Chris Hedges Doesn’t Believe In Moral Progress (Except When He Does)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part III

As I’ve written before, Chris Hedges is a nihilist. He flatly denies the possibility of moral progress, and vehemently asserts that any efforts to improve humanity will inevitably end in mass slaughter and destruction. He says so bluntly at the beginning of his book:

Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses… We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the inherent flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history… All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in squalor and fanaticism. (p.10-11)

A harsh verdict, to be sure. But this doom-and-gloom fatalism raises a puzzling contradiction with statements Hedges makes elsewhere in the book:

The religious figures I studied and the ones I sought to emulate when I was a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School, included Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, William Sloane Coffin Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and Daniel Berrigan. (p.3)

and later:

[The atheists'] attacks dismiss those – and there are millions – who found the inner fortitude through religion to fight for justice and lead lives of compassion. It seeks to invalidate the achievement of those religious figures who lost their lives in the defense of humanity. (p.34)

Did you catch it? Hedges speaks of the “achievement” of religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. who fought for justice and compassion. Achievement? What achievement is he referring to? Didn’t Hedges just get done telling us that no collective moral progress ever has been or ever can be achieved? Isn’t he thus forced to believe, by his own argument, that the efforts of King and others didn’t make any lasting difference? And if so, what exactly is it that he admires them for?

But it gets worse. For, you see, the truth is far more appalling: Martin Luther King was one of those dreaded utopians!

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

…This is for hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, ‘We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.’”

—Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, 16 August 1967

These statements conflict with the received wisdom of Chris Hedges, who assures us that there is no moral arc in the universe, that no one ever will overcome, and that in fact, nothing will ever get better in any way, so we might as well give up hoping.

What this shows, I think, is that Hedges don’t hold the worldview he says he does. He doesn’t really believe in the impossibility of moral progress. He just hates the way we advocate it – by attacking religious prejudices at the roots, by encouraging people to put aside their superstitions and become rational. (His angry denial that religion played any role in the Bosnian conflict is a good example.) In other words, he too wants a better world – it’s just that he’s deluded enough to believe that religion has no responsibility for the state the world is in, and that there’s no reason we have to give it up. If he instead acknowledged the necessity of atheism, he might see it as a promising solution to some of the problems he regards as intractable, and he wouldn’t be so embittered and pessimistic.

Other posts in this series:

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.

  • L.Long

    I really hate the word MORAL!!
    What does he or you mean or anyone for that matter.

    I don’t and haven’t killed anyone…am I moral??
    An islamic kills a nonbeliever…the ka-ka-koran says he is moral. Is he??
    (Ka-ka is an old childish slang for schite.)

    The buyBull says slaves are OK. So is a present day xtian with no slaves being moral or immoral??? And by who’s standard??

    But I believe that Hedges is correct as he is saying 2 separate things.
    1) One the overall morality of humans is no better then ever, just looking thru history can show you that is true.
    2) But in some individual cases there is an attempt to be better and this as he shows is true.
    And for every person trying to make a ‘better world’, there are many who kill/maim/destroy for high ‘moral’ reasons.

  • http://neatshirts.blogspot.com Abeille

    L.Long, you might be interested in Sam Harris.
    He has a theory about science and morality.

  • Kaelik

    Abeille, not that again.

    Yes, lots of people have completely unsupported premises about what is or isn’t good, and no compelling reason for anyone to take their word over anyone else on the matter.

    But the point is precisely that there are hundreds of definitions of what morality is or isn’t, based on what people assert without evidence is “good”. That doesn’t mean that you can get away with saying the word moral and thinking your audience could possibly understand what you meant.

    Hedges and Ebon both almost certainly disagree about what is good anyway, so obviously we need to know what they mean before we can have a real conversation.

  • Dan L.

    1) One the overall morality of humans is no better then ever, just looking thru history can show you that is true.

    I was about to say the exact opposite. Until modern agriculture, famine was pretty much the way of the world and survival was often zero sum — there’s only enough food for one person, and there’s two people to fight over it. People throughout history were more desperate for food than they are now, and as a consequence, much less concerned about abstract notions of “law” or “justice” or “morals” (abstract compared to the feeling of hunger anyway).

    “Nasty, brutish, and short” is a good capsule summary of most of human history. It’s only when you get enough food in one place that everyone gets into a good enough mood to start treating each other decently.

  • http://atheistwiki.wikispaces.com Jon Jermey

    If there is a period of ‘darkness’ — whatever that means — followed by a period of ‘light’, isn’t that moral improvement? Why can’t we just work out what we were doing then and keep doing it?

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Abeile, human morality is simple: be fair. If you want a technical argument, read John Rawls “A theory of justice.” If you want a simple argument, here it is:

    Do you want to be smacked on the back of the head? No? Then don’t go around smacking other people on the back of the head.

    That’s morality. All you need to know is that human beings are social animals, requiring social groups to exist, and human beings are essentially equal in that no group or individual is systematically superior than another (at least to an extent where they can ignore reciprocity). The rest can be derived.

  • David

    “no group or individual is systematically superior than another (at least to an extent where they can ignore reciprocity). ”

    Sounds like a challenge to me.

  • 2-D Man

    I think one is asking the wrong question when saying ‘what is moral?’ Consider the question of ‘why bother being moral?’ and the answer to ‘what is moral?’ becomes trivial.

    On the topic of Chris Hedges, does it seem to anyone else that Ebon’s picking on a slow child? I’d call this showdown drastically unfair, but Hedges did write this book….

