes, I am trying to be cute here, but I also mean it.)

  • Kaelik

    That definition is a little off in the sense that it defines the disorder as a pervasive violation of rights, which takes no account for those of us who can act normally in social situations if we wish.

    I would rather say, there is no indication that my psychology changed significantly when I learned to deal with others so that they would not become upset. I merely took notice of the fact that it is much more effective to deceive those I deal with into believing that I value them as people and then exploit them than to act with the careless disregard for them that I feel.

    I’m still “emotionally stunted” and “remorseless” I am just also deceptive.

    This is why subjective moral systems that rely on others having the same values as you are not interesting to me. If your moral system cannot point to a ground outside of my head, it is not worthwhile, because my head almost certainly lacks whatever you are attempting to point to.

  • Camus Dude

    Well, Kaelik, if you want to be a sociopath, far be it from me to even be able to persuade you otherwise lol!

    I think you’re right when you say “If your moral system cannot point to a ground outside of my head, it is not worthwhile, because my head almost certainly lacks whatever you are attempting to point to.” Trying to get to the ground outside of your head (anyone’s head) seems to me what moral realists are attempting. I think a lot of people (unconsciously) fear the results of error theory being widely accepted, or (perhaps even more) fear that there really is no ground to get to, and this fear makes realists just shout more loudly. The need to have a way to rationally convince, or at least make, the sociopath to act morally is a deep-seated need to many moral believers, I think; but even many moral realist philosophers think that we will never find moral principles that it is irrational to deny.

    I think the arguments are convincing that there is no ground outside our own heads to get to. But, like Sarah, I say “So what?” We still have our feelings about justice and injustice, for example, even though we don’t think “justice” is ever an instantiated property or entity. Why should one who disbelieves in the objectivity of moral truths stop doing what their passions impel them to do?

    If, Sarah, just for example, wants to work with women to help liberate them from the effects of patriarchy, her desiring to do so seems all the justification she needs. Why need morality enter into it at all?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Camus Dude,

    Exactly. It’s like the atheist version of the religious fallacy that if you don’t claim to get your morals from on high, then you don’t have morals.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    EDITED

    Ok, reading Camus’ response makes it clear there’s some miscommunication going on. I don’t think that an individual’s morality is based somewhere outside his/her head, and I don’t think any “universal” (VERY loose term here) moral system can be formulated without reference to people and their brains. It’d be like trying to make a political model without referring to people, only worse.

    What I’m arguing is that you can weigh the reasons and evidences for and against various “moral systems” (or “list of things to do or not do” if the word moral makes you angry), and I’m running out of edit time.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    I rushed and so worded myself poorly. To rephrase, you can formulate reasons and collect and analyze evidence (usually not in real time, like I mentioned above re: Dennett) in favor (or against) a moral system or a particular action. You can’t get away from people, though; morality is, in the end, about people, and any moral system which doesn’t reference them is probably full of crap (not that a proposed moral system which does is necessarily not crap, but…).

    Sarah,

    Do you have anything to contribute besides Slippery Slope Arguments, Red Herrings, and childish “nyah nyah you’re just like a religious person!” taunting? Just wondering.

  • Sarah Braasch

    For someone who dismisses my arguments and concerns as “bullshit”, you sure spend a lot of time and effort responding to them.

  • Kaelik

    @themann1086

    Yes, you can use evidence to evaluate what counts as a moral action in your moral system, but that’s a secondary action that can only occur after you’ve pre declared all your values.

    All the various utilitarian theories evaluate based on evidence. The problem is, one theory says “We should only value years of life of conscious beings.” and another says “We should only value happiness of conscious beings.”

    And another says something else. But there is no objective way to determine which of those values is “better” than any other set of values made up like “my own personal satisfaction” or “propagation of the species” or anything else.

    Which is the problem. Because Harris and Ebon Muse are coming down and laying down statements about what is objectively more valuable than whatever else… because… they really feel it in their hearts.

    That’s not useful, or objective.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    Just re-read this page in Greene’s dissertation, and I thought it fits the current state of our discussion well (pg. 151 of the pdf):

    I would like to emphasize the fact that my case against moral realism does not depend on a refusal to acknowledge the moral point of view. My question is not “Why should I care about being moral?” posed from the point of view of someone who shows no interest in doing so. It’s not a matter of “What’s in it for me?” a question to which the answer, even if moral realism is true, might be “nothing” or “nothing so far as your self-interest is concerned.” Rather, my critique of moral realism is an internal one. “What makes my moral beliefs true?” is a legitimate question from within the moral point of view, just as “What makes my scientific beliefs true?” is a legitimate question from within the scientific point of view. “Correspondence to physical fact” is a plausible answer to the scientific version of this question. The moral version demands an answer as well, even if the same answer will not do. Ordinarily we simply assume, if only implicitly, that this basic question about the nature of morality has a satisfactory answer. I’ve offered reasons for thinking that, contrary to common sense, this question cannot have a satisfactory answer, and if I’m right then we have discovered a problem with moral realism from within the moral point of view. It’s not as if we’ve refused to hear what moralists have to say about the nature of their enterprise and then—Lo and behold!—discovered that moral realism is false. One need not be a committed moral skeptic to think that there must be some story to tell about what makes ordinary moral beliefs true, and one can conclude that there are deep problems with all such stories without restricting one’s attention to stories about the nature of the physical world. Moral skepticism, I claim, is a natural reaction to a sincere attempt to make sense of morality on its own terms.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Thank you, Mathew. That’s perfect.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    Ahahhaha. Awesome! I googled myself and found this:

    http://www.daylightatheism.org/2008/10/soul-making-theodicy.html#comment-40097

    I’m much more firmly in the error theorist category now than I was holy shit like almost 2 years ago to the day.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I just wanted to point out the possible ramifications of this train of thought.

    I already have, but just to be clear.

    If we are going to take the position that we can make definitive statements about what is objectively morally true, even if you want to qualify this with evidentiary requirements, you have to think about the consequences (and Harris is a consequentialist, I believe).

    I am concerned about morality based legislation. Scalia already thinks that Lawrence v TX was wrong; his dissent is clear — the moral majority should be able to dictate your behavior, even your private behavior; this is all the due process he requires. And, now we are going to arm them with the idea that if they have enough evidence they can make definitive statements about what is objectively morally true?

    Think about the consequences.

    I am concerned about morality based judicial decisions.

    I am concerned about how this will impact the separation of church and state.

    I am concerned about the US further devolving into religious communitarianism.

    I am concerned, not just about women’s civil and human rights, but the civil and human rights of all, especially minorities.

    I am concerned about the impact upon international law, including international human rights and humanitarian law.

    I know that Sam likes to say that we don’t have to pay credence to all of these opinions; that we only have to pay heed to moral “experts”.

    But, first of all, what does it mean to be an expert in an imaginary field?

    And, second, that’s not the way government works in the US.

    We are in constant conversation with mob rule. The teabaggers get a say in how you conduct your lives. If it were up to Scalia, they would be able to dictate your private behavior based upon their personal moral preferences, as long as they can band with enough other like minded folks.

    This is not an entirely bad thing. It is actually the way our system is designed, as I discussed above.

    But, it is actually the part of our system that I am trying to obviate by creating an amoral legal / political system.

    Do we really want to arm them with so-called evidentiary proof of moral rectitude.

    Really. Think about this long and hard.

    I know that I am a lowly and much maligned lawyer type, but that’s also the reason why I think about these things. Because I can imagine the consequences. And, it doesn’t look pretty.

    And, none of these potential consequences are irrelevant bullshit.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Mathew,

    No longer a waffler?

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    Sarah, I’m an agnostic atheist, and also whatever you’d call the same thing applied to morality. I don’t know it doesn’t exist, but I see no evidence it does and have good arguments that it doesn’t (Mackie, Greene, Garner, Joyce), so I’ve provisionally concluded that morality is a figment of our imagination, as is god.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    bbk,

    @OMGF I don’t think it’s important to split hairs at that level. As soon as someone opens their mouth and utters a patently subjective opinion as an example of objectivity, they blew their case. Morality is such an animal.

    Honestly, I don’t see the idea of defining and consistently using one definition of one of the two central words under discussion as “splitting hairs.” The fact that the definition is shifting depending on who is speaking allows for you to make such statements as you did in the second sentence above. It allows for the bad arguments that everyone must agree that x is moral or immoral for morality to be “objective,” which is simply not the case. It’s also not the case that an “objective” moral system can not be situational or take one’s preferences into account.

    As for the discussion on economics, I don’t see that as relevant. Can you please elaborate?

    Kaelik,

    Define “good thing.”

    In this sense, it is that which allowed you to be able to have this discussion. We can label things as good and bad according to how it benefits or doesn’t benefit us, as I was pointing out to you.

    I would not exist if no life existed, so clearly, life existing is subjectively a good thing for me, assuming that I want to exist. That doesn’t make it an objectively good thing.

    You’re confusing the word “objective” again.

    But since you think it’s objectively a good thing, I’m confused, why is it objectively good from more human beings to continue to exist?

    No, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s an objective fact that species strive to survive. Our moral senses are guided by this and should be informed by it.

    What you don’t understand is that you have never defined morality. The “morality” of social animals begs the question that morals exist.

    Wrong on both counts. I did define morality as the descriptor we use for real world events in intraspecies interactions – hence morality exists, even if just as a concept. Secondly, the fact that other animals also display it is even further evidence.

    If you want to define certain behavior as moral, and other behavior as immoral, and then talk about how every time an animal does something, it’s being moral, that’s fine as far as it goes, but it all rests on the fact that you are defining specific things to be moral or immoral based on your own subjective preferences.

    Say what? If I observe animals risking their own lives in order to protect the herd, how is that a subjective preference? It’s a brute fact.

    “We” don’t hold to the idea of innocent until proven guilty if you define morality as what is best for the propagation of the species.

    Stop trying to strawman the argument down to sound bytes will ya? I haven’t said that. What I’ve said is that it informs our moral codes…or at least should.

    Try to learn to read before talking. I said you have to give me a reason to subject myself to these moral rules. In the game of poker, I subject myself to the rules of poker, because otherwise, I’m not playing poker.

    Learn to read? What bravado, especially from someone who’s got it wrong yet again. You don’t have to subject yourself to the rules of poker in order for the rules to be objective – you don’t even have to play and they are still objective. That’s the point.

    But poker is quite obviously a subjective game. There is nothing objectively superior about one set of cards to another, except that subjectively people agree to it.

    Now I’ll conclude that you don’t understand the difference between subjective and objective. I’ll also note that poker is based on probabilities. Although it’s true that one hand is just as improbable as any other in a certain sense, it is not true that 2 of a kind is just as improbable as 3 of a kind in another very real sense.

    That factor that makes something objectively true instead of subjectively true is the very fact that it remains true independent of the beliefs of people, yet no such evidence has been presented in favor of your moral theory.

    Is evolution subjective then?

    Are you even trying to pay attention? I have repeatedly asked for some kind of objective evidence. No one has any. They can only say “well, I feel it’s wrong, so it must be wrong.”

    If someone demonstrated to me the existence of moralons, particles that resides in our bodies, and were destroyed by doing some acts, and multiplied by doing other acts, then the distinction between those two acts would be an objective one. But if someone tells me that they personally feel really bad about me commiting some act, that would be a subjective morality.

    So, you do agree that you should adjust your morals and attitudes in accordance with objective evidence, correct? Yet, you seem to disregard evolution as being objective. How can anyone possibly meet the burden of proof that you seem to have when you won’t accept evolutionary evidence as objective, by your own arguments? You’re like the creationist that claims that Genesis is right, no matter what, because to you even poker is subjective. It is objective fact that social species exhibit moral tendencies as we can see from other animals. That, alone, should be enough to give you pause. Does it?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Camus,

    Greene is not misusing “objective”, nor is Sarah. (Or at least, not if one knows how he defines it. He may be using it differently than you, but I would hardly say that’s misuse.) I would suggest reading Greene’s dissertation (and his explanation of what he, and me and Sarah, mean when we say “objective”). Greene’s writing is a paragon of clarity and also very interesting (and at times even entertaining).

    The majority of people here are using “objective” to mean the cave ideal or universal or absolute, which are all misuses of the word. That’s why we make the distinction between objective and absolute/universal/cave ideal. Religious “morals” are not objective, they are absolute. To claim that an “objective” moral code must mirror a religious, absolute code in order to be called “objective” is to misuse the word.

    Oh, one more comment just popped into my head. I think it’s a mischaracterization of Kaelik to say (s)he’s a sociopath, even though (s)he used that term too.

    Yeah, I’d rather use the term narcissist. The fatal flaw that Kaelik hasn’t thought about is what happens when someone else’s personal wants directly contradict Kaelik’s well-being.

    If, Sarah, just for example, wants to work with women to help liberate them from the effects of patriarchy, her desiring to do so seems all the justification she needs. Why need morality enter into it at all?

    And if the homophobic bigot wants to beat the crap out of “fags” well his desire seems all the justification he needs.

    Sarah,

    Especially since I can’t think of anything Kaelik said that I don’t agree with.

    Wow, really? The only reason you help support the cause of women is because it personally affects you? The only reason that you support gay rights is because it personally affects you? And, you see no reason why that’s problematic? So, as a male, if I said to go F yourself with your women’s causes and claimed that it doesn’t personally affect me, you wouldn’t have a problem with that (BTW, I would never do that)? I know you too well from your writing to believe that’s the case.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    Kaelik,

    Actually, I think you can use reasons and evidence to compare different moral systems as well, not just moral actions within a particular moral system.

    What follows is largely free-thought, so it might not be coherent. You’ve been warned.

    One of the problems here is I think we haven’t agreed on what important words mean. OMGF has focused on “objective”, but I want to talk about “morality”. A “moral system”, as I understand it, is, at its broadest, “a guide for interacting with humanity” (holy crap way too many commas). So “morality” has two interacting components: the “actions” (does this correspond to or contradict my values?) and the “motivations” (what are my values? what aren’t my values?). “Moral action” can easily be “objective”, in this sense, and isn’t really what we’re disagreeing on (I just wanted to establish some agreement; it makes the disagreements easier to pinpoint and fight to the death over. I mean, discuss). Bah, I have to disconnect here, so I’m going to post this half-finished rambling comment and write more about where I’m going with all this. Hopefully I figure it out by then…

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    Greene says something (very interesting dissertation by the way, thanks for linking that!) which provides a nice jumping off point for me.

    “What makes my moral beliefs true?” is a legitimate question from within the moral point of view, just as “What makes my scientific beliefs true?” is a legitimate question from within the scientific point of view. “Correspondence to physical fact” is a plausible answer to the scientific version of this question. The moral version demands an answer as well, even if the same answer will not do.

    I’d summarize this as “What makes my beliefs true?” as being answered by “Correspondence to reality” since it’s a bit more encompassing. Well, ok, what is “reality” then? How do we determine what is “real” and what isn’t? Our senses? Observations made by our senses? Observations made and analyzed via technology… made with our senses and read by our senses? I hope you can see where I’m going with this: Scientific evidence relies on assumptions and subjective experiences, too. After all, dude, what if we’re really, like, in a Matrix, man? (Pass the bowl, bro!)

    Or, to take the “purest science”, what about math? Math doesn’t have any correspondence with physical reality, for starters, yet we take it to be true. Further, within any mathematical system will be axioms (technically, at least one) which you cannot justify from within that system. You can go to a different system, but now you have a new set of unjustifiable axioms! And so on to infinity.

    From this, do we conclude that there is no reality? Are there math skeptics, doubting the very existence of math? Technically, we could be justified in doing so, and there are educated and degree’d people who agree with this conclusion, but it’s not very interesting. For the most part, we go forward knowing we’re gonna be wrong, we’re gonna make mistakes, and we’re making assumptions that we need to double check frequently. Of course, this doesn’t mean any set of assumptions is just as good as the next; the less the better, of course. This certainly isn’t justification enough for the existence of morals. “Science makes assumptions, therefore [Blank]” is not a good argument, and I don’t intend for it to be my argument. It’s mostly to serve as a warning that just because moral theories make some assumptions, you cannot blithely declare them false. Depending on the scope of the assumptions, they should be approached very skeptically (and in the end, possibly rejected), but dismissed entirely for making assumptions? “Too soon, executus…”

    Relatedly, just because there’s no particle for “morality” doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This is the (apparently sincere) inverse of a common religious doggerel (You Can’t Find An Atom Of Love!) that argues that since science can’t find an atom (or particle, or molecule) of love, scientists think love doesn’t exist, but love does exist, therefore Jesus. Here the argument is “the particle of morality doesn’t exist, therefore morality doesn’t exist”. It’s like the joke about how “all science is physics, everything else is stamp collecting”. Just because something is studied at another hierarchical level of abstraction doesn’t mean it’s fake or non-existent (you could describe evolution via subatomic particles, but why the hell would you do that? See also XKCD.

    OK, I wrote this up on the way to work, and I’m here now, so I’m just going to submit comment without looking at any replies from the past hour+. What could go wrong? This isn’t all, by the way, as I’ve made absolutely zero case for morality being real so far. I’ve just been establishing some important premises I’ll be working off later, so if you reply with a “this doesn’t connect to morality being real!” comment, you’ll make the panda cry for not reading all the way through. Don’t make the panda cry (Reference). More later, this is a wall of text enough as it is.

  • bbk

    It allows for the bad arguments that everyone must agree that x is moral or immoral for morality to be “objective,” which is simply not the case. elaborate? It’s also not the case that an “objective” moral system can not be situational or take one’s preferences into account.

    Clearly, that would make it subjective.

    As for the discussion on economics, I don’t see that as relevant. Can you please elaborate?

    Let me try it again. Look at what Hitchens is trying to say:
    Science is objective -> Morality based on science is objective.

    Economics is a science. But economists say this:
    Morality is subjective -> Economics based on morality is subjective.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative

    They can’t both be right and that’s why it’s relevant. Why should it work in the direction that Hitchens wants to apply it but not in the other direction? We see what happens when someone’s “objective” morality gets applied to science – the banning of stem cell research, the banning of abortions, the banning of contraceptives, the denial of evolution, denial of global warming, denial of heliocentric astronomy, etc. Economists see this type of subjective morality coming from “trickle down” and supply-side economics and everything else from the Austrian and Chicago schools. They know that as soon as you try to use the science to make moral pronouncements, the science itself gets corrupted. Why would things be any different for neuroscience or any other science?

  • bbk

    So, I’ve read the word “nihilistic” thrown around. To me, trying to make morality objective is a dangerous game, but the realization that moral realism doesn’t exist isn’t nihilistic in the slightest.

    If you take away the idea that there are some objective moral guidelines that we can expect people to adhere to then you have no other option than to enact things like financial regulations. But if you are a moral realist then you can get away with saying things like, “the banks should regulate themselves!” and when the banks collapse from fraud, you can follow up by saying “the problem is a lack of morality among bankers!”

