Morality Has No Place in the Law

By Sarah Braasch

“Surely if we have learned anything from the history of morals it is that the thing to do with a moral quandary is not to hide it.” —H.L.A. Hart

“This lesson is that the distinguishing characteristics of true law must be sought for somewhere else than in the nature of the authority from whence it proceeds, and in the certainty of the punishment by which its infraction is attended.” —Sheldon Amos

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

“Morality has no place in the law.” I remember the first time I asserted this claim. In the fall of 2004, I was a reluctant guest at a book club meeting in LA, at which the assembled motley crew discussed a recent book on the gay marriage debate. I hadn’t read the book in question, and my unsolicited commentary came as something of a surprise, to myself included. I was met with a bevy of incredulous stares and, subsequently, protestations. How could I assert something so obviously preposterous, so patently ridiculous, and so demonstrably asinine? Almost immediately thereafter, I decided to change the direction of my life, to attend law school, and to become an international human rights lawyer.

At law school, I was met with more disdainful scoffing and eye rolling. Of course, law and morality are inseparable. Of course, morality serves as the basis for any legal/political system. Of course, a law is nothing if not a moral claim, a moral imperative, a moral prescription. In all of human history, had there ever existed a legal system, which hadn’t purported to further justice, as grounded in morality? And, if so, from whence would the legitimacy of the government derive? Why would the vast majority of the society feel any sense of moral obligation to conform to the law’s dictates? What is a legal norm if not a moral command, constraining the behavior of the citizens/residents, of whichever state/society, upon whom the law (moral code) is imposed? How could I claim otherwise?

I will begin by laying out my definitions of both law and morality, since in my opinion most debate is the result of misunderstandings over definitions and premises. I will not defend these definitions (well, maybe a little), because this essay purports not so much to define law and morality, as to show why and how to create a legal/political system devoid of conceptions of morality and communitarianism.

Law is the mechanism (usually a set of norms/rules with corresponding sanctions) by which we define interpersonal relations. Morality is the categorization of human behaviors as “good” and “bad”, which, I would argue, is a wholly personal, subjective exercise without recourse to objective moral truth or authority.

How is this not necessarily the same thing? In the mid-20th century, H.L.A. Hart, the father of modern legal positivism, argued the separability of law and morality in his seminal writings. Hart argued for the distinction between the law as it is and the law as it ought to be. Law does not cease to be law based upon one or another moral criticism. It is possible to study and practice law in a descriptive sense (how people do behave), instead of a normative sense (how people should behave).

Also, it is possible to use deontological (moral) language without making moral claims. As Hart pointed out, use of the word ought “need have nothing to do with morals”. One may use the moral language of ought and should (and rights and duties) to further a specific aim without the attendant implication of categorizing whichever human behaviors as “good” and “bad”. (The error theorist/non-cognitivist debate about whether we should refrain from the use of such language will not be addressed here.)

But, the legal positivists leave much to be desired. They concede far too much to the natural law theorists for my taste. Even H.L.A. Hart conceded an appeal to the overlap of law and morality at the moment of creation of a legal/political system. He questioned whether a legal system, on the whole, which did not espouse some notion of “justice” as its central aim, had ever or could ever exist for long, despite the brutal imposition of severe sanctions, because the vast majority of persons living beneath its reach would feel no sense of moral obligation to abide by its dictates. He asked whether the nature of law itself demands recourse to a bare minimum of the most basic and general moral precepts, such as equal protection. However, he largely dismissed the question as holding little interest for him and as an “innocent pastime for philosophers”.

Brian Leiter is anything but dismissive of this methodological debate about the nature of law itself. He describes the challenge posed to legal positivism by natural law theorist John Finnis as significant and outlines it as such: “If the very enterprise of understanding the concept of law requires positive moral appraisal of law, then it turns out that questions about the moral foundations of law can not be treated as conceptually severable from questions about the nature of law.”

I find the legal positivists disappointing and hypocritical. They forego one fantasy, but dare not forsake another. Even Hart. And, especially Leiter. Hart is a bit like an evolutionary biologist who doesn’t feel many qualms about not being able to explain the origin of the universe. Just because he cannot disprove the existence of God doesn’t mean he has to accept Christianity. But, despite his admonitions to refuse to address moral quandaries at one’s peril, I see him rather as a Christian who scoffs at the foundational myths of a Muslim while unable or unwilling to acknowledge the folly in his own foundational myths.

The legal positivists are the Stephen Jay Goulds of legal/moral philosophy. They espouse the NOMA position, i.e. they hold to the stance that descriptive/analytic legal theory (legal positivism) and normativity are Non-Overlapping MAgisteria, except for when they don’t, but they fail to acknowledge the usurpations of morality perpetrated upon the law and how the law suffers as a consequence. They are accommodationist agnostics, uncomfortable with identifying as atheists or noticing the lack of evidence for any objective moral truth or authority. Maybe it’s better to perpetuate the myth. Maybe we all really will take to raping and pillaging without the reassurance or threat of some objective moral authority looming large, to which we may seek recourse. Maybe our societies really will fall apart like a house of cards, if people realize that their foundations are nothing more than foundational myths.

I stake the case that burying one’s head in the sand is never a good idea. Nor is pretending to know things that we, in fact, do not know. Denying the existence of or refusing to deal with a philosophical quandary neither negates the dilemma nor ameliorates the situation in question. So, imagine my relief when I discovered the moral anti-realist philosophers.

The moral anti-realist philosophers, like Joshua Greene, deny the existence of objective moral truth or authority. Morality (the categorization of human behaviors as “good” and “bad”) is a wholly personal, subjective exercise. Any moral claims, which claim to be objectively true, are false. There is no objective moral truth or authority. Therefore, there is no objective legal truth or authority. I am not a legal positivist. I am a legal anti-realist, just as I am a moral anti-realist. Laws are not real, and neither is morality, and they certainly aren’t natural. The determination of legal validity (deciding whether or not any law or legal/political system is valid, just, moral, and, thus, merits adherence) is a wholly personal, subjective exercise, just as any moral viewpoint is a wholly personal, subjective exercise.

The most common retorts to this position, which I have encountered, are that: 1) this position is itself a moral claim, and 2) I have left myself in an untenable position in which I will never be able to justify my approbation or disapprobation of any other entity or act ever, and I cannot justify advocating for any legal/political scheme in particular or any legal/political scheme at all. I have condemned myself to anarchy, or, at least, absolute and universal moral relativism. If someone wishes to keep me as a slave, I can have no objection worth considering. If someone wishes to keep someone else as a slave, I can have no objection worth considering.

First of all, denying the existence of objective moral truth is a meta-ethical claim, not an ethical claim. Second, I am free to advocate for whatever I wish. I am free to condemn whomever I wish. I am free to try and convince as many others as possible to adopt my personal, subjective moral viewpoint. It is possible to advocate on behalf of my subjective moral viewpoint, informed by evidence and science and reason, while maintaining a moral anti-realist stance. Moral anti-realism does not condemn one to moral relativism or anarchy. It is possible to advocate for the establishment of a legal/political system without recourse to the myth of objective moral/legal truth. Greene’s dissertation, available on his website, lays out this position nicely.

But, these common retorts just seem like either fatuous delusions or disingenuous and specious sophistries. Because objective moral/legal truth or authority does not exist. And, there is no evidence that it does. And, in fact, there is a great deal of evidence otherwise. And, yet, we, or the vast majority of we, do, in fact, create and abide by and live under legal/political systems. We, or the vast majority of we, do, in fact, advocate for our personal, subjective moral viewpoints.

And, anyway, whatever happened to looking philosophical/moral quandaries in the face without flinching? When has burying our collective head in the sand ever made our problems better? Or, go away? When has pretending to know things that we do not know improved our lives?

Even secular humanists, rationalists, materialists, freethinkers and atheists can fall prey to that human, all too human thirst for order, structure, pattern, authority, and explanation. The noted “New Atheist” Sam Harris takes his turn at the fount of foundational myth in his latest book, The Moral Landscape, in which he advocates for a science of morality. He claims that, with the proper application of our reasoning faculties to enough factual evidence, we can access objective moral truth via the scientific method. His definition of “good” is that which promotes “well-being”, which he admits he is unable to define, and his definition of “bad” is whatever detracts from “well-being”. While he isn’t so foolish as to suggest that evolutionary biologists should be the new moralists, he rejects Hume’s contention that there exists an impermeable barrier between facts and values; that values are never objective; that we can never get an ought from an is.

This indulgence in myth is understandable, but regrettable. The objective moral/legal truth fairy is not going to save us, and no amount of data, experimental results, or observations will conjure her. This latest indulgence is a considerable threat to our secular, liberal, constitutional democracies. When religionists draw from the fount of myth, we are protected by the wall of separation between church and state. When scientists pretend to have in their possession objective evidence of moral truth, humanity takes a step backwards into the Dark Ages.

Facts reveal nothing about morality. Facts and evidence are always separated from moral viewpoints by subjective value judgments. To pretend otherwise is to play into the hands of the religionists, to open us up to the threat of tyranny, to call into question our concepts of individual civil, constitutional, and human rights, and to provoke a societal existential crisis. Instead of religious wars, we will have morality wars. Instead of prophets in possession of the one true revealed scripture/religion, we will have scientists who are able to divine morality from indifferent facts and extract policy from apathetic data.

Do we want judges engaged in gleaning nonexistent moral truth from the evidence presented in their courtrooms? The judiciary has been moving away from any incorporation of concepts of morality in judicial decision-making and as a valid basis for legislation. The line of recent cases, including Lawrence v. Texas and Perry v. Schwarzenegger, are explicit in their rejection of subjective moral viewpoints as a legitimate basis for legislation or the denial of constitutional rights, and also take the time to point out that the side advocating for the imposition of its subjective moral viewpoint upon others lacked any evidentiary basis for its morality. The District Court in Perry stated, “A private moral view… is not a proper basis for legislation,” and “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights,” as well as “…those individuals’ moral views are an insufficient basis upon which to enact a legislative classification.” The Supreme Court in Lawrence decided that the moral majority may not “use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law”. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurrence in Lawrence was particularly scathing in its denunciation of the suggestion that moral disapproval, in and of itself, was a legitimate government interest. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, the Supreme Court made plain the obligation of the Court, “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.” Let us not take a step backward after we have made such strides to eradicate any notion of morality from our jurisprudence.

Sam Harris also fails to grasp the nature of our democracy when he suggests that we need not pay heed to those ill-equipped to interpret factual evidence and to derive objective moral truth therefrom. We are constantly engaged in conversation with mob rule. The moral majority gets a say in how you and I live our lives. As far as Justice Scalia is concerned, the moral majority may dictate to you and I as they please, as long we are not claiming an explicitly and specifically enumerated constitutional right or membership in a constitutionally protected class, and he includes gays and women in the category of persons whose rights may be curtailed at the whim of the moral majority. Do we really want to say that, given enough evidence and reason, anyone can access objective moral truth? If you read the data the right way? If you perform the correct exegesis? No amount of evidence and reason will ever result in a definitive determination of objective moral truth, and to pretend otherwise is not only folly but dangerous.

As an example, consider the recent slew of suicides by young gay men, often after having been bullied, much publicized in the media. Much of the commentary focused on the statistically significantly higher incidence of suicide among gay teenagers than their straight peers. The higher incidence is a fact (a fact which is called into question by the cited article). But what objective moral truth is to be derived from this fact? And, what policy decision should result? Is the higher suicide rate demonstrative of the inherently morally reprobate nature of homosexuals? Does the higher suicide rate indicate that homosexuality is good? Bad? Does it indicate that homosexuality or the homosexual lifestyle is conducive to well being? How should we respond? Should we outlaw homosexuality? Should we outlaw homosexual sex acts? Should we segregate gay teens from straight teens? Should we implement a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in public high schools? On the campuses of public universities? Should we attempt to employ gene therapy to eradicate homosexuality? Should we enact hate speech legislation, which criminalizes gay slurs?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to care about my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbor’s personal, subjective moral opinion about my life choices, and I don’t think I should have to care. No matter how much evidence he thinks he has in support of his personal, subjective moral viewpoint.

So, I have been thinking a lot about how to devise a legal/political system, which eradicates any conception of either morality or communitarianism. Don’t get me wrong. The moral majority serves its function in our current (American) democracy. The moral majority fills the void of authority left vacant by the lack of objective moral/legal truth. The moral majority, as expressed by the electorate, is the majoritarian half, representing the interests of society, of the precariously balanced equation in the conversation between the majoritarian (the electorate, the moral majority, culture) and counter-majoritarian (the judiciary, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, case law) elements, which is our system of government.

But, wouldn’t we be better off without having to constantly be in conversation with mob rule? Wouldn’t we be better off without having to constantly wage a fight to hold back the tide of moral majoritarian tyranny? Wouldn’t we be better off without the threat of theocracy constantly looming large over our heads? Wouldn’t we be better off without religious/moral communitarianism in a pitched battle with secularism and individual rights, especially women’s rights?

Sam Harris wants to defeat religion and the threat it poses to democracy and to humanity. And, so do I. But, in a paradoxical twist, which he seems unable to see, he, too, wishes to perpetuate a myth, which will only serve to strengthen the resolve and the position of the religionists and the cultural relativists.

But, how to create a legal/political system, which balances the needs of the individual and society, without resorting to false notions of morality and communitarianism? I think the answer is to create a legal/political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.

The choice of maximizing individual liberty is not arbitrary. And, it isn’t about creating a moral code, which holds liberty in higher esteem than the values of happiness or well being or goodness or utility. It also isn’t about a classical libertarian’s or an anarchist’s liberty fetish. It is about trying to replicate our current form of government without resorting to a relationship with mob rule. Our current majoritarian / counter-majoritarian push-pull is a crude approximation of a legal/political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.

The interests of society will fall out of the exercise. This is the case, because I am not free to live my life as I wish without a minimum threshold level of security and safety and order. I wouldn’t be terribly free to live my life as I desire in the midst of chaos or anarchy. I am not terribly free to live my life as I see fit, if I can’t afford to feed and clothe my children, if I’m dying for lack of decent healthcare, or if I can’t get a decent education. And, I’m not going to be at liberty to pursue my individual goals, unless there are minimum guarantees in place for my societal peers as well.

Unlike happiness or well being or, even, utility, liberty may be assessed objectively, not subjectively. Is one or is one not constrained in one’s physical behavior? This is not a subjective assessment. The vagaries of the mind are not in play.

While I recognize that I can advocate for the creation of an amoral legal/political system, which employs deontological language, based upon my subjective moral viewpoint (which is informed by science and reason and evidence) that I wish to live in a society structured as such, without pretending to be acting under the authority of some objective moral/legal truth, how will I ever convince anyone else to adopt my approach?

This is like asking how the very first human society came into being. Or, like asking how life or the universe began. We exist. We live in societies. We live under human-devised governments. Societies evolve. The law evolves. Culture evolves.

The old mind games and tricks don’t work any longer. We’ve seen the man pulling the levers behind the green curtain. We know that our foundational myths are just that – myths. We will adapt and evolve or we won’t survive.

Maybe we should be asking how we are going to continue to convince everyone to keep pretending to believe in our foundational myths.

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.

  • Andrew G.

    Too much of the argument in this post is based on nothing more than assertion or fallacy. To take just one specific example:

    Facts reveal nothing about morality. Facts and evidence are always separated from moral viewpoints by subjective value judgments. To pretend otherwise is to play into the hands of the religionists, to open us up to the threat of tyranny, to call into question our concepts of individual civil, constitutional, and human rights, and to provoke a societal existential crisis. Instead of religious wars, we will have morality wars. Instead of prophets in possession of the one true revealed scripture/religion, we will have scientists who are able to divine morality from indifferent facts and extract policy from apathetic data.

    This is a naked appeal to the fallacy of argument to consequences.

    Furthermore, there’s way too much equivocation between ‘moral’ used to mean ‘ethically justified’ and ‘moral’ used to mean ‘in accordance with popular ethical opinion’ (as in such terms as ‘moral majority’). This is akin to trying to debate someone who uses the same word for ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ – you can imagine how tedious that would get.

    As for morality vs. law, the passing or enforcement of a law is an act which itself may be moral or immoral, often independently of the moral status of the act which the law is intended to regulate. To speak of law as being ‘amoral’ is therefore unreasonable.

    It’s also highly questionable whether, as you claim, ‘liberty’ can be treated objectively. There are many cases where I am legally prohibited from some action, even one which would have no consequences to anyone else, but where increasing my liberty by removing this restriction would lead to a general reduction in liberty for people as a whole. How is this to be objectively measured or assessed?

  • archimedez

    Sarah,

    I’m having trouble understanding your distinction between law and morality. I’m coming at this from a naive perspective as I have not studied these issues formally (I’ve have never taken courses on these subjects).

    You wrote:
    “Law is the mechanism (usually a set of norms/rules with corresponding sanctions) by which we define interpersonal relations. Morality is the categorization of human behaviors as “good” and “bad”, which, I would argue, is a wholly personal, subjective exercise without recourse to objective moral truth or authority.”

    I see law as essentially an official mechanism whereby society defines, regulates, and if necessary punishes human behavior. Morality involves the categorization of human behaviors as good or bad (or right or wrong, or harmful or beneficial, etc.); but it also involves beliefs about what we ought to do in response to good or bad behavior. It depends on facts, logic, and values. I think law can be viewed as a branch of morality that deals with behaviors that are deemed sufficiently important to human safety, health, and well-being, that they must be regulated and enforced (by penalty or threat of penalty) by an official entity.

    It seems to me you are discussing morality and law as though they were mutually exclusive categories. Do you believe they are, or ought to be, mutually exclusive categories?

    You wrote:
    “I will begin by laying out my definitions of both law and morality, since in my opinion most debate is the result of misunderstandings over definitions and premises.”

    I agree; I think that’s why I’m having a problem understanding your essay, so I’m reluctant to debate or discuss based on what may well be erroneous assumptions on my part.

    Let’s consider a concrete example of a law that atheists disagree with: A law punishing “blasphemy.” 1. How would you distinguish between morality and law in explaining how this type of law was justified by its proponents? 2. How would you distinguish between morality and law in recommending that we ought to do away with such laws against blasphemy? Can we sensibly argue to abolish such laws against blasphemy, without resorting to morality?

  • Nathaniel

    I must admit Sarah, a lot of your argument seems dependent on semantics and hair splitting to me. Take the Supreme court case you mentioned. Just because the majority justices rejected the moral objections against gay sodomy, doesn’t mean that they didn’t utilize their own system of morality in their own decision. Belief in the freedom of individuals to do what they want without harming others is a much a moral value as any other.

    Also, just because something is a construct of human society doesn’t mean it isn’t “real.” Language is entirely arbitrary, and entirely real.

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

    In addition to the previous comments, there are concerns about your proposed solution. What basis would anyone at a personal level have for following laws? Under a system where laws are considered moral, people have reason to follow them even if following the law doesn’t benefit them. Under the game theory model, people pretty much explicitly only follow laws because it generally benefits them to. But if someone could, say, rob or rape with no negative consequences, that view of the law isn’t going to stop them from doing so. Only their own personal morality will. That’s probably not what you want.

    As an example, I’m currently watching the TV series “Angel” on DVD, and in the first episode it features a vampire who takes young aspiring actresses and either just kills them for their blood or suckers them into long term relationships through intimidation, killing them when they try to get away or he gets tired of them. He can get away with this because of the victims he chooses, the money he has to arrange things, and the help of an evil law firm that helps keep him from getting caught. At the end, when Angel confronts him, he replies that he pays his taxes and does his business legitimately, and in exchange he can do whatever he wants. That, I think, is what would happen under a legal system completely divorced from morality.

    (At the end, Angel shoves him out a window in broad daylight and asks “Can you fly?”)

    Also, you try to settle the individualist/communitarian issue by simply declaring individualism the victor, while ignoring the legitimate concerns that cause people to be communitarians. I personally feel that sometimes the needs of the community do need to outweigh those of the individual, and I didn’t see any actual discussion of why we should simply presume that not to be the case in the essay.

  • Hailey

    Perhaps I am having a spot of trouble in understanding your definition of “morality” in the context of this essay. Morality as “ethical judgement” is very disconcerting for me to completely divorce from scientific fact or explanation–if that is in fact what you are eliciting. On one hand, I completely understand that belief in an underlying, universal moral code is very much superstitious in its on right; but on the other, what are your justifications for the evolution and existence of the most basic concepts of morality (such as: it’s wrong to murder) if not from scientific fact? Individualism is a tempting and romantic viewpoint, but even then, another’s individual morality could be in stark contrast or in direct violation with your own–it would be nearly impossible (and unsavory) to produce a legal system that allows equal justification of hateful bigots and level-minded humanists based on personal morality. I think that’s where the appeal of a universal moral code comes into play–not as a superstitious concept, but as an appeal to the most basic of human rights: maximizing happiness while minimizing suffering. The less people in a society who suffer, the better off we are as a functioning unit–this realization is certainly one that spawned the concept of morality itself some time ago when societies first began to evolve and thrive. To think that morals have no base in scientific fact is uncomfortable, since without adhering to some most basic moral standards for the benefit of society, humanity would have never thrived as a unit.

  • Dan L.

    Sarah,

    I often find myself disagreeing with your posts, but you have some really strong arguments in this one (it helps that I’m already an amoralist).

    It’s also highly questionable whether, as you claim, ‘liberty’ can be treated objectively. There are many cases where I am legally prohibited from some action, even one which would have no consequences to anyone else, but where increasing my liberty by removing this restriction would lead to a general reduction in liberty for people as a whole. How is this to be objectively measured or assessed?