  • Kaelik

    “All you need to know is that human beings are social animals, requiring social groups to exist, and human beings are essentially equal in that no group or individual is systematically superior than another (at least to an extent where they can ignore reciprocity). The rest can be derived.”

    If your argument is based on false premises, I don’t see much hope for the result.

    Lots of individuals are systematically superior to other individuals.

    Also, I like S&M play, both ends, Therefore, I should do it to everyone I meet. Oops. Failtacular.

  • paradoctor

    I say moral progress exists but is very slow. We’ve (mostly) abolished cannibalism, ritual human sacrifice and chattel slavery, but we still have war, tyranny and class conflict. I figure that those too will eventually be solved, but it might take awhile, and we will then saddle ourselves with other intractable moral problems. And so on.

    We’re a transitional species. Our distant ancestors resembled apes; our distant descendants will be (if they’re lucky) truly Homo Sapiens, the wise humans. What we are is the Missing Link.

    Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western Civilization. He said, “I think it would be a good idea.” What do I think about Human Intelligence? I think it would be an achievement.

    I’m optimistic; I say only ten thousand years, a hundred thousand tops, until we get there, or die trying.

    In the meantime… it’s like the tuba player who asked a guy on the street, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”

  • Kaelik

    I thought it was only religious people who replaced all arguments with slogans and thought it was an improvement post content.

    Apparently I was wrong.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Hedges is running into the precise problem that all relativists run into; the consequence of their position is that there can be no such thing as moral prograss, but psychologically he can’t accept it, and so he still talks as if there is such a thing.

    This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t hold that worldview, just that at a minimum there are psychological artifacts of his previous and the prevailing view that there is such a thing as moral progress that he hasn’t gotten rid of. Kinda like Hume’s lament that after convincing himself that induction wasn’t valid, he still can’t help but act as if it is when he goes out in the world.

    It also doesn’t have anything to do with religion, necessarily.

    As I said, this is a problem that all moral relativist positions have, and Jesse J. Prinz takes a good stab at reconciling that view with relativism in “The Emotional Construction of Morals”. He fails to do it, but he takes a good stab at it. If you want an example of a morality that tries to link the psychological data with the philosophical issues, his is a far better book than Harris’.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    But I believe that Hedges is correct as he is saying 2 separate things.
    1) One the overall morality of humans is no better then ever, just looking thru history can show you that is true.

    That’s strange, because I think looking at history points to the exact opposite conclusion. For example, the percentage of people who die in war has been falling for centuries. Literacy rates, life expectancy, per capita income and other positive indicators continue to rise throughout the world.

    There are soft indicators as well. We’ve cured or wiped out some of the most feared diseases and stand on the brink of eradicating several others. Democracy has replaced absolute monarchy throughout much of the world. Activists have successfully persuaded society to expand the circle of human rights and moral consideration to women and racial minorities, and we’re in the process of accomplishing the same for GLBT people and atheists. Even if we have an enormous amount still left to do, do you really think that none of this represents moral progress?

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

    Wow, and Kaelik comes in to once again twist everything that anyone else says (anyone he disagrees with that is). Simply because he can’t or won’t grasp the arguments of others and can’t effectively argue against them doesn’t mean that the original argument is “failtacular.” But, I spent way too much of my time trying to point that out the last time he had an inability to grasp simple arguments about morality. I vote that we don’t play that out again here and instead focus on the fact that Hedges seems to be more concerned with blindly railing against atheists than with making consistent arguments.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “I vote that we don’t play that out again here and instead focus on the fact that Hedges seems to be more concerned with blindly railing against atheists than with making consistent arguments.”

    Then maybe you shouldn’t make 2/3rds of your post a drive by slander of me for no reason, followed by an plea for sanity. I understand perfectly what was being said. I just disagreed with it.

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

    You demonstrated quite well that if you did understand it you were perfectly unwilling to actually deal with what was written. Thanks, but I’d rather not deal with people who are so intellectually dishonest as you would be if your assertion of understanding is true.

  • Kaelik

    @OMGF

    “You demonstrated quite well that if you did understand it you were perfectly unwilling to actually deal with what was written. Thanks, but I’d rather not deal with people who are so intellectually dishonest as you would be if your assertion of understanding is true.”

    I did deal with. Which is why you have no specific criticisms, only generic claims of failure. There was nothing there to deal with, an arbitrary statement that if you take a specific false premise to be true, you can derive moral theory. Which is the same thing everyone else who has a coherent moral system can vouch for. But still no reason to take a particular false premise over another.

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

    I rest my case. Thanks for demonstrating for my argument.

  • Kaelik

    If your “argument” (You haven`t actually presented one yet, merely asserted)

  • Kaelik

    If your “argument” (You haven`t actually presented one yet, merely asserted a wide range of insults) is that you don`t understand the difference between disagreeing with a premise and “not addressing” a comment, then you have already demonstrated it sufficiently. I disagreed with a premise, that no human is systematically superior to another. If you disagree with a premise, and state that you do, you don`t have to deal with the rest of the argument based on the false premise. But it`s okay, I already know that you response to anyone disagreeing with a premise you hold is to throw a fit. That`s why you had to jump this thread with your drive by slander.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Can we not derail this thread, please? Thanks.

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

    Yes, I throw a fit and start accusing people of slander, insulting, etc….oh wait, that was and is you.