    If you ask me, a categorical denial that there is any such thing such as morality is simply a good, honest, and progressive realization. It’s a realization that allowed me to see that morality is just a religious artifact, rooted in magical thinking, that allows a small minority of moralists to convince others to act against their own best interests. Morality is a bone that the ruling class can throw to the masses whenever there is systematic corruption and unease – it’s never a bad system, after all, it’s always just a few bad apples who need to be rounded up and made an example of.

  • bbk

    Correction – for some reason I wrote Hitchens instead of Harris. Sorry, Hitchens!

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “In this sense, it is that which allowed you to be able to have this discussion. We can label things as good and bad according to how it benefits or doesn’t benefit us, as I was pointing out to you.”

    Yes, you can label things as good or bad according to how it does or does not benefit us. But since what does and does not benefit us is by definition subjective, that’s not an objective good. If I didn’t want to exist, my existence would not be good to me. If I kill someone tomorrow, my existence will not have been good for them. So the existence of the human race is subjectively good for me. But not objectively good.

    “No, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s an objective fact that species strive to survive. Our moral senses are guided by this and should be informed by it.”

    You really thrive on undefined terms don’t you? It’s first of all, not an objective fact that species strive to survive, that’s a really annoying misconception that many people have. What is true is that most individuals strive to survive, and those that are good at it do so, and therefore “species” usually end up surviving.

    But that’s not the important part. It’s an objective fact that species do generally survive. Great. But how does anything at all about “moral sense” follow from that, much less that we should be informed by this fact.

    Yes, species do survive, that doesn’t mean our morals should be based off of species survival any more than the fact that volcano’s erupt means our “moral sense” are guided by and should be informed by that fact.

    “I did define morality as the descriptor we use for real world events in intraspecies interactions – hence morality exists, even if just as a concept. Secondly, the fact that other animals also display it is even further evidence.”

    A) You didn’t specifically define it, you implied it with enough wiggle room to retreat.

    B) As I already said, that is a stupid definition of morality that doesn’t fit any one else’s definition.

    If morality is any intraspecies interaction that occurs, then of course it exists, it’s defined to be exist. However, that’s not a definition of morality that anyone but you agrees to.

    By that definition, if I go out and kill someone tomorrow, it’s a moral act, because it is an intraspecies action. On the other hand, if I genocide an entire alien race, that’s not immoral, but it’s also not moral, because it’s not intraspecies interaction.

    Actual morality, the thing everyone in the world has been talking about since the term first existed is about describing not what actions do occur, but classifying what sort of actions should be done, and what sort of actions should not be done.

    If your “morality” can’t distinguish between bashing an infant on rocks and brushing my teeth, your morality is not the morality that Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hume, Singer, and Mills are talking about. And it’s also not what Sam Harris and Ebon Muse are talking about, so it’s not relevant.

    “Say what? If I observe animals risking their own lives in order to protect the herd, how is that a subjective preference? It’s a brute fact.”

    Okay, great, animals risked their own lives to protect the herd. This is an objective fact. Now, was that action moral, or immoral? How do you discern the difference.

    Okay, now two wilderbeasts at the back of the herd are being chased by a Lion, and one of them kicks the other in the shins, breaking it’s legs, and escaping, while that one is eaten. Is that action moral or immoral? How can you objectively classify the difference between these two acts? When both serve to keep the herd alive?

    “What I’ve said is that it informs our moral codes…or at least should.”

    And why should it inform our “moral codes” (another undefined term)? What objective, IE mind independent facts can you point to that innocent until proven guilty “should” inform our moral codes?

    “You don’t have to subject yourself to the rules of poker in order for the rules to be objective – you don’t even have to play and they are still objective. That’s the point.”

    No, you missed the point. If I go to Germany, and they play Poker, only for some reason, Two Queens beats two Kings, and the value of the King and Queen is otherwise swapped completely, the game is still poker, and the king isn’t more valuable than the queen. Because the only reason any cards have value is because we have subjectively granted them value.

    If you moral system doesn’t apply to people who have different subjective values than you, your system is not objective. If you can’t tell other cultures with a long and storied history of female genital mutilation that they need to stop doing it for some reason grounded in the real world, and not your preferences, then your moral system is not objective.

    “Is evolution subjective then?”

    No, evolution is objective. But the fact that things do continue to exist and change over time does not mean that it is morally good for that to be the case, or else I’m writing my moral thesis on the Objective Morality of Volcanic Eruption.

    “So, you do agree that you should adjust your morals and attitudes in accordance with objective evidence, correct? Yet, you seem to disregard evolution as being objective. How can anyone possibly meet the burden of proof that you seem to have when you won’t accept evolutionary evidence as objective, by your own arguments? You’re like the creationist that claims that Genesis is right, no matter what, because to you even poker is subjective. It is objective fact that social species exhibit moral tendencies as we can see from other animals. That, alone, should be enough to give you pause. Does it?”

    So many stupid questions, so little time. Evolution exists. Evolution is not a moral process, it does not tell us anything about what we should or should not do. It is an objective fact that various individuals of various species perform different acts.

    Why the fuck is a moral tendency? How can you know if they exhibit moral tendencies without first defining a moral tendency? Which requires you to first prove that morals exist. Which means you can’t use the exhibition of moral tendencies as evidence for morals existing, because that would be begging the question.

  • Kaelik

    @themann1086

    “Actually, I think you can use reasons and evidence to compare different moral systems as well, not just moral actions within a particular moral system.”

    But see, you can’t. For example, Kantian Ethics says “You must treat people as an end in themselves.”

    But Act Utilitarianisms (various) tell you explicitly to not treat people as an end in themselves, and to instead consider only the results as it relates to various things (happiness/life/”flourishing” of humans/conscious beings/sentient beings/living beings mix and match as you wish, it’s a moral theory).

    So what happens in the hypothetical situation where a perfectly arbitrary , perfectly trustworthy individual tells you to shoot your mother, or he’ll nuke the entire city. In Kantian ethics, shooting your mother is immoral, in Act utilitarianism it’s immoral not to shoot your mother.

    But how can you compare those two to see which is “better.” You can’t unless you do it from within the framework of one or the other moral system. You have to first specify what is valuable, but if you specify something, you are not comparing the moral systems objectively.

    If you say “obviously shooting her is better” it’s because you already rejected the Kantian assertion “Whether or not you have personally committed murder is more important than whether or not a million people die.” before you made the comparison, but if you rejected that assertion, you can’t actually be comparing the systems objectively (or neutrally, to not get this usage of objective confused with the other one.)

    “A “moral system”, as I understand it, is, at its broadest, “a guide for interacting with humanity” (holy crap way too many commas). So “morality” has two interacting components: the “actions” (does this correspond to or contradict my values?) and the “motivations” (what are my values? what aren’t my values?). “Moral action” can easily be “objective”, in this sense, and isn’t really what we’re disagreeing on (I just wanted to establish some agreement; it makes the disagreements easier to pinpoint and fight to the death over. I mean, discuss).”

    Well that’s the thing. Your motivations are inherently subjective. So a “moral action” can objectively be moral or immoral as it relates to some specific set of values. But if a moral system cannot specify one correct action that applies to both Bill Gates and myself as the correct moral action for either of us in the same situation, then it’s not an objective moral system.

    If it is morally right, based on my values to brutally kill a five year old for the three dollars he has on him, because I value the three dollars more than his life, but Bill Gates doesn’t, then it’s not an objective moral system.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    @Sarah:

    Claims of negative consequences from adhering to a morality informed by reality are unconvincing. This is because you have not shown to any degree that these negative consequences are any less likely under a system in which everyone acts in accordance with a fully subjective point of view, and takes no consideration of reality at all.

    @Camus Dude:

    I doubt that just because Kaelik isn’t a moral realist doesn’t mean that suddenly Kaelik’s psychology changed. Nor did mine, nor did Sarah’s when we came to the conclusion that moral realism is false. We still have the same “moral emotions” (so to speak) as we did before. We still empathize with our loved ones, we still enjoy things, we still value things and experiences and other people. Greene and Garner both emphasize this in their work – arguing that moral realism is false in no way entails that one stop feeling the way one feels.

    The step that you are missing here is that those emotions, those thoughts in your head and everyone elses…? They’re real. They’re not just figments of imagination, and they’re not meaningless. They’re also not all equally valuable.

    Or do you think that your state of mind, and your very being, are at equal worth when in tortuous torment as in bliss? Are you going to say that you don’t care at all what your state of mind or thoughts are, or why they are that way?

    And since you (and indeed, the vast majority of everyone) unquestionably does care, why should I then disregard what you think and feel about your own state of being?

    Then, if you say I shouldn’t care about you at all, what is next? Will you try to stop me if I start bludgeoning you with my fists? What if you’re weaker than I am, and become seriously injured? How will you explain what has happened to others, and why they should have any sympathy for you?

    If, Sarah, just for example, wants to work with women to help liberate them from the effects of patriarchy, her desiring to do so seems all the justification she needs. Why need morality enter into it at all?

    OMGF gave you a proper response to this, but I heard nothing at all yet in return. Allowing people to freely act exactly as they desire, without the slightest justification or reasoning at all, is extraordinarily dangerous. Once you take this principle to an extreme, you end up with anarchy. The powerful will rule and the weak will submit or be trampled.

    It is precisely because of our social nature as a species, and our ability to cooperate and form codes of behavior, that we have made it this far to begin with. If you don’t think that civilization is worth anything, I don’t know what to tell you.

    @themann1086:

    Thank you. That very same quoted segment also caught my eye, for precisely the same reason. You said it about as well as anyone could, I think.

    @All:

    So, detractors, what say you? How do you know reality is real, and that the objective facts you think are correct are correct? What informs that? Where is your principle basis of objectivity, if not your senses and the tools around you? How did you verify that those are, in their essence, real rather than an illusion?

    There is no completely convincing answer to this question; it’s a classic philosophical puzzle. Yet we don’t act as though our ignorance of the answer is a reason to reject reality. In the same manner, our inability to justify why “happiness”, “liberty”, “justice”, and so forth are good and right is no reason to discard morality.

    As to the positive reason why happiness, liberty, and justice are good: it’s because these are the names we have given to the things we regarded as good. That’s why they’re inherent goods, and why we set them as the fundamental premises.

    If one does not regard general happiness, liberty, or justice as being good — why are you participating in a society at all? Doing so purely out of self-interest isn’t going to get you very far; people are commonly very reciprocal. You will, as Kaelik admits, at least have to pretend to care about other people to get what you want.

    Perhaps even more directly the question is this: how will you organize a society, or even small groups of people, without any shared sense of behavior or goals? You will need some system if you intend to replace (or even reform) morality. Pretending that we can survive or prosper in an anarchic environment is nonsense; the entire course of human history shows it.

  • Kaelik

    @kagerato

    “The step that you are missing here is that those emotions, those thoughts in your head and everyone elses…? They’re real. They’re not just figments of imagination, and they’re not meaningless. They’re also not all equally valuable.”

    That people really do have preferences is true. But how do you judge the value of those preferences objectively?

    “Or do you think that your state of mind, and your very being, are at equal worth when in tortuous torment as in bliss? Are you going to say that you don’t care at all what your state of mind or thoughts are, or why they are that way?”

    Yes, people have preferences, they want X and don’t want Y (FYI, lots of people really enjoy pain and torment). What doesn’t logically follow from “I have a preference” is “therefore, the thing I prefer is objectively better than what I don’t prefer.” Because by that logic, Ken Ham’s objective preference for creationism makes it better than evolution. You are skipping a step.

    “And since you (and indeed, the vast majority of everyone) unquestionably does care, why should I then disregard what you think and feel about your own state of being?”

    Why should I disregard what you feel? Why should I regard what you feel? Why should I disregard what I feel (the joy of having money) in favor of your feelings? No seriously, why?

    “Then, if you say I shouldn’t care about you at all, what is next? Will you try to stop me if I start bludgeoning you with my fists? What if you’re weaker than I am, and become seriously injured? How will you explain what has happened to others, and why they should have any sympathy for you?”

    Yes, I will try to stop you from bludgeoning me, because unlike you, I do care about me. If I am weaker, then I implore a bunch of other weaker people to help me beat you up, because that way I don’t have to get beaten up, and neither do they.

    I mean really, are all moral realists just ignorant of social contract theory? Because objective morals don’t exist, therefore people aren’t capable of seeing what is in their own best interest? Really?

    “So, detractors, what say you? How do you know reality is real, and that the objective facts you think are correct are correct? What informs that? Where is your principle basis of objectivity, if not your senses and the tools around you? How did you verify that those are, in their essence, real rather than an illusion?”

    I don’t know if reality is “real” any more than tautologically, in that I define reality to be those things that meet a set of criteria.

    One of those criteria? If I ask another person with the same information as me about something, do they give the same answer?

    If I can see a tree, and everyone else can see the tree, the tree counts as real. If I can see a tree, and no one else sees the tree standing in the same spot with no significant reason why they would see something different, maybe the tree is a hallucination.

    So if I have a preference for not cutting off womens clitori, but other people with all the same information I do have a preference for cutting clitori off, then it is not objectively true that cutting them off is wrong. It is something I have a subjective preference against.

    “As to the positive reason why happiness, liberty, and justice are good: it’s because these are the names we have given to the things we regarded as good. That’s why they’re inherent goods, and why we set them as the fundamental premises.”

    Right… which grants you a subjective moral system based on the preferences you have. But doesn’t give you an objective moral system that applies to people with different preferences, like the idea that it is just to stone to death a woman who sleeps with a man she is not married to.

  • Sarah Braasch

    kagerato,

    We are living under a system in which everyone acts from a fully subjective moral point of view, with or without reference to evidence.

    The only difference, if we follow Sam’s tack, is that he is saying that we should pretend to know things that we do not know — we should pretend to know that objective moral truths exist.

    I need only point to the apocalyptic damage wrought by religion to show how calamitous this tack is.

    And, I’ll imagine someone’s answer: No, he’s not. He’s saying that we should devote ourselves to establishing a science of morality. We should devote considerable time and energy and effort and our best minds and technologies to gathering all of the facts and evidence and data and then reason to determine objective moral truths.

    Great. Dangerous Waste of Time. Why not just create a science of divinity? We can devote ourselves to the search for God or the tooth fairy or the teapot that revolves about the sun.

    I’ll go out for ice cream while we wait. No, I’ll create an amoral legal system. Or, try to.

    You know what? Do it. Go for it. Create a science of morality. Let’s see what happens. Humanity has gone to seed anyway.

    My guess: it will become a refuge for religionists / scientists who want to “prove” their own subjective moral world views.

  • Scotlyn

    This is a fascinating conversation that I’m very late in joining. I have to say I started it with a definite point of view, and I have had that point of view, at the very least, adjusted, if not changed.

    I think I would not be telling anyone who had read my past comments anything strange or startling if I said I am highly motivated to think about things in moral terms. It is largely on moral grounds that I initially rejected the faith I was raised in. And to define my moral terms as best I can, it is true to say that I have strong feelings about the rightness or wrongness of things that people do, and am strongly motivated to express my feelings in political action and in persuasive talk.

    I appreciate the Greene quote cited above:

    “What makes my moral beliefs true?” is a legitimate question from within the moral point of view, just as “What makes my scientific beliefs true?” is a legitimate question from within the scientific point of view. “Correspondence to physical fact” is a plausible answer to the scientific version of this question. The moral version demands an answer as well, even if the same answer will not do.

    And I have indeed questioned “what makes my moral beliefs (visceral reactions sometimes) true?” It has long been evident to me that my personal morality cannot arise from any absolute or universal truths – certainly not if such truths are larger than the size and span of humanity. Therefore, I recognize that my yardstick must be small, certainly no more than human-sized. And I don’t have any problem recognising this yardstick as subjective – however I think/hope that there may be a useful “subjective” space that is bigger than just the space between my own ears, a sort of “pan-subjectivity” of the human race, where morality finds a natural home. Therefore, a theory of mind and empathy with other humans seem to me to be the correct moral tools with which to explore the inter-subjective spaces we share, and the various expressions of the “golden rule” all that is necessary to put the requirements of a human-sized, pan-subjective morality into place. (I also don’t see any reason to choose one “good” to maximise over another in every case – these will naturally come out differently in different situations and different combinations of people).

    Now, this was my (pretty well thought out, but not necessarily objective) position coming into this thread, and I therefore took a great interest in the OP and in Sam Harris’s work. Now, I have read all the comments with great care, and it seems there is one trend of argument that says, if morality cannot be absolute and universal (although the term “objective” is the one people actually use), then it is not “real.” Yet, it seems to me that to judge (the natural outcome of morality) is profoundly human.

    Now, I was greatly arrested (and persuaded) by Sarah Braash’s comments in #61. Somewhat unusually, that comment is crafted as a careful and thoughtful reply that manifests nothing but respect for the questioner and patience for the question. And the result is compelling.

    Whether or not I am constrained in my behavior is not a subjective analysis. My freedom to act or not act can be objectively defined. My happiness or well being cannot be objectively defined. But, my liberty to do something or no can be objectively defined. It doesn’t matter what act I wish to perform.

    And on reflection I find this argument works for me – at least in terms of the construction of a “code” (not a moral code) that can work for everyone. I do get that Sarah is not using “liberty” as simply one more subjective value to be preferred over another value – “happiness” or whatever. The freedom to act IS more objectively measurable than any other “good” we could select. And freedom to act includes freedom to pursue happiness in whatever flavour personally appeals to you.

    And Ebon, the fact that there may be areas of conflict between one person’s liberty and another’s is not an objection to selecting liberty as the thing to maximise – there will be inevitable conflicts in all cases, whether we opt to maximise happiness or any other good, two person’s “goods” may always potentially be in conflict. It is precisely to sort out these inevitable conflicts that we have the law – and what Sarah calls “the majoritarian / counter-majoritarian dialogue” is inherent in the US constitution’s “balance of powers”.

    It is the task of politics to allow the majority to rule itself, however, this is counter-balanced by the courts’ task of preventing individual freedoms from being constrained more than is absolutely necessary, even if that individual’s desires and pursuits run directly contrary to that of the majority.

    Re the dangers of “evidence” being used to design a better moral code, lots of dystopias have been written about this, and one could zone into the scene in the movie “2001″ where HAL has objectively, and taking all evidence into account, decided that the continuation of its programme is more important than the lives of the crew.

    Evidence is useful, but a thousand sci-fi writers have shown how one person’s evidence could still conceivably be used as a bludgeon to beat another over the head.

    What we do need is a carefully constructed system that balances irreducible individual freedom (the courts) v the benefits of human society (politics/economics). (The fact the US constitution does this so effectively is one of the wonders of the world). And I agree with Sarah that the only good that can objectively be maximised to make such a system work is liberty.

    However, I do think that, for myself I will no doubt continue to judge myself and others in terms of a human-sized, pan-subjective, golden rule type ethics or moral system, since I am human. But I do agree with those who have argued that there is no greater “out there” sort of moral yardstick. So I will attempt to make my judgments with a sceptical grain of salt.