    Without an example it’s hard to answer this, but try this: liberty is the privilege of forming, joining, and leaving communities at one’s own will. The only “right” you can deprive someone of by exercising one’s liberty in this view is the “right” to hold someone to a particular community’s mores against one’s will, which is exactly what we’re trying to prevent in the first place.

    @VerboseStoic:

    Your argument assumes that morality is largely derived from law, and I see very little evidence for that notion. If this was true, it would be impossible — or at least very rare — for people to object to laws on the basis that they’re immoral, injust, or arbitrary. Objections to systematic injustice, prosecutorial misconduct for example, wouldn’t be so commonly expressed. In the real world, people make the same moral judgments about laws that they do about anything else.

    Anyone who’s ever questioned whether a particular law is moral or just (FISA? Patriot Act?) has already conceded the argument. Law is not automatically moral or normative; the culture of free-thought claims those who point this out (like MLK, Ghandi, Thoreau) as some of its greatest heroes.

    Law is a device for maintaining public order, not for establishing moral norms, and one can decide what’s necessary for maintaining order without any reference to right or wrong. Whether the resulting laws are just or injust is a moral judgment, but that means that morality is not the inspiration for the law, but a check on it (a law is to be resisted or ignored if it’s injust, otherwise it should be obeyed).

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

    Dan L.,

    My argument actually assumes the converse: that law — to some extent — is supported/justified by a moral stance. In short, we follow laws because we think it moral to follow laws, either because those laws are explicitly moral or because we think it moral to follow laws even when those laws are about things that are not specifically moral issues. My complaint was that Sarah replaces that moral backing with the simple benefit backing from game theory, which I point out is problematic to say the least.

    My argument, you’ll note, in fact is derived from the idea that we can, indeed, morally disagree with laws, or feel morally obligated to follow them. Recall that I did comment that once one found it beneficial to not follow a law it is only personal morality that can stop one from breaking that law.

    So, in that light, I want to ask you the question that I asked Sarah: why should we follow laws? You say that if a law is not unjust, it should be obeyed, but without the backing of a moral stance saying that laws should be obeyed unless it would be immoral to do so I see no reason why I shouldn’t break laws if it would benefit me to break them. And that conclusion does follow directly from the game theory model.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    I think of law as negotiation. As such, it is neither moral or amoral. Persons with varying moral or amoral dispositions are making an attempt to negotiate control over some aspect of human behavior.

    Majority does not make morality except, perhaps, in the mind of the majority member. Witness so many atrocities throughout history.

    Law, once enacted, may or may not actually govern behavior. Depends on who accepts the law, and how well or forcefully it is enforced. Look what happened to prohibition in this country.

    To attempt to legislate (negotiate) morality generally is something governments should avoid in my opinion.

  • Dan L.

    @Verbose Stoic:

    Why do people obey the law under our current system?

    Two reasons:
    1. Most people are simply not disposed towards committing crimes. I’ve never murdered anyone, but that’s not because it’s against the law.
    2. The consequences of breaking the law are bad.

    Notice that these still apply under the “game theoretic model.” You don’t need a moral stance to say that laws should be obeyed. You just need to be rationally self-interested.

  • Kogo

    I have never understood this kind of thing. I’ve never understood the reason why I should *try* to understand this sort of thing.

  • Dan L.

    To be a little more explicit about what I’m arguing:

    1) To the extent that people obey laws because obeying laws is moral, the morality is prior to the law. My reticence to commit murder is because I personally think murder is never morally justifiable, the legal consequences don’t even enter into it.
    2) To the extent that people are not restrained from destructive behavior by their personal sense of morality, they are only restrained by the potential legal consequences of their actions. I don’t have a moral problem with selling drugs (to adults with some knowledge of the consequences) but I wouldn’t myself because the consequences of getting caught are terrible.

    Again, both these principles apply equally well under the old, false notion that law and morality are tightly coupled and under Sarah’s notion that they’re at most loosely coupled.

    Furthermore, if you take it as a given that obeying laws is moral, then Thoreau, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all immoral for disobeying them, weren’t they? You can try to escape this conclusion by saying it’s only moral to obey just laws and that it’s often immoral to obey unjust laws, but now we just have a tautology since “just” and “unjust” are defined with reference to what we find moral and immoral.

    In other words, our current situation is no different from what Sarah advocates — people with consciences don’t need laws to tell them what not to do, and people without consciences obey laws only to the extent that the legal consequences of doing otherwise are not in their best interest. The only people who need laws to act morally are those without a personal sense of morality in the first place. Sarah’s not asking that we change the relationship between morality and law, she’s asking that we acknowledge it as it is.

  • Andrew G.

    Without an example it’s hard to answer this, but try this: liberty is the privilege of forming, joining, and leaving communities at one’s own will. The only “right” you can deprive someone of by exercising one’s liberty in this view is the “right” to hold someone to a particular community’s mores against one’s will, which is exactly what we’re trying to prevent in the first place.

    This is not a useful definition of “liberty”.

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

    Dan L.,

    What you’re claiming I said is, in fact, nothing like what I said. You missed pretty much half of it. I argue that, in fact, obeying laws is grounded in a moral stance that one ought to follow them, for one of two reasons:

    1) That they find the laws to be, in fact, moral and what they are morally obliged to follow according to their specific morality. In short, the law agrees with what they feel they are morally obliged to do. Not murdering is, as you say, a pretty good example of this.

    2) That they have a moral obligation to follow laws that don’t, in fact, make any moral claim. A law like this would be, say, jaywalking or what colour to paint your house (city bylaws). You accept that there is no actual moral judgement at stake here, but you feel that following laws matters morally.

    Note that here I, in fact, make no claims about what that morality actually is, just that that’s what’s driving your behaviour towards the law.

    If you think the law immoral, you wouldn’t follow it by 1), so your consequences have nothing to do with my claim, and no circularity occurs because we were only following that law because of the claimed moral value in the first place.

    Okay, so to me it seems that Sarah would like to get rid of my 1) and 2), and base laws on game theory, from the quote:

    “But, how to create a legal/political system, which balances the needs of the individual and society, without resorting to false notions of morality and communitarianism? I think the answer is to create a legal/political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.”

    Now, it’s not clear if she means that the legal system itself should only consider game theory, or if that’s why we should follow the law as well. That’s the reasoning behind my first question being “Why should we follow the law?”. But there are issues either way:

    1) If we should apply game theory to our understanding of the law and why/when we should follow it, then if I accept that I will follow it when it benefits me to. Thus, of course, punishment helps with that, but if I can get away with it and avoid the punishment and would gain from breaking the law by game theory I should break the law. What would stop me is, as I said, a personal morality. But otherwise the vampire from my example is, in fact, being rational and may be being more rational than I am. As long as I can get away with it and would benefit, what rational, game theoretic case can be made to convince me that I shouldn’t break the law?

    2) If, on the other hand, we keep my view of the underpinnings of law from morality, then we run into the problem if they conflict. I will be punished for following my personal morality as opposed to the law, and that fear of punishment may well force me to break my own personal morality. People will consider this reasonable if doing so lines up with what they think is moral, and think it totally unreasonable if it doesn’t, just as you do with your examples. The problem is that without some sort of objective morality, you can’t say which morality should be preferred, and so the base case is the law imposing itself on you and stopping you from acting according to your personal morality. That seems to be the sort of imposition that Sarah dislikes.

    I hope this is clearer. Our disagreements are not where you think they are.

  • Dan L.

    This is not a useful definition of “liberty”.

    Forcefully argued. Kudos.

    2) That they have a moral obligation to follow laws that don’t, in fact, make any moral claim. A law like this would be, say, jaywalking or what colour to paint your house (city bylaws). You accept that there is no actual moral judgement at stake here, but you feel that following laws matters morally.

    Actually, I don’t feel that way. I don’t think it’s the least bit immoral to jaywalk or paint your house any color you like just because there’s laws against those things. I don’t think it’s immoral to disobey laws that have no moral force. This is specifically one of my reasons for thinking that illegal!=immoral.

    But otherwise the vampire from my example is, in fact, being rational and may be being more rational than I am. As long as I can get away with it and would benefit, what rational, game theoretic case can be made to convince me that I shouldn’t break the law?

    The same thing that CURRENTLY convinces sociopaths from breaking the law — the legal consequences of doing so.

    I don’t see Sarah advocating for any change in our criminal justice system that would lead to more lawlessness.

    The problem is that without some sort of objective morality, you can’t say which morality should be preferred, and so the base case is the law imposing itself on you and stopping you from acting according to your personal morality.

    I don’t believe in any kind of objective morality. Any given person will probably find some laws just and some unjust — I know that’s the case for me. Some people will forcefully advocate for the repeal of laws they believe unjust, some will advocate for the passage of laws they think would lead to greater justice. This is the current situation, and I don’t read Sarah as advocating we change anything about this except for the expectation that our laws should match some mythological objective moral scheme (which is, I think, where we actually disagree).

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

    Dan L.,

    You still don’t seem to have read what I said. I pretty much dealt with everything you said and pointed out the precise quote of hers that I was reacting to, and you ignored it completely. What more can I say beyond “I didn’t say that”?

    First, my point about the second moral justification for following the law was never meant to apply to you specifically. It was, indeed, my view. So I have no idea why you felt the need to bring that up specifically without adding anything about how it applied to my specific complaint. But even then, my reply is that you only follow those laws because of the fear of being punished, and I’ve pointed out the problem with that — which is that you’ll do it if you don’t think you’ll be punished, which would apply to the cases in the first as well if you didn’t find them morally wrong.

    Second, again I pointed out specifically what was worrying me — I even quoted it! — and pointed out the consequences. They had nothing to do with what you say in the rest of the comment and took legal consequences into account, and even listed only having that as BEING the problem. Sheesh.

  • Andrew G.

    It’s ridiculous to claim that people are not disposed towards committing crimes or “don’t need laws to tell them what not to do”.

    Sure, most people are not murderers, or even muggers. But what about, say, speeding?

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    In other words, our current situation is no different from what Sarah advocates — people with consciences don’t need laws to tell them what not to do, and people without consciences obey laws only to the extent that the legal consequences of doing otherwise are not in their best interest. The only people who need laws to act morally are those without a personal sense of morality in the first place. Sarah’s not asking that we change the relationship between morality and law, she’s asking that we acknowledge it as it is.

    This is a good point, Dan, though the extent that Sarah agrees with it is unclear to me.

    I honestly don’t care one way or another what the direct relationship between morality and the law is. I think that relationship is utterly meaningless once placed in the proper context; such context being that both morality and the law are largely determined by the powerful. The source and the reasons behind that power are what interests me.

    Whether the relationship has meaning is obviously a critically important question. Last go-around, we had a very long thread discussing the relationship between morality and reality. If anything, I hope that thread showed clearly to most readers that you can reach several unique conclusions based upon rather different definitions of subjective and objective. However, it may have at the same time shown that these discussions are largely just a matter of word-turning and redefining the rules of the game.

    When I accept the definitions being used (whether explicitly or implicitly) by Sarah in this article, it’s also the case that I essentially agree with the conclusions. This is a bit of sleight of hand, of course. With the right structures in place, accepting a definition is akin to accepting a premise. Naturally, if one accepts all the premises of a logically valid argument, the argument then becomes sound and the conclusion is correct.

    There are some uncontroversial points that I would not question in any case, and don’t think there’s much room for redefinition. Hume’s is/ought distinction and the naturalistic fallacy. The origin of moral views in individual (though potentially shared) values. An interest in the inherent value of the truth, and looking at reality plainly. Simple majority democracy not necessarily leading to optimal outcomes, especially for minorities. Acceptance that liberty is one of several inherent goods; qualities that people value for their own sake alone and not as a means to an end.

    I do not see how these premises, however, lead to a conclusion that one should restructure society based upon a notion of game theory and maximizing individual liberty. Those conclusions were essentially inserted 80% of the way through, without any formal construction of the logic.

    Unanswered objections to the capability and usefulness of objectively measuring liberty were raised in the last thread. Treating the question “Is one or is one not constrained in one’s physical behavior?” as objective is notable question-begging. There are at least three unaddressed premises contained in it:

    (1): Why are all behaviors, all potential actions, considered equally valuable? Surely my liberties to eat, sleep, and live within a moderated shelter are more valuable than my liberties to travel great distances purely for luxury. Even if that example is disregarded, one can compose better ones. My essential liberties are more important than the liberty to steal from those around me, for instance.

    (2): Constraints, power, and liberty (separate names for what are all essentially the same principle) are not a matter of “is” or “is not”. They are not boolean in the slightest sense. They are continuous, ranging from zero (no power, no capacity) to very large (though not infinite). In order to contest this point, one needs an actual mechanism (a function) which maps all questions of liberty deterministically based upon its inputs into boolean output. It’s possible to come up with trivial examples (for example, always return false). However, one won’t find a mechanism which is realistically useful for much the same reasons why no one was able to solve the problem of the Utilitarian happiness calculus.

    (3): Why is physical behavior more valuable than mental acts or states? What was the purpose of qualifying it, at all, actually? It is entirely possible to come up with scenarios, whether fictional or real, where one is deluded into a mental state which is happier or freer than the identifiable reality of the body containing that mental state. Is this happiness or liberty less valuable because of the ‘physical’ qualification of it, even when there is no means by which the agent involved can identify the difference? Presuming that one is willing to answer yes to the last question, what happens when no agent anywhere is able to identify the difference, regardless of how much knowledge is available?

    As to the issue of game theory, Verbose Stoic approached an important point without quite stating it. Game theory is completely abstract; it’s just mathematical modeling. There are no predetermined goals behind game theory, and it can’t be used to accomplish any. What it exists for is to model and predict human behavior. That’s useful in the same sense that knowledge is generally useful, but it doesn’t establish the shared values that are necessary for the foundation of a society.

    Perhaps the most significant point I can make, however, is that the society you’d create by following these principles:

    (a) maximizing individual liberty without proper discretion as to what liberties are important,
    (b) preventing laws and morality from being written by majorities, and
    (c) relying on individuals to push their personal viewpoints into the common sphere as the basis of social change

    …that society resembles the one we live in a great deal. Eerily so.

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

    Why should I hold “Liberty” as something that I ought to maximize (as opposed to happiness or something else)?

  • Dan L.

    @Verbose Stoic:

    I have read everything you’ve written. Please consider other possible explanations if you think I am misunderstanding you.

    What I am saying is that there is no such thing as objective morality, and that therefore morality cannot be an objective basis for law. This includes the current situation — morality is not currently an objective basis for law. I read Sarah as simply asking people to acknowledge this, not as advocating any positive change.

    I have no idea why you felt the need to bring that up specifically without adding anything about how it applied to my specific complaint.

    Because it’s relevant. I disagree with you that it is moral in and of itself to obey laws just because they’re there, and that fact is salient to any discussion of the relationship between law and morality. I don’t see why I WOULDN’T bring it up.

    Second, again I pointed out specifically what was worrying me — I even quoted it! — and pointed out the consequences.

    First of all, I think you’re misreading what she’s saying. You seem to think that game theory and morality are mutually exclusive, which is pretty much the opposite of the truth — game theory is derived from attempts to apply mathematical theory to moral and ethical problems. Second, you seem to think this is a change from what we’re doing now as opposed to a change in our perspective on what we’re doing now. But what we’re doing now can be modeled using game theory. Game theory doesn’t preclude applying moral reasoning to questions of ethics or law.

    My impression of the OP was that Sarah is saying we need to acknowledge that there is no universal system of morality on which we can model our system of laws. Trying to enshrine morality in a system of laws invites oppression by tyranny of the majority. It should not be an acceptable argument for a law that it forbids allegedly immoral behavior.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    I completely reject your definition of morality.

    As I understand it, morality is an evolutionary response to the pressures of social living. Laws are merely an expression of that.

    Just because religions stole the word by redefining it to mean “arbitrary nonsense we made up” is no reason to let them keep it.

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

    Dan L.,

    Okay, now that I’ve settled a little, I’ll try to explain it again briefly:

    I have a moral stance that justifies when I will or will not follow laws. Sarah explicitly argues that laws should be based on personal liberty and game theory.

    My question: Is she arguing that I should toss my moral stance out and apply game theoretic reasons to determining when or if I should follow laws?

    1) If yes, then it comes down to personal benefit, and I really should only follow laws when the benefit me and, more importantly, break them when doing that will benefit me. That’s a radical change in philosophy and, if accepted, will be one that will cause some people who didn’t break laws now to break some laws, probably for good and ill.

    2) If no, then morality and law will likely clash more often than they do now — since the laws are based on something that does not reflect the morality of the people following it — and the legal punishments will convince people to act against their personal morality in order to obey the law, which will result in the laws imposing behaviours on people that violate their moral principles.

    Neither seems to be what she would want, but I’m not sure of that.

  • Dan L.

    Why should I hold “Liberty” as something that I ought to maximize (as opposed to happiness or something else)?

    Because maximizing liberty is non-zero sum, whereas maximizing happiness could potentially be zero sum. Guaranteeing the happiness of a sadist means precluding the happiness of someone else (I know, I know, there’s such things as masochists), whereas guaranteeing liberty to a sadist doesn’t.

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

    Dan L.,

    Ah, I see the problem: I’m not actually criticizing her argument against moral objectivity (although I think it can be criticized) but am instead criticizing her goal of separating the law and morality.

  • Dan L.

    @Verbose Stoic:

    I think you’re reading more into what she wrote than she had intended. I don’t see anywhere in her post that she indicates that people should stop using moral reasoning to decide their own actions for themselves (which is what you’re talking about in (1)). I think she’s saying that your own personal moral reasoning is worthless as a justification or argument for imposing the law in the first place.

    I don’t see how anything about that leads to more conflict, as you assert in (2). It’s just the current situation. Some people think some laws are unjust and obey them anyway; others disobey them.

    And again, using game theory does not preclude using moral reasoning (you seem to be assuming the opposite). In fact, as I said before, game theory first came into use as a mathematical tool to study moral reasoning:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

  • jemand

    I think there are a WHOLE BUNCH of moral and ethical systems out there that are riddled through with complete factual errors, inconsistencies, etc. Sam Harris’ book I think is right in pointing out that science and facts do have something to say about ethics.

    You can disagree on the value system, that is subjective, but I think there actually is more agreement in value systems and priorities than one might think, simply because people starting from similar positions may be using completely unsound logic and pure fallacies to get to their ending positions.

    I do agree though, that there is no true “objective” morality, but I think that a great deal of what passes for morality today is riddled through and depending on complete falsehoods, and doesn’t even cut it as a decent *subjective* moral system.

  • David Hart

    Why should I hold “Liberty” as something that I ought to maximize (as opposed to happiness or something else)?

    Because maximising liberty tends to be the best guarantor of maximising happiness? – assuming that’s true, and I suspect it is, if only because any system concerned with maximising happiness that holds no particular respect for liberty runs the risk of misdiagnosing what actually constitutes happiness.

    In the article, I find it difficult to believe that someone who is a human rights lawyer is not in fact concerned with morality, even if she doesn’t think she is: why dedicate yourself to the arduous task of defending the downtrodden unless you think it’s the right thing to do? May I suggest that Ms Braasch’s objection to morality stems from the fact that to some people ‘morality’ means ‘my personal prejudices’ – and she is ignoring the fact that to others it means ‘that which tends to improve people’s lives’ – and regarding the latter definition, although we may not be able to conclusively decide in every instance which of two preferences will actually result in more improvement to people’s lives, there cannot be nothing we can say in any circumstances that could help us make a decision.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I’m glad you took the time to define your terms for us. I can understand where you’re coming from there. I would however submit that even the concept of “liberty” is subjective under that idea. Consider The Truman Show. Up until the point where he starts to question his reality, he never once considers his liberties infringed. I’m not saying that situation is at all realistic, just using it to point out that whether a person considers themselves free is somewhat subjective. PETA considers owning a pet a horrible infringement on their rights, but from most pets’ perspective, they can’t tell the difference. Libertarians believe that full liberty means not being “obligated” to save others, that taking anything from the rich against their will amounts to a form of slavery. Others that believe in the idea of “positive liberty” believe that anyone who lacks the means by which to survive or further their lives does not really have freedom. Which one of those is the objectively correct definition of liberty?

    I would also argue that the vast majority of people I’ve dealt with consider freedom and the value of freedom a significant part of morality. However, that’s more of a word game than anything. I really don’t care what you call it, the important thing is that you clarified what you meant by it.

    I will agree that there is no “universal” morality in the sense that it exists anywhere outside people, however I can say that a sense of morality and liberty can be derived from people and considered objective to a good enough degree to base morality on. You’re using liberty as this objective guide, and choose not to define that as morality. That’s fine. However I think we can agree that most people prefer not to be tortured, that they prefer to be able to pursue their life goals, and that they prefer not to have their lives threatened by others. This seems as objective a basis of morality and/or liberty as we’re ever likely to find. For those who DON’T prefer those things, what we do won’t be hurting them anyway. I think defining liberty and/or morality in terms of harm is a good place to start, though “harm” needs to be defined. After all, we should have SOMETHING in place that makes shooting someone in the back of the head wrong, and just “feeling pain” doesn’t go far enough to make that wrong, since that situation won’t cause any pain and won’t even cause any fear if they don’t see it coming. So it’s complicated, but I think the common thread of any system of morality or liberty or however you choose to phrase it is best based on the idea of what hurts others. You mention laws being based on one’s interactions with others, and define morality as a personal thing. That’s one way, though personally interactions with others is exactly how I define morality, and how a person conducts one’s self absent of others has exactly no moral element at all.