    Back to the actual topic. I suppose that Hedges could claim that there’s no contradiction in that he did say that certain people can make moral advances and that he can admire those people for their moral advances while also noting that society itself doesn’t necessarily become more moral. We don’t always have to admire people only because they made a lasting impact by raising up society’s moral zeitgeist.

    He’s still full of sh*t and has an obvious hatred of atheists which causes him to lash out in any way that he thinks he can, but this contradiction doesn’t seem to be as egregious as his others.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Kaelik said: Lots of individuals are systematically superior to other individuals.

    Kaelik, did you know the text between the () is not actually optional? You’re supposed to read it too.

    Kaelik said: Also, I like S&M play, both ends, Therefore, I should do it to everyone I meet. Oops. Failtacular.

    This is a common objection to the fairness doctrine: what about a masochist? Since they enjoy pain, shouldn’t they inflict pain?

    This argument fails on two counts. First, the issue of autonomy takes precedence; masochists respect autonomy and therefore should give autonomy. This means respecting other people’s desires, and the simple fact is that other people have other desires than you do.

    Second, it fails on the facts of the matter. Masochists are actually quite choosy about who they wish to receive pain from and when. S&M is a sexual activity, and like all sexual activities it must be consensual. This should be obvious from only a few moments analysis; the logical consequences of accepting this line of thinking would necessarily be that wives and sluts cannot be raped.

    Ebon said: the percentage of people who die in war has been falling for centuries

    Pshaw! We don’t need no stinkin’ facts! :D

    Seriously, I am always amazed at having to explain to people how much better their life is today than it would have been. Especially when those people are poor, or weak, or have had medical treatment, or are, you know, female.

    Almost all around the world we have lifted women up from the status of chattel to something approaching human; in many parts of the world women are legally equal. And yet the moral nilhists insist that this moral progress is insignificant.

    :retch:

  • Alex Weaver

    Almost all around the world we have lifted women up from the status of chattel to something approaching human; in many parts of the world women are legally equal. And yet the moral nilhists insist that this moral progress is insignificant.

    Only some of them insist that; the rest insist this is a sign of humanity’s imminent implosion.

  • David

    “And yet the moral nilhists insist that this moral progress is insignificant.”

    Sounds like a strawman to me. Being a moral nihilist, I wouldn’t say it is insignificant, but I would say it is a choice without moral implications.

  • Kaelik

    “did you know the text between the () is not actually optional? You’re supposed to read it too.”

    Did you know that your text between the parentheses is doesn’t change anything. Yes, people can ignore reciprocity. They really can, literally every single person in the entire world ignores reciprocity with large groups of people Starting with “Starving children in Africa.”

    PS: Actually, that’s exactly what parentheses mean. It means that part of the sentence is optional, and if you ignore it, you end up with the same sentence.

    “First, the issue of autonomy takes precedence;”

    Oh look, you just made up a second moral consideration out of your ass to dismiss a problem with your first moral consideration. Well, I suppose then we can just keep whipping out false premises about what should be of concern until every problem is dealt with.

    What you have failed to demonstrate is why I should care about autonomy, or fairness, when I am perfectly capable of not suffering any consequences from starving kids in africa as I eat delicious meat from cows that produce green house gases that kill future generations. None of those people can reciprocate anything, because they lack the ability to effect me in any way.

    Better than the Masochist, what about the Sadist, since I enjoy inflicting pain, give me one good reason not to inflict pain on unwilling participants. No cop outs by pretending that deception is impossible.

  • Orion from TGD

    Kaelik is right. I watched Sam Harris’ speech that supposedly dervies morality from science. It does nothing of the kind. What it does is say that if you want to create a peacful and prosperous society*, scienctific reasoning can help you do that. In other words, if you already have morality, science can help you act more effectively. What Sam Harris doesn’t seem to get is that lots of people have no interesting in creating a peaceful, prosperous society, but would rather have tradition, or piety, or “honor”, or ethnocentrism.

    He even takes time out to rebut his own argument. He says that he could use science to convince Ted Bundy that his actions are immoral, by pointing out that they don’t conduce to an orderly and prosperous society. He doesn’t point out, but it’s painfully obvious, that Ted Bundy could answer: “So?”

  • Alex Weaver

    Wait a minute, I think I remember Kaelik now…

    This is borderline trolling.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Ebonmuse,

    I just re-read this, and Hedges isn’t actually a moral nihilist, so there isn’t the contradiction you claim. Moral nihilism is this (from wikipedia):

    “Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism or amoralism), is the meta-ethical view that nothing is moral or immoral.”

    Hedges — from both posts — clearly thinks that things are moral or immoral. He’s not a nihilist or a relativist. His comments are clearly against the idea that humans — collectively — advance morally. He doesn’t necessarily say that individuals can’t advance morally, but that as a collective we don’t (see your first quote).

    I haven’t read his work, but based on what you’ve said about him my guess his that he’d be taking a line that humans just as humans can’t be moral because of our underlying flaws — which takes out our advancing collectively, and that would lead to “So we need God to be moral”.

    So talking about some advances won’t work, because he admits that there are some advances but he argues that there are some degenerations that go along with that. Overall, he says, we aren’t any better, and your specific examples don’t really show that. For example, to say that there are fewer deaths in wars can be balanced by the fact that one of the reasons for that is our ability and our threatening to kill many, many more people in war.

    On the other hand, you then can appeal to actual moral progress with him; he’s not likely to argue, say, that eliminating slavery is not justified as moral progress.