  • Camus Dude

    Mostly just some responses and questions here:

    @OMGF I’m still not sure what you mean by “objective” as opposed by what I or Sarah mean. I gather from Greene, who I think makes sense, that we generally take “objective” to mean “mind-independent” (or at least “not-too-mind-dependent”). What is so objectionable about that?

    It’s an objective fact that species strive to survive. Our moral senses are guided by this and should be informed by it. (emphasis mine)

    It seems to me you smuggle an evaluative concept in here. Yeah, individual members of species strive to survive so that, in the long term, at least for a time, species as a whole survive. So? Perhaps our moral sense are guided by this – I think that’s probably descriptively true. But to say that they should be so guided is not a value-neutral statement in the same way that “species strive to survive” is value-neutral. What connects the value-neutral fact that we have a moral sense that causes us to have certain feelings and to act in certain ways to the value-laden “fact” (if fact it is) that our moral sense ought to guide us?

    And if the homophobic bigot wants to beat the crap out of “fags” well his desire seems all the justification he needs.

    Basically. So what does saying that beating up gay people for fun is wrong actually accomplish? Nothing! Even if moral realism is true, then, and there are moral laws, they can apparently be violated with impunity (unlike the laws of nature, or “legal laws”), so doesn’t that make moral realism trivial?

    @kagerato

    And since you (and indeed, the vast majority of everyone) unquestionably does care, why should I then disregard what you think and feel about your own state of being?

    Then, if you say I shouldn’t care about you at all, what is next? Will you try to stop me if I start bludgeoning you with my fists? What if you’re weaker than I am, and become seriously injured? How will you explain what has happened to others, and why they should have any sympathy for you?

    I never said you (or anyone) should “disregard what [I or others] think of feel about [our] own state of being (emphasis mine)” – what I’m questioning is why, other than sentiment, you should care! (I’m not sure what lead you think I was arguing that you shouldn’t care about me or others.)

    Moving on, if you are stronger than me and attack me, certainly I would call out to others for help. But that doesn’t prove that moral realism is true. That just proves that I’ve been “programmed” to react that way by nature and nurture. As for how I will explain what happens to others, I don’t see how whether moral realism is true or not is even relevant to my description of you bludgeoning me. If others have sympathy for me, then just telling them I was beat up will elicit feelings of sympathy; if they don’t, then my description won’t. I might try to convince others to sympathize with me, but that does not mean that I think they ought to. I may feel that way, but I don’t think that way.

    OMGF gave you a proper response to this, but I heard nothing at all yet in return.

    Sorry, took me awhile to respond! :D

    The powerful will rule and the weak will submit or be trampled.

    That sounds like a summary of human history to me.

    If you don’t think that civilization is worth anything, I don’t know what to tell you.

    I think, kagerato, that the questions aimed @all also miss the point. Neither I, nor Sarah, nor any of the philosophers I have cited have said this, nor do we feel it. We value civilization. We participate in society. We love our families and friends. Why would you think otherwise? Just because we deny moral realism? That’s a non sequitur.

    Perhaps even more directly the question is this: how will you organize a society, or even small groups of people, without any shared sense of behavior or goals? You will need some system if you intend to replace (or even reform) morality. Pretending that we can survive or prosper in an anarchic environment is nonsense; the entire course of human history shows it.

    Those are pragmatic questions to error theorists. Greene and Garner both address these questions in their work. Error theorists are not anarchists (or at least not necessarily). But why should error theorists bear the weight of organizing society? Isn’t that something everyone, self-interestedly, cares about to lesser or greater extents? If so, why do we need moral realism to tell us how to act. Why can’t we reason practically, as Garner discusses in his chapter on “applied ethics.”

    I will end with a recommendation again that everyone read Greene’s dissertation. His account of moral psychology (which I’m just getting into) (a broadly projectivist account, a la Hume, and based substantially on Jonathan Haidt’s “social intuitionist” model of moral psychology), if correct can explain (perhaps I should say “debunk”?) why we might think moral realism is true even if it’s not.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Oh, Scotlyn,

    I have a lot of respect for your fine mind, and I am honored by your comment.

    (I also like it when you debate me from the other side of the fence too.)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hi folks,

    So as to avoid falling into SIWOTI syndrome, I’m going to absent myself from this thread. Feel free to continue talking amongst yourselves.

    However, as a parting shot, I have to say this: There’s a confusion that’s rampant among the moral subjectivists here. Saying that morality is objective is not the same thing as saying that particular moral conclusions may not be questioned. I’m amazed that so many people can’t grasp the difference between these two propositions.

    Science delivers objective truth about the world – no one’s debating that here (I hope). Does that mean that scientists think of themselves as infallible authorities, making dogmatic proclamations from on high? Must we permanently banish any talk of science discovering objective truth, lest we give aid and comfort to the religious sects who also believe there is such a thing and that they possess it? If you can understand the fallacy in this, then any similar confusions about objective morality should also dissolve.

    Okay, I’ve said my peace now. Fire away.

  • Camus Dude

    I think the issue of whether morality “gives aid and comfort” to religionists or not is a separate issue from whether moral realism is true. So is the fallibility of scientists. (Though of course if moral realism is false, then it follows that scientists cannot discover moral truths.)

    The difference between objective truths about the world that are discoverable through science and putative moral truths that are putatively discoverable through science is that scientific truths (say E=MC^2) are value-neutral, while putative moral truths are not. What is it that connnects non-value-neutral moral truths to value-neutral scientific truths? (In fancy talk, how is it that moral properties supervene on non-moral properties?)

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMG. That cartoon killed me. Too funny. It is. It’s a debilitating disease.

  • Kaelik

    Ebonmuse, your complete detachment from anything even resembling the remotest sliver of this argument is amazing.

    Literally not a single person has even once in this entire thread said anything even close to that any moral system could not be questioned, or that anyone was saying theirs was until you typed that.

    It has literally nothing to do with anything. If you can’t understand why your own personal feelings about the wrongness of an action are not sufficient to have an objective moral system, the least you could do is actually pretend to tell us what you are grounding your beliefs.

    But instead you jump in and try to pretend that we don’t realize that objective morality can be investigated. At least try to have an honest discussion.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I was thinking — if you wanted to establish a science of subjective morality (redundant), based upon reason and evidence, in which no one pretends to be arguing anything other than his or her subjective moral opinion, but using reason and evidence, then that would be fine by me, and I’m sure it would be fine with the other moral anti realists. At least the non cognitivists. Maybe not the error theorists.

    And, then I realized — that already exists — it’s called human rights work. And, a lot of the people doing this work — lawyers. (Cue the jokes.)

    Case in point — the policy report I’m working on regarding the level of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights of the femmes des quartiers (the women and girls residing in the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding the major cities of France).

    I am going to be presenting a lot of facts, including the results of a questionnaire I distributed randomly in the suburbs around Paris.

    And, the last section will be for my policy suggestions, given my interpretation of the analyzed data.

    And there you are — a science of morality. Subjective morality.

    But, I’m not pretending to be in possession of objective moral truth.

  • keddaw

    All morality is subjective.

    Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Sam was right and we magicked up a machine that could simultaneously measure the well being of every conscious creature and we would use that to determine the best course(s) of action. All it would take would be for one natural disaster, or a spate of births of people with certain traits and what we considered moral would have to change. The only constant in Sam’s moral landscape is the attempt to maintain or attain a peak. What we do to get there, what the cost is, is irrelevant. That doesn’t seem very moral to me.

    Still, if someone wouldn’t mind actually defining morality I’m sure we’d be much obliged.

    Should anyone be interested, I think the morality of an act consists of 3 things, in a personal, subjective weighting: intended outcome; expected outcome; actual outcome. That’s coming more from a criminal justice idea, but it seems to fit – better than pure utilitarianism anyway.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    bbk,

    Clearly, that would make it subjective.

    Not necessarily, and that’s exactly what I was saying. You’ve, in essence, just claimed that any situational ethics is subjective by definition simply because it isn’t absolute. Now do you understand why I insist that we use the correct definitions of the words being thrown about?

    They can’t both be right and that’s why it’s relevant. Why should it work in the direction that Hitchens wants to apply it but not in the other direction?

    You’re assuming your conclusion here. You’re assuming that morality must be subjective and that when it’s tied to economics it is necessarily subjective, so therefore it is subjective.

    We see what happens when someone’s “objective” morality gets applied to science – the banning of stem cell research, the banning of abortions, the banning of contraceptives, the denial of evolution, denial of global warming, denial of heliocentric astronomy, etc.

    Except those “moral” positions (I’ve already said that religious “morality” is not objective) were not based on objectivity or informed by the real world. This is another mistake that people here are making a lot. Just because someone claims that they have such and such moral position doesn’t mean that the moral position was arrived at through reason, logic, and empirical study. In fact, I’m sure that Harris’s argument would be against these positions for that very reason. This is not a compelling counter argument.

    It’s a realization that allowed me to see that morality is just a religious artifact, rooted in magical thinking, that allows a small minority of moralists to convince others to act against their own best interests.

    So, are you claiming that all other social animals have religious artifacts that force their populations to act in certain ways against their will and best interests? That’s interesting. I thought only humans were afflicted with religious nonsense/garbage.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Kaelik,

    Yes, you can label things as good or bad according to how it does or does not benefit us. But since what does and does not benefit us is by definition subjective, that’s not an objective good.

    No, you’re confusing objective with universal or absolute, which is especially apparent by the rest of the paragraph (not quoted).

    You really thrive on undefined terms don’t you? It’s first of all, not an objective fact that species strive to survive, that’s a really annoying misconception that many people have. What is true is that most individuals strive to survive, and those that are good at it do so, and therefore “species” usually end up surviving.

    Which is why individual herd members put themselves at risk to predators to protect offspring and other herd members, right? Oh yeah, and I’m the one sticking to the definition while most other people here (including you) are conflating the definiton of “objective” to suit their whims at any given time.

    But how does anything at all about “moral sense” follow from that, much less that we should be informed by this fact.

    Because we should shape our views/actions/moral/etc. based on objective reality.

    B) As I already said, that is a stupid definition of morality that doesn’t fit any one else’s definition.

    Then, what is your definition?

    By that definition, if I go out and kill someone tomorrow, it’s a moral act, because it is an intraspecies action.

    Intraspecies may have been too specific, but so what? Some people are claiming that it doesn’t exist. Clearly we don’t even have to go beyond intraspecies interaction to see that it does, which was the point.

    If your “morality” can’t distinguish between bashing an infant on rocks and brushing my teeth, your morality is not the morality that Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hume, Singer, and Mills are talking about. And it’s also not what Sam Harris and Ebon Muse are talking about, so it’s not relevant.

    We must be talking past each other if you think that what I’ve wrote supports bashing an infant on rocks. That would actually be more your position, which I’ve been arguing against. Your stated position makes no distinction except whether you prefer it or not.

    Okay, great, animals risked their own lives to protect the herd. This is an objective fact. Now, was that action moral, or immoral? How do you discern the difference.

    Yes, it is a moral action of the type that leads us to understand how humans work (evolutionarily) but what’s important here is that you’re asking the wrong question (showing you don’t understand the argument). The question is, “Given this objective fact, how should we use it to inform what our actions should be?”

    What objective, IE mind independent facts can you point to that innocent until proven guilty “should” inform our moral codes?

    Because we have objective evidence that humans make mistakes and reason/logic that indicate that the entity putting forth a positive statement bear the burden of proof of proving that position. Else, why are you atheist?

    No, you missed the point. If I go to Germany, and they play Poker, only for some reason, Two Queens beats two Kings, and the value of the King and Queen is otherwise swapped completely, the game is still poker, and the king isn’t more valuable than the queen. Because the only reason any cards have value is because we have subjectively granted them value.

    Every hand you play would still be objectively based on the rules set forth, even if those rules say that Queens beat Kings.

    No, evolution is objective. But the fact that things do continue to exist and change over time does not mean that it is morally good for that to be the case, or else I’m writing my moral thesis on the Objective Morality of Volcanic Eruption.

    But, we know that species survive at least in part because of selfless actions by members of their populations. We also know that animals engage in moral activities. These are facts that you seem to think can’t be applied to morality in this argument, but they can. These are facts that are objective, even though you claim none exist.

    Evolution is not a moral process, it does not tell us anything about what we should or should not do. It is an objective fact that various individuals of various species perform different acts.

    It’s also a fact that it shapes who we are as a species and how we interact with each other.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Camus,

    I’m still not sure what you mean by “objective” as opposed by what I or Sarah mean. I gather from Greene, who I think makes sense, that we generally take “objective” to mean “mind-independent” (or at least “not-too-mind-dependent”). What is so objectionable about that?

    That definition is not bad, but it’s not how it’s being applied here. “Mind-independent” is not the same as absolute, however, which is how it’s applied more often than not.

    It seems to me you smuggle an evaluative concept in here.

    I’m not smuggling anything in. In fact, I’m putting it out there, because it’s the central question that we’re debating! Should our morals come from objectivity or not? I’m saying that they should. It doesn’t mean that morality can’t be objective or that a moral system based off of objective fact is inherently non-objective simply because I agreed with Sam Harris that we should use objectivity to inform our morals.

    Basically.

    How frightening. Do you really, honestly believe in a societal free-for-all where we all do whatever we want, whenever we want based on nothing more than what we desire at any given time?

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “No, you’re confusing objective with universal or absolute, which is especially apparent by the rest of the paragraph (not quoted).”

    No, I’m not confusing them. Whether or not something benefits us is mind dependent, because different people are benefited by different things. Thus, subjective. If I decide tomorrow that I would be happier having never existed, then in fact, the subjective good of having existed would cease to be good, and become bad.

    How about instead of repeatedly stating that no one else but you understands objective, actually define it, so we can all laugh at your failure?

    “Which is why individual herd members put themselves at risk to predators to protect offspring and other herd members, right? Oh yeah, and I’m the one sticking to the definition while most other people here (including you) are conflating the definiton of “objective” to suit their whims at any given time.”

    No, that is explained by the fact that those animals whom are best at propagating genes are those who are best represented in the next generation, and some some altruistic behavior exists that was selected for based on success at gene propagation. Which has nothing to do with species striving to survive, since species do not have a collective will and cannot intend or act in any way, and cannot strive for anything. So once again, no, species do not strive to survive, they do merely as a side effect of slow mutation, and niche filling, as individuals propagate their genes.

    “Because we should shape our views/actions/moral/etc. based on objective reality.”

    Ignoring for the moment the vacuous stupidity of this purposefully meaningless statement. What objective reality? It is objectively true that volcanoes erupt. Is it therefore moral for us to cause volcanoes to erupt? Why or why not?

    You can’t get from objective reality to proscriptive “should”s without first defining a set of values. You keep skipping that step, because the set of values you choose are going to be subjective.

    “Then, what is your definition?”

    Morality is the (nonexistent) rules system that governs actions and proscriptively tells us what we should do. A moral system must define actions as moral and immoral, actions that should be taken, and those that shouldn’t be taken, and it must do so based on some guiding rules, rather than arbitrarily. Most moral philosophers and the “common man” generally also believe that the guiding rules should have worth outside the personal worth they invest in it.

    “Intraspecies may have been too specific, but so what? Some people are claiming that it doesn’t exist. Clearly we don’t even have to go beyond intraspecies interaction to see that it does, which was the point.”

    No, you completely missed the point. What exists? Intra species interaction objectively exists, but intra species interaction is not morality. Define fucking morality. Define it in a way that makes somethings wrong and other things right, and define it so that it is clear why some things are wrong and others are right.

    Then you will have a subjective morality based on your value. But simply saying over and over “Animals act morally” without actually defining morality is just begging the question. How do I know that a particular action that an animal takes is moral, whereas some other action is not if you won’t say what makes an action moral.

    Volcanoes act morally. Therefore clearly, morality exists. See how retarded that is? Why is what the volcano doing acting morally?

    “We must be talking past each other if you think that what I’ve wrote supports bashing an infant on rocks. That would actually be more your position, which I’ve been arguing against. Your stated position makes no distinction except whether you prefer it or not.”

    Your only stated definition so far is that any interaction between two creatures of the same species is automatically moral. Therefore, your explicit definition tells me that bashing infants on rocks is moral. This is a failure of your definition, because you keep forgetting to tell us what things are moral and what things are not.

    “Yes, it is a moral action of the type that leads us to understand how humans work (evolutionarily) but what’s important here is that you’re asking the wrong question (showing you don’t understand the argument). The question is, ‘Given this objective fact, how should we use it to inform what our actions should be?’”

    No. You are missing the question. It is objectively true that volcanoes erupt. The next question is not “how should this inform our actions?” it is “Why would this inform our actions about what we should do?”

    Animals sometimes risk their life to protect other animals. Animals sometimes purposefully kill members of their own species to protect themselves.

    Why is one of these things “good” and another “bad”? Why should we treat these two objective facts differently?

    “Because we have objective evidence that humans make mistakes and reason/logic that indicate that the entity putting forth a positive statement bear the burden of proof of proving that position. Else, why are you atheist?”

    The statement X did not do Y is equally a positive statement as X did Y. But in fact, this isn’t about innocent until proven guilty at all, and I regret not halting you when you first threw out that irrelevant statement. All women are guilty of being women, and easily proved to be so, so if someone has the subjective belief that keeping them as chattel is moral, and keeping them as chattel is an effective method of propagating the species, then why do you say it is not moral. It objectively aids in continuing the species, so what’s you beef? And of course the answer is that you determine what you find moral or immoral based on it’s ability to propagate the species, you do it based on your subjective values which include many other things. Not that it really matters, because the continuation of any given species is only valuable subjectively in the first place.

    “Every hand you play would still be objectively based on the rules set forth, even if those rules say that Queens beat Kings.”

    Yes, it is objectively true that when you obey subjective rules, you are obeying those subjective rules. That doesn’t make those rules subjective any more than the objective fact that people commit female genital mutilation because they believe it is right makes it actually objectively right.

    “But, we know that species survive at least in part because of selfless actions by members of their populations. We also know that animals engage in moral activities. These are facts that you seem to think can’t be applied to morality in this argument, but they can. These are facts that are objective, even though you claim none exist.”

    We know that some species survive in part because of selfless actions. We know that all species continue to survive mostly because of actions that propagate their own genes at the expense of others.

    We don’t know if animals engage in moral activities because you haven’t told us what a moral activity is in the first place. It is not a fact that animals engage in moral activities unless you first define moral activities in a stupid non proscriptive way.

    “It’s also a fact that it shapes who we are as a species and how we interact with each other.”

    What is “it”? Evolution? Yes. Which genes we possess shapes how we interact with each other. Great. That’s objective. Why then, can you declare the genes that some people possess that contribute to them wanting to ruthlessly murder other people for shits and giggles as immoral, and ones that contribute to them throwing themselves in front of a bus?

    Both of those are genes we possess that exist because they have propagated themselves at the expense of other genes. What is the difference between them that makes one good and another bad?

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Thanks to the length limit, the server ate my comment. Sad face :(

    It really should at least echo the comment itself onto the error page. Though I should know better than to forget to copy anything before submission. Maybe it’s a sign that I should stay concise.