    I think in the end I’d argue that I really don’t care about redefining the word morality if your definition of law and liberty is pretty much exactly equal to what I understand as the popular secular definition of morality. Clarifying your terms is useful but I’m just not sure what the point of changing the definitions is in this case. Well that’s not exactly true. Actually I do get that “moral outrage” over being homosexual is conflating one sense of “moral” with the common secular definition. That’s already an area of public debate though. People are already arguing that morality based on personal disgust is not sufficient, and then argue that unless it fits a secular idea, that is unless the bigots can demonstrate how being homosexual ACTUALLY harms people outside of a sense of “eww” then you can’t argue it on moral grounds so much as religious or personal grounds. Even the bigots see this and have tried to invent ridiculous scenarios where being gay hurts others, from supposed psychological scarring of children to “human extinction” in the even everyone “went gay”. That’s actually where a scientific basis of morality can be useful, basically demonstrating that all these concocted scenarios have NO basis in reality.

    I’ve rambled enough. I think we more or less agree in a lot of respects, I’d just argue there’s little point in bothering with changing terms around like this.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Hi guys,

    Thanks so much for all of your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

    I haven’t given this a terribly thorough read through, but my initial take is that I think Dan L. pretty much hit the nail on the head on most, if not all, points.

    And, thanks for giving a valiant defense of our position.

    But, what I wanted to say is this:

    Without getting hung up on game theory or whether you think my idea for a next generation legal/political system is brilliant or bollocks, my central point, broken down into its simplest form, is this:

    We shouldn’t pretend to know things that we, in fact, do not know.

    Not God. Not religion. Not the truth fairy. And, not objective moral truth.

    The claim that objective moral truth exists is an extraordinary claim. A fantastic claim.

    I see no evidence for it.

    If you want to convince me of it, then (falling back on our usual retort) you are going to have to come up with some pretty extraordinary evidence.

    I am very concerned about this regression into myth, especially on the part of the atheist/freethinker community, because I foresee calamitous consequences.

    The specter of objective moral truth is the basis of the creation myths for our human devised legal/political systems as well.

    I think we can and should do without our myths.

    All of them.

  • Keith

    I fail to see how Sarah’s advocacy of liberty is any different than Sam Harris’s advocacy of well-being. Indeed, I can imagine Harris happily agreeing that liberty, which Sarah does not properly define, is part and parcel of his own ill-defined concept of well-being. What, exactly, gives liberty more value than well-being?

  • Dark Jaguar

    I thought I’d add that there’s the very real consideration of what it means to “maximize liberty”. Someone said guaranteed liberty for a sadist wouldn’t take away anyone else’s liberty. I’ve heard enough from the deranged sadists of the past to realize that’s not entirely true. A sadist often considers it to be infringing on their liberty to deny them their “right” to hurt or kill others, and they use this as an attempt to show that the very concept of liberty is empty. One can easily argue it’s about balancing liberty, making sure that everyone has an equal set of rights and that no one’s rights get in the way of another’s. This is a system of liberty I fully support. However, justifying this to a sadist would be pretty difficult. To a number of them, and I’m thinking of “libertines” here, the very act of restricting anyone’s actions, even to prevent that person from restricting someone else’s liberties, is a contradiction proving that there really is no such thing as true liberty. I think we can all agree such people are wrong and dangerous (though it’s hard to come up with what standard we’re using to explain why our arresting them when they hurt another is valid, other than a sense of equality they don’t share), but my point is again simply that there are different senses of liberty as well as morality.

    Once you accept the premise that everyone is equal and deserves equal treatment, the rest follows, but if you don’t accept that, it all falls apart. By the same token once you accept that hurting others is wrong the rest generally follows, but if you don’t accept it, again it falls apart. There is a bare minimum assumption for both a sense of morality and liberty you HAVE to make. It’s just like how in science you DO have to make some bare minimum assumptions, such as the assumption that you can learn about the world through observing it and that all effects have causes. That these assumptions are necessary doesn’t mean that the whole thing is just a fairy tale.

    I don’t think that those in the atheist community are so deluded about morality as you seem to believe. Just about every one I’ve spoken to accepts that morality is not some absolute universal constant but a creation of human minds, for human minds. But, and here’s the kicker, WE are human, so that’s perfectly fine. You may as well argue for eliminating the outdated notion of “purpose” because there is no universal “purpose” to anything. It’s enough that people can come up with their own purpose in life. I really don’t believe that there’s some horrible dark path that the rationalist community is walking towards just because people suggest it’s downright wrong to stone someone for adultery. Does that really need justification beyond simply acknowledging that the person being stoned doesn’t want to be stoned and their “crime” only hurt someone’s feelings, not infringed on someone’s liberty? The claim that it COULD lead to wars between two “cults of reason” does seem to be rather unjustified.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    To say that law can be based on game theory is a little circular. As someone who believes that the small subset of behaviors most of us agree are immoral are a result of our evolution as a social species, game theory ( or winning strategies thereof) would have been a selective factor in that evolution.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Dark Jaguar,

    Thanks for your last comment, because I think it sums up a lot of the criticisms of my position rather nicely.

    With all of your discussion of sadists (and other nonconformists) and the moral assumptions we have to make in devising our current legal/political systems (which is what I am trying to avoid by applying game theory to maximize individual liberty) and how you don’t think making assumptions about morality could lead to wars between opposing camps of moralists,

    what I really think you are saying is this (and feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong):

    (And these do seem to be the main criticisms of my position)

    How are you going to get everyone on board your (or any other) legal/political system, if you don’t have objective moral truth on your side? How are you going to justify imposing your legal/political system on anyone else (including nonconformists like the sadists who don’t agree with your vision) if you can’t claim recourse to objective moral truth? Why would anyone feel a moral obligation to follow your laws?

    Well, this is exactly my point.

    The determination of legal validity (whether a law or a legal/political system is just, valid, moral, deserving of adherence) is just as much a subjective, personal decision as the determination of moral rectitude.

    I don’t think it’s helpful to pretend otherwise.

    How do we get people to follow our laws now?

    Well, there are lots of ways — through fear and sanctions, out of custom and habit, and, also, because we indulge in the myth of objective moral truth.

    But, because objective moral truth doesn’t actually exist, we employ the moral majority as a surrogate. Thus, we are in constant conversation with mob rule, constantly under threat of theocracy and moral majoritarian tyranny.

    I don’t like this. It irks me.

    I, personally, and I am completely comfortable with acknowledging that this is my personal, subjective point of view, don’t want to have to care whether or not my next door neighbor cares about my life choices.

    So, I was thinking, how can we maintain our current system (in the US), which attempts to balance the needs of the society and the individual, without having to be in constant conversation with mob rule.

    I think game theory to maximize individual liberty is the way to go.

    Now, we’ve come full circle. Again, I am totally and completely comfortable with acknowledging that it is my personal, subjective opinion that I would wish to live under such a system, and that I have no recourse to any kind of an objective moral truth or authority to justify my advocacy of such a system, which doesn’t even begin to mean that I am not free to advocate for such a system, and which doesn’t even begin to mean that I am not free to inform my advocacy by employing science and reason and evidence.

    Well, how am I going to justify imposing my system on anyone else? How am I going to get anyone else on board?

    (I am not saying that people use, but some may and probably do, or should use a game theoretic model in deciding whether or not to obey laws. I am saying that this determination is just as subjective and personal as moral determinations.)

    And, the circle begins again.

    Well, how do we get people to obey laws now?

    How is it helpful to impose myth into this equation?

    Like HLA Hart said, (not an exact quote — it’s above) “If we’ve learned anything from history, the one thing not to do with a moral/philosophical quandary, is to hide it; to pretend that it doesn’t exist.”

    And, as far as your final point, Dark Jaquar, about how you don’t think making moral assumptions could lead to war between opposing moral camps, all of which think, no KNOW, that they are in possession of objective moral truth.

    Really? Really?

    I don’t think this situation is helped at all, just because all of the opposing camps think they have evidence and reason and science on their side.

    I think it is actually made decidedly worse.

    Don’t feed the myth monster.

  • Sarah Braasch

    The difference between Sam Harris and I is that he thinks he can prove to you what is moral (promotes wellbeing) and immoral (detracts from wellbeing), by using science and reason and evidence. And, he wants to categorize human behaviors as “good” and “bad” based on his proof of morality and immorality.

    I say he can’t. But, not only do I say he can’t; I say that it is folly and dangerous to pretend that we can.

    The last thing I want to do is categorize human behaviors as “good” and “bad”.

    I don’t even want to define “good” and “bad”.

    We can debate whether this is possible.

    But, my goal is to eradicate all notions of morality and communitarianism from our legal/political systems.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Good points, Dark Jaguar. While the example of sadism may be a little extreme — at least if we make the presumption that most people are not sadists — it is clear that there are many issues at which personal values conflict enough to cause substantial problems. A somewhat better comparison that you hinted at are people who believe they have an absolute right to property. That is, they think it is immoral for anyone to take any of their property, for any reason. Hence, things like taxes are immoral.

    Sarah, you missed a very important point of Jaguar’s. We’re not under the delusion you think we are. I don’t know, and haven’t read, any atheists or agnostics who believe that morality is directly derived from reality or objective facts, without the involvement of minds. One of many points I tried to get across in the last thread is that typically, what is believed is that morality should be informed by reality — just as absolutely everything else is. This belief is nearly tautological, because it is not clear how one could possibly prevent reality from influencing one’s viewpoint.

    I (still) haven’t read Harris’ book, however I suspect he is not ignorant enough, nor silly enough, to actually have written something that so blatantly commits the naturalistic fallacy. However, that’s how it’s being portrayed here.

    Dark Jaguar’s note on the importance of interaction between the values of equality and liberty is quite right. It’s not possible to make a reasonable ethical system based on the maximization of just one value. Doing so tends to lead one either to an impractical system that doesn’t accomplish its goals, or to committing a fundamental semantic error. (That error, of course, being the inability to concretely and meaningfully define what the desired value is. Such as the use of an abstract “happiness” as your value. Or the use of the value liberty in a way distinct to that of “power”, rendering it incoherent.)

    Though it is apparently counter-intuitive to some, a robust and intelligent moral system considers many inherent goods each of which has a particular purpose or meaning to the agents affected by the system. Liberty, happiness, justice, knowledge, and equality are some of the prime candidates of that set of goods. By analyzing how the maximization of some of these qualities decreases others in practice, we learn how to develop an appropriate balance for building and improving society.

  • Sarah Braasch

    kagerato,

    I appreciate your comment, but I don’t agree.

    By all means, inform your personal, subjective morality with reality and objective facts, and all of the science and reason and evidence you wish, just recognize that it is still only your personal, subjective moral opinion.

    I think Sam Harris’ book does commit the naturalistic fallacy.

    I am not suggesting that we maximize individual liberty, because I value liberty.

    It is simply a mechanism. Not a goal.

    Your last paragraph is exactly what I am trying to avoid in creating an amoral legal/political system, which defines our interpersonal relations without resorting to personal, subjective moral opinions being imposed on others, regardless of how intelligent and good and informed by science you believe your personal, subjective moral opinions to be.

  • jack

    Sarah,

    I’m a fan of yours, and have learned much from your essays here, but this one is over my head. I’m no philosopher or legal theorist, and I have not yet read Harris’ latest book. Those disclaimers should probably disqualify me, or at least dissuade me, from wading into this discussion, but I’ll throw caution to the wind and dive in anyway.

    I’m a biologist by training, and I agree with what I am guessing is the premise of Harris’ book: that science offers us the best (or at least a pretty good) route to human morality. I don’t see morality as a strictly personal thing. I see it as a system of rules that guide and restrict the behavior of individuals in their social interactions, in a way that is, on balance, mutually beneficial for members of the society. It has been evolved and elaborated through cultural evolution, but has at its core an innate biological basis, implemented as a moral intuition that affects the behavior of individuals through powerful emotions.

    Science, of course, has much to teach us about that biological basis, and so it gives us some clue about the constraints that any moral system must satisfy if it is not to be in hopeless opposition to human nature. Any moral system that treats incest as good or neutral, for example, is not likely to stand the test of time.

    But I think science can and does have much more to say about morality. We know from ecology that the population size of a species cannot grow without bound, but we humans are currently behaving as if our population can do exactly that. If we stay on this mindless collision course with ecological limits, our future will be dark and miserable. Whatever you might reasonably want our moral and legal systems to optimize — individual happiness, individual liberty, whatever — we won’t get anywhere close to that optimum if we wreck the planet and the biodiversity that sustains all life, including ours. So, I would argue, science is telling us that it is immoral to slash and burn the rain forest, to have large families, and to drive huge SUVs that burn gasoline, to name just a few things.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I think I understand a little better now. You aren’t claiming your method of deriving morals is any more objective than any other, you’re trying to figure out how to find some way TO prove it is, and then go on from there.

    I think that may be rather difficult. To make things clear, I’m not saying “making assumptions” can’t lead to violence, just that making only the barest assumptions, that harm is bad and freedom is good, don’t seem to lead to wars in and of themselves. The conflict would be, as it ever was, in interpreting what is and is not harm, what is and is not liberty. I know you don’t want to use words like good and bad, but I don’t see how you can avoid them if you are going to promote one system as superior to another.

    In this case, you suggest a legal system determined by game theory. That sounds like it could work. In terms of evolution, that’s very likely the source of human behavior to begin with though. The problem is, what scale is your game theory set at? What “reward” is your game theory trying to maximize over others? Survival? Profit? Happiness? Liberty? I’ll assume liberty for now. The problem is, some solutions to game theory scenarios might be incredibly cruel to certain minorities in the sake of benefit to the vast majority of people, depending on exactly what you aim to benefit. Game theory is just like any other branch of mathematics, Garbage In Garbage Out. You’ve got to put in the right information to get anything valuable from it, and how do you determine what’s “right” in this case?

    No matter how you look at it, you’ve got to make some basic assumptions of what’s… let’s say “most valuable”, in order to get any legal system working. That includes anarchy actually. I don’t throw my lot in with them because anarchy means total freedom to do what you will, and well, what if that includes forming an authoritarian city-state to rule over others?

    I agree that this is a discussion worth pursuing.

    I’ll say this right now though. Even if someone could, through some heretofore unrealized objective system, somehow “prove” that it was morally correct and necessary to torture and kill innocent people, constantly, I’d go against that. I’d suddenly forsake any claim of a “reason based morality” and simply go against such a “moral system”. That’s simply the way it is. I like a quote I heard a few days ago, “Don’t let your morals get in the way of doing what’s right.”. Granted, I really don’t think such a logical argument for something so horrible will ever come up, but I’ve thrown my hat in with “do no harm”, and I’ll go with that over any invented “reason” any day. I think just about every one of us here would say the same.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Dark Jaguar,

    Reread your last paragraph. You’re on my side, even if you don’t realize it yet.

    (But, I do just want to point out that the last thing I would want to do is devise morals or create a moral code or try to prove that my moral code, which I’m not trying to create, is more objective than someone else’s moral code — I’m not even sure what a hierarchy of objectivity would look like.)

    Jack,

    Thanks for the props.

    Even Sam Harris admits that he wouldn’t be terribly interested in a morality based upon biology, which would result in horrific human rights abuses, especially for women.

    There almost certainly is some sort of innate biological basis in the brain for at least our most basic moral intuitions, but I don’t really see how that changes anything.

    There is at least a rudimentary biological basis in the brain for everything I say and do and think. Which has then been massaged and shaped by culture.

    I am my brain.

    But, how does that lend credence to the notion that objective moral truth exists?

    I don’t think it does.

    And, I totally agree with your last paragraph. We’re not very free to live our lives as we see fit, if we’re all dying, because we’ve destroyed our planet.

    And, I’m happy to accept your definition of a moral code as a set of normative rules that govern the social interactions of human beings (I would add “by categorizing human behaviors as good and bad”).

    But, what if we could devise an amoral code to define our interpersonal relations that doesn’t require us to be in constant conversation with mob rule?

    What if we could devise an amoral code that doesn’t require us to pretend to know things that we don’t know?

    Wouldn’t that be better?

    I think I remember reading a lot above of “I reject your definition of morality”, etc., etc..

    Well, if that’s the case, then anyone who feels that way should be even more behind my project. Because you should understand that moral determinations are wholly personal and subjective, and you shouldn’t want me imposing my morality upon you anymore than I want you imposing your morality on me.

  • Scotlyn

    So, I was thinking, how can we maintain our current system (in the US), which attempts to balance the needs of the society and the individual, without having to be in constant conversation with mob rule.

    I think this is a very telling quote…in my view mob rule is the dark side of social existence, just as certain types of insanity are the dark side of individual existence. But that doesn’t make “mob rule” and “society” interchangeable terms. A working and healthy society is an essential feature of individual health and well-being, and to seek individual liberty, is to seek a society which values and defends that.

    My view of the thinkers who created the US constitution, which is still (with all its flaws and detractors) a thing both original and beautiful, is that they were precisely trying to find a way to allow society to flourish at a remove from the heart of darkness that is mob rule. To the extent that they were unable to transform human nature, they failed (the “conversation with mob rule,” as you say, has never actually stopped). But to the extent that they created a system that would work (for a certain value of “work”) despite the unchangeability of human nature, they succeeded (“mob rule” always seems to be on the brink of taking over, but hasn’t yet managed it – at least whereever the US constitution is invoked).

    Personally, while I do understand and share a lot of your concerns, Sarah, I don’t see that anything you’ve proposed is workably superior to what we already have in the US Constitution, which has the huge advantage that it has actually been thoroughly and robustly tested over the course of the last 200 and some years. In terms of the law part of this discussion, I would tend to feel that defending existing constitutional principles is the best way to maximise liberty, equality and fairness and allow society to exist (relatively) peaceably.

    The morality part of this discussion is another long comment which I’ll leave for another time.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Science, of course, has much to teach us about that biological basis, and so it gives us some clue about the constraints that any moral system must satisfy if it is not to be in hopeless opposition to human nature. Any moral system that treats incest as good or neutral, for example, is not likely to stand the test of time.

    This, jack, actually is the naturalistic fallacy. If Sam Harris uses reasoning like this, he’s quite mistaken.

    There is no moral argument against incest any more than there is against homosexuality. That is, the core basis to either are claims about the survival of the species. Even that is not a strong argument; the survival of humanity is not in and of itself guaranteed to be good. Judging by our total history, we can easily imagine situations where the species survives but the vast majority of people suffer miserably and unconditionally.

    On the other hand, the end of humanity by many generations of incest/homosexuality/replacement by androids/(insert boogieman of the day here) is nothing to fear or dislike intrinsically. For courses taken willingly and without regret, I see no moral danger to these whatsoever.

    Now, claims about what paths make humanity most likely to survive are quite different. That may be an objective claim without a value judgment. However, first one must give a precise definition of what “humanity” is. If one merely talks of the indefinite long-term survival of the species homo sapiens, then I’m afraid the likelihood of success is very low on any path. Whether it’s by natural or artificial means, it’s far more likely we will involve into something else than survive much as we are. Anything short of near-total control of the environment almost guarantees it.

    Backing off from survival, there are other objections to incest, homosexuality, s&m, …let’s just say all sexual behaviors. However, the reasons behind those other objections are typically social control, not some high-minded goal like helping the species to survive. I’m not sure anyone here even holds any of those positions, so I’ll refrain from arguing against straw men.

    You’re on my side, even if you don’t realize it yet.

    Sarah, we’re all on the same side, in the sense that we have largely the same core goals for human society. This discussion is truly all about mechanisms, not policy. I’ve mentioned something like this before, but what’s missing is evidence. Your task is to present a working game theory model which has notably better results than an accurate model of existing society. I think that you will understand precisely the large information gap that exists if you actually start to construct such models.

  • jack

    This, jack, actually is the naturalistic fallacy. If Sam Harris uses reasoning like this, he’s quite mistaken.

    Naturalistic, yes, but I fail to see the fallacy. I don’t know if Harris uses such reasoning, but I do. So does psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as explained by Steven Pinker in the NY Times article to which I linked in #36 above. I urge you to read it, because it makes the case much better than I can here, and it’s a fascinating read.

    There is no moral argument against incest any more than there is against homosexuality.

    It’s not a matter of argument, but of gut feeling. Read the first few paragraphs under the subhead Reasoning and Rationalizing in the Pinker article and you’ll see what I mean.

    That is, the core basis to either are claims about the survival of the species. Even that is not a strong argument; the survival of humanity is not in and of itself guaranteed to be good.

    We’re talking about two very different things here. The question of whether or not the survival of Homo sapiens is a good thing is not a moral one, as I am using the concept. If and when our species goes extinct, human morality will vanish with it. As I understand the concept, morality is to our species what chemical signals are to the ants. It is what makes us the extraordinarily social species that we are. That is why I do not see it as a personal thing. Human love does not exist in isolation. It is an affiliative emotion between two people. Morality concerns our behavior as it affects other people. Our innate moral intuitions lie at the core of human morality, but they are only that: the core. Human societies have greatly elaborated on that core, through cultural evolution, but the existence of that core places constraints on what forms of cultural elaboration can endure. Those constraints are biological in origin, and biology informs our understanding of them.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Sarah,

    Of course objective morality exists. Morality is an evolutionary response to environmental pressure; therefore, for any given set of environmental pressures, there is an objectively best method for dealing with them. (One might argue that there could be multiple equally efficacious methods, but that’s a different problem.)