  • Kaelik

    “Wait a minute, I think I remember Kaelik now…
    This is borderline trolling.”

    It’s not trolling to ask people to back up their unsupported premises. It just feels like that to you because you have strong feelings about the issue, but no actual reasoning to back up those strong feelings, and you can’t recognize that instead of that meaning that I’m a mean bad person for making you recognize your cognitive dissonance, it actually means you are wrong.

    This is exactly what atheists do to religious people all the time, and you are responding exactly like they do, by taking offense, instead of analyzing arguments.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I watched Sam Harris’ speech that supposedly dervies morality from science. It does nothing of the kind. What it does is say that if you want to create a peacful and prosperous society*, scienctific reasoning can help you do that. In other words, if you already have morality, science can help you act more effectively. What Sam Harris doesn’t seem to get is that lots of people have no interesting in creating a peaceful, prosperous society, but would rather have tradition, or piety, or “honor”, or ethnocentrism.

    Using this same heckler’s-veto argument, you can prove that science doesn’t discover objective truth. After all, showing that science works requires a preexisting belief in the power of induction. If you don’t already believe that, but would rather rely on personal whim or cultural continuity or religious faith, there’s obviously nothing a scientist could say to convince you otherwise. If I do an experiment to demonstrate something and you’re a stubborn creationist, you could just say: “So?”

    The “So?” argument is petulant and intellectually lazy. You don’t have to convince every last person in the world that science works for it to be a useful and objective method. The same is true of morality.

  • 2-D Man

    Y’know, VS, if you didn’t use so many words, you might be able to see the contradictions in your own comment.

    For example, to say that there are fewer deaths in wars can be balanced by the fact that one of the reasons for that is our ability and our threatening to kill many, many more people in war.

    See all that in bold? It’s totally useless. I understand that you call yourself ‘verbose’ but that’s not a good thing, unless you intend to be incomprehensible. Let’s look at it again.

    For example, that there are fewer deaths in wars can be balanced by our ability to kill many, many more people in war.

    See how much better that is? And I haven’t changed the meaning; I only removed useless words. Now, granted, it doesn’t make much sense, but most of the people around here are pretty smart and probably assumed you meant this:

    For example, fewer deaths in wars may be due to the deterrent effect of our more advanced weaponry.

  • Chris

    You don’t have to convince every last person in the world that science works for it to be a useful and objective method. The same is true of morality.

    Wait, what? Science cures deadly diseases and flies people to the moon (whether some people want to deny it or not). Moral philosophy doesn’t. There’s no experimental verification, no practical application, no indication that an objective reality of morality even exists at all, let alone is reproducibly observable.

    Every one of the familiar tests that proves science isn’t just another superstition, morality fails and proves it *is* just another superstition. Including intersubjective consensus — if you and I and the Pope study the physical properties of a particular tree, we’ll very likely see about the same thing, but if we talk about the morality of aborting a brain-damaged fetus (even a particular one), it will quickly become clear that we’re not “observing” the same “reality”, if we’re observing anything at all.

    Of course, if you or I or the Pope is insane or on drugs when we look at the tree, then we *won’t* see the same thing — but that’s rare enough to make it clear who the outlier is and provide some justification for discounting their observation. Moral questions rarely achieve the same consensus, so how can you tell which “observer” is mistaken? Even when moral consensus is achieved in one particular society (e.g. by systematic indoctrination), the consensus can shift over time without any reason to believe the underlying object of study changed at all.

    Was slavery ever moral? If not, why did so many people think it was? If they were wrong then, how can you be sure you’re right now? What objective evidence supports a claim that the abolition of slavery was anything other than a change in fashion that could just as easily go the other way? Consider asking the analogous questions about the change from geocentrism to heliocentrism, and I hope you’ll see the difference between the empirical and moral domains.

    Reality doesn’t give a damn about morality. Whether, and why, *we* should is a much more difficult question than you seem to be giving it credit for.

  • Orion from TGD

    Ebon,

    Science does require a pre-existing belief in induction. The difference is that you can make a rational argument that adopting such a belief is useful. For example, if someone believes that health and prosperity are good, you can start there and show them how accepting induction lets them develop tools that create health and prosperity. In fact, almost no matter what someone values, you can make an ironclad argument that using induction will help them achieve their goals. The thing is, that no matter what specific values someone has, you actually do have to appeal to some value or other to show them that they should accept science.

    The same isn’t true of morality. There is no other value you conceivably appeal to, because morality is supposed to BE the final value that justifies everything else we do. For that reason, if you wanted to convince someone that security and prosperity are the final goods, there’s literally nothing you could say other than “it is self-evident to me that safety and prosperity are the final goods.”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Chris:

    There’s no experimental verification, no practical application, no indication that an objective reality of morality even exists at all, let alone is reproducibly observable.

    Of course there is. Some human societies are more prosperous, more stable, more educated, more free than others. That is both a reproducible observation and a practical application of objective moral theory.

    Including intersubjective consensus — if you and I and the Pope study the physical properties of a particular tree, we’ll very likely see about the same thing, but if we talk about the morality of aborting a brain-damaged fetus (even a particular one), it will quickly become clear that we’re not “observing” the same “reality”, if we’re observing anything at all.

    If you think that religious people and atheists share the same intersubjective consensus, you’re mistaken. The reason we have different moral views is precisely because we have different views about what exists in reality. What happens when the Pope and I look at a one-day-old fetus? He claims to observe the existence of something I don’t, namely a soul, which gives it moral worth equal to an adult human. The moral disagreement is rooted in a factual disagreement.