    @Kaelik:

    If by objective, you mean independently of the agents possessing the preference, you don’t. That isn’t even coherent. This is why OMGF made such a big deal out of confusing ‘objective’ and ‘universal’. Morality doesn’t exist independently of societies or intelligent agents. It’s an emergent property of them.

    Ken Ham’s Creationism lacks relevant supporting evidence. It is a false scientific belief which would be analogous to a false moral belief such as thinking slavery is correct.

    I’m familiar with the work of Thomas Hobbes. You fully misunderstood my point; I didn’t say people were incapable of recognizing what is in their self-interest. Indeed, that does not rely on social contract theory at all. Camus Dude had the same misunderstanding, which I will address in his section.

    As to your answer to the puzzle on the basis of reality: you gave an entirely pragmatic answer. While I certainly agree that the apparent coherence of events and objects among different people is interesting and useful practically, it is not a proper response to the question philosophically. When you use other minds to answer a question about the nature of reality, you are now raising the Problem of Other Minds, yet another classic philosophical puzzle. In short, what tells you that other minds are themselves real?

    It rather astonishes me that I’m having such a difficult time convincing people that all conclusions have premises, and that some premises cannot be sub-divided into an infinite recursion of sub-premises. Logically, you have to start somewhere. The idea in reason is to begin with the most difficult-to-challenge premises you can. Unfortunately, I’m running into people who will challenge that happiness, and liberty, and justice, are inherently good things. I see no premise I could replace these with that would be more convincing.

    Oh, and it’s a beautiful thing that you brought up Hobbes. The social contract is precisely why rules of behavior apply even to people who vehemently disagree with them. Abiding by the rules of the game is part of playing; if you don’t like it, don’t play.

    That neatly brings us back to your statement about the rules of Poker being subjective. No, no they’re not. They were defined one way and then you arbitrarily decided to create a second set and give them exactly the same name; sewing confusion. Poker didn’t change; you did. If you insist on enforcing your widely unaccepted notion of Poker on the rest of us, I suggest you start your own club.

    @Sarah:

    You contradict yourself. If moral view is formed with reference to relevant evidence, it is not fully subjective — by definition. It is still partly subjective; all views of all kinds are partly subjective.

    I feel we are largely playing a meaningless game of semantics with this binary subjective/objective divide here. Does it matter how a person’s view is labeled? That they hold such a view is still a fact, regardless.

    I will present two logically formalized conclusions. Which premises are being contested?

    P1. People have moral views; variable considerations of right and wrong.
    P2. These views influence their behavior, often in substantial ways and with effects on other people.
    P3. Not all behaviors are equally desirable or equally useful to people in society.
    P4. Systems of morality (or ethics) modify the observed behavior compared to what is found in absence of such a system.
    C. A moral system should be constructed to direct society toward the more desirable or useful goals of its members.

    What this logic should make clear more than anything else is that the contention over objectivity in morality is completely distinct from the reasoning for the existence of morality. They’re two separate arguments that should not be conflated.

    The argument for the use of evidence in formation of the moral system is this one:

    P1. Morality is a tool to help meet human needs.
    P2. People in society agree on certain values, or inherent goods, that are useful to them and which they wish to see increase.
    P3. Observing the real world and including relevant facts in consideration of action and policy increases the likelihood, often substantially, that a goal will be successfully met.
    C. The contents of a moral system should be informed by relevant evidence.

    As to the whole “pretending” to know; no. We do not pretend to know, a priori, what is good. We determine what is good based on experience and reasoning. At least, I hope that Harris holds this view. We are different people, after all.

    This entire concept that moral views informed by reality would be subject to sudden reversals and be used to justify immorality is utterly baffling to me. The stronger a view is actually supported by evidence, the less likely it is to be overturned suddenly.

    Do note that when one talks of evidence, this is always meant to refer to relevant evidence — not arbitrary facts. Sure, a Creationist can bring books full of facts into a courtroom. Yet we do not use evidence in an abstract manner, as though weighing rocks on a scale without paying any attention to what kind of rocks they are. Facts only carry meaning when they support the reasoning being presented. I do not mind if the Creationist brings a thousand books; he may as well bring none when none support his case.

    The reason why religion causes damage has nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with the hierarchical and totalitarian organization. Indeed, precisely the reason why such backward views are held by many religious people is because they don’t consider evidence in the formation of their views. That you would imply they came to views like hatred of homosexuality, women, or other religions based on a fair and complete reading of the evidence confuses me.

    You’ll never convince the indoctrinated to believe anything new based upon appeals to moral nihilism and every view being exactly equal, regardless of how egregious or unjustified it is. On the contrary, that will only harden them to persuasion.

    People make major shifts in their understanding when confronted directly and repeatedly with evidence that they are mistaken. This is the nature of cognitive dissonance. You cannot change reality, but you can change your view.

    Also, forgive me if I find it difficult to take advice from someone who jokes about the imminent collapse of civilization. I can laugh all day, but it doesn’t help persuade me.

    @Scotlyn:

    No one has proposed an effective moral calculus for liberty, and I don’t think one exists. Until or unless you have developed an algorithm that measures liberty, then it is inaccurate to say liberty is any more objective a basis than happiness.

    Let’s try to build such an algorithm. Let A be an array of bits, addressed bitwise, which contains all the boolean states for an individual’s liberty. Well, already we’ve run into the first problem: the size of A is infinite. There is conceptually no limit to the number of actions you could take, and therefore the number of corresponding liberties.

    Secondly, we have a problem in that using a boolean state (on: free to act, or off: not free to act) misrepresents the problem. It’s not a matter of “being able” or “not being able”, normally. It’s a series of questions of “how able”, “at what cost”, and so forth. Meaningfully, you’d have to use a real number in [0, 1] rather than a boolean.

    Thirdly, it’s clear that the conception of liberty generated by running this algorithm over a finite set of states could and would produce mutually incoherent outcomes. Say that we have one set of liberties which include “ability to find food” and “availability of clean water to drink”. Next we have a second set, which includes most of the other liberties we can conceive of. Oops. The algorithm says that the second set has a higher “liberty” than the first, even though the first contains essential liberties without which the others are simply useless.

    Fourth, you could try to resolve this by giving much higher values to the essential liberties. Yet how do you decide exactly what value to assign? Moreover, no matter how high the value, because the set of liberties is infinite, it is still possible to construct a set of non-essential liberties which will exceed it.

    Enough of algorithms; my Computer Science background is showing.

    The fact of the existence of conflict between liberty, happiness, justice, and other intrinsic goods between individuals is not a reason to reject liberty as a value. Yes. Unfortunately, it’s also not a reason to select one over the others, and evidence that a philosophy of trying to maximize just one is doomed to failure.

    Saying we should just sort out conflicts in the law is precisely the error of delegation I pointed out earlier. That doesn’t resolve the issue of deciding how to make moral decisions in the slightest; it just abdicates responsibility.

    @Camus Dude:

    You misunderstood the purpose of my statements and their implications. The question is not whether we do have regard for each other. Without it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    The challenge was for you to present reasoning as to why this should be the case, without any appeal to morality or inherent goods. If you accept inherent goods like happiness, you’ve already cleared one of my biggest premises. So be careful not to do that.

    I don’t know why you bring up nature/nurture and social programming. That’s an explanation as to how things became the way they are. When one speaks of morality, it is concerned with how things should be. You need to explain by what means you will direct society without any type of moral thought. Or are you prepared to accept totalitarianism or anarchy? Those are possible outcomes, no doubt.

    As an aside, thoughts and feelings are of the same value in this context; it’s no use drawing a false distinction between them. Paraphrasing another; feelings are thoughts on drugs.

    Neither I, nor Sarah, nor any of the philosophers I have cited have said this, nor do we feel it. We value civilization. We participate in society. We love our families and friends. Why would you think otherwise? Just because we deny moral realism? That’s a non sequitur.

    You’re right; that is a non-sequitur. It’s a very good thing I didn’t say that, then. No challenge was made as whether you actually value civilization, etc. etc. The challenge was as to how you intend to protect the things you value in a world where you say there is no such thing as right and wrong.

    Those are pragmatic questions to error theorists. Greene and Garner both address these questions in their work. Error theorists are not anarchists (or at least not necessarily). But why should error theorists bear the weight of organizing society? Isn’t that something everyone, self-interestedly, cares about to lesser or greater extents? If so, why do we need moral realism to tell us how to act. Why can’t we reason practically, as Garner discusses in his chapter on “applied ethics.”

    That, my friend, is called dodging the question. I’m not going to go read your recommendations when you fail to deliver a straight answer, or fail to understand what you are being asked.

    Present your practical mechanism. It can’t use morality, and it can’t rely on inherent goods.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Kaelik,

    No, I’m not confusing them.

    Yes, you are. It’s why you make statements like the ones you continue to make that everything is subjective unless it is true for all times and all situations.

    How about instead of repeatedly stating that no one else but you understands objective, actually define it, so we can all laugh at your failure?

    First off, I’ve found that the people who are most dismissive are usually so because they can’t back up their arguments. Also, from dictionary.com, “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” That’s a good enough definition. Note that there’s nothing in there that says that objective must mean true for all time and all situations. It does not say that it must be universal or absolute. Laugh away.

    No, that is explained by the fact that those animals whom are best at propagating genes are those who are best represented in the next generation, and some some altruistic behavior exists that was selected for based on success at gene propagation.

    Thank you, that’s my point. I’m glad that you agree that altruistic behavior (morality) is a brute fact of the behavior of animals. Now, care to examine your stance a little closer? You should, considering that it’s contradictory to what you claim is true.

    Ignoring for the moment the vacuous stupidity of this purposefully meaningless statement.

    I fail to see how it is vacuous or meaningless. We are all well aware that there are people who base their ideas and lives around things for which there is no evidence and no reason to believe (religion anyone)?

    What objective reality? It is objectively true that volcanoes erupt. Is it therefore moral for us to cause volcanoes to erupt? Why or why not?

    Of course it’s easier to deal with ridiculous non sequitors than to deal with the real facts on the ground, isn’t it? Why don’t you deal with the fact that altruistic behavior exists in social species, including yours?

    You can’t get from objective reality to proscriptive “should”s without first defining a set of values. You keep skipping that step, because the set of values you choose are going to be subjective.

    I’m not skipping that step and you are fundamentally misunderstanding if you think that is the case. When I said that we should base our beliefs/morals/etc on the real world, for example, that was a re-statement of the original point that we are arguing, but it is not skipping a step. We already have tons of evidence that belief based on non-reality is harmful. Maybe I’m assuming that not being harmful is a good thing, but it’s really implicit to the definition, is it not? Perhaps you think that anything that is “harmful” is a value statement, but that’s not how the world seems to work either, is it?

    Morality is the (nonexistent) rules system that governs actions and proscriptively tells us what we should do. A moral system must define actions as moral and immoral, actions that should be taken, and those that shouldn’t be taken, and it must do so based on some guiding rules, rather than arbitrarily.

    It does exist, even as just a concept. And, is there anything in there that says one can not develop rules that are based on objective facts, and once those rules are developed whether they are objective or not? No. Do I get to laugh at you now?

    No, you completely missed the point. What exists? Intra species interaction objectively exists, but intra species interaction is not morality. Define fucking morality. Define it in a way that makes somethings wrong and other things right, and define it so that it is clear why some things are wrong and others are right.

    Sorry, but you are mixing up terms here. Morality is the interaction between entities while moral codes are what (when defined) say what things are wrong and others right. What in your definition defines what is wrong or right? Why is my definition held to a higher standard?

    Therefore, your explicit definition tells me that bashing infants on rocks is moral. This is a failure of your definition, because you keep forgetting to tell us what things are moral and what things are not.

    I’m sorry that you refuse to deal with what I’m saying and instead have to burn straw. Of course, you’ve refused to deal with the fact that your ideas lead to some pretty bad conclusions when logically thought out. I’ve tried to point them out, but you aren’t listening (must not be able to over your laughing and all). What will you say to the person who prefers to beat the crap out of you for your money? Will you tell them they are wrong to do so? You can’t, because you believe that you should be able to do anything that you prefer, and if they prefer, they can do the same. FGM, who cares? Murder, who cares? (Sarah, you support this?)

    No. You are missing the question. It is objectively true that volcanoes erupt. The next question is not “how should this inform our actions?” it is “Why would this inform our actions about what we should do?”

    This is akin to saying that it’s objective true that volcanoes exist, so evolution is bunk and subjective unless it specifically takes that into account. C’mon.

    Why is one of these things “good” and another “bad”? Why should we treat these two objective facts differently?

    Because they are different situations and no one here is proposing an absolute moral system, even though you can’t tell the difference.

    All women are guilty of being women, and easily proved to be so, so if someone has the subjective belief that keeping them as chattel is moral, and keeping them as chattel is an effective method of propagating the species, then why do you say it is not moral. It objectively aids in continuing the species, so what’s you beef?

    Because it doesn’t objectively aid the species, nor does it objectively fit what evidence we do have that societies that have equality tend to do better. But, hey, keep trying to put words in my mouth and burn straw.

    And of course the answer is that you determine what you find moral or immoral based on it’s ability to propagate the species, you do it based on your subjective values which include many other things.

    I specifically stated that that was not the only consideration for what was moral or not, and I specifically stated that it should be a data point that we use to determine morals, but hey it’s much easier to erect and burn strawmen, isn’t it?

    Yes, it is objectively true that when you obey subjective rules, you are obeying those subjective rules.

    Cute, but sorry, you’re wrong. The rules for poker are objective, because they are not based on interpretation or personal feelings or bias. When you sit down to play a game of poker, whether one hand beats another doesn’t depend on what you are personally feeling that day. You’re simply demonstrating that you don’t understand the delineation between subjective and objective. If we went with you, nothing humans do can be objective, including science.

    That doesn’t make those rules subjective any more than the objective fact that people commit female genital mutilation because they believe it is right makes it actually objectively right.

    And, I never claimed that it did. But, here’s the real kicker – I never claimed that FGM is objectively wrong. See, you don’t understand the argument. What I claimed was that we should develop our morals based on objectivity. I’m not expecting you to get the difference and to simply come back at me with more non sequitor and strawman arguments.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,
    Why did you support a ban on the burqa in France?

    I’ve read your posts, and you have all kinds of legal arguments about hiding identities, etc. That’s not what I’m asking.

    What I’d like to know is why you did it and can you give a reason that doesn’t smuggle in a value statement. If you really are concerned with amoral legislation, what is your rationale that is amoral?

  • Camus Dude

    @kagerato: What leads you to think that defending an error theory of morality leads to anarchy or totalitariaism? How does being able to truthfully call something wrong help secure the goods I desire? I don’t see how either are relevant to whether or not moral realism is true.

    @OMGF

    The question is, “Given this objective fact, how should we use it to inform what our actions should be?”

    There’s a should in there again. Where does the “should” come from? Practical reason? Are practical reason & morality coextensive? If not, then isn’t saying we should use data in a certain way begging the question? Why that way & not another? Sorry if I’m being dense; I don’t mean to be obtuse. It just seems to me you’re not giving a compelling story about how to move from is to ought.

  • bbk

    @OMFG

    You’ve, in essence, just claimed that any situational ethics is subjective by definition simply because it isn’t absolute. Now do you understand why I insist that we use the correct definitions of the words being thrown about?

    This is still just hair splitting because it doesn’t resolve the larger point: “situational” means that it is aimed to benefit one person or group and based on some arbitrary assumption. All of which are subjective. “All men are created equal” is only valid to a Humanist. “Slaves should obey their master” is equally valid to a Christian.

    Maybe you don’t understand what subjective means. Subjective does not mean that you’re entitled to do whatever you please and no one can do anything about it. Subjective means that there are laws that apply to people whether or not they like those laws. It doesn’t mean that most people don’t agree on most things. Subjective means that they can do all of this without resorting to unnecessary concepts that imbue their personal preferences with an added air of authority. Occam’s razor can easily be invoked to the entire concept. We can avoid the entire problem of defining exactly what “objective” morality really means because it’s a superfluous and misleading concept.

    Except those “moral” positions (I’ve already said that religious “morality” is not objective) were not based on objectivity or informed by the real world.

    There’s no difference. They’re always subjective. Morals based on objective facts are still subjective – they just happen to be based on observable facts. Harris himself fell right into that trap by making a speech about morality in which he espoused feminist values but at the same time managed to make misandric false equivalencies. His morality was perfectly objective – and perfectly unhelpful.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    I’m sort of just over this conversation, and some of the other philosophers on board are much more adept than I at philosophical arguments. Plus, I have to go study for the GRE, so that I can get a PhD in Philosophy.

    Please forgive me, this is no reflection upon my appreciation for your contribution to this thread, which I appreciate immensely.

    But, when you asked me your last question, I couldn’t help but get a Matrix flashback when Smith asks Neo, “Why? Why? Why do you keep fighting?”

    And, Neo responds: “Because I choose to.”

    Sorry for ending on a cute, flip note. I couldn’t help myself.

    Take care all.

    You know, I will just make one point / ask one question — your points about evidence and reason.

    What objective tests are you running? What evidence are you gathering? What observations are you making that are coming out — this behavior / act is “good/moral” or this behavior / act is “bad/immoral”?

    Answer: you’re not getting those results. Between the evidence gathering / data collection / observation recording and the policy suggestion / moral pronouncement / law there is a VALUE judgment.

    A subjective value judgment.

    Why pretend otherwise? Why pretend that we know things we do not know?

    That’s all I’m saying.

    Later folks.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Darn, I am WAYYYY late to the party.

    I would like to thank you all for an interesting distraction, though. It is amusing to see the interplay between the one who fights for liberty and yet does so by imposing laws on others, and the one who works for objective order based upon a subjective definition of objective. Oh, and the one who maintains their subjective beliefs and claims subjectively that objectivity cannot exist as it cannot in their subjective mindframe.

    By the by, I am “that” utilitarian that everyone seems to hate: Yes. Kill those homeless bastards with the shinobi-doctors (loved that description). But that is a discussion for the next time this topic comes up. It does often enough, after all.

    I still protest your burqa ban, though, and consider it a grievous offense against liberty for the government or “the masses of mob rule” to decide what I can, or cannot, wear. Disgusting it is, that your subjectivity is for some reason more valuable than my subjectivity, while admitting that objectively you have no right to do so, as objectivity does not exist. (I am going to wear my ninja mask if I well feel like it.)

    But again, thank you for the great distraction. I have enough ennui that it is a great pastime to read these comments, so thank you for keeping them so active.

  • Kaelik

    @kagerato

    “If by objective, you mean independently of the agents possessing the preference, you don’t. That isn’t even coherent. This is why OMGF made such a big deal out of confusing ‘objective’ and ‘universal’. Morality doesn’t exist independently of societies or intelligent agents. It’s an emergent property of them.”

    Um… It is objectively true that there is a tree. There is still a tree regardless of what I think or do.

    Morality doesn’t exist independently of societies or intelligent agents, and more so, it is not objectively the same to different societies of intelligent agents. If every intelligent agent has a different morality because of their different preferences, that’s the definition of a subjective morality.