    Morality is the mechanism we evolved to regulate inter-group behavior so that we could live in groups without killing each other. That is all morality is. Naturally such a subject can be profitably studied by science.

    All these religious definitions of morality – like, is it moral to masturbate – are simply word-games destined to transform natural responses into control mechanisms. Which pretty much describes religion, too. :D

    (This is effectively the same thing Jack is saying. There are only 3 possible sources for morality: divine, arbitrary, and evolution. Most people recognize that morality is not simply arbitrary, like modern art; most people in this forum understand why it can’t be divine; which leaves exactly one choice.)

  • Sarah Braasch

    Yahzi,

    Define best. What makes your best method better than all the other methods? Why is it better?

    It’s better, because you think it’s better, because it furthers some subjective value.

  • Sarah Braasch

    “Sarah, we’re all on the same side, in the sense that we have largely the same core goals for human society.”

    You think so?

    As the Steven Pinker article pointed out, there is a neurobiological basis for thinking this is true, and this served evolutionary purposes.

    My task is not to create a legal/political system, which furthers the aims of your personal, subjective morality with better results than our current system (in the US), which requires that we pretend to have access to objective moral/legal truth and authority and that we pretend that the will of the moral majority is an accurate representation of that truth.

    My task is to try and create an amoral legal/political system in which neither of us imposes our personal, subjective moralities upon the other while still defining our interpersonal relations.

    But, I would actually just be happy if everyone stopped pretending to know things that we, in fact, do not know.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Scotlyn,

    I totally agree with you, and, yet, I think we can do better.

    (And, I know that it is my personal, subjective opinion that we can do better.)

    I do think that the overwhelming majority understanding of the US Constitution and the rights entailed therein is shifting towards moral majoritarian tyranny and religious communitarianism and away from secularism and individual rights.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Sarah,

    “Best” in an evolutionary perspective is easy to define. It means survives better. There is nothing subjective about that. You can pretty easily determine whether a species is thriving or not from a purely biological, quantitative perspective.

    Now perhaps you mean that it is subjective to assume “evolutionary success” is good. But this not true either; living entities carry, as part of their definition, the implicit notion that continued living is good.

    So by definition, a morality that allows people to thrive is better than one that does not. Morality is there to preserve our species. Since we are conscious individuals, this means that over the long run the moral choice will also be the most profitable choice for each individual.

    It is not an accident that human morality is so homogeneous that every society defines slavery as something that each individual doesn’t want to be subject to. And I don’t think it is an accident that democracies, armed with science, have conquered the planet. Of course it’s not a given; the free market of survival can be temporarily jiggered to produce skewed results (for example some kind of extinction event would likely challenge our moral intuitions, and sociopaths might well prove to be more survivable under those circumstances), but fundamentally the idea that there is a right way for humans to live is both powerful and true.

    Of course, that right way has little or nothing to do with religious moralities, which, like viruses, co-opt biological mechanisms for their own purposes. You’ve pretty clearly decided the word morality means “observance to an arbitrary code for arbitrary reasons.” Given that definition, I agree with you. Which is why I started out saying I reject your definition. There is such a thing as morality, it is universal to humans, and it is a strategic error to surrender that territory to the religious.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Even Sam Harris doesn’t want a morality predicated upon evolutionary biology. (As he put it — under your system, a man could find no greater calling in life than daily donations to the local sperm bank.)

    I can think of little else more horrific.

    We are now breeding ourselves to death. (So, I guess evolutionary processes aren’t so good after all for ensuring the survival of the species. A lot of our evolutionary instincts have become vestigial organs, which are not so easily sloughed off, and which have become infected and inflamed and are killing us.)

    And, some argue, and persuasively at that, that it would be far better for life on earth, if human beings went the way of the dinosaurs.

    So, when my baby brother killed himself, did he do something immoral? Because I don’t think he did.

    Your personal, subjective morality sounds like hell to me.

    Human morality is homogeneous? Every society defines slavery as something that each individual doesn’t want to be subject to? Democracies have conquered the planet?

    Yikes.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: I couldn’t disagree with you more. And, I want nothing to do with your morality.

    You could even make the argument, and some people do, that belief in God and organized religion is an evolutionary response, which has had a lot of benefits for the human species, in terms of evolutionary success.

  • Sarah Braasch

    But, I totally appreciate your comment and love your contribution to this thread.

    Thanks, Yahzi.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    “We are now breeding ourselves to death.”

    Setting aside the obvious response that “therefore, we must be doing something immoral,” let me ask: what do you think the solution to that problem is?

    Do you think we should:

    A) kill everyone outside of our kin group.

    B) work to find a solution that is fair to everyone.

    Obviously you think B is the correct solution. But why? What in you says that B is the better choice?

    The answer is, you believe B is far more likely to actually solve the problem. Whereas A might well lead to actual species death, now that we’ve invented nukes. And of course you think all rational people would agree that B is a clearly superior solution to A.

    Congratulations! You’ve just made a moral judgment. For some odd reason you are uncomfortable calling it morality, but that doesn’t change the fact that this kind of decision-making is exactly what we mean when we say “morality.” (Well, most of us.)

    “And, some argue, and persuasively at that, that it would be far better for life on earth, if human beings went the way of the dinosaurs.”

    Those people are idiots. No, seriously: they are idiotic. There is no meaning to the term “better” once human beings are removed from the picture. This is because “better” is a term defined in reference to human beings. Better, used in a moral sense, can only apply to moral agents; and absent moral agents, moral terms have no meaning.

    Your personal, subjective morality sounds like hell to me.

    My understanding of morality is that it can basically be reduced to fairness. This strikes you as hellish?

    Human morality is homogeneous? Every society defines slavery as something that each individual doesn’t want to be subject to? Democracies have conquered the planet?

    Are you asserting that these statements are untrue? Seriously, I have no idea what you are getting at here.

    You could even make the argument, and some people do, that belief in God and organized religion is an evolutionary response, which has had a lot of benefits for the human species, in terms of evolutionary success.

    So did rape and war. But they don’t lead to benefits now, which is the entire point.

    You seem unduly dismayed at the notion that what might have been tolerable moral behavior in the past could no longer be so in the future. This yearning for an absolute moral standard seems at odds with your rejection of religious morality. It is also destined to lead to disappointment; there is no such thing as absolute morality, because morality by its very definition is concerned with circumstances. (Note that absolute is different than objective.)

    And as for suicide, or any other act: was it fair to all parties involved? If so, then it was moral; if not, then it wasn’t. It really is just that simple.

    Morality is doing what you would want other people to do if they were in your shoes. I have no idea why you think this is a horrific proposition, or why you think it can’t or shouldn’t be encapsulated into law.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    *slosh slosh*

    Ah, I stepped into a verbal quagmire… Ugh, some got in my boots! Yuck! Get it off get it off!

    I don’t know why Sarah, but I always find myself disagreeing with you. Nothing personal, we simply share differring viewpoints. Perhaps that is a point in your favour, and perhaps in mine.

    But “individual liberty”, this is what I take issue with for now. You know why? Because you yourself said in a prior post, nothing is objective. There is no shining Circle-ness which all circles gain their form from, and Plato has no liberty-shaped object to bless us with either. While the Sadist example has been touched upon, I’d like to go by a different route, since I’m after a different point:

    Let’s say a law exists that states “Humans may not litter within 1 parsec of the Andromeda star system until travel there is possible, under penalty of death”. Now, objectively, this does nothing, since one must be able to travel there to litter there. SUBJECTIVELY, however, this does infringe on our liberties. Crazy scenarios can be invented that could infringe on our rights here. This law passes the objective test but not the subjective test. It’s a silly law, but some people would be angry that it exists, though not for an objective reason, their liberty would still be impaired.

    Closer to home, the law “It is illegal to imprison someone against their will”. Objectively, this is a good law. It stops infringement to liberty in the straightest way possible. But then enforcement of the law will become tricky, since killing isn’t allowed, and imprisoning is wrong, and you can’t just slap a fine on murder. Subjectively, it fails the liberty test. Objectively, it maximizes liberty.

    A third, more apt possibly example, would be “No violence. Period.”. Now, here’s a fun one. People gain liberty because fear of violence causes a restriction in the actions, and injuring someone infringes on their liberty as they heal. But at the same time, it infringes on the right of people who like violence, say, in football or hockey, or criminal acts, or movies where no “real” violence takes place.

    You can’t quantify units of “liberty”. All this will do is have whomever has the most money bribe the analysists, as is their right to spend money as they wish in liberty, and only those laws will pass. Which in fringes liberty for other laws! Your system defeats itself!

    And under game theory, yes, if there is a reasonable chance of you never being caught, you SHOULD break every possible law that would benefit you. You should also break every law that the benefit is more than the punishment. Bernie Madoff and Lord Black are good examples of shining game theory law, breaking. Or to put it in simple caption terms: “Bugsy’s philosophy was simple: Sometimes the crime is worth the time.”

  • Sarah Braasch

    Yahzi,

    I am so happy you are commenting. Thank you so much.

    (I just make a point of mentioning this, because I feel like my comments sometimes come across as more antagonistic than I mean them to, and I don’t want anyone to take it personally.)

    But, you do realize that you completely changed your position in your last comment?

    Advocating for what is fair for everyone (which is about as subjective a value judgment as they come) is a far cry from advocating for a morality based upon evolutionary processes.

    I do understand and appreciate what you are saying about what was once good strategy, from an evolutionary perspective, no longer being good strategy.

    Why does everyone keep interpreting my personal position as being amoral?

    I am not saying, at all, that I don’t make personal, subjective morality judgments constantly.

    Of course I do.

    I am just asking that everyone recognize that their moral judgments are exactly that: personal and subjective.

    Thanks again. Love debating you.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Zietlos,

    I love your comment too, and I also love that you always disagree with me.

    I think I may stop commenting on comments specifically about my intended pursuits, because this is still something I’m working out for myself.

    It’s become such a distraction in this thread that I am sort of regretting mentioning it at all. It was not my central point in any way, shape or form.

    I think I didn’t do a fantastic job of defining what I meant, mostly because, as i mentioned, I’m still working it all out for myself.

    But, I meant specifically the freedom to commit a physical act. Period.

    Is one or is one not constrained in committing a physical act. Period.

    Why not mental states?

    Because I’m interested only in defining interpersonal relations.

    A thought has no objective physical manifestation except in the mind of the thinker.

    (Please, dear God, no one take us down a different tangent now, because I’ve said this much.)

    Of course, some things are objective, as long as you take global skepticism off the table.

    Which I do. Look. I just took it off the table.

    But, not my personal, subjective moral opinion. And, not yours either.

  • Leum

    My task is to try and create an amoral legal/political system in which neither of us imposes our personal, subjective moralities upon the other while still defining our interpersonal relations.

    Having read your essay and the comments responding to it I am uncertain as to whether I agree with you. However, I think I may disagree with the possibility of your stated aim quoted above.

    I accept completely your premise that there is no objective morality, but I don’t think that makes our moral designations of right and wrong either arbitrary or irrelevant to law. I consider our laws to be a social contract among the people of a society. And I’m not certain that such a contract can be formed without recourse to morality.

    Why enter into a contract in the first place? Because society without such a contract is deemed bad.

    What behavior may be legitimately regulated? You propose only that behavior which threatens to impinge on the liberty of others. But the very idea that liberty is a good is one based in morality. Furthermore, what we consider impinging seems to be strongly rooted in our ideas of morality. Stealing impinges on my liberty to own property. But the very idea that I have a right to own property is based in morality. It isn’t a universal at all.

    You yourself, IIRC, support banning the hijab (or perhaps only the niqab) to protect the liberty of women. But that presupposes that the freedom not to be veiled is superior to the freedom of wearing the garments one wishes to wear.

    So it seems to me that our laws do have to be rooted in some essential ideas as to what is good and bad. And I don’t think we can escape that.

  • keddaw

    Keep fighting this fight Sarah, it’s important. And you’re 100% correct. Which helps.

    The law should be as amoral as possible and by consent. People can then use their own subjective morality to decide whether to follow those laws or not, but they should know the response society has in place for people not following those laws.

    When we legislate morality we allow a tyranny of the moral majority.

    The law is not meant to promote well-being, it is meant to preserve individual rights and serve justice. Government can deal with well-being (although I personally wish they’d do it a lot less) and leave the law out of it.

    One thing though, Sarah, while I understand your frustration/anger at Sam Harris I still think it’s important for him to pursue his idea. While I disagree with him I think we’ll discover important facts about ourselves along the way and might actually be able to put certain things to the test. I compare it to economics – while we have various theories and equations detailing the probable outcomes of various decisions it never makes the mistake of saying which options should be chosen (except in rare cases of Pareto improvements – and these should apply to morality too!). If the progress Sam makes is ultimately futile, and I think it is, he will make some general principles along the way that we are currently missing since morality has been purely philosophical up until now.

    As an additional point – evolution has messed up our moral intuitions (e.g. Trolley Problem) so to place the full weight of law behind an inconsistent and irrational system of ‘gut feeling’ is as poor a decision as one could make – heck, I’d rather go with religious buffoonery than that!

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

    What values we hold to be worthy of maximizing is a question of morality itself, so we won’t make a legal system that is completely separate from morality. End of story. Of course, if Sarah’s real intention is to argue that there is no such thing as absolute morality – which is what she really means when she talks about “objective moral truth,” – she’ll get very little resistance here, since no one seems to be arguing for absolute morality. So, what’s the point in all this?

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    If what you say were true — if I was only opposed to the notion of a universal morality, but not an objective morality, then I would be on board with Sam Harris.

    This is his argument — that a localized assessment of moral truth may be determined objectively — with facts and science and reason and evidence.

    I disagree.

    We can argue about whether a legal system requires some deference to the moral majority or no. (This is what I am interested in trying to preclude by creating an amoral legal/political system.) If you enjoy having your uneducated next door neighbor have a say in how you live your life, so be it. I don’t. I don’t care about anyone else’s subjective personal moral opinion.

    But, we at least don’t have to pretend to have access to objective moral truth. This is particularly a concern in judicial decision making. You want judges and justices to be able to lay down moral law? Really? You want them to be able to say that they have divined moral truth from indifferent facts and apathetic evidence?

    And, not just judges, but you want the different moral camps in the US or elsewhere thinking that they can access objective moral truth if they only gather enough evidence and data and observations and apply enough reason? Really? We want to watch the US disintegrate into religious/moral communitarianism and then break apart? You think that can’t happen? Our society is already so entrenched and polarized, and now we’re assassinating politicians.

    This is my point. Moral determinations are only ever personal and subjective, just as legal determinations are.

    I think it is unwise to pretend otherwise.

    Don’t feed the myth monster.

    But, I love that you commented. Thanks for jumping in.

    I have to jump out for awhile.

    So, if anyone wanted to chastise me without fear of retort, now’s your opportunity.

    But, just for 24 hours or so.

    Thanks to all. Have a great day.

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

    Sarah,
    You can continue to throw out strawmen/boogey men arguments like,

    If you enjoy having your uneducated next door neighbor have a say in how you live your life, so be it.

    but no one (here) is arguing for that. You’re wasting your time, and everyone else’s by engaging in this behavior. And, simply repeating yourself over and over isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. Why should any of us take the time to deal with your arguments if you are unwilling to do the same with our arguments?

    If what you say were true — if I was only opposed to the notion of a universal morality, but not an objective morality, then I would be on board with Sam Harris.

    No, I think you are simply not comprehending the concepts properly.

    We can argue about whether a legal system requires some deference to the moral majority or no.

    No, I’m saying that what we choose to emphasize is itself a moral question. You can’t escape it.

    You want them to be able to say that they have divined moral truth from indifferent facts and apathetic evidence?

    I would prefer that we base decisions on evidence and reason rather than claiming everything is subjective and not having a basis to choose one opinion over another, yes.

    An amoral political system might be nice if one could actually figure out how to make it work, but I’ve yet to see even an idea for one. What you’ve done is simply pushed the morality question back one level without actually eliminating it. IOW, you’ve simply hidden the concept behind a different concept (liberty) without actually doing what you set out to do.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    I try to avoid saying this, but I strongly suggest that you reread my piece.

    I think you have completely misunderstood my position. I don’t think I’m advocating for that which you believe me to be advocating. But, this is good, because I’m sure you’re not the only one.

    But, I really do have to vacate the premises for a bit.

    Thanks again to OMGF and everyone else who has commented.

    Take care.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    jack wrote:

    Naturalistic, yes, but I fail to see the fallacy. I don’t know if Harris uses such reasoning, but I do. So does psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as explained by Steven Pinker in the NY Times article to which I linked in #36 above. I urge you to read it, because it makes the case much better than I can here, and it’s a fascinating read.

    [...]

    It’s not a matter of argument, but of gut feeling. Read the first few paragraphs under the subhead Reasoning and Rationalizing in the Pinker article and you’ll see what I mean.

    I read it; it’s a good summary of the primary factors which influence moral sense in most people. What you’re misunderstanding, though, is that Pinker and company are after the answers to questions of “how” and “why” of morality. The causes, interactions, and effects. This has essentially nothing to do with the “what” of morality, as the article shows in its raising of the matter of cultural differences.

    As to your gut feeling, that’s no basis for morality (or any kind of sound reasoning, honestly). The article attacks Leon Kass for doing precisely the same thing with regard to human cloning. It’s baseless.

    We’re talking about two very different things here.

    Yes. Your definition of morality is extraordinarily different from mine. It’s what I would instead call social governance. Certainly, a very real and significant thing, if ever there was one. However, moral truth is independent of that.

    In case it’s unclear, I’ll try putting it this way: you can argue that matters like incest and homosexuality restrict the propagation of the species (and probably be right, at least based on theoretical and incomplete models). That argument is simply tangential (even perpendicular) to whether those acts are moral. In order to get from the factual position to the moral position, one first must introduce the value premise that the propagation of the species is good.

    Yahzi seems to agree with your definition of morality, though. There’s a long history behind the understanding of morality as a system of values and reasoned processes to achieve those values. So, forgive me if I have no inclination to abandon that particular notion.

    Sarah wrote:

    My task is not to create a legal/political system, which furthers the aims of your personal, subjective morality with better results than our current system (in the US), which requires that we pretend to have access to objective moral/legal truth and authority and that we pretend that the will of the moral majority is an accurate representation of that truth.

    My task is to try and create an amoral legal/political system in which neither of us imposes our personal, subjective moralities upon the other while still defining our interpersonal relations.

    But, I would actually just be happy if everyone stopped pretending to know things that we, in fact, do not know.

    That’s interesting, because it’s not my aim to create a legal system which furthers my own personality morality either. I don’t see where that idea arose. I wouldn’t advocate changing the legal or political structure of any country based upon principles held by only a few people.

    Ah. Perhaps now, the meaning behind why I ask questions like “how will you convince people?”, “where is your evidence?”, “have you tried constructing a model to see whether this could work, even theoretically?”, and “how would this improve the existing situation?” are much clearer.

    As to impositions, I like them not much at all. Certainly not impositions based upon force, and neither impositions based upon faulty reasoning. However, it’s precisely because I understand that imposing one’s beliefs unilaterally is meaningless and even counterproductive that I steer the dialogue in a direction of shared values. It’s so odd to me to see someone try to convince anyone, let alone ultimately a very large group of people, to adopt a position on a wholly abstract basis. Defending the conclusion of an argument when it is the premises which are being contested is like trying to save the leaves of a tree whose roots are being torn out.

    One other thing: what is it that I pretend to know, and do not? From this perspective, the main pretense here appears to be in the assertion of a useful and objective measure of liberty, despite the lack of any formal means to measure it. Without that presumption, liberty is clearly just the same as any other value one may present as an inherent good.

    Yahzi wrote:

    Now perhaps you mean that it is subjective to assume “evolutionary success” is good. But this not true either; living entities carry, as part of their definition, the implicit notion that continued living is good.

    So by definition, a morality that allows people to thrive is better than one that does not. Morality is there to preserve our species.

    It is as subjective as any other value matter, at least. That is, the concept that continued living is good is a judgment made by a mind. It has no direct connection at all to reality, other than the fact of whether the belief is held or not.

    It’s pretty easy to find depressed and suicidal people who continue to live, for whatever reasons. It is not a necessary element that someone must value their life, or life generally, to live. There can be plenty of other influences.

    Most of the moral philosophers in the history of human civilization would disagree with your understanding that morality exists to preserve the species. Morality does serve goals, of course, but the goals depend on which value judgments are made.

    You (and many other people) don’t expect anyone to challenge the first premise incorporated into your argument, that the continued survival of the human race is good in and of itself. However, I challenge it. Survival, whether of individuals or of groups, is immaterial to well-being, self-worth, state of mind, power, understanding and knowledge, and dozens of other factors. Without being able to connect survival to something of intrinsic meaning to the reader, this argument is simply a non-starter.

    I would further argue that taking survival as a goal is self-defeating. Immortality is not a reasonable goal, therefore on the individual level the quest to survive is always lost. However, even considering the survival of self-propagating groups, it is still an endless fight which cannot be won. Eventually, either the group will die out, or the group will — through a series of many discrete changes — ultimately become something that is truly unrecognizable from what originated it.

    So did rape and war. But they don’t lead to benefits now, which is the entire point.

    An argument from consequences can’t be used to justify rape or war at any time. It’s of no moral significance whether the benefits come in the present or the distant future. Only a very strict Utilitarian who believes in an infallible happiness calculus would make judgments that sanction that sort of behavior…

    Zietlos wrote:

    You can’t quantify units of “liberty”. All this will do is have whomever has the most money bribe the analysists, as is their right to spend money as they wish in liberty, and only those laws will pass. Which in fringes liberty for other laws! Your system defeats itself!