    Was slavery ever moral? If not, why did so many people think it was?

    No, slavery was never moral. People believed otherwise because they were blinded by prejudices and superstitions that prevented them from considering the question in an objective way. The same reasoning explains why people once thought that the Earth was the center of the solar system and all the other celestial bodies revolved around it.

    Reality doesn’t give a damn about morality.

    In the sense you mean, reality doesn’t give a damn about science either; it doesn’t “care” whether we do one thing or another. The utility of science is that it gives us the knowledge of how to alter the natural world in accordance with our goals and desires. And the same is true of morality.

    Orion:

    Science does require a pre-existing belief in induction. The difference is that you can make a rational argument that adopting such a belief is useful.

    Yes, exactly! And the same is true of morality. You can make a rational argument that certain moral views are more useful than others, in the sense that they’re more likely to lead to a free and prosperous society where all people have a greater chance of flourishing and achieving their goals. Sure, there will be some obstinate people who refuse to acknowledge this – but that doesn’t impugn the validity of the whole enterprise, just as the existence of a few obstinate people who refuse to admit that science discovers objective truth doesn’t overthrow that entire field of human inquiry.

    The thing is, that no matter what specific values someone has, you actually do have to appeal to some value or other to show them that they should accept science.

    The same isn’t true of morality.

    I disagree. See my essay on objective morality, especially this part.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    2-D Man,

    Your restatement does change the meaning.

    1) It leaves out that we do, in fact, threaten to kill many, many more people, not just that we could actually do it. What I was thinking of there was, in fact, the Cold War, where basically the only reason we didn’t get a WWIII was because both sides were afraid that if their little skirmishes went too far the other side would nuke them — and the world — back to the Stone Age, as both sides were threatening. The threat part is important when we’re talking about moral progress or degeneration; we were willing to threaten to destroy pretty much the whole world over it, a threat that no one had ever really made before. Leaving out the part about the threatening leaves it as more of a discussion of technical capacity, not claimed willingness. The willingness is what I was after wrt morality here.

    2) It makes that the only reason, which I clearly wanted to deny. That’s not the only reason, and surely some of the moral reasons that Ebonmuse would want to cite would count as well. But it’s a big one, and one that someone like Hedges could use to argue against the claim that overall we’re more moral.

    So, it looks like the only thing left is “to say”. Okay, ya got me; I didn’t need to say “to say” there. That was indeed superfluous.

  • Orion from TGD

    Ebon,

    First, a quibble: I disagree with your formulation of morality as the problem of N-person prisoner’s dilemmas, unless you are willing to accept N=1 (which doesn’t really have the quality of a prisoner’s dilemma.) I prefer to say that morality is the rank-ordered evaluation of possible worlds, and that actions can be moral or immoral even if they effect no one but yourself. I don’t think that distinction will be important for this discussion, but it could be, so I want it out there.

    My problem with your essay is here:

    “Of course, strictly speaking a moral relativist could criticize another individual or another society for practices which he sees as immoral according to his own personal code of ethics, but to be consistent he would have to admit that his criticisms of them are no more valid than their criticisms of him.)” — Part 3

    This is very close to my position. This doesn’t force me to be wishy-washy or accommodating any more than anyone else. I will say “I prefer a world in which people are not slaves. I can rationally demonstrate that slavery is a bad idea if you value, peace, prosperity, freedom, or knowledge. If you do not value those things, there is nothing I could say that would require you to share my preference, but I warn you that I prefer freedom to slavery so strongly that I am prepared to kill you in the name of my preference.”

    Fighting and dying in the name of a preference for freedom is more reasonable than fighting and dying in the name of a preference for vanilla, but only because everyone has other preferences they consider more significant than their taste in ice cream. (Like prosperity and security.) If someone consider vanilla ice cream to be the final good, it would be entirely reasonable for him to take up arms in its name.

  • Orion from TGD

    Sorry to double-post, but I’m worried my first comment may not be clear. A more clear statement of my trouble with your article is here: “The answer to this should, I hope, be obvious: the goal of morality is to ensure happiness” — Part 4.

    This is obvious to me, and to you, but certainly not to everyone. I mean, you could, and many philosophers HAVE, define “happiness” as the ultimate good. But if you’re using “happiness” for any of the words meanings in standard English, a great many people disagree with you. You personally have written about catholics who believe that suffering is good, and alleviating suffering is bad (see: catholic hospitals). There are also a great many people who believe that it is bad for murderers to be happy, and good for them to suffer, even if their happiness or suffering has no deterrant effect.

    That happiness is desirable is NOT obvious to everyone, and I know of no rational argument you could make in favor of it. (Though as an atheist mechanist humanist, I have a nonrational, faith-based belief in the value of happiness.)

  • 2-D Man

    VS:
    1) No.
    2) No.

    To elaborate, 1) The ability is the threat. The threat is nothing without the ability.
    2) The deleted phrase is implied in the words ‘can’ and ‘may’. These words do not indicate exclusivity.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    2-D Man,

    So:

    On 1), it’s no longer a discussion of meaning, but of correctness, since you admit that I did mean to highlight the threat but argue here that it doesn’t matter. So, here’s how it matters: Imagine that you have a person who owns a gun. They have the ability, then, to shoot trespassers on their property. But they may never threaten to do so. If they threaten to do so, that’s them going further than simply having the ability to shoot a trespasser, especially if it is a genuine expression of their willingness to shoot a trespasser. I’m going for that willingness; if we would be willing to nuke the world to oppose communism/capitalism (just to not leave anyone out) that’s certainly not a moral plus, and seems to count as a moral minus, or an example of moral inferiority.