    “Ken Ham’s Creationism lacks relevant supporting evidence. It is a false scientific belief which would be analogous to a false moral belief such as thinking slavery is correct.”

    Why is slavery a false moral belief? I have a preference to own another human being. If morality only exists because of my preferences, then why is it a false moral belief? Because you don’t prefer it? Do you see what I mean about subjectivity? That’s completely arbitrary.

    “As to your answer to the puzzle on the basis of reality: you gave an entirely pragmatic answer. While I certainly agree that the apparent coherence of events and objects among different people is interesting and useful practically, it is not a proper response to the question philosophically. When you use other minds to answer a question about the nature of reality, you are now raising the Problem of Other Minds, yet another classic philosophical puzzle. In short, what tells you that other minds are themselves real?”

    What tells me that other minds are “real”? Well the depends. I’m not sure that I believe my own mind is real, depending on what you mean by “mind.” I believe that a mind is just a self referential collection of interactions that create the impression of a self, and lead to actions based on that conception. Since the only mind I’ve ever seen was a brain, and I can generally empirically know that other people’s brains mirror mine, it would appear that they have a mind to the same extent that I do.

    I’m not claiming that there are no premises here, merely that the premise of morality doesn’t mesh well with itself, or the rest of the world. Why should I believe that something is “right”? Because I have a preference for it? Okay, but what about when someone else disagrees with me? I would have to believe that my mind is somehow different and special to even begin to believe that my feelings have real meaning, and their’s are just fake.

    I’m waiting for some reason to believe something is right besides personal preference, and I still haven’t heard it.

    “The social contract is precisely why rules of behavior apply even to people who vehemently disagree with them. Abiding by the rules of the game is part of playing; if you don’t like it, don’t play.”

    I never claimed you can’t enforce rules on people who don’t agree with them. I just pointed out that there is no reason for your rules to have any more or less meaning that anyone else’s rules. Which is my point.

    “That neatly brings us back to your statement about the rules of Poker being subjective. No, no they’re not. They were defined one way and then you arbitrarily decided to create a second set and give them exactly the same name; sewing confusion. Poker didn’t change; you did. If you insist on enforcing your widely unaccepted notion of Poker on the rest of us, I suggest you start your own club.”

    So the first people to define morality get to decide what it is, and no one else gets a say? Okay, good, since morality is what god wants us to do, and god doesn’t exist, morality doesn’t exist.

    Or you know, morality is subjectively whatever the most people can force on other people. And if a bunch of people stopped playing with a 20 card deck, and switched to a 52 card deck, that would change the rules of poker.

    Which you know, actually happened in the past.

    So no, Poker is not objective, it changes based on the agreements of the participants, likewise if what counts as moral for female genital mutilators is female genital mutilation, and what is moral for you is not mutilating genitals, then it’s pretty obvious that morality is subjective.

    “The challenge was for you to present reasoning as to why this should be the case, without any appeal to morality or inherent goods. If you accept inherent goods like happiness, you’ve already cleared one of my biggest premises. So be careful not to do that.”

    Why do people care about other people? Well, some people care about people because they have a nature and raising that leads them to be that way. Everyone cares about other people who can influence their day.

    It’s not that this should be the case. It’s that it is the case. Why do you think this should be the case, other than your subjective preferences?

    “That’s an explanation as to how things became the way they are. When one speaks of morality, it is concerned with how things should be. You need to explain by what means you will direct society without any type of moral thought. Or are you prepared to accept totalitarianism or anarchy? Those are possible outcomes, no doubt.”

    Yes, morality is about shoulds. I will be directing society to whatever is in my best interest. I assume everyone else will be doing the same. I am willing to accept totalitarianism as long as I am the dictator. I assume most people are as well. But since I am unlikely to be the dictator in most forms of totalitarianism, I reject all those forms. Since everyone else will reject all the ones that I am likely to be dictator, it appears there won’t be a dictator.

    “The challenge was as to how you intend to protect the things you value in a world where you say there is no such thing as right and wrong.”

    Mostly by convincing other people it’s in their best interest to not mess with the shit that I value. It seems to be working pretty well for all the people who I do not value who are still owning things and not being murdered by me because they have made it in my best interest to not steal their shit and murder them.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Zietlos,

    I love your comment, even though I don’t agree with it.

  • bbk

    @Zeitlos: Whether morality can be objective has nothing to do with whether we can reason objectively.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “Yes, you are. It’s why you make statements like the ones you continue to make that everything is subjective unless it is true for all times and all situations.”

    Except of course that I have never said that. Things are subjective if they are only true because of beliefs. If humans change their beliefs, and then the thing changes, then that’s not objective. That’s subjective. That’s what subjective means.

    “Also, from dictionary.com, ‘not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.’”

    Right, so then why is “survival of the species” a good thing? And don’t appeal to your personal feelings or interpretations. Oh wait, you can’t do it without that.

    “Thank you, that’s my point. I’m glad that you agree that altruistic behavior (morality) is a brute fact of the behavior of animals. Now, care to examine your stance a little closer? You should, considering that it’s contradictory to what you claim is true.”

    See, there you go again. Altruistic behavior happens. Altruistic behavior is not morality. You have priorly developed your own opinions of what is moral, and altruistic behavior fits your previous opinions, but this is your actual argument:

    1) Morality exists, objectively, and altruistic behavior is morality.
    2) Animals behave altruistically.

    1 & 2) Morality exists.

    As you can see, I’m questioning premise 1. First demonstrate that objective morality exists, or some compelling reason why altruistic behavior is morality. Because right now, you are just question begging.

    My stance is that there is no objective morality, because all actions, including altruistic ones, are equally as valid, and that none “should” or “should not” be done except subject to specific subjective goals.

    The fact that altruistic behavior does occur doesn’t automatically make it more valid than any other action.

    “Of course it’s easier to deal with ridiculous non sequitors than to deal with the real facts on the ground, isn’t it? Why don’t you deal with the fact that altruistic behavior exists in social species, including yours?”

    Because there is nothing to deal with! Altruistic behavior exists. Selfish behavior exists. Volcanoes erupt. None of those things tell us anything about what I “should” do.

    “I’m not skipping that step and you are fundamentally misunderstanding if you think that is the case. When I said that we should base our beliefs/morals/etc on the real world, for example, that was a re-statement of the original point that we are arguing, but it is not skipping a step. We already have tons of evidence that belief based on non-reality is harmful. Maybe I’m assuming that not being harmful is a good thing, but it’s really implicit to the definition, is it not? Perhaps you think that anything that is “harmful” is a value statement, but that’s not how the world seems to work either, is it?”

    Once again. I’m not talking about basing our actions on reality. What I am saying is that knowing infinitely many things about objective reality will never tell us what we “should” objectively do. It will only tell us what we “should” subjectively do to accomplish a specific subjective goal, that is not any objectively more worth pursuing than it’s inverse. Pursuing the extinction of all living beings is objectively equal to pursuing immortality. The only reason one is “better” than the other is because we subjectively decide that we would prefer one outcome to another. You know, with our personal feelings.

    “It does exist, even as just a concept. And, is there anything in there that says one can not develop rules that are based on objective facts, and once those rules are developed whether they are objective or not? No.”

    The part you missed is that you are basing those rules on both objective facts, and subjective values, because there are no objective value statements. And when you base the rules on objective facts and subjective values, they are subjective rules.

    “Sorry, but you are mixing up terms here. Morality is the interaction between entities while moral codes are what (when defined) say what things are wrong and others right. What in your definition defines what is wrong or right? Why is my definition held to a higher standard?”

    Once again, you are making up stupid definitions that no one else agrees with. Morality is not the interaction between entities. It is objectively true that entities interact, but morality must tell you what sort of actions you “should” take or it is not a morality. Morality is proscriptive, not descriptive.

    “I’m sorry that you refuse to deal with what I’m saying and instead have to burn straw. Of course, you’ve refused to deal with the fact that your ideas lead to some pretty bad conclusions when logically thought out. I’ve tried to point them out, but you aren’t listening (must not be able to over your laughing and all). What will you say to the person who prefers to beat the crap out of you for your money? Will you tell them they are wrong to do so? You can’t, because you believe that you should be able to do anything that you prefer, and if they prefer, they can do the same. FGM, who cares? Murder, who cares? (Sarah, you support this?)”

    So much wrong, so little time.

    1) You are saying stupid things. If you want me to not insult you for stupid things, then don’t say something stupid. You just said, again, that morality is interactions between entities, ignoring for the moment that infant rock bashing is interaction, and so still morality, that means that my chair hitting my desk is morality. If you want me to stop saying your definitions of morality suck, give a non sucky definition.

    2) First of all, bad conclusions for who? They aren’t bad for me. Because I don’t value the things you do. But hey, check out this link. Good, now we don’t need to talk about that anymore like it’s relevant.

    3) Yes, that’s right, I can’t tell the mugger that they are wrong, or at least not honestly (and I have nothing against dishonesty in many situations). But you know what, muggers aren’t exactly famous for stopping when you tell them they are wrong. People will not mug me for the same reason they actually won’t mug me now. I will not make it worth their while. I don’t walk around with money, looking like I have money, or in an area where they can mug me without likely intervention.

    Yay. If someone does try to take my money, I hand them my goddam wallet and walk out 5 dollars less and I cancel my credit cards. There we go.

    No one will murder me because they gain nothing from murdering me, unless they have some sort of sadistic joy from killing, in which case, there are lots of people that are easier to kill first, because I assume that they don’t gain much from shooting from far away, and I will run a goddam way and or beat the shit out of them if they don’t have a gun.

    “This is akin to saying that it’s objective true that volcanoes exist, so evolution is bunk and subjective unless it specifically takes that into account. C’mon.”

    You really aren’t paying any attention. Evolution is objectively true. Volcanoes erupt is objectively true.

    Both of these are factual statements about the world. But there is no way to get from factual statements about what the world is like, to what the world should be like, except by subjective value judgments.

    The fact that Volcanoes exist does not make Evolution false, it demonstrates that being factually true does not imply any moral shoulds.

    “Because they are different situations and no one here is proposing an absolute moral system, even though you can’t tell the difference.”

    No, you are coping out. One action is good, and one is bad. Why? Give an actual fucking reason. If you can’t tell me why one thing is good and another is bad, then it’s just an arbitrary term with no fucking meaning. If the reason is “because I like altruistic acts, and don’t like selfish acts.” Then that’s a subjective morality based on your personal preferences.

    “Because it doesn’t objectively aid the species, nor does it objectively fit what evidence we do have that societies that have equality tend to do better. But, hey, keep trying to put words in my mouth and burn straw.”

    1) Why does it matter if it aids the species, why are actions that “aid the species” better than ones that don’t?

    2) What the fuck does “aid the species” even mean. Get your biology from someone besides Darwin, evolution doesn’t act on species, species are a mental construct that doesn’t even really exist. There is no reason to even objectively judge what aids the “species” because sometimes what aids the species is becoming a different species, and there is no clear way to discern when a species changes to a new one over time.

    3) Wrong. Keeping women as chattel is superior at propagating the species. It allows more successful men to have more kids, it allows a number of people in general to have more kids, and it therefore propogates the species better, but that’s cool, just suddenly change you definition from something unclear vague and subjective (aids the species) to something unclear, vague and subjective (aids the society).

    “When you sit down to play a game of poker, whether one hand beats another doesn’t depend on what you are personally feeling that day.”

    No, it depends on which game of poker you decide to play, and what personal feelings you and everyone else there has about poker, because you can subjectively change the rules of poker by consensus, but you can’t subjectively make the table turn into a petunia.

    “And, I never claimed that it did. But, here’s the real kicker – I never claimed that FGM is objectively wrong. See, you don’t understand the argument. What I claimed was that we should develop our morals based on objectivity.”

    Right, and my point is, that there is no objectivity to base morals on without subjective values. Which I keep demonstrating by showing how subjective values determine which objective facts matter.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    @Kaelik:

    We are merely arguing the meaning of words now. I tried to make it clear that the ‘objective’ concept I was representing meant “informed by facts and reality”, not “composed of facts and reality”. Your argument is obviously true, by definition, when you select the latter meaning. Increasingly I find myself avoiding the use of the word objective entirely, since this distinction has no impact on my actual argument or views.

    Clearly, morality is not the same in different societies. We’re in perfect agreement; that’s an obvious implication of morality being an emergent property of a society.

    The purpose of saying that morality must be based in evidence is that we can actually do something to compare the worth of different codes of behavior at achieving the goals of the people composing those societies. We can see which is more effective at achieving the values the people claim to hold.

    However, you do not accept the principle of an inherent good, nor that people’s view have any independent value. The fact that someone holds a view doesn’t interest you in the least unless it directly affects you somehow. This is where it becomes impossible to convince you. If there are no shared premises on which we can agree, I have no basis on which to even try to construct an argument.

    In that sense you have a victory, however meaningless it may be.

    @Camus Dude:

    What leads you to think that defending an error theory of morality leads to anarchy or totalitariaism? How does being able to truthfully call something wrong help secure the goods I desire? I don’t see how either are relevant to whether or not moral realism is true.

    You proposed a very specific question where a general one will suffice. What makes me think that a lack of morality informed by reality will lead people to anarchy or totalitarianism? Like so:

    [P1] Morality is the chief mechanism by which social control of behavior is established.
    [P2] No other practical mechanisms that achieve similar behavioral controls have been established.
    [P2.1] Altruism is not necessary nor essential to the survival of people or intelligent agents generally.
    [P2.2] Governance based upon social contract relies on either shared values or inherent goods in order to establish the rules of the society. (However, accepting either of those would take us most of the way to morality.)
    [P2.3] Relying on the voluntary cooperation of others who act purely out of self-interest is unstable. Systems formed on an unstable basis will not be able to form long-term behavioral control.
    [P3] Either people have roughly equal power, or power is unevenly distributed. Which of these is the case will determine whether anarchy or totalitarianism is able to prevail.
    [P4] In the absence of a force establishing behavioral control, individuals will seek to accomplish their goals by any available means.
    [C] The collapse of morality ultimately leads to either a state of anarchy or totalitarianism.

    As to how and why morality helps you secure things you desire? That is also easy to answer, but it rests on one premise that I think is fair: that you chose to live in a society whose moral code resembles your values. In which case, the rules encoded by the morality of your society are constricting at least some behaviors which you do not want and encouraging others that you do want.

    There’s been a lot of confusion in this thread, and it’s probably because the exact views held by Harris, Ebonmuse, OMGF, themann1086, and myself are all somewhat different. I think part of that confusion is embodied by the phrase “truthfully call something wrong”. I do not ascribe to any understanding of morality where it makes sense to categorize things with boolean states like ‘true’ and ‘false’. When I say that something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it means that my understanding of the desires of the people involved, the principle shared values, and the facts of the situation suggest it is substantially closer to one side of a spectrum than the other. (This also implies that there are some actions which are so ambiguous that an approximation of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ doesn’t even make sense.)

    The core point I have been trying to get across is that there is a critical difference between whether a moral view of a situation is informed by evidence or not. If we line up for debate the proponents of slavery on one side, and the opponents on the other, there is a difference in the basis of their views. One considers what the slave(s) think, and the other does not.

    Yet the principle objections to this have been: (1) the slave’s opinion does not matter or does not hold any inherent value, and (2) the slaves and the free will not be able to agree on a set of shared or inherent values for a new society moving beyond slavery.

    There’s really nothing further I can do to advance this discussion when very simple, and otherwise widely accepted premises, are set against absolute challenges of validity. Of course there is no evidence I can present to show that a premise would be true for all agents at all times and all situations. No one was trying to argue for an absolute or universal morality.

    All I am saying is that morality should be informed and guided by evidence, as opposed to the alternative — fully subjective view points.

    I have shown already how the failure to accept extremely fundamental premises will necessarily lead one to deny the existence of reality itself. When you understand that moral views are no more subjective to the people of a society than reality is to the individual, you will know that rejecting the use of evidence in the formation of a moral code is as foolish as rejecting the use of evidence to determine reality.

  • bbk

    So in my final remarks, I’ll say that an appeal to consequence seems to play a major role in the scientific utilitarianism that Harris proposes. Objective morality has to be true or else churches and Hitler have as much to say about morality as scientists. And of course, Harris is a scientist so he wouldn’t have it any other way. By claiming that morality can be “objective” they seek to invalidate any personal preference that hasn’t been arrived at through a generous application of the scientific method.

    Hitler, then, could have used scientists to come up with the most effective methods for killing the Jews, Poles, and other dissenters. And he could have done it in a moral fashion by performing objective medical experiments on these victims so as to benefit the rest of society. Oh wait – he did. And wait – we did the same thing. But wait, says Harris: Hitler used science in a subjective way, whereas the objective preference would have been to improve society only in ways that don’t deprive anyone of their freedom. For example, an objective approach to morality would be to throw fathers in jail for falling behind on child support payments. And allow labs to perform crucial medical experiments on monkeys. But only if it’s for important causes like curing hair loss and never for testing if the new mascara will make you blind. Speaking of eye research, labs can chop up all the horseshoe crabs they want, just as long as it has nothing to do with cute puppies or dolphins.

    But, do we really need to prove that morality exists and is necessarily objective in order to tell some bigots who get their version out of a 2,000 year old book that they’re stupid and that we’re not going to listen to them anymore? Does morality really help with any situation? Should we keep offering stupid non-solutions such as, “After this latest scandal, we should force CEOs to take a class about morality?” How will writing manifestos about morality make the world a more comfortable place where muggers don’t mug you, companies don’t pollute the planet, women don’t get raped, or anything else? We don’t need morality, we need laws.

  • Kaelik

    @kagerato

    “Clearly, morality is not the same in different societies. We’re in perfect agreement; that’s an obvious implication of morality being an emergent property of a society.”

    See, that’s the point. Sam Harris and Ebon Muse think it is objectively true that our morals are better than sharia ones. They think it is objectively true that valuing equality is better than valuing shutting women away in effective house arrest to protect their modesty.

    That’s why I go through all this trouble, to point out that this is false. If you have a subjective morality that doesn’t tell you that your specific society is better than everyone else’s for them, then fine. But then you don’t have to contradict me when I say that objective morality doesn’t exist.