    Exactly. This is the dramatic error committed by people who understand liberty as something distinct from power. Dark Jaguar pointed out that you can fix this issue, as long as you value fairness on an equal basis with liberty (power).

    Sarah wrote:

    Why not mental states?

    Because I’m interested only in defining interpersonal relations.

    A thought has no objective physical manifestation except in the mind of the thinker.

    (Please, dear God, no one take us down a different tangent now, because I’ve said this much.)

    LOL. Unfortunately, I’m compelled to respond to the answer of objection I raised myself, as it’s quite unlikely anyone else will. Simply put, interpersonal relations are not independent of thoughts. Thoughts can be understood on one level as influences on behavior. It’s not truly possible to ignore them, and we don’t in practice (the state of the mind of an assailant, for instance, is used in part to determine what class of murder they can be tried and convicted for).

    Thoughts don’t have any objective manifestation that you can detect directly with your own senses. However, their existence is very much objective, and can be detected even with our currently quite primitive brain-monitoring techniques (magnetic resonance imaging, among others). Saying that thoughts aren’t objective is a mistake, much as saying that electrons aren’t objective because you can’t measure their velocity and position at the same time. Indeed, thoughts, composed of a pattern of electrochemical signals in some set of neurons, are much more concrete than an electron could be. That we don’t know (yet) how to measure them properly is unconnected to their nature.

    No, I’m saying that what we choose to emphasize is itself a moral question. You can’t escape it.

    Indeed, OMGF. I can’t seem to find a way to get this point across in a way that is even partly acknowledged, though. It’s as though the very concept that there are premises, and you can’t establish a convincing argument by conclusions alone, is not a worthy enough argument to be addressed.

  • jack

    kagerato,

    What you’re misunderstanding, though, is that Pinker and company are after the answers to questions of “how” and “why” of morality. The causes, interactions, and effects. This has essentially nothing to do with the “what” of morality, as the article shows in its raising of the matter of cultural differences.

    I agree that Pinker’s article deals mainly with the “how” and “why” of morality, but the answers to those questions place important constraints on the range of possible answers to the “what” questions. Our innate moral intuitions ensure that cooperation and generosity will be considered “good” in essentially all viable systems of human morality, and that incest will be considered “bad”. Of course humans are highly intelligent and capable of a staggering amount of learning and behavioral flexibility. But that flexibility is not unlimited. Our cultural elaborations on the innate core of our morality cannot assume any arbitrary set of answers to the “what” questions. To deny that obvious fact is to pretend that we are all born as blank slates, and that there is no such thing as human nature. For a long time this was a popular view, and in some academic circles it may still be accepted dogma, but modern behavioral genetics and neuroscience have shown it to be false.

    At a different level, the scientific method can also help us in more direct ways to find answers to the “what” questions. We know from evolutionary theory and from ethological observation that animals behave in ways that tend to promote the passing of their genes into the next generation. We know from behavioral neuroscience that, in complex organisms with large brains, such behaviors are guided by the seeking of internal reward (pleasure) and by aversion to punishment (pain). These are innate and natural principles of behavior, and in social organisms like us they underlie and direct our behavior towards other people. To suggest that these insights are irrelevant to human morality is to deny reality. These insights not only explain why most moral systems strive to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, but they also identify such goals as more important and sensible than the infinity of imaginable goals of hypothetical moral systems that exist only in the minds of philosophers. Science not only shows us that it makes sense for a moral system to try to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, but it also, of course, gives us the technology to do it.

    But the scientific method helps us answer the “what” questions of morality at a much grander level, because the process of cultural evolution through which our morality has arisen over the centuries is an empirical one, a process of trial, error, rejection and selection, much like evolution at the genetic level and much like science itself.

    As to your gut feeling, that’s no basis for morality (or any kind of sound reasoning, honestly).

    It’s not my gut feeling. It’s yours, and that of every other human who has a normal and intact ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Like it or not, it already is the basis of your morality. It operates at an unconscious level, as Pinker describes, but it’s there and inescapable. It explains why the idea of incest makes you feel creepy, and why you cringe at the thought of having to smother your own crying infant to save a bunch of other people from a killer who is tracking you by sound. We don’t get to vote on those feelings, and we can’t make them go away through reasoning about morality.

    Sarah,

    Thanks again for the main post. As always, it was provocative and interesting, and it has generated a lengthy and lively discussion.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    “But, you do realize that you completely changed your position in your last comment?

    Advocating for what is fair for everyone (which is about as subjective a value judgment as they come) is a far cry from advocating for a morality based upon evolutionary processes. “

    I didn’t change my position: that was my position from the start. Our ability to understand and implement fairness is an evolutionary heritage. Evolutionary morality is fairness.

    Humans thrive in communal groups, due to certain evolutionary gifts: language, tool use, theory of mind, and so on. The concept of fairness, and the desire to prefer it, is one of them.

    Why does everyone keep interpreting my personal position as being amoral?

    Because asserting that morality is only a personal, subjective statement of preference is effectively the same as saying morality does not exist.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Jack,

    I got a weird sense of deja vue reading your posts. I was like, “I don’t remember writing this… but it sounds like me!”

    If imitation is the highest form of flattery, is pointing similarity also flattery, or just narcissism?

    :D

  • jack

    Yahzi,

    If imitation is the highest form of flattery, is pointing similarity also flattery, or just narcissism?

    I’ll just take it as an expression of human kindness, which tends to happen when humans cooperate — which you and I seem to be doing in a very specific way in this thread.

    But I always feel a sense of kinship and cooperation with my fellow commenters here, including those, like kagerato, who don’t always agree with me. We’re all striving for enlightenment and understanding. There’s nothing simple about human minds and human morality. We can usually count on Sarah to open the deepest can of worms :)

    In any case, I’d like to think none of us here is narcissistic. That’s one of those symptoms you get when you have a problem with your ventromedial prefrontal cortex, either from frontotemporal dementia, inherited narcissistic personality disorder, an iron rod through your eye socket, or an addiction to synthetic opioid pain pills.

  • http://paulforpm.blogspot.com/2009/04/morality-exposed.html keddaw

    A case for liberty.

    Sarah has said that maximising liberty should be the main driver of law, others have commented that this is just as subjective as any other value. I hold that this is not the case, that liberty deserves a special place in our collective value system.

    I assume we can all agree that the pursuit of one’s values is a ‘morally good’ thing, for each individual at least, and therefore something society as a whole should be trying to allow each individual to do? If not the rest of this post is pointless…

    When judging many issues I find it instructive to go from society as a whole to the smallest individual units of society. Imagine you’re behind the curtain and there is only one person. How does enforcing your values onto this person affect their ability to live by their values? Almost all values you have will affect that person with the sole exception of liberty. Enforcing liberty onto someone has no impact on their ability to pursue their goals and values.

    Add a second person, how does the imposition of your values now affect the pursuit of values by the two actors? This obviously depends on the values of the two actors, but it is my contention that for most combinations of actor’s values the greatest ability for them to live by their own values comes from the imposition from outside (i.e. you) of liberty. While this may frustrate one actor who is a sadist, or who wishes to control the life of the other actor, it still allows him to pursue his other goals/live by his other values, while protecting the second actor to live by his values free from persecution by the first.

    As we keep adding numbers to this situation the basic logic doesn’t change that only the external imposition of liberty can allow the greatest number of people to live by the greatest number of their subjective values while simultaneously protecting the minority from having the majority’s common values imposed on them.

    All values, other than liberty, limit the ability of everyone to live by their values, whereas liberty is optional, people don’t have to live as if they are free, but they have the right to exercise that freedom at any point they wish. The only values that liberty prohibits are the ones that are imposed on others which limits their ability to live by their own values and, as we hopefully agreed before, is not a ‘morally good’ thing for society to allow.

  • http://paulforpm.blogspot.com/2009/04/morality-exposed.html keddaw

    Yahzi,

    Because asserting that morality is only a personal, subjective statement of preference is effectively the same as saying morality does not exist.

    Hardly. It is simply saying that there is no objective metric to compare it to. However, I can still prove someone’s morality wrong, but it has to be on their terms. If I can show that someone’s morality will, in many instances, go against their value preferences then their morality is wrong. If I can convince them that their values are in the wrong order, or that they are concerned about the wrong things then their subjective morality will change.

    On the other hand, all I am doing here is using morality as a shorthand for relative weighting of internal values which is not what the majority of people understand by morality. They’re wrong. Absent an objective morality, the word cannot mean anything but this.

    Jack,

    It’s not my gut feeling. It’s yours, and that of every other human who has a normal and intact ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Like it or not, it already is the basis of your morality. … We don’t get to vote on those feelings, and we can’t make them go away through reasoning about morality.

    That’s simply not true. Reason, along with empathy and normalisation*, allows us to overcome our gut instincts. Hence the acceptance of gay people into the mainstream – unless you think that there has been some evolutionary shift in the past 50 years to stop anti-gay gut instincts… Besides, given the lack of consistency our moral instincts have why should we pay them any heed at all?

    * I couldn’t think of the word I wanted, I simply mean that constant contact with that we find disgusting in out guts can be overcome e.g. slaughterhouse workers, sewerage farm workers etc.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hey folks,

    I think this thread is generating comments faster than I can read them, so my apologies if I’m bringing up a point that’s already been hashed out. But it’s good reading all these, so keep it up! I’ve probably made it clear that I don’t agree with Sarah’s viewpoint, but I welcome the opportunity to discuss it.

    In our previous go-round on this issue, I mentioned several not-uncommon situations that present a dilemma for Sarah’s view – circumstances where there are competing liberty interests, and increasing the freedom of one party necessarily decreases the freedom of another. It’s not obvious to me how she would handle those. From a previous comment:

    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?

    But more importantly, I think, the claim that the highest good is expanding liberty to the greatest possible extent is just wrong. Even when there are no competing liberty interests, there are cases where this is clearly an inferior course of action. Let me suggest a few of them:

    Compulsory vaccination. It unquestionably reduces people’s liberty to force them or their children to be vaccinated against harmful diseases, even if this small decrease in individual liberty produces a much greater gain for society as a whole.

    Race and gender discrimination. Under any ordinary conception of what “liberty” means, it seems to me, this view would allow business owners to refuse service to black people, or to deny promotions and pay raises to female employees. Is it not better for society as a whole to deny people the liberty to discriminate in this way?

    Protection of the environment. It reduces the liberty of a fisherman to set quotas on how many fish he can catch. Should we remove those quotas, even if the foreseeable result is that that species will be fished to extinction? What about restrictions on shooting elephants for their ivory, or catching sharks to cut off their fins and then throw them back into the ocean, or killing gorillas and chimpanzees for bushmeat? Should factory owners have unrestricted liberty to emit CO2 into the air?

    Certainly, you could accommodate these cases in a liberty-based legal system – but only by redefining “liberty” into a term of art, and not the meaning that would normally come to mind when most people think of that term.

    As an example, consider the recent slew of suicides by young gay men, often after having been bullied, much publicized in the media. Much of the commentary focused on the statistically significantly higher incidence of suicide among gay teenagers than their straight peers. The higher incidence is a fact (a fact which is called into question by the cited article). But what objective moral truth is to be derived from this fact? And, what policy decision should result? …I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to care about my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbor’s personal, subjective moral opinion about my life choices, and I don’t think I should have to care.

    Unfortunately, Sarah, your proposal doesn’t eliminate dilemmas like these – it just sweeps them under the rug. Let me demonstrate this by bringing up a question you didn’t address: Even in your ideal, liberty-based legal system, there would still have to be some laws regarding what is or isn’t acceptable behavior. What happens to people who break those laws?

    Should they be imprisoned, or fined, or sent to mandatory counseling, or something else entirely? If prison, for how long? If counseling, what kind? Which options have the best deterrent effect, which ones most reduce recidivism, which ones are most cost-effective? Would there ever be a death penalty? These things would have to be decided, but you can’t even begin to address them without a comparison of the options and the costs, benefits and likely outcomes of each – in other words, the objective, empirical moral determinations you’re trying so hard to get away from.

    Facts and evidence are always separated from moral viewpoints by subjective value judgments. To pretend otherwise is to play into the hands of the religionists, to open us up to the threat of tyranny, to call into question our concepts of individual civil, constitutional, and human rights, and to provoke a societal existential crisis. Instead of religious wars, we will have morality wars.

    I think this worry is overblown. If anything, the society-wide adoption of the notion of objective, evidence-based moral truth would lead to fewer wars and conflicts – because when there’s disagreement, both sides could agree that there is a right answer to the question, as well as the methods they’d use to find it. It’s the same reason that scientists don’t kill each other over plate tectonics or atomic theory: instead, they use the methods of science to resolve their disagreement peacefully.

    On the other hand, when two people who believe that morality is subjective come into conflict, there’s no way to resolve the conflict, short of force. That’s just what we’ve seen with religion, whose proponents appeal to their subjective beliefs about the will of God as the basis for their morality.

  • jack

    keddaw,

    That’s simply not true. Reason, along with empathy and normalisation*, allows us to overcome our gut instincts.

    First, be careful about the word ‘instinct’. It has a precise and limited definition in biology — much more restrictive than its use in common parlance — and the kind of feelings we’re talking about here, though innate, don’t qualify as ‘instinct’.

    Second, I don’t think anti-gay sentiment has the same kind of innate basis as does anti-incest sentiment. Sexual preference does, but that’s not the same as intolerance of another person’s different sexual preference. There is, of course, a compelling biological reason that most humans are heterosexual. Why a small but significant percentage are homosexual or bisexual is not fully understood, at least not at the level of ultimate (evolutionary) explanation. Evolutionary psychologists have some interesting speculations on the subject, but they are only that. I’m heterosexual, but the thought of two other men having sex with each other doesn’t creep me out the way the thought of a brother and sister having sex does. I can’t explain or rationalize these feelings. They’re just there. It’s mainly this difference in feeling that makes me suspect that anti-gay and anti-incest feelings have a different basis. Also, I have some specific thoughts on the origin of anti-gay feelings as part of religion’s tendency to control and suppress sexuality in general, but that’s a subject for another thread.

    The thought of a man having sex with me does creep me out — in much the same way and to the same extent as does the thought of incest, which is consistent with my argument that feelings about one’s own sexual preference have that same kind of innate basis.

    Of course you’re right that humans are extremely flexible and can learn to do or tolerate many things. I’ve never said otherwise. My point is that the gut feelings persist in those cases. Jim Jones talked his followers into murdering their own children, some of whom were completely helpless infants, but the audio recording of the incident reveals that at least one woman made an impassioned plea that the children be spared, and interviews with the survivors makes clear that they were, and still are, tortured by the experience of seeing their children die. The revulsion at own-baby-killing was there, despite the fact that people killed their own babies. That’s my point. We don’t get to vote on such feelings, and we can’t make them go away by reasoning about morality.

    There have been many cultures that practiced child sacrifice as part of their religion, but they couldn’t sacrifice a large fraction of their children and last very long as a society, the parents of the ones they did sacrifice surely felt some of the gut feelings we’ve been discussing, and it is those feelings that have made own-baby-killing a practice that seems not to endure as part of a stable moral system.

    Having said all that, I appreciate that most of the elaborate details of what we call morality are products of cultural evolution. Should society pay for every child to go to school? Should society pay for every child to go to kindergarten? Questions like these have a moral dimension, and they are things we get to vote on. But the question “Should we kill off 250 randomly-chosen 5-year-olds rather than build a new school and hire more teachers next year?” is not likely ever to show up on your ballot, no matter how desperate economic conditions become.

  • http://paulforpm.blogspot.com/2009/04/morality-exposed.html keddaw

    Jack, I am going to assume you have a sibling, most likely a sister. The reason I say that is that I do not and the idea of a brother-sister or sister-sister relationship does NOT creep me out. Male-male does.

    But regardless of my creeped-out-ness I do not take it upon myself to force others to avoid actions that creep me out when there is no harm to those involved.

    Your insistence that evolution has created a natural avoidance mechanism for the avoidance of incest is dubious. While it is an ultimately self-defeating process it is central to the two population bottlenecks in the bible (post-fall and post-flood) and has been fundamental in many royal families: the European royal dynasties and the Egyptian Pharaohs being two. This may simply be culture overcoming the gut feelings, but it isn’t quite as cut and dried an issue as you make out, at least to me.

    Just to take you up on a couple of your comments to Sarah (I’m not answering for her, simply giving my opinion):

    Compulsory vaccination
    It is in people’s rational self-interest to get vaccinated. If they choose not to then while some people who do get vaccinated will die (not 100% effective) a much greater proportion of those who avoid vaccination will die. It is a problem that sorts itself out eventually. At a cost!

    Race and gender discrimination
    I wouldn’t go to a store/company that practiced discrimination and I’d be less inclined to associate with people who did even if they themselves were not racist/sexist. Staff at companies who discriminate would be of lower ability and would, over time, be uncompetitive with those that promoted excellence rather than colour/gender.

    While I fully understand the problem, and accept that there would be pockets of so-called humanity where this would thrive, I think it would, over time, sort itself out since the main aim of companies is to maximise profits and you don’t do that by alienating the majority of your customers and keeping down your most able staff.

    Protection of the environment
    Anyone, or any company, polluting the environment impacts our liberty. Any externality should be costed and adequate compensation paid to those affected (or the problem fixed). This is one of the key roles of government (it could potentially be done through the courts, but that is too messy and the poor wouldn’t know to sue.) The fact this is not done properly at present (because politicians are bought off, in the US especially) does not mean it isn’t the right way to go.

    Your walk in the woods vs strip mining is more interesting, but realistically it comes down to who owns the land. Now I have an extreme view on land ownership (there shouldn’t be any) but in both scenarios there has to be general consent, either someone owns the land and can do what they like or the community decides whether the economic benefits of strip mining outweigh the ecological damage.

    But that is all moving away from the original point Sarah makes which is that we shouldn’t (or, imo, should minimise) legislate morality. And that (individual) liberty doesn’t belong in the same class as the other values that comprise morality since it is an enabler of people to live their values, unlike every other value that you could impose on people which restrict in some way the ability of people to live their values.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    jack wrote:

    I agree that Pinker’s article deals mainly with the “how” and “why” of morality, but the answers to those questions place important constraints on the range of possible answers to the “what” questions.

    Yes, in the same sense that physics prevents us from constructing a society dependent on unlimited energy or resources. And the way that logic prevents us from creating a society that contains two mutually contradictory premises existing at the same time.

    The fact that there are, realistically, constraints and probabilities influencing the contents of moral codes is simply self-evident. However, this is an independent fact that has little to do with confusing what is with what should be. (So would be the fact that people try to implement moral schemes which are largely or entirely infeasible.)

    Since it’s been much too ambiguous, I’ll lay out the structure (as I see it, anyway) of your anti-incest argument formally:

    (P1) The survival of the human race is an inherent good.
    (P2) Incest reduces the probability of the survival of the human race.
    (P3) No other inherent goods which override or overshadow the importance of survival exist.
    (C) Incest is wrong.

    It’s a logically valid argument, but deeply unsound. Every one of the premises is questionable. I challenged (P1) earlier. However, there is reason to doubt even the strongest of them (P2). After all, incest has existed throughout the course of human history. There is no strong evidence that it ever actually threatened the survival of the race as a whole, though I’m sure you would find cases where it strongly disrupted family lineages.

    As for (P3), it’s the worst by a wide gap. However, it’s necessary to eliminate any other influences on the moral calculus. Without doing that much, it’s trivial to show the argument invalid by presenting a moral value which is more significant than survival. However, because moral values like happiness, liberty, justice, and so on are rather widely valued higher than survival, it’s quite easy to see why this premise would be contested.

    I’ve also considered an alternate argument you seem to be making:

    (I1) Human nature is the essential basis of pain/pleasure/happiness in people.
    (I2) Happiness is the primary and most important goal for people.
    (I3) For most people, incest does not increase happiness. Rather, it typically reduces it.
    (I4) The most correct moral calculus is one which maximizes happiness for the most people.
    (T) Incest is wrong.

    This is, in essence, an extremely strict Utilitarian argument against incest (and probably one of the plainest). While (I1) is uncontroversial, and even (I3) is probably acceptable to many, there are huge glaring issues with the acceptance of (I2) and (I4). You most probably have already recognized that they’d be essentially exactly the same criticisms of raw Utilitarianism itself.

    Also, while (I3) may be a widely held view, and potentially even true for most societies on Earth, it is by no means given that it would be true for all societies nor societies that are likely to emerge in the future.

    There is yet another argument I feel as though you were trying to present, involving consensus, social organization, and democratic decision making — however, I wasn’t quite able to concretely formalize it.

    It’s not my gut feeling. It’s yours, and that of every other human who has a normal and intact ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Like it or not, it already is the basis of your morality. It operates at an unconscious level, as Pinker describes, but it’s there and inescapable. It explains why the idea of incest makes you feel creepy, and why you cringe at the thought of having to smother your own crying infant to save a bunch of other people from a killer who is tracking you by sound. We don’t get to vote on those feelings, and we can’t make them go away through reasoning about morality.

    Your confidence in the universality of moral views is honestly quite surprising. It is, indeed, your gut feeling. I don’t feel “creepy” or otherwise disgusted by the concept or practice of incest, any more than I have a disgusted feeling when considering homosexuality. That is to say, these feelings you ascribe to evolutionary reasons and brain structure never arose in me (or indeed, quite a number of other people).