    On 2), “can” and “may” usually imply a lack of certainty. In short, they imply that there are other possible explanations. I didn’t want to imply that at all; I wanted to state that the threat of massive deaths was definitely a reason for the reduced death rate in wars while making it clear that I didn’t consider it the only one. At this point, to criticize my being explicit would be nitpicking of the highest order.

    So, still, “to say” is the only thing that was extraneous.

  • David

    I agree with Orion. You can’t solve the Is-Ought Problem, ergo morality is not an objective reality. The New Atheists sect, wishing to supplant Christianity, DESPERATELY wants morality to be a real thing so they can sell their anti-religion to the masses, but that doesn’t make it true.

  • 2-D Man

    Y’know, VS, if you didn’t use so many words, you might be able to see the contradictions in your own comments.

  • Samuel

    Orion
    “You personally have written about catholics who believe that suffering is good, and alleviating suffering is bad (see: catholic hospitals). There are also a great many people who believe that it is bad for murderers to be happy, and good for them to suffer, even if their happiness or suffering has no deterrant effect.

    That happiness is desirable is NOT obvious to everyone, and I know of no rational argument you could make in favor of it. (Though as an atheist mechanist humanist, I have a nonrational, faith-based belief in the value of happiness.)”

    You can have suffering lead to happiness (see- mountain climbing). Happiness is an emotion, while suffering is just describing wheter or not an individual is in pain.

    Pain isn’t always bad- when it is an indicator for something else it can be good (as it prevents you from losing limbs from repeatedly injuring them).

    Also, wanting murders to suffer just so you can watch them suffer is bad. Just because people hold a view doesn’t mean it is moral. Punishment must be related to the crime to serve as a deterent and any infliction of pain in order to make onself feel better… well, I’m not sure any better way to define what is evil than that.

    David
    “You can’t solve the Is-Ought Problem, ergo morality is not an objective reality. ”

    If people ought to do it, than it isn’t morality but self interest. Morality is doing good even if it doesn’t benefit us.

    I’m not sure how the fact it is voluntary has any relation to its objectiveness. Courage in combat is voluntary, but it is well known a force composed entirely of cowards has a tendancy to lose.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Samuel,

    You’re confusing ought with WHY we ought to do something. Your example of morality is, in fact, an ought claim: you’re saying that people ought to do good even if it doesn’t benefit them. You are presuming that ought means “for your own good”, but that’s not how David is using it there (necessarily).

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    2-D Man,

    Let me then clarify my contradictionless position:

    There are less deaths due to war these days at least in part because we have fewer and smaller wars because we are convinced that if a big war ever actually happened we have progressed morally to the point where we’re willing and prepared to kill larger numbers of people than we have ever even conceived of killing before, to the extent that in the Cold War we were pretty much willing to destroy the world and kill almost everyone.

    Yeah … being willing to kill pretty much everyone in the world is a real example of moral progress …

    Note, though, that I’m not claiming that we aren’t progressing morally, only that Hedges might have a point when he argues that, overall, we aren’t that much more moral than we were before; we’ve improved in some areas, but might have lapsed in others.

  • Alex Weaver

    It’s not trolling to ask people to back up their unsupported premises. It just feels like that to you because you have strong feelings about the issue, but no actual reasoning to back up those strong feelings, and you can’t recognize that instead of that meaning that I’m a mean bad person for making you recognize your cognitive dissonance, it actually means you are wrong.

    This is exactly what atheists do to religious people all the time, and you are responding exactly like they do, by taking offense, instead of analyzing arguments.

    Kaelik,

    The only “unsupported assertion” involved in the moral system I subscribe to, above and beyond the “unsupported assertions” like “a world external to my consciousness exists” and “my senses tell me something useful about that world” which are necessary for reasoning about the world to even function (I am giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you won’t demand that those be supported too) is that “happiness is desirable.” This cannot be proven deductively or whatever the hell it is you’re demanding (of course, neither can the existence of an external world – one COULD just be a disembodied brain hallucinating the whole experience, after all, and how would you “prove” otherwise), but it is both intuitive and strongly supported inductively (in particular, people act in ways consistent with the assumption that happiness is valuable with a consistency observed in no other area of behavior). In fact, the assertion that “happiness is valuable” is about as well supported as the assertion that “the length of a spring is linearly and directly proportional to the force applied to it over a limited range of lengths” and I somehow don’t imagine you’ll be calling that an “unsupported assertion” even though it’s derived from empirical observation rather than first principles. And if that’s not good enough for you, then we can just call it an “axiom.”