  • Steve Bowen

    It seems to me that we all seem to agree that there are no absolute / universal morals. Good! That’s no more than I would expect in an atheist forum. It also appears there is a general acceptance that morality as we accept it is an artefact of biological evolution and cultural convention.
    As OMGF and others have alluded to, there is evidence of altruism and empathy in many social species. It is also evident in new born humans which suggests that there is an innate survival value in such behaviour, enough for it to be selected for.
    The reductio absurdum argument that everything including morality, is subjective is logically, but very trivially true (the universe doesn’t give a shit, we know) and doesn’t really advance the discussion about how a rational society should make moral decisions, when everyone’s gut instincts will be dependent on their own prejudice, self interest and upbringing.
    As a case in point, an individual’s moral aversion to incest will depend on whether they have siblings, where in the sibling hierarchy they were born and the sex of their siblings. This makes sense in an evolutionary sense as reinforcement of recessive genes can often be deleterious. However in modern society, consensual sex, with contraceptives between siblings has no genetic ramifications so the problem becomes a purely non consequential moral one. The moral issue is then in the eye of the beholder. If no one “beholds” other than the siblings and they want to do it there is in fact no moral question (lonely falling trees, one hand clapping yaddi yadda). If Mum catches you however… well depends on Mum, does she have a strong moral objection to incest? Will she be hurt emotionally? if so moral consequences ensue as someone else’s sensibilities are involved and real hurt may result.
    You can make rational appeals to objectivity in moral dilemmas but society will always be subjectively in different places at any one time. So I am with Sarah on the general principle. In the current example law would state: Consensual sex between siblings that does not result in progeny liable to genetic impairment is morally neutral (amoral) and legal. Whether those siblings want to risk upsetting Mum is their own decision but should not be a legal consideration. Extend the metaphor as far as you want.

  • bbk

    “The reductio absurdum argument that everything including morality, is subjective is logically, but very trivially true (the universe doesn’t give a shit, we know) and doesn’t really advance the discussion about how a rational society should make moral decisions, when everyone’s gut instincts will be dependent on their own prejudice, self interest and upbringing.”

    Can you clarify that? I’m not sure whose side you’re taking because none of the people who are saying that morality is subjective are basing it on that argument.

  • Kaelik

    @kagerato part 2:

    “I tried to make it clear that the ‘objective’ concept I was representing meant “informed by facts and reality”, not “composed of facts and reality”.”

    I tried to make clear that such a concept of objective is meaningless, because it means that literally every single thing that even refers to the real world at all is automatically objective.

    Here is a moral system: I like blues eyes. I don’t like other color eyes. I want to make things I don’t like stop existing. You have brown eyes. It is moral for me to murder you because you have brown eyes.

    That’s not an objective moral system, it’s not what anyone means by an objective moral system, probably not even you. But it is “informed by facts and reality.”

    If Ebon Muse and Sam Harris think that there is an objective morality of killing brown eyed people, I will eat my sock.

    @Steve Bowen

    “The reductio absurdum argument that everything including morality, is subjective is logically, but very trivially true (the universe doesn’t give a shit, we know) and doesn’t really advance the discussion about how a rational society should make moral decisions, when everyone’s gut instincts will be dependent on their own prejudice, self interest and upbringing.”

    Not everything is subjective. That a tree is over there is objective. That killing people makes them stop being alive is objective. Many things are objective.

    But the ought/is distinction, the so called naturalist fallacy should be well known right? But for some reason every “morality is objective” type keeps acting like they’ve never heard of it, and pretending that we are saying something else.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Can you clarify that? I’m not sure whose side you’re taking

    Neither am I :)
    But it was aimed at Kaelik really. I just see that argument as solipsism, at least if followed to its conclusion. However Kaelik is prepared for a tree to be objectively a tree if we all agree it’s a tree so why can something not be objectively good or bad if that is the consensus.
    I haven’t read Sam Harris’ book yet as it won’t be published in the UK until April, so I don’t know what he concludes. My own opinion is that there could be a small set of moral principles on which most people would agree, independent of culture or deontology. I would expect those principles to be rooted in our biology, but informed by current knowledge. At its most basic there could be one rule “never knowingly cause harm”. I know “harm” is also subjective, that’s why in law we do not leave it up to individuals to decide these things.
    As things stand some moral principles are more subjective than others, sexual mores being obviously very subjective. These are the areas where law should be amoral or absent and to that extent I agree with Sarah, however I am not convinced that there are no moral axioms whatsoever within the context of our being a social species.

  • Kaelik

    @Steve

    A tree is not objective because people agree that it’s there. It’s objective because it exists independently of minds. If you cut it down and make a table, then put something on the table, then everyone in the entire world decides that tree doesn’t exist, the thing on the table doesn’t fall to the floor. The tree exists independently of the mind. “Morality” doesn’t. Or at least not anything anyone has proposed that also tells us why some behaviors are bad and others good.

    “never knowingly cause harm” where harm is defined as “stuff that we people don’t like” is never going to be objective, because harm cannot be objective if the definition relies on what we minds like or don’t like.

    That’s the reason “objective” moral theories like happiness/life years utilitarianism specifically declare a single objective thing (whether this person is alive/enjoying themself) as the only thing of value. However, they are false moral theories, because they fail to recognize that those things only have value because they decided they have value subjectively.

    Just saying “Everyone agrees about X” does not make it objective.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,
    I’m sorry that you are done, but in case you read this I’d like to lay out something that you have not considered about your own position.

    We all know that you claim that the burqa ban is good, but why? Is it because you feel that the equality of women is a good thing? Isn’t that a subjective moral statement? Doesn’t this mean that your amoral law is not so amoral afterall? And, if it is not amoral, then what right do you have to push your subjective morals on the rest of the population? What will you say when religionists get together to try and push their subjective morals on the rest of the population by pushing legislation that is religious in nature?

    This is the stance that you agree with when stated by others.

    bbk,
    Situational means that the situation is different and the ethics/morals takes that into account and, no, it’s not hair splitting. You’re still clinging to the erroneous idea that objective = absolute/universal. I’m also wondering where in the world you got your idea of what subjective means.

    Harris himself fell right into that trap by making a speech about morality in which he espoused feminist values but at the same time managed to make misandric false equivalencies.

    This is what it’s really about for you, isn’t it? Sort of like your stance that all feminists are man-haters, right?

    Kaelik,
    No matter what I say, you continue to simply repeat the same things over and over – things that I’ve dealt with. You also refuse to deal with the arguments presented to you and continue to burn strawmen. I also find your over-the-top bravado to be a bit comical to be honest and a bit infantile. Remember, there’s always someone bigger and badder than you and someone can always take you out by luck or a lowered defense. I’m thankful that most other people understand the social contract and that we are not evolved in such a way as to simply try to kill all others that get in our way at any given time. I take what I said back, you are a sociopath.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I’m just sayin’ –

    http://friendlyatheist.com/2010/10/29/gallup-religious-americans-have-higher-wellbeing/

    And, before someone says, “Well, that isn’t well being. They are using the WRONG definition of well being.”

    I’ll just reply, “Exactly.”

  • Sarah Braasch

    Anyone still want morality based legislation and judicial decisions?

    Didn’t think so.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,
    You’re still putting forth morality based legislation with your burqa ban. You’re doing it because you think that it’s important for women to be free, but since you agree with Kaelik that’s nothing more than a value judgement (and completely subjective). Also, notice that he claims that there’s no way to decide between women as having value and being chattel. So, your laws that strive to protect women’s rights are no more valuable or better than not having the laws or having opposite laws. What makes you better than other people who try to enforce their subjective preferences on everyone else?

  • Sarah Braasch

    I don’t see gender desegregation in the public space as being a moral issue. I see it as being about optimizing our democratic system, like affirmative action.

    However, I get your point. Technically, the law is saying — you must not do this behavior, this act.

    Two points — both of which I mentioned above.

    1 — I am a pragmatist. Should I do nothing because the amoral legal system I desire doesn’t exist? I work with the tools I have, including trying to sway the moral majority, so that they will elect legislators who will enact the legislation I want. That’s the way our democracies currently function.

    2 — I can advocate for whatever I like, based upon my subjective moral viewpoint. Using evidence and reason. This says nothing about whether objective moral truth exists.

    Are you really trying to say that, if objective moral truth does not exist, that we can’t make value judgments and laws?

    Because, guess what? Objective moral truth does not exist. And, we make value judgments and laws.

    3 — Realize the danger in pretending that we can make definitive statements about what is objectively morally true. The religious folks in the survey on Friendly Atheist have evidence and can use reason to show that we should enact a law to force everyone to affiliate themselves with a religious organization, because it enhances well being, according to their definition of well being. Oh, and, BTW, this is objectively morally true.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,
    I understand that you are a pragmatist, but so are other people, including some that disagree with you. What will you say to religious people that want to push for having their religious convictions enshrined into law? Why should the moral majority be swayed by you if your arguments rely on your own subjective preferences? If you’re telling them what they should or should not do/think/feel, why should they listen to you when they have their own thoughts/feelings/preferences? I see this as a glaring hole in your philosophy.

    Are you really trying to say that, if objective moral truth does not exist, that we can’t make value judgments and laws?

    No, but I am saying that if you follow the arguments that you seem to be persuing that you have no basis for asking anyone else to follow your chosen laws.

    3 — Realize the danger in pretending that we can make definitive statements about what is objectively morally true.

    Realize the danger in accepting evolution. I mean, we could find objective facts that overturn evolution in favor of Genesis. Creationists could use those objective facts to show that we are wrong and that their god really does exist, right? Besides, I’m not necessarily saying that X is objectively, morally true. I’m saying that we can use objective facts to inform our morality and make it more in accordance with the facts on the ground (why do no detractors on this thread seem to get this concept?)

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    I think you just turned to the dark side. Meaning — my side.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “No matter what I say, you continue to simply repeat the same things over and over – things that I’ve dealt with. You also refuse to deal with the arguments presented to you and continue to burn strawmen. I also find your over-the-top bravado to be a bit comical to be honest and a bit infantile. Remember, there’s always someone bigger and badder than you and someone can always take you out by luck or a lowered defense. I’m thankful that most other people understand the social contract and that we are not evolved in such a way as to simply try to kill all others that get in our way at any given time. I take what I said back, you are a sociopath.”

    1) You haven’t dealt with them, that’s the point.

    2) Give me an argument, actually structure it as an argument all the way, premises and everything so that I don’t mistake it for more babbling about how the existence of objective facts implies subjective values are objective upside pineapple.

    3) What over the top bravado? I am well aware of the fact that other people could beat me up, murder me, ect. But yet they don’t. Even the muggers and serial killers who don’t think it’s immoral. Maybe there is something you are missing here, about how to avoid being victimized without appealing to morals.

  • Steve Bowen

    A tree is not objective because people agree that it’s there. It’s objective because it exists independently of minds.

    Something exists independently of minds. You say it’s a tree and I say it’s a tree so for the sake of argument it’s a tree. However I might maintain it’s a shrub, or a bush, not quite a tree. Similarly actions exist, you say an action is good and I agree, so for the sake of argument it’s good. However I might maintain that action is moot, or dubious, not entirely good.
    If enough people agree that some class of action is moral for all practical purposes is that not objectively moral?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Steve,

    I see what you’re trying to say, but I find your last sentence terrifying.

    That is exactly the type of conclusion that we should all be trying our utmost to avoid.

  • Steve Bowen

    Sarah
    I guess the question is what is enough? How big a sample of the population, crossing cultural lines, would be sufficient to ensure that the consensus eliminated bias. Actually I’m not really proposing that as a way to define morality (not so much terrifying as absurd) but Just to point out that kaelik’s position makes everything subjective eventually (and s/he may be right btw) so it doesn’t advance the argument much. If Sam Harris’ approach is not viable, whose is? I’m not offering answers but I think it’s a genuinely interesting and socially important question.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I get what you’re saying — at some point, you have to make the assumption that there is a there out there.

    I have to assume that the world I am perceiving inside of my mind actually exists, and is not simply a figment of my imagination.

    But (and I feel pretty sure that you agree), it doesn’t follow from the assumption that reality is real that objective moral truth exists. That’s a pretty big jump.

    I actually think, that if we can’t create an amoral legal system, and we have to stay in conversation with the moral majority, then I think what we’ve got right now (in secular liberal constitutional democracies) is probably the closest approximation to what I envision.

    If we can’t obviate the conversation about morality all together, then the majoritarian / counter majoritarian dialogue taking place in the US is probably the best game in town. (Something similar takes place in basically all secular liberal constitutional democratic republics.)

    I would want to continue to push the judiciary down the track they’re on right now — towards excluding questions of morality from legal considerations.

    I think a system, in which we pretend to know that objective moral truth exists, and we pretend to know what those truths are, even if we qualify such pretensions with evidentiary requirements, is a HUGE step backwards for humanity.

  • Kaelik

    @Steve

    “Something exists independently of minds. You say it’s a tree and I say it’s a tree so for the sake of argument it’s a tree. However I might maintain it’s a shrub, or a bush, not quite a tree. Similarly actions exist, you say an action is good and I agree, so for the sake of argument it’s good. However I might maintain that action is moot, or dubious, not entirely good.
    If enough people agree that some class of action is moral for all practical purposes is that not objectively moral?”

    1) No that doesn’t make it objectively moral. That’s the whole point.

    2) Enough people will never agree. You are aware of that right? There are a bunch of people out there who legitimately and really believe that cutting off a child’s clitoris is morally required. You aren’t ever going to convince them to stop doing that by appealing to your own preferences for them not to do that. You have to actually create some serious consequences.

    @Sarah

    I have been avoiding your amoral/moral law the like the black fucking plague but I guess it’s time to give in.

    You won’t ever create an amoral law, because that is impossible without it being completely arbitrary. A Law says “Do X, don’t do Y.” Morality tell you “You should do X, you should not do Y.”

    There is no reason to tell people on a collective scale to do things unless you think it is what they should be doing. All laws are based on values as much as all morals.

    I don’t have a particular problem with morals and moral based laws, except that I believe most people falsely believe that their own morals are objective. If everyone realized they were subjective, that solve most of my problems with morality, because people would stop trying to make everyone else act on their own rules, and start trying to make everyone act so that their own values were maximized.

    If what you actually value is equal rights, you don’t win that by convincing everyone else to treat everyone equally, you do it by shaming and punishing and treating unequally those people who don’t treat others equally. Stop trying to get people to follow your rules, make them do it.

    So bottom line, all laws are just that, making people follow your morality whatever it is, so a non moral law, is impossible. That’s my theory. If most of society doesn’t want me murdering people for jollies, they can make a law against it, and I don’t particularly oppose that law as being them making a mistake, even if I want to kill people for jollies. (Insert something I actually do want to do in place of kill for jollies, and it still remains true.)

  • Sarah Braasch

    Kaelik,

    I’m glad you gave in.

    I was feeling neglected.

  • Sarah Braasch

    “If everyone realized they were subjective, that solve most of my problems with morality, because people would stop trying to make everyone else act on their own rules, and start trying to make everyone act so that their own values were maximized.”

    This is pretty much exactly what I am trying to accomplish.

    What do you think of my definition of morality as the categorization of behaviors as good and bad?

    So, if a legal system could avoid this categorization and the definitions of good and bad?

    Or minimize it to such an extent as to make it negligible — maybe just at the edges of one’s liberty space?

    I’m not saying I’m going to be successful. I’m just saying that I’m going to try.

  • Kaelik

    No Sarah, a legal system can’t just avoid categorizing behaviors as good or bad, because every time you say “Don’t do X.” you are actually categorizing X.

    So a legal system that didn’t categorize actions would exist, and would be the same as no codified laws at all.

    What I want is a legal system that actually straight up says “we find these things to be bad.” Because that’s an honest legal system, which explains why. And if the why is because “most people vote for them” or “most of the people with guns vote for them” or “that one guy we really like votes for them” or “or that one guy who all the guys with guns really like votes for them” doesn’t really matter all that much.

  • bbk

    @OMFG

    I’m also wondering where in the world you got your idea of what subjective means.

    I should have said “implies”. I began to notice that yours and similar positions were making appeals to consequence. Therefore, I thought it might be prudent to point out that the consequences of a subjective morality isn’t that much different than the alternative – it doesn’t lead to nihilism or whatever else you may have been thinking. The only difference, I was trying to say, is that it’s a more accurate (less paradoxical) description of reality. Maybe that’s counter-intuitive. But using a more accurate model of reality will lead to more efficient results – and isn’t that what you want as well?

    See what we just did? We used a subjective desire – wanting efficient results – to objectively conclude that a more accurate model of reality will achieve it. So, like you have been trying to say, it’s just as true that you can use objective facts to achieve what you want even if you acknowledge that what you want is subjective.

    This is what it’s really about for you, isn’t it? Sort of like your stance that all feminists are man-haters, right?

    No and that’s a very lousy assessment of my stance, but it’s just something I happen to take notice of more and more because no one else seems to care about being a hypocrite. I feel like I’m seeing trees fall in a forest and everyone is standing there with their fingers in their ears. One of the consequences of people who feel that there is an objective morality is that they stop thinking after they decide they found the truth. Sure, let’s have it your way – they stop thinking after they think they understand the situation and know the answer.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Well, here we part ways.

    I do find it interesting that you acknowledge the completely subjective nature of morality, yet you desire morality based legislation.

    (I know that you don’t distinguish between morality and legislation.)

    So, a law can be completely arbitrary, but as long as it’s “honest” — whatever that means — someone likes it / wants it / thinks it’s good — then you’re ok with it?

    Hmmmm. Interesting.

    It’s been real. I think it’s been real anyway, but that’s really just an assumption on my part.

    Have a good night.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I was just thinking about the EU.

    One of the reasons, and we’ve discussed this before on DA, that I’ve been so enthralled with EU law and the whole concept of the EU, is because it is very much an effort to minimize the power of the moral majority on the EU level.

    And, this is one of the biggest criticisms of the EU — that it threw the dialogue off balance — that there isn’t enough democracy in its version of democracy.

    But, it is one of the reasons why I would absolutely hate to see the demise of the EU.

    It is really pushing the envelope in thinking about alternative ways of organizing our societies and moving us towards a global civilization.

  • Kaelik

    No, Sarah, I’m not okay with any law as long as it’s honest about what it means, I’m just more okay with the same law if it’s “honest” by which I mean, the people proposing it are more correct in their understanding of why they are proposing it.

    Personally, I’m still going to break any law that gets in my way if I can get away with, and oppose the formation of laws I don’t like. I would just prefer that other people realize what the purpose of their law is. I think that if people recognized the subjective morality they are attempting to enforce, they might make fewer shitty laws.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,

    I think you just turned to the dark side. Meaning — my side.

    Nope, just pointing out where your argument leads. Kaelik has also chimed in and is also pointing out where you arguments are leading. (S)he may not understand my argument and be able to argue against it, but (s)he does understand where her/his own argument leads…to some extent at least. I think the problem comes with this statement:

    I think that if people recognized the subjective morality they are attempting to enforce, they might make fewer shitty laws.

    No, it won’t because whether a law is “shitty” or not completely depends on the subjective preferences of the person in question in the moral=subjective argument.

    Sarah, you’ve claimed that those who are pushing for using empirical facts to inform morality are the friends of moral relativists and the religious people who try to enforce their laws on others, but you’ve got it completely backwards. Moral subjectivity leads to moral relativism as everything is simply a question of preferences with no way to distinguish one preference as good or bad. FGM? Well, if that’s my preference, who are you to say that I shouldn’t do it? And, if you push to enshrine it in law as bad, well once again that’s your preference, not mine. What right do you have to force your subjective morality on me? Do you see where this is leading?