    Homosexuality is a bit of a loaded comparison because of all the cultural baggage and political infighting that’s constantly going on over it. Perhaps you’ll understand the arbitrary nature of these feelings better with a comparison of the moral status of incest to polyamory. Both of these are typically illegal (in most countries, anyway). That indicates a strong sense of rejection on some level, but I would assert mainly an emotional level, by the population or at least the political leadership.

    However, are there any morally significant objections to polyamory? Keep in mind we’re not talking about culturally-promoted states of polygamy or polyandry, but rather any group of three or more people consensually involved in romantic relations and all aware of the existence of the others.

    Go straight down the list of typical objections and you find items such as: disrupting families, lack of loyalty, insufficient commitment, hedonism, encouraging promiscuity, spreading disease, … Does this list seem familiar? It’s precisely the same nonsense used to justify prohibition of homosexuality. This is truly remarkable: regardless of the actual topic of discussion, the objections given were the identical. In other words, the “moral” qualms in question have nothing to do with the nature of the the matter at all.

    keddaw wrote:

    I assume we can all agree that the pursuit of one’s values is a ‘morally good’ thing, for each individual at least, and therefore something society as a whole should be trying to allow each individual to do? If not the rest of this post is pointless…

    I give you a lot of credit for actually being able to recognize your own premises, which many are uninterested in doing.

    Where you go astray is in the presumption that one can simply adding (or integrating) each individual pursuing their own happiness with their own liberty will produce an accurate description of the end result. This thinking implies that maximizing liberty will also maximize happiness, and that is not at all shown.

    What one means by maximizing liberty isn’t really maximizing liberty in practice, and that is the problem. The real world is constructed of finite resources, finite energy, and finite information. What people who claim to want to maximize liberty actually do in reality is minimize restrictions on behavior. This has the net effect of making the powerful stronger and the weaker ever more unable to act.

    It is a necessary component to the usefulness of liberty that it is shared equally among the people. This cannot be accomplished in practice without constraining the wealth and capacities of the powerful. Perhaps more simply, you must first reject the idea that there is such a thing as the liberty to oppress others. Doing so will inevitably take one to the conclusion that it is necessary to take the power to oppress others away. And now we have a contradiction to the concept of maximizing liberty, because even oppressing others is one viable capacity to act.

    Ebon’s example of race and gender discrimination presents a concrete case where you can see this very dynamic in action. Maximizing liberty for everyone can, and often does, cause some people to have to have less real power even though their liberties are identical under the law. When enough people realize that the discrimination is, indeed, wrong, then and only then does it become possible to equalize the power gap by removing the power to act in ways which clearly harm others (and perhaps the functioning of the society itself).

    Of course, none of this indicates that liberty is meaningless, nor that it is inherently bad (or even neutral). It simply means that there are more values worth considering than strictly the power to act, and that the nature, causes, and effects behind an action are essential to understanding whether the liberty to perform it has any beneficial use.

  • Jim Baerg

    keddaw (#68) re: compulsory vaccination

    There are some people who for some reason (eg: immune disorder, being too young) cannot be vaccinated & they need protection from herd immunity. If the voluntary vaccination rate is insufficient to create herd immunity this creates problems. However, this usually occurs only because of lies spread by anti-vaxxers.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Uffdah. Ugh. What a mess. Seriously, I think I might puke if one more person uses the word liberty.

    First, I feel compelled to apologize. I really F’d up.

    I never should have mentioned my intended research pursuits for my graduate studies at the tail end of this piece. This is still a nascent idea that I am still mulling over inside my head, and that’s probably where the idea should have remained for the time being. I was just throwing it out there, but it took on a life of its own, and it got Frankenstein’d along the way into the most horrific creature.

    I had no idea it would take this thread so off the rails.

    People are so fixated on game theoretic models and liberty that they aren’t able to focus on the points that I was actually trying to make.

    I guess I should take it as a compliment. Love it or hate it — it definitely struck a nerve and got people excited.

    It’s kind of a shame though, because this could have been a great discussion.

    At this point, this thread is such a swampy morass of conflation that I think it may be a lost cause to try to extricate the ideas from one another in people’s comments.

    I tried to get it back on track, but the hounds had already been released, and by my own hand.

    Oh well.

    Sorry, guys.

    Basically, this is how this discussion is going:

    I say — moral and legal determinations are only ever personal and subjective, regardless of how informed one’s opinion is by reason and evidence and facts and data and science. It is unwise to pretend otherwise. The problem, as I see it, is that people tend not to be very amenable to compromise or persuasion when they believe themselves to be in possession of objective moral truth (not universal, but objective). Thus, our human history of religious war. Fun! This doesn’t mean, at all, that we are unable to create legal/political systems (with premises!) or advocate for our personal, subjective moral opinions. And, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have personal, subjective moral opinions. (Because moral opinions are only ever personal and subjective, they are unjustifiable and insufficient as the basis for legislation. We are still currently in a position of having to engage with the moral majority, but this is something I would like to TRY to do away with, if possible.)

    Then an opponent asserts — that’s stupid; you can’t create legal/political systems or advocate for your own moral opinion unless your moral assumptions are objectively verifiable. Otherwise, on what basis would you condemn someone else’s moral opinion?; how would you justify forcing people to abide by your legal/political system? I am going to use reason and evidence and facts and data and science to objectively verify my moral opinions. In this way we will defeat the religionists, because they won’t be able to objectively verify their stupid opinions.

    Or, as Ebon put it (I love it when you criticize my stuff — please don’t take any of this personally, but you are totally wrong):

    “If anything, the society-wide adoption of the notion of objective, evidence-based moral truth would lead to fewer wars and conflicts – because when there’s disagreement, both sides could agree that there is a right answer to the question, as well as the methods they’d use to find it. It’s the same reason that scientists don’t kill each other over plate tectonics or atomic theory: instead, they use the methods of science to resolve their disagreement peacefully.

    “On the other hand, when two people who believe that morality is subjective come into conflict, there’s no way to resolve the conflict, short of force. That’s just what we’ve seen with religion, whose proponents appeal to their subjective beliefs about the will of God as the basis for their morality.”

    And, it’s pretty much gone back and forth like that with occasional derailments about game theoretic models and liberty.

    I guess I have to say, Ebon, that the whole idea of opposing moral camps agreeing on there being a right answer to whatever moral quandary and how to find it using objective, scientific methods is a really beautiful image . . . that will never happen. Because each camp will go off and find the “right answer” that miraculously coincides with their previously held subjective moral opinions, because they will apply their own subjective value judgments to whatever facts and data they collect, because facts and data don’t yield the results “moral” or “good” or “bad” or “immoral”.

    The problem with the comparison to a group of scientists is that scientists study objective facts. This doesn’t mean that scientists can’t disagree. This doesn’t mean that our understanding of the objective material world doesn’t change as we learn more. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have to makes some premises about how we are going to approach the study of those objective facts. But, regardless, those scientists are still studying objective facts.

    When two people who understand that their moral opinions are personal and subjective come into conflict they may end up in a war, but they may also be able to reason with one another, because neither of them believes themselves to be in possession of objective moral truth. They may or may not be intractable, but there is at least the possibility for compromise and persuasion.

    The comparison to two religious people is totally false.

    The problem with two religious people who come into conflict is exactly my concern with pretending that we can access objective moral truth.

    Two religious people both believe themselves to be in possession of objective moral truth. This is why they will each be intractable in their opinions. This is why we are almost guaranteed that they will wreak war and havoc upon each other.

    Uffdah.

    Ok. I guess — go ahead and create your science of morality.

    Let me know how that works out.

    Maybe, who was it, keddaw?, is right.

    Maybe some “good” will come out of it.

    Remember — moral anti-realists can still use deontological language.

    But, after this thread, I think I may side with the error theorists that it’s just too damn confusing.

    Thanks so much to everybody. This has been great fun. I am going to bid you all adieu and go back to my life for a while, but feel free to rip this comment to shreds if the mood strikes you.

  • Sarah Braasch

    “We can usually count on Sarah to open the deepest can of worms :)”

    Awww. Thanks, Jack.

    I take that as a very great compliment.

    I just want to say, I love all the commenters here.

    The threads are the most fun when we disagree.

    I hope that no one ever takes anything that I write (too) personally.

    Thanks again for all of the amazing contributions.

    Especially all of you who are dead wrong. ;)

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

    And, it’s pretty much gone back and forth like that with occasional derailments about game theoretic models and liberty.

    So, your supposed answer to making an amoral legal system is a thread derailment?

  • keddaw

    @kagerato

    I give you a lot of credit for actually being able to recognize your own premises, which many are uninterested in doing.

    I’m simply playing along. My instincts tell me there is no such thing as morality and the pursuit after an objective standard is a fools errand. We are complicated creatures with brains that are part conscious and part not but both parts (and parts of those parts) have their own desires and they are constantly in conflict, often without our awareness and certainly out-with our control.

    Which is small beer compared to the mess everyone gets in when they try to define morality. We are having a massive discussion about a topic no-one has (or possibly can) define satisfactorily and so we could easily be talking at cross purposes. e.g. on Rust Belt Philosophy I am debating morality as I see it (collection of an individual’s competing values) and suddenly they have come out in favour of objective morality rendering much of the conversation moot.

    Where you go astray is in the presumption that one can simply adding (or integrating) each individual pursuing their own happiness with their own liberty will produce an accurate description of the end result. This thinking implies that maximizing liberty will also maximize happiness, and that is not at all shown.

    That would assume maximising happiness was the aim, something I have never said. However, it would maximise people’s ability to pursue happiness (in whatever form they deemed best). This is by no means the best (happiness-based) result, but it allows the maximum number of people the opportunity to attain the best result even if they ultimately cannot.

    But that is getting political and rather off the topic that people should not be attempting to use the force of the state, via law, to push their own narrow subjective morality onto the minority. The law should be a limited beast, limited to personal protection and property rights. And it should be by (common) consent.

    At some point though, there has to be a subjective (moral?) judgement about how one person interacts with another.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    I just find it interesting that you find my arguments a waste of time, yet you seem to be able to find the time to write comments here, for the purpose of ad hominem attacks on me and sweeping dismissals of anything I might have to say.

    I would never tell anyone not to contribute to a thread on one of my posts, but I would hope that you could find better activities to occupy your time and energy.

    If everything I write is so beneath you and not worthy of you, I would suggest to you that you not waste yourself on such stupidities.

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

    I just find it interesting that you find my arguments a waste of time, yet you seem to be able to find the time to write comments here, for the purpose of ad hominem attacks on me

    Point one out.

    and sweeping dismissals of anything I might have to say.

    No need. You did that yourself by claiming that your own solution was a thread derailment and therefore not worthy of consideration.

    Look, I don’t disagree with you in principle, I just think that what you want to achieve is not possible based on the strict rhetorical stances you’ve staked. You wish to disparage the idea of morality-based law, and you’re right in some sense, but you’ll be hard pressed to actually eliminate morality from law, because I don’t think it can be done and I’ve seen no proposal that will actually do it. Note, this doesn’t mean I’m advocating for Jerry Falwell to tell us all what is moral and what the law should be as you seem to think my argument is. If you truly want to work forward, increase understanding, find a workable alternative, and get people to see your side, making such accusations doesn’t do you any good.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Sarah, the reason people go so “off the rails” focusing on models, values, social governance, the origin of moral views, and so on is because that’s where all the challenges lie. Without discussion of those issues, all we’re left with is the concept that if people would just abandon their notions of reality having anything to do with their viewpoint, the world would somehow be a better place.

    One point I was trying to get across clearly in my first post to this thread, and evidently failed at, was that this ongoing subjective/objective distinction is inconsequential to the understanding of what morality is, how it works, and why it may (or may not) be necessary. With regard to convincing someone, there is doubtful worth to whether someone believes their viewpoint is well-supported by facts. This is because it’s not merely just as easy, but in fact much easier, to strongly hold viewpoints which are not based in facts at all. The ‘irrelevant’ aspects of discussion, on the other hand, help us understand why people are acting the way they are. This is naturally very relevant to changing minds.

    Ebon is being silly to say that having a moral code strongly dependent on findings of fact will somehow decrease conflict. It cannot do that, because there are still value determinations which influence how the facts are weighted against each other, and indeed which facts are ultimately considered relevant to the case.

    However, it’s just as silly to think that everyone believing their own views to be fully arbitrary would reduce conflict. People don’t stop fighting for their values merely because they begin to understand that given different circumstances they would have become different people. Nor do they necessarily fight any less hard or with any less certainty. After all, this epiphany teaches them that — by definition — no one has a more correct viewpoint than their own.

    This false dichotomy between subjective and objective is truly poisonous. Value judgments can’t be accurate without consideration of reality, and reality has no meaning without value judgments.

  • Michael

    @Sarah Braasch

    This essay is contradictory from start to finish. It is true one can study law and not seek to judge, except perhaps on how well it conforms with underlying principles-that themselves are morality-based. I am not at all sure that one can in fact “use deontological (moral) language without making moral claims.” Regardless, we cannot with this case, when any maker of law is without doubt imposing morality, whether or not they claim to be. A neutral after-the-fact study does not change it.

    Your criticism or legal positivism may be sound, and comparison to the NOMA position is intriguing, but the fact is no law exists which does not in some way impose a moral position. Even claiming pure neutrality is some kind of stance. Certainly, people who follow or enforce laws may claim to not be interested over whether they are moral or not. This does, in my view, mean they can escape moral implications. Such an attitude itself entails morality, whether they feel it does or not.

    I have to say that, reviewing your description of moral anti-realism, it seems they would have their cake and eat it too. Claiming that morality is only subjective, and thus law as well, may be true or not by itself. Not being familiar with moral anti-realism, I cannot say for sure but this is my take based on your words. You note the common objections, and moral anti-realist defenses. You recognize the moral anti-realist defenses “just seem like either fatuous delusions or disingenuous and specious sophistries.” Which seems to leave us with total moral relativism. I agree that “burying our collective head in the sand” does not solve anything, but this makes one want to desperately.

    Having not read Sam Harris’ book, I’m not able to say if his arguments hold water, though I know of many criticisms like yours. I can see the merit of Hume’s is-ought separation, and that of facts to morals. However…”our concepts of individual civil, constitutional, and human rights” are themselves, subjective, personal moral values, according to your moral anti-realism. Sure, questioning may indeed “provoke a societal existential crisis” but so did atheists such as us claiming religious morality had no basis. What objection is there, if all morals are only subjective? Ironically, subjectivism undermines itself facing people who adamantly do not feel morality is subjective, but theirs must be the one, true way.

    “Do we want judges engaged in gleaning nonexistent moral truth from the evidence presented in their courtrooms?” Excuse me? Just what happens in a murder trial, say? If evidence is presented sufficient to prove that a defendant is guilty, a “moral truth” about this is gleaned-i.e., their guilt, and the need to punish this. Any judicial decision follows laws, or interpretations thereof. Laws are mechanisms of imposing morality. You have not shown otherwise, and cannot.

    “The judiciary has been moving away from any incorporation of concepts of morality in judicial decision-making and as a valid basis for legislation.” Oh, don’t make me laugh. They may claim this, of course, but what in fact they do is prevent other people-who they disagree with-from imposing their morality. Traditional, religious morality, of course. Now do not get me wrong. I disagree with such “morality” too, but your claim they do not impose this is ludicrous on its face. Everyone wishes to wrap themselves in the appearance of neutral, objective, scientific, reasonable, fact-based justifications, but that does not change it. This is merely hypocritical
    sophistry on their part, whether or not we are in agreement with the specific moral claims. Your quotes make this plain: “A private moral view…is not a proper basis for legislation”… “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights”…”…those individuals’ moral views are an insufficient basis upon which to enact a legislative classification.” Please. What are laws but a “private moral view” imposed on the public, which they the majority shares (or not in some cases, as we see here). Define “rights.” Criminals are denied the “inalienable rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness constantly, on “moral disapproval.” The idea that “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code” is itself a moral code. The very idea that liberty is good constitutes a moral claim, etc. Our constitution, like all law, is nothing if not a list of moral claims with duties and penalties.

    The point, it seems, is that you cannot tell Scalia and that moral majority we both detest they are wrong, if everything is subjective. You may disagree with his own interpretation of the constitution, as he does with yours. Each interpretation though bases itself on subjective values, among them your preexisting morality. Scalia’s interpretation not coincidentally matches with his morals, as his disputing colleagues on the Court do with theirs. Pretending it does not have a moral basis would be, as I said, ludicrous.

    Your observation that facts may be interpreted many different ways is obviously true, which is the point. Subjective values, including morality, will influence that interpretation just as obviously.

    “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to care about my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbor’s personal, subjective moral opinion about my life choices, and I don’t think I should have to care. No matter how much evidence he thinks he has in support of his personal, subjective moral viewpoint.” Ok, but he has to care about yours, because you claim it’s “not” a “personal, subjective moral viewpoint” if your a judge? Come on.

    Your next statements about the best system of government in the US are themselves all morality-based, of course, and don’t pretend they aren’t, so I will skip ahead.

    “But, how to create a legal/political system, which balances the needs of the individual and society, without resorting to false notions of morality and communitarianism? I think the answer is to create a legal/political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.” Answer: you can’t. Because if there are no “false notions of morality” we have no reason to choose anything over another thing. Democracy/tyranny, secularism/theocracy…all morality.

    You then say we can make use of “game theory to maximize individual liberty.” Fine if so, but individual liberty being valued is of course a subjective moral claim itself. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but it has to be said whenever you try to escape that, which is all throughout the essay.

    “The choice of maximizing individual liberty is not arbitrary. And, it isn’t about creating a moral code, which holds liberty in higher esteem than the values of happiness or well being or goodness or utility. It also isn’t about a classical libertarian’s or an anarchist’s liberty fetish.” *Sigh.* Valuing these over liberty is of course morality as well, and the classical liberal or anarchist would argue liberty is at least partly the basis of these, not “over” them, but never mind. Let’s just dismiss it as a “liberty fetish” and move on. Right…

    “The interests of society will fall out of this exercise.” The idea that society exists, that it has interests, what they are, or they should be maximized are of course moral claims. This is getting very old, claiming something isn’t morality while busily going about establishing a (subjective) basis for it.

    “This is the case, because I am not free to live my life as I wish without a minimum threshold level of security and safety and order. I wouldn’t be terribly free to live my life as I desire in the midst of chaos or anarchy. I am not terribly free to live my life as I see fit, if I can’t afford to feed and clothe my children, if I’m dying for lack of decent healthcare, or if I can’t get a decent education. And, I’m not going to be at liberty to pursue my individual goals, unless there are minimum guarantees in place for my societal peers as well.” What…deriving morality by facts of existence? Dear Lord, that sounds almost like objective morals! I thought we weren’t allowed to derive morality from facts? Oh, and we get the conflation of chaos with anarchy (second use in the essay). I’m aware you like most think anarchy is a silly or even disastrous idea, but it must be pointed out that “chaos” is not their definition of this. Whether you think their idea will “lead” into chaos is another question of course, but still.

    “Unlike happiness or well being or, even, utility, liberty may be assessed objectively, not subjectively. Is one or is one not constrained in one’s physical behavior? This is not a subjective assessment. The vagaries of the mind are not in play.” I know many who dispute even that. “Liberty” or “freedom” could be used in many ways. For instance “freedom from sin” or “freedom from hell” through obeying God’s law. Not saying I agree with this obviously, but there are concepts which do not fall under the definition you give. If one views our existence as bad, they could even say one is “free” of life through dying. Just such a use is often made, as in “their free of the pain now” etc.

    “While I recognize that I can advocate for the creation of an amoral legal/political system, which employs deontological language, based upon my subjective moral viewpoint (which is informed by science and reason and evidence) that I wish to live in a society structured as such, without pretending to be acting under the authority of some objective moral/legal truth, how will I ever convince anyone else to adopt my approach?” The problem is not only convincing others, but the fact your system is not in fact amoral, nor could it ever be. None can, as I argued. It’s simple really-how can your system be amoral if you admit yourself it’s based on your “subjective moral view”? It simply does not follow. Plus there’s that use of “science and reason and evidence” again. Were we to use them or not? Make up your mind please.

    “This is like asking how the very first human society came into being. Or, like asking how life or the universe began. We exist. We live in societies. We live under human-devised governments. Societies evolve. The law evolves. Culture evolves.” Yes. To explain all of them, we had “foundational myths.” So where does that leave us?

    “Maybe we should be asking how we are going to continue to convince everyone to keep pretending to believe in our foundational myths.” We won’t have to, because for most any amount of cognitive dissonance or willful ignorance is preferable to what is seen as an existential horror of total moral relativism. You will have to convince them it isn’t that, and your arguments so far won’t cut it, nor from what you’ve said will moral anti-realism. Not.one.bit.

  • Sarah Braasch

    OMGF,

    I never dismissed my nascent idea. I simply said that fixation on the one idea precludes a nuanced conversation on the others. I may not succeed, but it’s not because I’m wrong about everything else I’ve written in the article prior.

    kagerato,

    “Without discussion of those issues, all we’re left with is the concept that if people would just abandon their notions of reality having anything to do with their viewpoint, the world would somehow be a better place.”

    I understand that you believe this to be my position, but my position is anything but this.

    We can discuss whatever issues you like, but I was specifically addressing how the fixation on this one idea was precluding a nuanced conversation about everything else. Like I told OMGF, I may not succeed, but that doesn’t mean everything else I’ve said is wrong.

    Michael,

    I don’t see anything new here. I’ve covered all this ground in my response to Ebon.

    Thanks again, guys.

    All the best to everyone who contributed to this thread.