    Most of the other commenters here subscribe to similar conclusions about morality (or “ethics” for the handful who have a weird taboo about this specific word) and the rest of what they are asserting follows by engaged, honest reasoning from that postule, the “logic works” postulates, the “logic applies to the world” postulates, and the sum of theory and observations about the world. Many of them are reasonably considered to follow obviously from what is already stated, and I’m pretty sure you’re on board with this concept. For example, if you’re staying in a hotel room and the fire alarm goes off, I’m at least 80% certain you’re not going to just stand there in your room staring dumbly until you burn to death because no one explicitly told you that the fire alarm, if the system is working correctly, indicates that there’s a fire in the building, or that fires are dangerous, or that you should try to get away from things that are dangerous, etc. Even for something as simple as “get out when the fire alarm sounds” explicitly stating not just every node, but every differential point between nodes, in the chain of reasoning that leads to a conclusion is, as we have just seen, ridiculous. Demanding it for more complex conclusions is unreasonable and arguably arrogant, and you shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t want to take the time to just regurgitate an explicit description of every “well DUH” connection in their reasoning on command, especially when you’re clearly not arguing in good faith as evidenced by your making great efforts to misunderstand what people do state and interpreting every tiny droplet of ambiguity in the most uncharitable fashion imaginable, as with your “sadism/masochism” counter-example for the Golden Rule, to which the response that “no one is REALLY that literal-minded unless they’ve no mind at all” is, while inductive and not “provable,” entirely reasonable.

    Why should you get out of the building if the fire alarm sounds? Because the fire alarm indicates a fire if it’s working correctly, you have no specific reason to believe it isn’t working correctly, fires are dangerous, and you should avoid dangerous things, etc.

    Do you really need to be told that?!

    Why should I care whether other people are happy? Because they are like me in a bunch of other ways, enough that it’s entirely reasonable to generalize and apply the “happiness is valuable” postulate to them as well as to myself, because a group of people are capable of successfully undertaking projects and efforts an individual could not achieve and this capability can be used to improve my happiness and others can be convinced to cooperate if it will also improve theirs, because even if we’re not working together on a specific effort living in a society where people work to ensure each other’s happiness benefits me and this can only function if everyone contributes, because I’m a social animal with certain instinctive reactions to observing the emotional states of others which affect my emotional state in a way I instinctively and axiomatically feel is important, etc.

    Do you really need to be told that?!

    Why is autonomy important? Because an individual generally understands her own situation and needs better than others will, because this capacity enables the individual to most effectively address them, because the psychological nature of humans is such that they work harder and more efficiently if they feel they are doing something voluntarily rather than being forced into it, because individuals, despite being “alike” in important ways as described above, are psychologically and physically non-identical and have non-identical circumstances and there is no set of approaches, small enough for a human mind to grasp and catalogue, that would work for everyone if imposed from above, because the temptation to abuse the power to impose such approaches will always exist for those who for whatever reason happen to be the people doing the imposing, etc.

    Do you really need to be told that?!

    And no, I’m not going to type out every link in the chain of reasoning that lead to those all the way back to first principles. I shouldn’t have to. What you’re demanding is ridiculous. You’re not asking us to do your research for you, here. You’re not asking us to hold your hand. You’re not asking us to spoonfeed you. You’re not even asking to crawl up into our abdominal cavities and connect to our blood supply via a synthetic placenta. In fact, human biological existence includes no situation so extreme as to be readily adapted to metaphorically illustrate the (entirely affected, so far as I can tell) utter abdication of independent reasoning you’re trying to browbeat us into accepting and working around.

    I suppose you think you’re being clever, or rigorous, or a “Socratic gadfly,” or some such. You’re not. You’re acting like a small child who discovers a “connect the dots” puzzle and immediately demands the nearest adult draw in the appropriate lines so he can see the picture, and then, upon being told he has to do it himself and that he should draw lines between the numbers in the order he would count, draws lines from the “1″ in “91″ to the “2″ in “32″ to the “3″ in “23″ to the “4″ in “47″ and so on, then announces “this picture’s stupid!” when finished. And it’s annoying. “Trolling” is a perfectly reasonable description.

    And, I’m done with you.

    Although, skimming the other comments, it looks like there may be others this applies to as well.

  • Alex Weaver

    (Though as an atheist mechanist humanist, I have a nonrational, faith-based belief in the value of happiness.)

    You also have a nonrational, faith-based belief that the external world you believe yourself to be interacting with genuinely exists, that its nature and behavior correspond to your sensory perceptions, and that there is some consistent pattern to its behavior such that inductive reasoning is possible. I don’t imagine that keeps you up nights or leaves you with the sense that science “isn’t objective.” So add one more axiom to the ones underlying that and move on already – I really don’t understand why this is such a sticking point for some people.

  • David

    You know Alex, it really doesn’t help your case to basically demean other people for disagreeing with you. It just reeks of insecurity, and, as someone else pointed out earlier, uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.

    Saying “OBJECTIVE MORALITY EXISTS!” louder and more forcefully doesn’t make it so.

  • Kaelik

    “in particular, people act in ways consistent with the assumption that happiness is valuable with a consistency observed in no other area of behavior”

    This is false. Most people, but not all, act as if their own personal happiness is valuable, and the happiness of anyone else as either instrumental, or not valuable at all. From this does not follow any observation about how happiness is valuable in general.

    “In fact, the assertion that “happiness is valuable” is about as well supported as the assertion that “the length of a spring is linearly and directly proportional to the force applied to it over a limited range of lengths”

    This is also false. Besides the fact that valuable has yet to be defined.

    “Why should I care whether other people are happy? Because they are like me in a bunch of other ways, enough that it’s entirely reasonable to generalize and apply the “happiness is valuable” postulate to them as well as to myself,”

    That does not follow at all.

    “his can only function if everyone contributes,”

    This is false.