    You’ll try and hide behind the idea of amoral laws, but as Kaelik rightly points out, law and morality are tied together and inseparable. It comes down to values, and there’s no reason to value your preferences over those of others. If everything is subjective then who is to stop the “[im]moral majority” from pushing for their laws and getting them passed?

    Kaelik,
    Wow. Even when confronted with your strawmen and irrelevant arguments you try to defend yourself with more straw?

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “Wow. Even when confronted with your strawmen and irrelevant arguments you try to defend yourself with more straw?”

    Reduced entirely to insults I see. You made a bold pronouncement that I was ignoring the arguments. I then asked you to present the arguments in a formal manner, premises and conclusions, since I didn’t see any arguments, and this would make sure that I would see them as they are.

    You respond by insulting me, and not giving any arguments.

    Because… You are an asshat. You have no interest in presenting any arguments, because you have no arguments that don’t rely on undefined words, hidden premises, and changing definitions mid sentence. That’s all you presented so far.

    So please, prove me wrong, present an argument for your conclusion formally, and I’ll just keep asking questions until all your hidden premises are revealed, and all your words defined.

    Then you will have an argument that is either invalid, based on false premises, or I will have to accept.

    But you won’t do that, because you’ve already failed eight consecutive times to define morality, while repeatedly stating that morality exists is a basic premise in your argument for morality existing.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    You are regressing. Stay with me. You just admitted that there is no objective moral truth, but that this should serve as no impediment to employing evidence and reason to inform our personal moral viewpoints.

    Don’t confuse me with Kaelik. While we both agree that morality is completely subjective, we disagree completely as to the influence that personal moral opinions should have on law and policy. (I strongly suggest you read Perry v Schwarzenegger and Lawrence v TX.)

    I never said that we shouldn’t use empirical facts to inform our morality. In fact, I believe I have repeatedly said the opposite.

    Basically, your argument boils down to fear. And, I’m sorry to say, it is the exact same argument as the religionists.

    Two persons are arguing a moral proposition. The moral view point of each is wholly subjective. Regardless of whether either or both of them employs evidence and reason. Is the situation improved, because they each believe themselves to be morally objectively correct? No. In fact it is worsened. Exponentially. So, we’ll do away with religion. Great. Anyone in the mood for morality wars? Like Kaelik mentioned, and I agree with him here, if we can get each of them to admit that their moral viewpoints are subjective, maybe we can get them to reason with one another, based upon the evidence. But, if each is convinced that he/she is in possession of objective moral truth — well, prepare yourself to enjoy a battle to the death. (I am hoping to create a system in which we don’t have to care about the moral opinion of either of these aholes, but that’s just me.)

    You are saying that if we cannot know (or have faith in) objective moral truth, then we can say nothing about morality. Moral relativism will reign supreme.

    This is exactly what the religionists say. No one is made happier by this fallacious argument than the religionists. And, Sam himself admits this. He readily admits that the only people who agree with him are the religionists.

    Nothing fuels moral / cultural relativism like religion and the false belief in objective moral truth. What do the religionists say — “Don’t tell me to change my morals / culture. I am in possession of objective moral truth.”

    In fact, there is no objective moral truth. But, we manage, somehow, to create laws and societies, and we have organized ourselves (in secular, liberal constitutional democratic republics) to minimize the damage wrought by the moral majority and the religionists and the moral / cultural relativists. (And, while we must remain in conversation with mob rule, then, yes, absolutely, we should employ empirical facts to inform our personal moral viewpoints. We should do everything to encourage the members of the moral majority to do this. But, it is entirely counterproductive to try to convince them that they are objectively morally correct (actually, they already believe this to be the case), even if they employ evidence and reason. And, we should continue to try to further minimize the impact of morality upon law and policy.)

    Let’s not go backwards.

    I think I am safe in saying that we never improve societies by pretending to know things that we do not know.

    And, BTW, I am hardly hiding behind the proposition of creating an amoral legal system (or as close as I can get to one).

    I am, in fact, intending to make this my life’s work. And, I am going to go get a PhD in Philosophy.

    You might think I’m wasting my time. But, it’s hardly a ruse to avoid the debate about the objectivity / subjectivity of morality.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Actually, I just had a thought.

    This argument about the need to embrace the notion of objective moral truth in order to use good morality to defeat the bad moralists is a lot like the Xtianists who say we should all embrace Xtianity in order to defeat the Islamists.

    Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (Whom I admire, but I completely disagree with her on this point.)

    And, she happens to be a close friend of Sam Harris’. (Whom I also admire, but I completely disagree with him on this point.)

    To me — it just all seems anathema to the very reasons why I chose to reject religion in the first place.

    And, it makes me a little sad to see so many atheists embrace this point of view.

    I think we can do better.

    Don’t inadvertently feed the monster.

  • Sarah Braasch

    If, after reading this, you still want morality based legislation and you still want people thinking that they can access objective moral truth, if they only gather enough evidence and employ enough reason, then I don’t know what to say to you.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101031/ap_on_he_me/us_birth_control

    Imagine how much easier and simpler and more straightforward this issue would be if we didn’t take morality into account. If we didn’t have to worry about the personal moral opinions of the members of the moral majority.

    Women, especially, as the vehicles of procreation, should be wary of any attempt to codify objective moral truth based upon some notion of well being, even if grounded in evidence and reason.

    Don’t agree with me? Read The Handmaid’s Tale.

  • Camus Dude

    I’m going to jump in the fray again to back Sarah up, and point out that what she says in #187 is similar, though much condensed, to what Green writes in part ii, chapter 5 of his dissertation (specifically 324-365 going by the pdf pages), and Garner chapters nine (http://beyondmorality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/CHAP09_2009__Double_Spaced.pdf) and ten (http://beyondmorality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/CHAP10__2009_Double_Spaced.pdf).

    At the very least, it is not a rationally indefensible position to hold that moral realist language (at least sometimes) exacerbates problems, because when each side thinks they’re really right, they often (usually?) think that the other side must be either dumb or deceptive.

    Saying “Abortion is wrong” isn’t going to change a pro-choicer’s mind, for example. But saying “I think there should be no abortions for reasons x and y” at least opens the possibility of a dialogue. One can respond that they think differenly for reasons t and z, and that one doesn’t find x and y persuasive for reasons b and c, instead of just “Well I think making abortion illegal violates a woman’s right to choose.” Neither side in this debate recognizes the legitimacy of the other side’s position. If we get rid of realist language and start speaking about what we desire, such conflicts might (plausibly) be considered less-likely to happen.

    For some reading on the relation between morality and law, I recommend

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/legal-positivism/

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lawphil-naturalism/

  • Camus Dude

    And some papers by Brian Leiter relevant to both the law/morality discussion, and the moral realism discussion.

    Why Legal Positivism? http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1521761

    The Radicalism of Legal Positivism http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1568333

    Beyond the Hart/Dworkin Debate: The Methodology Problem in Jurisprudence http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=598265

    Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement in Nietzsche http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1315061

    Morality Critics http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=952771

    The Case for a Nietzschean Moral Psychology (with Josh Knobe) http://philpapers.org/rec/KNOTCF-2

    Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Action http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1430615

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,
    You must be using some form of satire/sarcasm/something that I’m not picking up on here.

    You just admitted that there is no objective moral truth, but that this should serve as no impediment to employing evidence and reason to inform our personal moral viewpoints.

    Depends on your definition, but please note that my last couple posts to you have been expressly about the logical conclusions of your reported stance.

    While we both agree that morality is completely subjective, we disagree completely as to the influence that personal moral opinions should have on law and policy.

    That’s fine (although you did say you agreed with Kaelik completely at one point) but part of the point is that if everything is subjective, how do you decide which subjective value is to be used if you both value different things?

    I never said that we shouldn’t use empirical facts to inform our morality. In fact, I believe I have repeatedly said the opposite.

    Really? I suggest you clarify some previous comments then, like #37, #68, #74, #92, #118, etc. In those posts you seem to specifically fear the notion of using evidence to inform our moral thought (Scalia and the moral majority will have evidence and make us bow down to them, oh noes…which directly leads to the next point as well…)

    Basically, your argument boils down to fear. And, I’m sorry to say, it is the exact same argument as the religionists.

    Again, I’m not seeing the whatever you’re using here. IIRC, you’re the one who has repeatedly talked about the doom and gloom of my stance supposedly helping the moral relativists, communitarians, and those who would enslave women, and I’m supposedly the fear-monger here (for example, comment #86)? I’m sorry that you don’t like the direction your chosen philosophy takes, but I don’t see a way out of it for you.

    You are saying that if we cannot know (or have faith in) objective moral truth, then we can say nothing about morality. Moral relativism will reign supreme.

    I never said anything of the sort.

    But, we manage, somehow, to create laws and societies, and we have organized ourselves (in secular, liberal constitutional democratic republics) to minimize the damage wrought by the moral majority and the religionists and the moral / cultural relativists.

    If you are of the opinion that morality is necessarily subjective, how are you not a moral relativist? If one culture has different values than you and enacts different laws and has a different benchmark for cultural success, how will you argue against them? Your position should lead to cultural relativity no matter how much you want to rail against it.

    (And, while we must remain in conversation with mob rule, then, yes, absolutely, we should employ empirical facts to inform our personal moral viewpoints.

    So, you’re starting to agree with me it would seem or are you being sarcastic. It’s hard to tell now, considering your previous doom and gloom over religionists using evidence and how bad it would be for them to do that.

    But, it is entirely counterproductive to try to convince them that they are objectively morally correct…

    I don’t think they are objectively morally correct, and I’ve stated so many times. You seem to be laboring under the impression that as long as someone states that their morality is objective that we all have to take them at their word and therefore can’t tell the difference between one moral stance and another. I’m not sure where you get this idea from, and I find it surprising that you would worry about it since it’s the direct result of holding that all morality is subjective.

    And, we should continue to try to further minimize the impact of morality upon law and policy.

    And, as Kaelik and I pointed out that’s impossible. Law is a list of proscriptive should and should nots, which all come down to value judgements. Why should we not murder people? If a group of people decide that murder should be allowed, what will you say to them?

    But, it’s hardly a ruse to avoid the debate about the objectivity / subjectivity of morality.

    Sorry, I was not trying to imply that you are trying to avoid debate or hide.

    If, after reading this, you still want morality based legislation and you still want people thinking that they can access objective moral truth, if they only gather enough evidence and employ enough reason, then I don’t know what to say to you.

    How will you make an amoral legislative code? Start with murder, for instance. Should we or should we not murder others and why from a completely amoral point of view? Make sure that you don’t smuggle in any personal value (moral) stances.

    Women, especially, as the vehicles of procreation, should be wary of any attempt to codify objective moral truth based upon some notion of well being, even if grounded in evidence and reason.

    Why would you say that? Isn’t that just a personal value? As Kaelik argued earlier, what about societies that claim that their personal values to hold women as chattel are good for them? How would you answer them?

    Kaelik,
    Insults? Pointing out that you are using strawman argumentation is not insulting you, it’s pointing out that your arguments are not addressing accurate representations of the positions that I’ve stated. If you want insult, I suggest you peruse your own posts.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    I have tried to make clear the distinction between the ideal, to which I aspire, and what I see as the best pragmatic course of action in our present circumstances, but, apparently, I have failed miserably.

    I really appreciate your contribution to this thread, but I feel like we’re speaking past one another at this point and beating it to death.

    Camus Dude,

    Thank you so much. You’re the best.

    It’s funny, because I’m working on my writing sample for my grad school apps, and I had just downloaded a lot of these pieces.

    Take care all.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “Insults? Pointing out that you are using strawman argumentation is not insulting you, it’s pointing out that your arguments are not addressing accurate representations of the positions that I’ve stated. If you want insult, I suggest you peruse your own posts.”

    It’s an insult when it’s false, and since I asked a question, I cannot possibly be arguing against a strawman, because I wan’t arguing against anything. It is impossible for me to accurately represent the positions you have stated, because the positions you have state are a collection of contradictions and undefined language that makes no fucking sense.

    I’m asking you to present an actual coherent position. I keep asking you to do that, and you keep not doing it, because you don’t have one.

    Please stop avoiding the question and actually present an actual argument in logical form with stated premises and defined terms.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,
    I’m disappointed that you won’t answer my questions.

    Kaelik,
    I have presented my stance, multiple times. Morality exists (by evidence even as a concept in our minds) and we should use empirical facts and objective evidence to inform our moral codes. We can also develop an objective code (objective using the actual definition, not meaning universal or absolute – which, BTW, there are objective moral codes out there) and further this objective code should be informed by objective facts as well.

    In fact, it’s pretty plain and clear and I’ve stated it multiple times. That you continue to not see it is because you are still clinging to strawmen and conflating definitions. I’m sorry that you find it offensive to have that pointed out to you. (Even if I’m wrong, it’s not an insult anymore than being wrong in pointing out that any other argument is faulty is an actual insult – being against an argument is not the same as attacking the person.)

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    I have to admit I get irritated when people pull this tactic. I find it infantile.

    I have responded to all of the points that you make in your last post — multiple times.

    I think it’s childish, if one person is tired of the arguing in incessant circles, the other person says, “Oh, see, you’re admitting defeat, because you won’t continue arguing with me until kingdom come. You won’t answer my questions.”

    Fine.

    Point out a single question/comment in your last post that I have not already addressed.

    Seriously.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ebon,

    I apologize. I shouldn’t have taken the bait.

    I’m out. Anyone may interpret that however they wish.

    Thanks to OMGF and to everybody who contributed to this thread.

    It was a fantastic conversation. But, I just think it has run its course. Take care.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,
    I made some lengthy replies to you where I went into quite a bit of detail in where I see some errors in your stated philosophy and where I feel like I’m finding contradictions with your actions and stated purposes/goals. The position that you seem to be agreeing with doesn’t coincide with the good that you are attempting to do and I’m trying to figure out why the disconnect exists. To that extent, I’ve asked quite a few questions that have gone unanswered in posts 170, 185, and 192 to state a few. But, if I were to point to the single most important question it would be this:

    If all morality is subjective, what will you say to others who simply try to enshrine their personal preferences (especially the religious) into law just as you are doing with your burqa bans and laws for protecting women’s rights, especially when the proscriptive should/should nots in law are part of the moral discourse and your subjective preferences will be seen as just as good as anyone else’s subjective preferences?

    I’m not being obtuse. I really don’t understand how one can hold the positions that you seem to be espousing.

  • Kaelik

    Okay OMGF, I’m done with you. If you don’t want to try and have a reasoned conversation, no reason for me to put in the effort.

    I’ve asked you for three posts to present your argument in the form of a formal argument, and all you’ve done again is arbitrarily declare that the undefined thing morality absolutely exists.

    If not matter how many times I ask you aren’t going to put even the slightest effort into defining your terms, this is a waste of time.

  • bbk

    Hey, I thought this was a good thread. I thought both sides had strong arguments. I would like to see Ebon do another post on this. Does he believe that it’s possible to be a Humanist or to re-frame Universal Utilitarianism for people who hold the position that there is no such thing as objective morality?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Kaelik,

    I’ve asked you for three posts to present your argument in the form of a formal argument, and all you’ve done again is arbitrarily declare that the undefined thing morality absolutely exists.

    This is why I claim you’re using strawmen. Nowhere did I endorse absolute anything – and in fact stated the opposite – yet here you are plugging away at it. Of course, I’m the one who isn’t up to having a “reasoned conversation?” Kind of like I’m the insulting one for attacking your arguments while being called stupid and an idiot by you is simply true and not an insult? And, to top it all off, apparently dictionary definitions aren’t good enough for you? I can see why there’s no chance for “reasoned conversation” going on with you, but I don’t see how it’s my failing.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “This is why I claim you’re using strawmen. Nowhere did I endorse absolute anything – and in fact stated the opposite – yet here you are plugging away at it.”

    Nowhere in my post did I say that you endorsed anything, or refer to absolute anything. You just can’t read. What I did say was that you declared morality absolutely exists.

    Like this, “Morality exists (by evidence even as a concept in our minds) and we should use empirical facts and objective evidence to inform our moral codes.”

    The very first statement you made is that morality exists. Since you can’t even define morality, and have explicitly repudiated both your previous attempted definitions, this is you arbitrarily declaring that an undefined entity exists as a premise. I do not agree with such a premise. I keep asking you to present an argument for this premise, and to define morality. You have done neither.

    As for dictionary definitions, Which ones? Every dictionary defines morality differently, and none of them defined something which a priori exists, so fucking give a goddam definition of the thing you keep asserting exists.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Kaelik,
    We’re done. You still refuse to deal with what I said and are using strawmen. I’m not playing your game anymore.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “We’re done. You still refuse to deal with what I said and are using strawmen. I’m not playing your game anymore.”

    You haven’t said anything. You won’t define your terms. I keep asking you what you have to say, and you keep refusing to say it under any circumstances.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Not sure if I’m opening up another can of worms, but

    this is the email I received from the ACLU today, in light of yesterday’s election results, and it just felt appropriate to share.

    Us atheists need to stand up and deal with reality. The objective moral truth fairy isn’t going to save us from the teabaggers.

    Dear ACLU Supporter,

    Donate now to strengthen the ACLU’s ability to defend the Constitution and protect our most fundamental freedoms.

    Today, extremists all across America are feeling emboldened and are already taking the next steps in their efforts to impose their own narrow view of morality on the rest of us.

    But there’s something they haven’t factored into their equation: You and the ACLU.

    Starting right now, we have to make it crystal clear: if they think they can undermine the separation of church and state, deepen restrictions on reproductive freedom, and perpetuate policies that deny equality for LGBT Americans, they’re in for the fight of their lives.

    Donate now to help the ACLU take on extremism and defend the Constitution in communities all across America.

    When it comes to defending freedom and pushing back against those out to undermine the Constitution, it really is up to us.

    It is up to us to prepare to defend civil liberties in a Congress that will come in ready to flex its muscles and has already made it clear that its goal is to obstruct progress. But we must also be prepared to challenge extremists in our local communities where they are propagating their narrow, moralistic agenda and doing real damage to people’s lives.

    It is the ACLU and our network of local offices that will be there on the ground to take on the football coach who encourages harassment of gay students rather than stopping it . . . to lead a lawsuit against a proselytizing school principal wandering the hallways with a list of students who need to be “saved” . . . to stop local school boards from adopting abstinence-only programs . . . the list goes on.

    Take a strong stand against extremism. Donate today to strengthen the ACLU’s ability to defend the Constitution and protect our most fundamental freedoms.

    With your immediate support, the ACLU will be there to defend freedom — in the halls of Congress and in local communities — in the days and weeks ahead.

    Believe me, I don’t underestimate the challenges we face. But backing down is not an option.

    It is precisely at moments like this that it is most important for you and the ACLU to stay in the fight. And I am confident that, together, we will continue to do what the ACLU has done so well for the past 90 years: take a strong stand for the Constitution — and win.

    Thank you for standing with us in defense of freedom.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Us atheists need to stand up and deal with reality. The objective moral truth fairy isn’t going to save us from the teabaggers.