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

    I never dismissed my nascent idea. I simply said that fixation on the one idea precludes a nuanced conversation on the others.

    You stated that your idea of using game theory to maximize liberty was a thread derailment. You’ve also fixated on the question of subjective vs. universal morality, so are we to conclude that you are precluding nuanced conversation by your own words and actions?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Here’s a great example, which explains why it’s so important to recognize that objective moral truth does not exist. You’ll enjoy this, OMGF.

    Let’s PRETEND that I want to kill or hurt someone.

    Let’s PRETEND that I hate this person.

    Let’s PRETEND that I think this person is a horrible person who has done what I think are terrible things to me.

    Let’s PRETEND that I hold this person responsible for the death of someone whom I love more than life itself.

    It is my subjective moral opinion that it would be moral to kill this person.

    I don’t think that’s a universal moral truth (change the circumstances, and I would probably feel differently). And, I don’t think that’s an objective moral truth (the evidence I have of this person’s demonic nature does not elicit the results — moral or immoral; they’re just facts).

    I also don’t think it’s either a universal or an objective moral truth that I should not kill this person.

    I am NOT going to kill this person.

    Why not?

    Because, given the objective facts at my disposal, I have come to the conclusion that it would be highly likely that I would be caught and sent to prison, and I don’t want to go to prison. This has nothing to do with whether or not I think it moral to kill this person, whom I would wish to kill.

    Does anyone still not think that it’s a good idea that I can distinguish between the subjective and the objective, with respect to moral truth?

    The point of the law is to define our interpersonal relations (or, define the boundaries of our individual liberty spaces — yikes), not impose our subjective moral opinions upon one another. The law uses deontological language in doing so. This doesn’t make the law a moral claim. The law is not saying that killing this person is “good” or “bad”.

    I have lots of evidence of the horrible (in my opinion) things that this person has done to me.

    Does that change anything? Is it evidence of objective moral truth?

    Also, can you see that even my determination of the law’s validity is a subjective opinion?

    The law forbidding murder is not objectively legally valid (moral, just, deserving of adherence).(Someone could just say (like the legal positivists) that it’s legally valid, because it conforms to the Constitution, precedent, the dictates of representative democratic legislation, etc., but that’s really just pushing the question back a level.)

    It is valid, because I think it is valid. It is my personal subjective opinion that the law is a legally valid law.

    Now, that personal, subjective determination of legal validity might be based upon my subjective morality, it may even be based upon my personal interpretation of a religious morality.

    But, it is still a personal, subjective determination.

    No one can prove to me this law’s legal validity with objective facts.

    Hell, maybe I even applied a game theoretic model to determine the law’s legal validity.

    Maybe though, you are like the legal positivists who cave at the end and say, “Well, if, at its core or at its creation, a legal/political system did not have as its aim justice, would anyone feel a moral obligation to abide by it?”

    This is where the moral majority steps in. Because the definition of justice is not an objective moral truth.

    Or, if, say, a single person devised an entire legal/political system, would it be possible for this person to do so, without making moral assumptions (at its core, at its creation), which the vast majority of persons found morally acceptable?

    TBD. But, at least we shouldn’t pretend that these moral assumptions are objectively morally true.

    A lot of people above in the thread said, “Well, that’s silly. Of course, we can determine objective moral truth; we’ll just act like scientists. We’ll just all agree on our premises ahead of time, how we are going to determine objective moral truth.”

    Well, since I get accused of begging the question all the time, here’s my turn to return the favor.

    That’s like saying, “Well, if we could agree upon our moral assumptions, then we would agree upon our moral assumptions.”

    Ok. So, let’s pretend that you did get everyone to agree on your moral assumptions (let’s say we all agreed on the definition of well-being), or that you relied on the moral majority opinion, does that make the results, the determinations of morality, OBJECTIVELY morally true? Not at all. The facts and evidence are not eliciting the results moral or immoral. We are only getting these results, because we have applied the subjective moral opinions (value judgments) of the persons who are agreeing to the premises.

    Now does everyone understand why it’s so important not to pretend to know things that we, in fact, do not know?

    Now does everyone understand the value of not pretending to be able to access objective moral truth?

    And, now do you see why I didn’t want to derail the thread on the very last point, when we hadn’t fully discussed all of the prior points?

    I hope so.

    Especially you, OMGF.

    And, for the last time — I think people should inform their personal, subjective moral opinions with evidence and objective facts. And, I have personal, subjective moral opinions.

    But, I don’t know how to make my position any clearer.

    So, if someone doesn’t understand or agree at this point, I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

    Take care, all.

    Best,

    Sarah

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

    “I am NOT going to kill this person.

    Why not?

    Because, given the objective facts at my disposal, I have come to the conclusion that it would be highly likely that I would be caught and sent to prison, and I don’t want to go to prison. This has nothing to do with whether or not I think it moral to kill this person, whom I would wish to kill. ”

    This cycles back to my original objection, and why this idea is really, really bad: you imply here that if you thought you could get away with it and not get sent to prison, you’d kill that person. And that that is somehow not only reasonable, but a PREFERABLE situation to someone who insists that it is an objective moral fact that you DON’T kill people in that situation.

    You would not want to live in a world that runs the way you want the world to run.

  • Michael

    Sarah

    I did not have time for perusing all 75 comments, and knew it would no doubt rehash some topics. However, I am not seeing how my opinion has in any way been inaccurate so far. Law cannot be amoral, by definition. If we accept your claim that all morals are personal and subjective, it will derive from this. No way around it, the danger you seen in claiming we have objective sources of it notwithstanding. Law=rules that are claims of morality. Not only does morality have a place in the law, good or ill, law “is” that. Morals imposed-but that makes it even more so, not less, morality.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Verbose Stoic,

    But, that is the world we live in. Like it or not. Aren’t us atheists the ones who always think it’s better to look reality in the face, come what may?

    Michael,

    If law is subjective morality imposed, which explains a lot of things, when you think about it, like war, for example, then wouldn’t it be better to try to create a legal/political system that isn’t subjective morality imposed upon others? Wouldn’t you at least want to try, instead of just giving up?

    I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. But, thanks for your comments.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Sarah,

    (1) Why the assumption that killing is wrong? I’m sure you understand the distinction between kill and murder.

    (2) Is it actually of some benefit to anyone else, or to society generally, that this hypothetical target survive? You gave no reason to think so.

    (3) This scenario essentially seems to suppose that one is restricting personal behavior based on fear; the fear of retribution in particular. This seems a truly awful way to control behavior.

    (4) The law’s validity is an opinion. Naturally. Similarly, the definition of justice is an opinion. There is no grand form of Justice awaiting us out there in Plato’s magic realm. There’s no general controversy here over these statements, or those similar in effect. I would ask that if you’re going to pick out particular commenters’ views, you name them. Or quote them.

    (5) We can’t necessarily always agree on what values to consider, or how to weight them. That’s no argument against trying to unify and understand values. That also has no impact on the reality of the existence of shared values, which provides the basis for society. Moreover, whether those values are deeply rooted to reality or made up on a whim has little to do with the strength of belief in them. In other words, both moral realists and solipsists can carry immobile views. Indeed, even moral nihilists seem to have substantial intractable positions.

    (6) At first, I thought your position was that we should actually make changes to the law based upon a system that models liberty using game theory. You seem to have utterly abandoned trying to defend that, so I’m naturally quite confused. Now I don’t even know what your intent is. Your recent statements aren’t concrete enough to have any idea what action you’re suggesting.

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

    Sarah,

    You were actually arguing there that it would indeed be better to live that way, not just as a “that’s the truth” but as a “it would be a better world”. It wouldn’t be.

    Second, I am quite sure that you don’t actually know that there is no such thing as objective morality, and you certainly didn’t prove that in your essay.

    Finally … I am not an atheist, nor do I think that what you say is necessarily entailed by atheism.

  • Sarah Braasch

    kagerato,

    From the very beginning, I have made my purpose clear — my main point has always been and is this:

    We shouldn’t pretend to know things that we do not know.

    You seem to agree. Where we differ seems to be where Michael and I differ. You would like to stick with the moral majority imposing its will and I would like to create a legal/political system in which no one imposes his or her subjective morality upon anyone else.

    Verbose Stoic,

    Again, allow me to repeat myself. The reality is that there is no evidence to think that objective moral truth exists. Can I disprove it? No. In the same way that I cannot disprove the existence of God. I think we would be better off if we stop pretending otherwise.

    I don’t think I’m entirely off base by saying that atheists tend to want to look reality in the face. This is why this regression into myth so disturbs me.

    As I’ve said before, I think a lot of it has to do with wanting to be able to say — look us atheists can create a morality too, and, moreover, not only that, but we can create a morality based upon facts and reason and evidence, and that will be so much better than your stupid religious morality.

    But, I love your comments. Thanks for contributing.

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

    Sarah,

    I had meant to ask this earlier, but let me ask now: what, for you, would count as evidence of objective morality?

    I don’t think it proven, but psychologically it would not be unreasonable to think that most people’s views of morality align quite well with it being objective, and thus when we do the conceptual analysis of what morality means it being objective seems to be there. Then again, there are the disagreements over what that means. But those disagreements aren’t enough to claim that there are no facts of the matter about morality, and that for me is where the argument between realism/anti-realism lie.

    Philosophically, there are good arguments for both sides. Psychologically there’s no real way to tell the difference, and if morality is a normative claim then there’s good reason to think that any empirical evidence simply won’t settle the question one way or the other. From my perspective, there’s no reason to say that we know one way or the other, and I think that we could prove either side correct (and philosophers/psychologists are really trying).

    In that light, if you want to look reality in the face you should probably start by recognizing that, right now, neither moral realism nor moral anti-realism have sufficiently proven their cases. And there’s no default to appeal to if we stick to the “fact of the matter about moral behaviour” as opposed to it being, say, a real thing in the world.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Verbose Stoic,

    Thank you so much for your last comment, because it aligns so well with something I was just thinking about, which kagerato had said, and which I was just intending to comment on.

    This idea that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or no — morality.

    kagerato said that she thinks the distinction between the subjective and the objective is irrelevant, inconsequential.

    Wow. Think about what that means.

    That sounds exactly like the religionists who say things like — it doesn’t matter if Jesus Christ was resurrected or no. It doesn’t matter if religion can be proven or no. It doesn’t matter that there is no evidence that God does exist. Billions of people believe that it’s true, so that’s just as good as it being true. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which it isn’t true.

    Really? That’s really what you think?

    As Hitch likes to point out — even if you could show that religion, by and large, had a positive effect upon humanity (and I certainly don’t think that you can), that would say nothing about whether or not it’s true.

    It’s that kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.

    And, by mess, I mean a world in which billions of people live in a make believe fantasy land.

    And, as Sam Harris has so astutely pointed out (I’m not anti-Sam Harris), these beliefs have consequences — devastating consequences.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Also, as I’ve said before, and I’ll be happy to say again, despite what I’m sure will be the many charges of repeating myself ad nauseum,

    The claim that objective moral truth exists is an extraordinary claim; it’s a fantastical claim.

    The burden of proof is upon someone making such a claim — not me.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Why have so many atheists abandoned their principles just so they can say that they can create an atheistic morality based upon facts and reason and evidence?

    I am utterly dismayed.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Also, I’ll just point out that the distinction between the subjective and the objective is pretty much the basis for the scientific method, which is supposedly going to be the basis for this new atheistic morality.

    So, I think it’s pretty important.

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

    Sarah,

    First, I don’t think anything in my comment implied that the difference between subjective and objective didn’t matter, so I’m not sure how my comment clarified anything for you. I certainly think they matter, and that’s at least one reason why I think the concept of morality aims at objective as opposed to subjective facts.

    Second, by what standard do you call the claim that objective moral truth exists extraordinary? This was something else that I probably should have replied to earlier. It doesn’t seem to me that there being a fact of the matter about what things are right or wrong is extraordinary. In fact, I’d claim that that’s the ordinary view of morality and how most people think of morality. Why isn’t the relativistic claim extraordinary? What is your basis for that statement?

    Third, you didn’t in any way reply to my question about what would, for you, count as evidence of objective morality. If you have no idea what might count, you have no idea whether or not that evidence actually exists, no?

    Fourth, still not an atheist.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Verbose Stoic,

    My comments about atheists, after you made it clear you did not count yourself amongst their numbers, were obviously not addressed to you.

    I think the claim that objective moral truth exists is extraordinary, because there is 0 evidence that objective moral truth exists. It is the same reason why I say that the claim that God exists is extraordinary.

    The difference between the subjective and the objective is the difference between a belief and reality. Between an opinion and a fact. Between what’s not real and what’s real. Ok. It’s real that you have beliefs, but that still doesn’t make your beliefs real, necessarily. (And, again, I take global skepticism off the table. That is a non-starter. There is a there out there, outside of my mind.)

    I don’t consider facts subjective. Facts are objective by definition.

    “It doesn’t seem to me that there being a fact of the matter about what things are right or wrong is extraordinary. In fact, I’d claim that that’s the ordinary view of morality and how most people think of morality.”

    And, as was discussed previously, there is most likely a neurobiological basis for your thinking this, which probably had evolutionary benefits, but that doesn’t make it true. And, again, just because billions of people believe something to be true doesn’t make it so.

    Why isn’t the relativistic claim extraordinary? Look around you at the world. Look at how people actually behave. This is why we need laws to define our interpersonal relations. Because objective moral truth does not exist. Look at how concepts of morality change dramatically, exponentially over space and time and across cultures. (The common retort is to say — just because people disagree about an objective fact doesn’t mean that the objective fact doesn’t exist. We will clear up these disagreements as we learn more about our material universe. But, morality isn’t cosmology. We’re not talking about the Big Bang. We’re talking about human behavior. Of course, you could choose to remain an agnostic about anything for which we have no evidence, objective moral truth or God included. We can never be 100% certain of anything. I can’t be 100% certain that there is a there out there, but, remember, I took global skepticism off the table.)

    I disagree with your assessment of there being equal weight behind both the moral realist and moral anti-realist camps. I think there is an extraordinary amount of evidence to think, with a high degree of certainty, that moral anti-realism is true and none to think that moral realism is true. Moral realism is myth.

    But, I actually don’t like calling myself a moral relativist, because it entails the implication that I feel that I don’t have the right to advocate on behalf of my personal, subjective moral viewpoint, that I think all moral opinions are equally good, and that is not the case. I like to stick with moral anti-realist. Your moral opinions are only your subjective opinions; they aren’t objective facts.

    And, regarding your last point, that’s an interesting question.

    Let me think about it.

    It reminds me of the pieces that both Ebon and Greta Christina have done listing out what would change their minds about the existence of God.

    What evidence would convince me that objective moral truth exists?

    I like that. Good topic.

  • Sarah Braasch

    “Why isn’t the relativistic claim extraordinary? Look around you at the world. Look at how people actually behave. This is why we need laws to define our interpersonal relations. Because objective moral truth does not exist. Look at how concepts of morality change dramatically, exponentially over space and time and across cultures. (The common retort is to say — just because people disagree about an objective fact doesn’t mean that the objective fact doesn’t exist. We will clear up these disagreements as we learn more about our material universe. But, morality isn’t cosmology. We’re not talking about the Big Bang. We’re talking about human behavior. Of course, you could choose to remain an agnostic about anything for which we have no evidence, objective moral truth or God included. We can never be 100% certain of anything. I can’t be 100% certain that there is a there out there, but, remember, I took global skepticism off the table.)”

    I just want to make it clear that I’m not arguing against the existence of a universal morality here.

    I’m just saying that the world looks exactly how we would expect it to look if morality is wholly subjective.

    If morality were an objective fact, which one could access through application of the scientific method, even if only applied locally, there would be a hell of a lot more agreement than there currently exists.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Verbose Stoic,

    I just realized how easy my answer to your question is:

    What would convince me that objective moral truth exists?

    Apply the scientific method to any given moral dilemma (doesn’t matter what it is or how big or small) and yield the results moral or immoral or good or bad.

    Also, why would there be a hell of a lot more agreement, if objective moral truth exists?

    Because being human means the same thing in the US as it does in Pakistan as it does in Mali.

    This is why, as Sam Harris likes to point out, we don’t have Canadian physics or Jewish physics or Muslim physics or Japanese physics.

    It’s just physics.

  • monkeymind

    “I just want to make it clear that I’m not arguing against the existence of a universal morality here.”

    I think this is an important point. Isn’t that what a secular society is all about?

    I agree with Sarah that there is no such thing as “objective” morality, but I disagree that there is really such a thing as “individual” morality. People are highly social. I would compare morality to language, in that it probably evolved due to the need to live in groups, there are certain universal commonalities, there are orderly processes and progressions that can be seen to be at work, etc. At the same time, each human individual’s morality is highly contingent on the circumstances in which he or she was socialized.

    I also agree with Sarah that the idea of “objective” morality serves mainly to strengthen the whip hand of whoever holds the whip. Even if you claim your morality is objective, it won’t impress me unless it agrees with my subjective morality. You can force me into compliance with your rules, that’s it.

    However, people rarely live in completely different moral universes, so you can work to build a universal morality that bridges different communities. A universal, secular morality, based on the simple but not easy concept that all people are people, is indispensable.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Interesting back and forth between Sam Harris, Russell Blackford and Jerry Coyne regarding the strengths and weaknesses of The Moral Landscape.

    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2011/01/harris-defends-himself-on-need-for.html

  • archimedez

    Sarah,

    I found your article to be thought-provoking, particularly re the distinction between morality and law, and on the issue of subjective versus objective morality, even though I don’t think I agree with you on either of these issues. I’m hesitant to say definitively that I disagree or agree with you, though, because, as I noted in post #2, I don’t think you’ve defined your terms well enough. I’ve read the follow-up discussion, and I am still not clear as to what you include in (or exclude from) the category “morality.”

    Your basic thesis is encapsulated in the title: “Morality Has No Place in the Law.” To me, such a sweeping categorical declaration literally suggests that you want basic moral concepts such as harm (i.e., harm reduction or avoidance), fairness, and equality removed from the law. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem likely that you believe that. Yet you suggest that you want all morality out of the law.

    (The Pinker article linked by jake (comment #36) discusses the basic moral concepts identified in empirical research, including, but not limited to, harm and fairness).
    Here is another discussion of the concept of morality: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/

    The concept of harm figures prominently in both law and morality. In the cases you cite in your article (e.g., Lawrence v. Texas and Perry v. Schwarzenegger), moral concepts such as harm and equality are mentioned again and again, and are central considerations in the judgments. In other words, they are taking morality into account in making their legal judgments. However, let’s look at the quotes you provide to support your claim that they are moving away from relying on morality:

    “The District Court in Perry stated, “A private moral view… is not a proper basis for legislation,” and “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights,” as well as “…those individuals’ moral views are an insufficient basis upon which to enact a legislative classification.” The Supreme Court in Lawrence decided that the moral majority may not “use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law”. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurrence in Lawrence was particularly scathing in its denunciation of the suggestion that moral disapproval, in and of itself, was a legitimate government interest. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, the Supreme Court made plain the obligation of the Court, “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.” Let us not take a step backward after we have made such strides to eradicate any notion of morality from our jurisprudence.”

    Obviously, they aren’t excluding morality entirely, in a sweeping and unqualified way, as you do. They are using the word moral or morality in a very limited and restricted sense, with conditions, qualifiers, and adjectives. They are using it in the context of referring to irrational, superstitious beliefs about homosexuality being sinful, though for various reasons they probably wish to avoid using that type of language. At no time do they say we ought to jettison concerns over harm and ensuring equality. On the contrary.

    I take your prominent reliance on the concept of liberty to be an inclusion of a moral concept in the law. I agree that liberty (or something like it) ought to be considered in making, judging, and modifying laws. I agree that it can be at least to some extent measured objectively, as can harm, equality, etc. I think you are in error if you believe that you are excluding morality from the law by doing this.

  • Sarah Braasch

    archimedez,

    I really appreciate your comment, and I also want to say that I really appreciate how you focused on the substantive issues at hand in a civil manner.

    The question I would want to ask you though is this:

    If we could devise a legal/political system that defines our interpersonal relations, without sacrificing the interests of society as a whole, but without categorizing human behaviors as “good” and “bad” (i.e. a system devoid of morality), given that our whole human history is essentially a litany of opposing moral camps waging war upon one another and the most powerful moral groups oppressing and terrorizing the less powerful, wouldn’t you at least want to try?

    You don’t see any value at all in at least trying to free our law of the horrors of morality?

    I think the court cases I cited are good examples of the judiciary attempting to free itself of the horrors of morality, but the courts are constrained by precedent and procedure in terms of how they frame their decisions. And, this is not a bad thing that they are so constrained.

    I think the courts make an excellent distinction between morality and the law, which is also my distinction.

    A law should have a purpose which is not the categorization of some or another human behavior as “good” or “bad” or as “moral” or “immoral”.

    So, I want to try my hand at making a legal/political system, which has as its aim, not justice, not goodness, not some moral aim, which, in my opinion, can only be subjective, and, thus, requires the imposition of the will of the moral majority upon all others, but simply defining our interpersonal relations, so that society can function without us imposing our subjective moral viewpoints upon one another (which makes it different than just standard utilitarianism, which doesn’t much care about not imposing upon people as long as it is for the greater good, but it’s not libertarianism either, because I want society to function as well).

    Now, the easiest point to make against this idea is to argue that no one would feel any sense of moral obligation to follow such a system, and I’ve already pointed out that I think that determinations of legal validity, just like moral determinations, are wholly personal and subjective.

    But, I don’t agree.