    “Because an individual generally understands her own situation and needs better than others will, because this capacity enables the individual to most effectively address them, because the psychological nature of humans is such that they work harder and more efficiently if they feel they are doing something voluntarily rather than being forced into it, because individuals, despite being “alike” in important ways as described above, are psychologically and physically non-identical and have non-identical circumstances and there is no set of approaches, small enough for a human mind to grasp and catalogue, that would work for everyone if imposed from above, because the temptation to abuse the power to impose such approaches will always exist for those who for whatever reason happen to be the people doing the imposing, etc.”

    So? The part you are missing is why I should care about what makes other people happy.

  • Orion

    The proposition that “happiness is desirable” (or rather what Ebonmuse seems to mean by that, which is rather more like “the happiness of any person is desirable, and no person’s happiness is more important than any other person’s) is not intuitive, no matter how many times you say it is. Or at leas,t it is nowhere close to being universally intuitive. The majority of people who have ever lived do not agree with it and find it to be a deeply weird way of looking at the world. So yes, people need to be told that and they need to be *persuaded* of it.

    You’re welcome to present the rational arguments that you believe would demonstrate this to anyone who considered it in good faith. I challenge you to do so, in fact, because although I have never heard of such an argument I would be literally and without sarcasm overjoyed if I ever did encounter one.

    In the mean time, I will continue to try to spread my moral values by rhetoric and indoctrination, the non-rational means by which, I am convinced, everyone acquires their moral convictions.

  • Alex Weaver

    Kaelik, go back and read the rest of the post.

    You know Alex, it really doesn’t help your case to basically demean other people for disagreeing with you. It just reeks of insecurity, and, as someone else pointed out earlier, uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.

    Saying “OBJECTIVE MORALITY EXISTS!” louder and more forcefully doesn’t make it so.

    Your *concern* is noted. Now please address the point I was making instead of whining about tone.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Alex,

    Let me outline three opposing positions to yours on happiness that accept all the facts but come to wildly different moral positions based on them:

    1) The Egoist. The Egoist values happiness, just like you do. But the Egoist has the set position that what they value is their own happiness, not that of anyone else. So, they will agree with you that, at times, the best way to increase their own happiness — or, rather, to avoid future unhappiness — is to increase the happiness of other people. But they clearly only do that as a means to their own happiness, and if they can increase their own happiness without doing that, they’ll do so. This means that if they can increase their happiness by making someone else less happy and can get away with it, they’ll hurt that person. It’s only their happiness that matters, not anyone else’s.

    2) The Stoic. Happiness is, let’s say, associated with emotional feelings or is an emotion. The Stoics say that morality is determined by rationality, not emotion, and so striving for a specific emotion is bad. Yes, they agree that most people “want” to be happy and have that feeling, but they shouldn’t; the right way to be moral is to be emotionlessly rational. So trying to be happy is harmful, and more time should be spent combating feeling unhappy when you don’t get the things that would make you happy.

    3) The Kantian. Everyone does want to be happy, but being moral is not about happiness. It’s just about duty. Duty is the driving force of real morality. To the Kantian, your view trying to justify morality by happiness is completely wrongheaded; you aren’t actually talking about morality.

    How do you reply to these three different positions? You have to prove them wrong — or yours right — to be able to support that you have an objectively true position on morality.

    (Note that I do think that morality is objective, BTW; I’m just pointing out the actual problem under discussion here).

  • David

    “Now please address the point I was making instead of whining about tone.”

    No. I will address who I want, how I want. Why would I waste my time with someone who views me as a child, beneath contempt? I don’t argue with people who KNOW they are right, and I certainly don’t waste time arguing with people who KNOW they are right and have nothing but emotional arguments and childish namecalling to back themselves up.

  • http://www.facepunch.com/member.php?u=298989 Jeep-Eep

    The reason you are treated like this is that you are acting like a child, making petty snipes with discredited canards and are generally annoying.

  • Kaelik

    “Kaelik, go back and read the rest of the post.”

    I did, that’s how I know that it is false. But you can’t back up those claims, because they are false, so instead you want to pretend like I missed something, instead of reading it, understanding it, and disagreeing with it. Because you have no way of convincing someone who disagrees with you about your various factually incorrect premises that you rely on as a priori true.

    You are forced to ignore my disagreements and pretend they don’t exist. Can you provide any evidence that people in general value other peoples happiness other than instrumentally? Of course you can’t. But that didn’t stop you from making sweeping claims like:

    “in particular, people act in ways consistent with the assumption that happiness is valuable with a consistency observed in no other area of behavior”

    or

    “In fact, the assertion that “happiness is valuable” is about as well supported as the assertion that “the length of a spring is linearly and directly proportional to the force applied to it over a limited range of lengths”

    We take it for granted that a mother will care about the happiness of her children, but we know why that is. We also take it for granted that most people don’t value the happiness of starving African children even close to their own. Where a few dollars could ever so slightly increase your own happiness, or drastically increase the happiness of many starving people, it is assumed you will use it for yourself without significant incentive, IE tax breaks or guilt trip adds.

    People do not value other people’s happiness, and we know this.

    Then you claim that the only way people can be happy is by being in a society where every single person is concerned with the happiness of every other person.

    That’s a joke. We don’t live in a society like that now, we never have, and we never will, precisely because that is false. Donald Trump would not be more happy if he cared about everyone else’s happiness. He benefits from not caring about other people. This is true of everyone.

    Your assertions are so trivially false that I have difficulty believing that even you could actually think they are true. So when someone points out they are false, your only defense is to insult them, and claim they just don’t understand, because you lack any ability to back your statements up with evidence or argument.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    This thread is becoming a pointless flame war.


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