    How ironic from someone arguing against those of us who want to use empirical fact to inform our opinions.

    But, again I’m left wondering why you feel your values are worthy of being pushed on others if you truly believe that all morality is subjective and a matter of personal bias? Why are the personal biases of those you oppose also not worthy of being pushed on all of us?

  • Camus Dude

    “Why are the personal biases of those you oppose also not worthy of being pushed on all of us?”

    That’s all there is to guide our decisions. Sentiment “guilds and stains” the world with our projections of value. Reason is the slave of the passions, like Hume said.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    And what makes your personal values better than someone else’s? If you think we should outlaw FGM and another person doesn’t, how do we decide between you two? If everything is strictly subjective and due to personal bias, then how do you say that we should or should not do anything?

  • Camus Dude

    I don’t say we should or should not do anything, as I don’t think any “shoulds” exist (well, except for hypothetical imperatives).

    To take your example: I dislike FGM; I wouldn’t want it done to me, and I know someone who has had it done to her, and the psychological toll it took was quite large. That’s why I oppose FGM and (were I an activist) would work for a world with less FGM. If people will be swayed by saying “It’s morally wrong” then perhaps I would say that, but I doubt that anyone who thinks FGM is acceptable will be swayed by an argument I could give them. That’s why I think, for example, that Sarah’s legal approach is more effective. If FGM is outlawed, then we don’t need to tell others that “It’s morally wrong.” Perhaps to get the law passed in the first place, moral language would be necessary, but one can also use the language of self-interest to try and get such a law passed, and that, it seems to me, is much more effective at helping women escape FGM and also at changing people’s minds about it.

    I guess my point is that moral language may sometimes be effective strategically, but I doubt that it is often so. I think moral language is more often used effectively to do things I dislike than to do things that I support, and since I disbelieve in that anyone ought to do anything, strictly speaking, I try to avoid such language (not that I’m probably all that good at doing so. Morality as a phenomenon gets deeply ingrained in one’s psyche.)

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I don’t say we should or should not do anything, as I don’t think any “shoulds” exist (well, except for hypothetical imperatives).

    There go our laws.

    That’s why I think, for example, that Sarah’s legal approach is more effective. If FGM is outlawed, then we don’t need to tell others that “It’s morally wrong.”

    Ah, but to outlaw it you must claim that people should not do it. If others think they should do it, how do we decide whether your personal bias against it should outweight their personal bias for it?

    Perhaps to get the law passed in the first place, moral language would be necessary, but one can also use the language of self-interest to try and get such a law passed…

    And, if one believes that it is in their self interest not only to not outlaw FGM, but to enshrine it in law, then what? Or, what if one doesn’t value the self-interests of others? What then? What criteria will you use to decide whether to use their personal biases or your personal biases (or how will a disinterested bystander decide)?

    I think moral language is more often used effectively to do things I dislike than to do things that I support, and since I disbelieve in that anyone ought to do anything, strictly speaking, I try to avoid such language (not that I’m probably all that good at doing so.

    You don’t think people ought to not kill you for sport or any other reason (not including self-defense or extenuating circumstances)?

  • Camus Dude

    I’m not sure how to make myself any clearer. I do not believe there are any moral truths, properties, propositions, etc. It seems obvious to me (indeed, it seemed obvious to Thucydides over 2000 years ago!) – “might makes right” is descriptively true of human history.

  • Kaelik

    What colossal failure.

    How hard is it really to understand the concept that there are no true moral prepositions? This is not rocket science, it’s what we’ve been talking about for 200 posts. If you don’t even understand the concept, then what the hell where you talking about before now?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    You’re avoiding the questions.

  • Camus Dude

    Okay, the questions:

    If others think they should do it, how do we decide whether your personal bias against it should outweight their personal bias for it?

    Um, without shared values, there is no way. Like I said, “might makes right” is descriptively true. Same answer for the rest, except the last:

    You don’t think people ought to not kill you for sport or any other reason (not including self-defense or extenuating circumstances)?

    No. I hope people don’t kill me. I would very much like it if they don’t. But I don’t believe that they’d be wrong to do so, if they chose.

    I’m an a-moralist, as I’ve said, for basically the same reason I’m an a-theist: lack of reason to believe that moral realism is true.

  • bbk

    This thread just won’t go to rest, will it?

    And what makes your personal values better than someone else’s? If you think we should outlaw FGM and another person doesn’t, how do we decide between you two? If everything is strictly subjective and due to personal bias, then how do you say that we should or should not do anything?

    The answer is you start by not calling the other side evil or dumb oppressors. Realizing that morality is subjective lets you approach it in a way that helps you achieve a consensus.

    Since you keep bringing up women’s issues as an example of what objective morality would focus on (as does Harris and Ebon), what say you about looking into male genital mutilation? Is FGM worse than MGM? Okay then, outside of Africa, let’s say in the USA, is FGM worse than MGM? What basis do you have for saying that Americans should consider FGM in Africa to be a more important issue than MGM in America? Scientific, objective facts please.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    So, what would be the effect on a society (social species) if the adherents were to think as you do? Why do other animals not act in these ways? I’m pretty sure that other animals also don’t think much about morality? And, do you really believe that the only reason you haven’t died yet is simply because no one has wanted to?

    I’m amazed at these conversations. I applaud you for holding to your line, but you have to realize that it doesn’t adhere to what actually happens in the real world.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think you might want to tread carefully down the “evolutionary neurobiological instinct / predisposition = objective moral truth” track.

    There be monsters down that path. In the real world. Animals do a heck of a lot of things that I, personally, consider abhorrent. But, then I remember that they’re animals, and I stop being so incensed about it.

    But, again, the religionists will applaud your biology dictates morality approach. Since the whole point of religion is to control female sexuality and to perpetuate the in group at the expense of the out group.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “So, what would be the effect on a society (social species) if the adherents were to think as you do?”

    I imagine the world would be filled with people willing to lie, cheat, steal, murder, and threaten to get what they want, while at the same time having a bunch of people who threaten to and do punish people who do those things where it is in their best interest, and a tenuous equilibrium would be reached where a bunch of people get away with stuff, and a bunch of other people don’t, and everyone does what’s in their own best interest, to the best of their knowledge, based on their subjective goals.

    So… pretty much exactly what it’s like now.

    “Why do other animals not act in these ways?”

    Because they do? I’ve never seen an animal act in any way other than that objective morality doesn’t exist, and their subjective desires are the most important thing.

    “I’m pretty sure that other animals also don’t think much about morality?”

    I don’t know. Are you? I’m pretty sure that other animals don’t “think about morality” and instead just do whatever they find most desired. As to whether they, like some humans, project their own subjective desires onto the world as the only things that should be desired… I don’t know, I don’t think we have enough evidence to determine whether they are projecting or simply acting in favor of their own interests.

    “And, do you really believe that the only reason you haven’t died yet is simply because no one has wanted to?”

    Well, because no one wanted to, and had the means to, and weighed the chance of my death should they attempt it as more valuable then the chance of negative consequences and their severity.

    Yes. Don’t you? Do you think all those serial killers killed someone else besides you because they know it’s immoral to kill you?

    “but you have to realize that it doesn’t adhere to what actually happens in the real world.”

    No, it pretty much does. I don’t know why you people really think that anyone acts in any way other than in their own best interest based on their desires. I attribute it to the mental picture divergence, but for morals.

  • Camus Dude

    what would be the effect on a society [...]

    Where have I heard that question before. Oh wait, I know!

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,

    But, again, the religionists will applaud your biology dictates morality approach. Since the whole point of religion is to control female sexuality and to perpetuate the in group at the expense of the out group.

    Exactly…to your second sentence, which is in direct contradiction with your first sentence. Religionists are moral relativists, i.e. subjectivists, just like yourself.

    Camus,
    I can’t believe we’re arguing something so absurd. Without any “shoulds” or “should nots” we no longer have a basis for law. We can’t even say that one should not rape another or murder another, etc. Yet, these things (laws) exist. Interactions of moral and immoral nature exist, even if just in how we describe them. To claim that “shoulds” don’t exist is to deny the very nature of the world around you.

    Also, can we all please stop misusing the word “objective?” I’ve asked that from the beginning and everyone here is still using it to mean “absolute” or “universal.” That’s not what it means. An objective moral code would simply be one that is not dependent on one’s mind. Arguing that objective moral codes can’t exist is simply wrong.

    Lastly, I wasn’t going to answer Kaelik anymore, but a big sticking point is that some other animals act in ways that are detrimental to themselves in order to help others, like dogs that rush into traffic to drag other dogs off the road or chimps that go on hunger strikes to protest the treatment of other chimps.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Let me try another tack — just one last hail mary pass:

    If objective moral truth exists, and is accessible to us via evidence and reason, what need have we for majoritarian democracy? Or, democracy at all, for that matter?

    If objective moral truth exists, what need have we to determine a consensus of moral opinion?

    Imagine for a moment a world in which objective moral truth did exist and was accessible to us via evidence and reason by application of the scientific method.

    If science really could tell us you should and shouldn’t do whatever.

    This is objectively, scientifically moral. And, this other thing is objectively, scientifically immoral.

    I am imagining a world in which I wouldn’t care to live. (I guess, like Hitchens, that makes me an anti-moralist, not just an amoralist. I not only don’t think objective moral truth exists, but I wouldn’t wish it to either. Goodie for me that there is zero evidence that it does exist.)

    As atheists, I think we should be advocating for a more free world.

    Not a more tyrannical world.

    The use of a moral consensus to make laws, instead of some imaginary God, was a huge step forward for humanity.

    I want us to take another step forward.

    I think Sam’s suggested path is a step backward. A huge step backward.

    (BTW, you’re the one confusing objective and absolute/universal. Not us. Think of it this way — pretend you can conduct a scientific experiment and get the outcome: moral or immoral. Well, that outcome would depend on the experiment. It’s not universal/absolute, but it would be objective. So, in a situation that matches that of the experiment, that experiment would be objective evidence of the morality or immorality of whatever human behavior was being assessed for morality. If you noticed, this discussion of universal/absolute versus objective is more than moot, BECAUSE NO SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT CAN GIVE YOU THE RESULTS OF MORAL OR IMMORAL.)

    I sometimes get annoyed when people keep acting like their adversaries don’t understand.

    We get it. The landscape. Peaks and valleys. Localized assessment of well being. Multiple paths to the objective moral truth fairy.

    We get it.

    We just don’t agree.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Oh, and BTW, Sam, despite all of his talk about a multitude of peaks and valleys, very specifically and explicitly reiterates the need to converge on a universal morality.

    I think we need to converge an a universal amorality.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,
    Not every governmental position is a moral position for one. For two, you’re still talking about absolute or universal morality.

    Imagine for a moment a world in which objective moral truth did exist and was accessible to us via evidence and reason by application of the scientific method.

    I don’t have to imagine objective moral codes existing, since they do. What you’re talking about here, however, is the absolute/universal/cave ideal moral truth existing, which none of us are arguing for.

    As atheists, I think we should be advocating for a more free world.

    We should? How do you get to “should” in your subjective system?

    The use of a moral consensus to make laws, instead of some imaginary God, was a huge step forward for humanity.

    Based on your personal bias maybe, but others might not see it that way. You can’t subjectively say your way is better than their’s. Don’t you see why your philosophy is more a friend to moral relativism? You have no argument with which to say that FGM or simimlar attrocities carried out in the name of religion in other countries are wrong.

    I want us to take another step forward.

    By advocating that might makes right?

    I think Sam’s suggested path is a step backward. A huge step backward.

    By leaving behind wishful thinking in favor of evidence based, rational decision making?

    BTW, you’re the one confusing objective and absolute/universal. Not us.

    No, I’m not as I’ve been pointing out from the start. This is especially clear since you already agreed that we can make an objective moral code and you’ve agreed that the rules of poker are objective.

    Think of it this way — pretend you can conduct a scientific experiment and get the outcome: moral or immoral.

    I don’t believe that anyone is proposing this, except for the naysayers.

    I sometimes get annoyed when people keep acting like their adversaries don’t understand.

    Well, when you guys finally get it then I’ll stop acting as if you don’t understand, but you’ve clearly shown in just the above post that you don’t get it.

    I think we need to converge an a universal amorality.

    Based on your subjective preferences? Even your supporter, Kaelik, has pointed out that laws are a series of should and should nots, which are questions of morality (at least tied to morality). How will you claim that one should not do X in a way that is amoral and free from personal bias? (Hint: you won’t.)

  • Sarah Braasch

    Now, I agree with Kaelik.

    You’re playing the shell game with definitions — definitions of morality, definitions of well being, definitions of objective and universal and absolute.

    I give up. But not in.

    Thanks for your contribution to this thread. I really enjoyed it.

    Must return to my life for awhile.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I’m not playing with the definitions of anything. I’ve held the same throughout. When I’m told that objective morality can’t exist because people will disagree, because there are no absolutes, etc. I reply that that is conflating objective with universal and absolute. I’ve done that consistently throughout. The naysayers are the ones who are shifting their definitions.

    Also, I’m glad you see that Kaelik was right about your amoral law idea. Perhaps you’ll stop pushing for it since you agree that it can’t happen? I wonder if you’ll also stop trying to push your subjective morality on everyone else?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Wow. I’m sorry to say that this thread is devolving into crazy.

    Sorry everyone. I shouldn’t have perpetuated it.

    When a thread gets too long, like this one, everything gets muddled.

    Don’t you worry, OMGF, I still intend on creating a next generation amoral legal/political system.

    And, I will never stop trying to push my subjective morality on everyone else, because I know I’m right.

    Thanks again. Have a good night.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I’m probably going to regret this, but

    it just occurred to me

    OMGF, you haven’t read Sam’s book, have you?

    I don’t think you have.

    Because Sam addresses Greene’s different definitions of morality in his book.

    Sam is not just talking about the development of a legal system based upon a moral consensus informed by evidence and reason.

    He is speaking about being able to attain objective moral truth via science. He is talking about having access to Greene’s morality 1, not just Greene’s morality 2.

    Morality 1 being objective moral truth. Morality 2 being the legal/political system based upon a moral consensus informed by evidence and reason (and hopefully balanced by an independent judiciary and a rights based Constitution).

    Sam Harris (IMO) understands what us naysayers are saying; he just thinks we’re wrong. (Personally, because he is a scientist and a philosopher, but not a human rights activist/lawyer, I don’t think he has fully grappled with all of the dire consequences of his stance. And, I can imagine that he might say — you’re right, but that’s not my job.)

    I think you need to read his book.

  • Kaelik

    @OMFG

    “Also, can we all please stop misusing the word “objective?” I’ve asked that from the beginning and everyone here is still using it to mean “absolute” or “universal.” That’s not what it means. An objective moral code would simply be one that is not dependent on one’s mind. Arguing that objective moral codes can’t exist is simply wrong.”

    You have no idea what objective means at all. Or, you do, you just don’t know what dependent means. If a moral code can’t be justified without appealing to your own person desires, then it is dependent on your mind, and is subjective.

    No one here (well actually, you and Sarah) is confusing objective and absolute. This is not about absolute. If a moral code is not justified except by appealing to a subjective preference for one state over another, then it is subjective.

    You have continuously tried to claim that because adherence to a moral code is objectively measurable, therefore the code itself is objective. This is just insane. Adherence to any moral code is objectively measurable.

    Is this an objective morality:

    “Objective Volcanic Eruption Morality.

    I like to see Volcanoes erupt. This is literally the only thing I like. Volcanoes do erupt. I will now develop a device that causes all volcanoes on earth to erupt whenever I want, which will be all the time. This is objectively measurable. Amount of Volcanoes erupting is objectively measurable, therefore, it is an objective morality to cause all volcanoes to erupt.”

    If yes, Oh okay, you are just a retard.

    If not, how is that any different from the “Objective species survival morality”?

    “Lastly, I wasn’t going to answer Kaelik anymore, but a big sticking point is that some other animals act in ways that are detrimental to themselves in order to help others, like dogs that rush into traffic to drag other dogs off the road or chimps that go on hunger strikes to protest the treatment of other chimps.”

    Yes, other animals act in ways detrimental to “themselves” in order to help others. So? I act in ways detrimental to myself to help others too. I don’t do it because it’s moral, I do it because it’s what most satisfies my subjective desires.

    Dogs subjectively desire that other dogs not be on the road. Chimps subjectively desire that their entire tribe is fed, (and will brutally murder other chimps to ensure that this is the case your “sometimes animals do things I agree with, no ignore all those things they do that I don’t agree with” defense is eerily similar to “Look at all the wonderful things in life, God created them all. Oh, that bee stung you… That’s your fault because Adam brought original sin into the world, and thus bees grew stingers.” If you can’t explain all animal behavior with your theory, then it’s not a real theory, it’s you selectively picking to favor your preferred hypothesis).

    That’s not surprising at all. What is your alternative? That the would prefer for the other chimps to starve to death but instead are forced to render aid by the magnificent objective morality imposition? How does that even make sense?

    I mean, I get it, you are stuck in the 1800s and the concept of genetic propagation as the driving force of evolution confuses you. But here’s the thing, the rest of us are living in the 21st century. It’s been 20 years since Dawkins wrote the Selfish Gene, if you don’t understand how organisms have altruistic desires is not indicative of anything besides evolution taking it’s course, then you are too stupid to continue having a conversation with.

    No one else but you and theists are surprised by altruistic desires in animals that act to fulfill their own desires.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Kaelik,

    How am I confusing objective and absolute?

    I’m not being argumentative.

    If I am confusing the two, then I really want to know.

    If you could set up an experiment or collect data or record an observation that would yield the results: moral or immoral, then that would be objective (we know this is impossible), but it still wouldn’t make the results absolute. (i.e. you’re not always going to get the same results if you have different experimental conditions — the behavior might change from immoral to moral, depending upon the conditions)

    What am I getting wrong?

  • Kaelik

    Not specifically in that post. Just sometimes. Maybe you aren’t, and you are just talking about universal morality at that time, since the thread is about universal morality in the first place before OMFG derailed.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Sarah,

    Don’t you worry, OMGF, I still intend on creating a next generation amoral legal/political system.

    Even though you know you can’t? How odd.

    And, I will never stop trying to push my subjective morality on everyone else, because I know I’m right.

    And, what do you say to the religious fundamentalists who say the exact same thing? You’ve avoided answering this obvious rejoinder for quite a while now. I wonder why (actually, I don’t, but it seems that I’ll be misunderstood if I don’t explicitly point this out).

    Lastly, I have not yet read the book, it’s true, but I highly doubt – given your trouble with understanding my arguments and your general trouble dealing with those who disagree with you – that you understand his argument. I’ll read it for myself, thank you very much, instead of taking your word for what he says.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    That last sentence of mine (upon which you are commenting) was supposed to be a joke.

    I didn’t realize I have generalized trouble with those who disagree with me.

    And, now that we’ve devolved into the ad hominem, I’ll wish you well and take my leave.

    I really enjoyed conversing with you, but this thread probably should have been tucked into bed a long time ago.

    Take care.

    Enjoy The Moral Landscape.