    I think the legal positivists are wrong in this regard.

    I would follow such a system.

    I think the vast majority of people would want to follow such a system.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    You would like to stick with the moral majority imposing its will and I would like to create a legal/political system in which no one imposes his or her subjective morality upon anyone else.

    Sarah, if it were my goal to promote moral universality through democracy, I wouldn’t even be in this conversation. There’s no reason to talk to you at all if that’s my goal. Please think about that for a moment.

    Rather, I try to further this discussion because I’d like to think there is a better system for law and justice than exists. I’m challenging you to present one.

    However, it would be careless and counterproductive for me or anyone else to start changing society on unqualified optimism. There’s no a priori guarantee that any alternative system is better; it may be equivalent or worse.

    This is why I struggle to obtain some kind, any kind, of concrete formalization of what your proposed changes are. However, the responses are consistently abstract, and seem to become ever more ethereal with time.

    kagerato said that she thinks the distinction between the subjective and the objective is irrelevant, inconsequential.

    Wow. Think about what that means.

    That sounds exactly like the religionists who say things like — it doesn’t matter if Jesus Christ was resurrected or no. It doesn’t matter if religion can be proven or no. It doesn’t matter that there is no evidence that God does exist. Billions of people believe that it’s true, so that’s just as good as it being true. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which it isn’t true.

    You misunderstood me, and then used that misunderstanding to make my position look ridiculous. Quoting myself: the “subjective/objective distinction is inconsequential to the understanding of what morality is, how it works, and why it may (or may not) be necessary.” That is not at all equivalent to saying that the subjective/objection distinction is irrelevant and inconsequential, always. However, the latter is what you record my position as.

    Also, let’s be very clear about something. ‘Christians’ who claim that it doesn’t matter whether Christ was actually resurrected, or even whether he was a real person…those people are denying the central tenet of the faith they claim to believe in. It’s honestly very difficult to see how the label Christian is even appropriate. In some sense, by calling them Christians, you adopt precisely the same nihilistic stance as them. It’s a statement that the meaning of the term is unimportant; that it is fluid, amorphous, and truly vacuous.

    That’s not my position. The meaning of words do matter, and their meaning is determined by context and a shared pre-established understanding. While the meaning of words can change over time, they are never changed by the actions of just one person. Some one else must first adopt the new meaning to legitimize it, and in most cases, many people.

    Nathaniel, all the way back in #3, made the point that language is both arbitrary and real. I think it more appropriate to say arbitrary and useful; arbitrary yet with particular meaning. Morality is much the same way. One won’t know, ahead of time, what sorts of values and norms to expect in a society. First, one must understand the context and structure of that society, in order to glean what would be useful. Second, one must know something about the history of the society and the nature of its occupants, in order to know what would be valued.

    Morality, like language, is a tool developed by people to facilitate group processes. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Calling morality meaningless, and advocating for the elimination of the very concept because it isn’t purely objective, makes no more sense than calling for the destruction of language. It should be self-evident why someone would expect a concrete proposal as to what would replace it.

    Here’s your homework, Sarah. Show how your new legal system will deal with the following very basic situations, without appealing to shared values:

    (1) A starving thief steals bread from a bakery.
    (2) The corporation “Profits First” dumps ten thousand barrels of toxic waste in the nearby river.
    (3) Shop-owner “Mr. Smite” refuses to allow Hindus into his establishment.

    At this point, you should be getting a familiar feeling. Such simple tasks were presented in the previous thread and never answered. I don’t know why. There’s no point in even having laws if you can’t resolve situations like these.

  • Michael

    Sarah

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, did you not claim that objective morality was non-existent and claiming to have it probably dangerous? So what is the point of trying? I apologize if that a mistake on my part. I just do not see how law cannot at least claim to define things as “good” and “bad” even if one does not believe these can objectively exist.

    If your argument is that law should be framed in entirely neutral language, such as “an intentional killing of another person is hereby prohibited” say, with the definitions and penalties, that still would imply moral weight, or else why prohibit this? Now, murder is something all societies universally at least claim to oppose (although there can be hypocrisy or exceptions over this of course). Other behavior has also been always been considered “good” and “bad” with the moral weight itself needing no codification in law, though the specifics will.

    Although your essay is on the nature of law, its origin was not delved into. This is potentially very relevant to your argument though. Would law in your view be through statutory imposition, probably by a representative democracy? Is common law better, or complimentary to statute at least? This relates to possible ways of realizing law, by a code which is generally excepted, supplamented with precedents, maybe the other way around, or both. Customary law is a possibility-judicial precedent can be part of this. Or do you assume the existing framework in the United States?

    You’re welcome to my comments, this has been a very interesting, stimulating topic for sure. It’s good to debate.

  • Sarah Braasch

    kagerato,

    Your comment, though appreciated, has left me utterly convinced that I made a foolish, foolish mistake in suggesting my fledgling, admittedly not fully fleshed out idea.

    I already told you it was a nascent idea.

    And, now you’re attacking me, because it’s a nascent, not fully formed idea.

    Instead of discussing, as I’ve requested numerous times, what I intended as the main points of the essay, you’re insisting on going after what I’ve already admitted is the easiest target, because it isn’t yet a fully formed idea.

    Whatever.

    It was stupid of me to expect anything else.

    I’m just trying to further the discourse.

    “Calling morality meaningless, and advocating for the elimination of the very concept because it isn’t purely objective, makes no more sense than calling for the destruction of language.”

    Yep. That’s right. Never said this.

    Yes, of course, imposed morality, like religion, is a useful tool of social control.

    Religion, too, many argue, was a result of evolving to live in groups.

    But, I don’t think we have to come up with a replacement for religion before we do away with it.

    In fact, I am not suggesting that we do away with morality. In fact, I don’t think you can do away with morality. Each of us makes value judgments constantly. You can’t do away with that. And, you can’t replace it. You say I am ignoring the group element of morality. That our individual moral intuitions evolved to allow us to function better in groups. In fact, I’m not. But, that doesn’t change its inherently subjective nature. But, you most certainly are ignoring the personal element of morality. It’s part of what makes us human.

    I am suggesting that we recognize it for what it is — a wholly personal, subjective exercise, regardless of having evolved in the group context.

    I am suggesting that it serves no beneficial purpose as part of our legal/political systems, and that we can extricate it, or try to, or minimize it, if we want to.

    I am suggesting that we have evolved past it. Or, at least, I hope we have.

    Also, legal/political systems rarely get replaced lump sum.

    Cultures and societies evolve over time, just as species do.

    We are moving away from a legal/political system based upon morality.

    It’s already happening. It’s happening right now, in our jurisprudence especially.

    Now, I see a lot of blow back against that.

    I see a lot of threats by the moral majority to revise our Constitution to establish a purely majoritarian democracy or to dissolve the US into religious/moral communitarianism.

    Which I also see as more evidence why we should want to establish legal/political institutions devoid of morality and communitarianism.

    Atheists shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that just because we have evidence and facts and science on our side that we’ll win the moral majoritarian battle. Not with the current adoration of the ignorant taking place.

    Better to change the rules of the game completely.

  • Michael

    I just looked back at the comments since my post before last.

    Quote: You seem to agree. Where we differ seems to be where Michael and I differ. You would like to stick with the moral majority imposing its will and I would like to create a legal/political system in which no one imposes his or her subjective morality upon anyone else.

    I’m not sure I understand. I certainly do not wish to impose the “moral majority” view (assuming there is such a thing). Indeed this goes to my question on the origin of law. I guess you oppose straight majority rule with making law, which I’d agree with. However, isn’t opposing majority rule for something else an issue of morality, i.e. the value of protecting a minority or whatever it may be? How can we have a system of law in which no one imposes their views on anyone else?

    It’s true wars are competing morals, even ones we don’t often think of this way, but even in “peace” such conflict occurs constantly. Whatever the method of law-making there is usually conflict. The more dictatorial actually the less disagreement, if only because this is suppressed (underground dissent will still happen).

    You have frequently voiced your opposition to libertarianism, and anarchism at one point in the essay, so that brings up an issue as well. If some will not agree to even the most basic government mechanisms (perhaps your very concept of “law” in fact) as per their morality, where does that leave us? Does not even the amoral law “impose” a subjective personal view on them? Who says what is best? If there is no objective morality, perhaps then any “one size fits all” view is rejected?

    Just to clarify so you know where I’m coming from, I agree that objective morality is unproven, impossible perhaps. Of course there are many competing theories of this anyway. I do not see how you mean to make amoral law though as I’ve said. Is there any kind of law which is not a moral claim? Per the last post I made, the origin of law (or even the definition) needs to be clarified. If we can define law as “the enforced rules of society” or something like that, its origin is still required. Now obviously you would oppose natural law or divine command theories for this.

    I am truly fascinated to hear more about your thoughts as to how your ideal law should or could be created. This is quite intriguing.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Michael,

    I really love and appreciate your last two comments and want to give them the time and attention that they deserve.

    I have to jump away for a bit, but I’ll be back later.

    To be continued . . .

  • Michael

    Sarah,

    I’m glad you like them, and look forward to continued discussion :)

  • Sarah Braasch

    Don’t hate me, Michael, I just wanted to pop in to say something, which I think is important to clarify, and which I just happened to be thinking about. Then, out again. And, back in later.

    The reason why the objective / subjective distinction, or real / not real distinction, is so important, when it comes to morality, is this:

    The existence of an objective, real morality is the justification for the imposition of morality. Ok. Not always. But, most of the time.

    Ask a natural law theorist how important this distinction is to him or her.

    Their whole theory of law is based on the idea that laws/morality (one and the same to them) are real and objective.

    I just wanted to point this out quickly, because I felt like people were missing the point about why the distinction is so very important.

    I do understand why the moral anti-realists, who nonetheless may be legal positivists who still can’t see a way around engaging with the moral majority at some points, may have a hard time seeing why I am hammering away at that point, but I still think it’s necessary.

    Ok. I’m out. Just wanted to get that off my chest.

    I’ll probably be back tomorrow and I’ll address Michael first.

    Thanks to everyone. Have a great night!

  • Michael

    Don’t sweat it Sarah, it’s no problem.

    Personally the distinction seems clear to me and the importance of it as well.

    Your observation with moral anti-realism fits with what I’ve gleaned so far.

    Can’t wait to continue this discussion.

    Until then, Sarah. Be well.

  • http://twitter.com/GGlick ANTLink

    Okay Sarah, you’ve convinced me. We shouldn’t try to make laws based on things we can’t prove to exist, like objective morality. Done. Now, could I please ask you to answer how your ideal, amoral, liberty-maximizing legal system would handle these hypothetical scenarios proposed by Ebon and kagerato?

    • Compulsory vaccination. It unquestionably reduces people’s liberty to force them or their children to be vaccinated against harmful diseases, even if this small decrease in individual liberty produces a much greater gain for society as a whole.
    • Race and gender discrimination. Under any ordinary conception of what “liberty” means, it seems to me, this view would allow business owners to refuse service to black people, or to deny promotions and pay raises to female employees. Is it not better for society as a whole to deny people the liberty to discriminate in this way?
    • Protection of the environment. It reduces the liberty of a fisherman to set quotas on how many fish he can catch. Should we remove those quotas, even if the foreseeable result is that that species will be fished to extinction? What about restrictions on shooting elephants for their ivory, or catching sharks to cut off their fins and then throw them back into the ocean, or killing gorillas and chimpanzees for bushmeat? Should factory owners have unrestricted liberty to emit CO2 into the air?

    (1) A starving thief steals bread from a bakery.
    (2) The corporation “Profits First” dumps ten thousand barrels of toxic waste in the nearby river.
    (3) Shop-owner “Mr. Smite” refuses to allow Hindus into his establishment.

    You have ignored Ebon’s scenarios since, well, since the last time this topic was discussed here, and completely glossed over kagerato’s in your reply to her last comment too, and I cannot understand why (perhaps you explained it somewhere and I missed it, or I simply didn’t get it due to poor reading comprehension, which is something I’m entirely willing to admit I may suffer from).

    I would really, really like to see some concrete answers from you about how your ideal legal system would handle these scenarios. Or, if you won’t or can’t, I would really like to know the reason for that. Is it because you think it would further derail the discussion away from your original points that you wished to focus on? If that’s the case, I believe I’ve conceded those points, and I would still like to hear your answers. I hope this isn’t asking too much.

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

    Sarah,

    A few points:

    First, you seem to be conflating “objective” with “scientific”. Thousands of years of philosophy disagrees with you [grin]. More importantly, a lot of really good philosophical arguments say that morality can’t be done scientifically, because it has to be normative and science can only do descriptive. Some disagree (like Sam Harris) but they’re not all that convincing, at least to me. So demanding that morality conform to science is ignoring a major underlying issue. You may be able to get objectivity without science (say, logic, which seems to be objective in the right way but isn’t discovered by science).

    Second, you say this:

    “We will clear up these disagreements as we learn more about our material universe. But, morality isn’t cosmology. We’re not talking about the Big Bang. We’re talking about human behavior.”

    But someone like Sam Harris will say that since we are talking about human behaviour, it depends on facts about the human brain. And there’s clearly much, much more that we need to learn about the human brain, and once we learn that we’ll get the objective moral values.

    And that’s not even considering people like me who say that while morals are objective and are facts, they aren’t facts about a material universe. Whether that makes me a moral realist or not may be up for debate, but I’m clearly an objectivist and clearly a moral factualist, neither of which align with your view.

    Third,

    “What would convince me that objective moral truth exists?

    Apply the scientific method to any given moral dilemma (doesn’t matter what it is or how big or small) and yield the results moral or immoral or good or bad.”

    This demand is problematic in two ways. First, recall that I asked for this because you were claiming that there is no evidence for morality being objective and that’s what makes it an extraordinary claim. But your demand here seems to ask for proof that morality is objective as evidence for it, which would mean that before we could consider it not extraordinary we’d have to prove it true. And that seems to abuse the principle of “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Even if that isn’t the case, you hit the second problem: there is nothing in any morality — objective or otherwise — that states that there has to be one answer to those questions. Take Utilitarianism, which I consider an objective morality. In cases where two or more options yield the same utility, there is no one answer to that case. Now maybe what you really mean is that it has to be able to give an answer, but that multiple answers are okay. Fine. But in that case Utiltiarianism and pretty much every other objective moral code does that, often in ways people intuitively recoil from. So you have it.

    About the only thing left is science, but then that whole normativity thing comes in and we aren’t sure that science can say anything about it at all, let alone that it’s reasonable to consider objective morality to be, ahem, objectively unevidenced and therefore extraordinary because science hasn’t yet weighed in.

    As for the world, your claim about how the world is only applies if morality is innate, not if it’s objective. Because without that the world either indicates that there are no objective moral facts or that there are objective moral facts but that people don’t know yet what they are. And I’d argue that how people treat morality indicates that they think it objective, for the reasons you yourself cite. I’d even argue that by how people view the concept of morality that it is not unreasonable to argue that if morality is not objective and if there are no moral facts that there’s no such thing as morality, because it seems tied that tightly to how people conceive of morality.

    After all, most people will recoil greatly from the idea that there is no objectively right answer to the question “Is slavery wrong?”.

  • Sarah Braasch

    ANTLink,

    Sure, no problem.

    I can apply a system, which is yet to be created, to your scenarios.

    It would be my pleasure.

    Just let me get into my time machine, which I haven’t built yet, and travel a couple of years into the future.

    Thanks for being a . . . , I mean, thanks for playing.

    (BTW, admitting that you are unable to do something isn’t exactly ignoring requests to do something, but keep asking, because I love it. And, it’s such an easy way for you to stroke your own ego, so, really, how could you resist. It’s like taking candy from a baby.)

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Sarah, you don’t seem to intend to discuss morality or law in particular detail. Instead, we’ve been going around in philosophical circles. I don’t find that productive or enlightening.

    Perhaps worse, I’ve found it too often the case that your response will be a claim that I somehow disagreed a position I actually held. This is truly arguing for argument’s sake.

    Unless I see some notable change, it makes more sense to me to break this cycle.

  • Sarah Braasch

    kagerato,

    I think you should only devote yourself to those pursuits which you deem both productive and enlightening.

    If this thread is not included in that category, then, of course, I would encourage you to depart.

    I am truly sorry to have so disappointed you.

    My aim in posting these essays and engaging in these threads is only ever to engage in and further a productive and enlightening discourse.

    I find it so, otherwise, I would not continue. (I could do without the bits, which serve no purpose except to antagonize, but that’s to be expected, and I probably shouldn’t let it bother me as much as I do.)

    But, to each his or her own.

    I wish you well. Take care.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Sarah
    I got the impression towards the end of the OP that Having stated you opposition to law based on objective morality that you didn’t have a fully formed mechanism for achieving the alternative. You have confirmed that in subsequent comments so it is a little unfair for us to ask for one. I suspect that your objective in writing this post was to solicit arguments that would assist you in developing your “fledgling” hypothesis, which is something commenters here should feel flattered by and it might have helped (assuming I’m right) if you had told us that.
    My take, for what it is worth…
    Part of the social contract we live by in a democracy is that we don’t get to apply our subjective moral intuitions to other citizens. In your example of wanting to kill a person who has wronged you to such an extent that you feel they deserve to die the social contract says you cannot unilaterally act on that belief. You have to bring that grievance into a public space and by persuasion and evidence convince an authorised body to agree that they are deserving of punishment. If you succeed in making that argument the same contract means you have to defer to that body as to the severity of that punishment. The way that contract is enforced means that you become subject to punishment if you choose to ignore it and take your own revenge. Now the law in most democracies is pretty flexible about this. Even if you take the most extreme revenge and kill this person, although you will not escape punishment the punishment you receive will most likely be mitigated by the circumstances; extreme provocation, mental instability etc.. As free agent in society you have a choice. Do you think the risk of any given punishment for breaking the contract is worth the satisfaction of settling your personal score? We’re now in your hypothetical territory:Game theory. You are in the position of weighing risks and benefits of certain actions and it is not necessarily a zero sum game. You may think that 20 years in the pen is worth the satisfaction of personally making your antagonist suffer and die and of course you might just get away with it altogether.
    But of course murder is an easy one. It is high on the pareto of crimes almost anyone other than a psychopath would consider punishable.
    So how about this case of a gay couple in England refused a double room in a British hotel because the owners christian faith meant they were offended by homosexuality and wouldn’t allow it under their roof. In the event, thus far the gay couple have won a discrimination suit and been awarded compensation, although the owners have been given leave to appeal. No “moral” judgement has been made here in the application of law. In the U.K it is illegal for a business to discriminate on racial or gender grounds and regardless of the owners sensibilities they are wrong, according to the current social contract. Where the moral decision has been made is in the framing of laws that prohibit gender discrimination and those laws exist because the social climate and scientific understanding of gender has arrived at a point where such laws are objectively defendable. The defendants in this case gambled. They would/should have been aware of the law but assumed that they would not get called on it if they broke it; again game theory.
    I think, the answer to your dilemma is not in the application of law but the success of your world view in the marketplace of ideas. Your aim should be for your subjective morals to be the majority view and create a society that makes laws you don’t feel the need to break.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ok. Back from the laundromat.

    Michael, dear, sweet, patient Michael,

    I just reread your first of two comments before I gave you a rain check. Now, I fear that this will be very anti-climactic. I’ll try to be provocative.

    I have been struggling with this, but, yes, I think democracy is flawed in this regard, be it representative democracy or majoritarian democracy, even one so constrained as ours (in the US) by the Bill of Rights and an independent judiciary to protect individual rights.

    Don’t get me wrong — I think a secular, liberal, constitutional democracy is the best thing we’ve got going right now, but I think it’s time to think about moving to the next step. And, I think we are evolving to the next step.

    The problem with democracy is that we are constantly in conversation with mob rule, constantly under threat of theocracy.

    The problem is, succinctly, morality and communitarianism.

    As Sam Harris so astutely points out — most people know nothing. Their opinions don’t matter, and we shouldn’t regard them as having any merit whatsoever. So, why do they get a say in how we live our lives?

    This is how this all started. Because I was thinking about how we can get rid of the moral majority.

    Sam Harris jokes that he doesn’t expect the day when supercomputers will tell us the solutions to our moral quandaries — I don’t expect this day either.

    But, I do expect the day when supercomputers will spit out our laws.

    I think we should welcome this. I don’t think we should fear it. I’d rather have a computer making our laws than my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbor.

    But, how is a law not a moral claim — saying an act is “good” or “bad”, even if a computer spits it out, and why would anyone feel a sense of moral obligation to abide by any legal/political system or law, if the central aim of the legal/political system were not justice, morality, etc., etc.?

    You don’t like my definition? Morality is the categorization of human behaviors as “good” and “bad” and law is how we define our interpersonal relations?

    I actually think this aligns well with the jurisprudence I had mentioned, and I like the way the courts framed the distinction.

    If you only want to say something is moral or immoral — basically for no reason. Then that’s morality.

    But, a legitimate legislative purpose might be — in order to create a functioning society, we are going to define how we interact with one another — not with the purpose of saying that any one or another act or behavior is “good” or “bad”, but with the purpose of creating a functioning society. So, we’ll make laws that say we’ll all drive on the right side of the road or not kill each other.

    Yes, I know that, ultimately, one would have to say that one “values” a functioning, ordered society. (Which wouldn’t have to be an objective moral claim — it could be an admittedly subjective moral claim, but it’s still arguably a moral claim. It’s for sure a value judgment — and this is the problem that everyone has with me saying that I want to maximize liberty — I get that.) But, stay with me for just a minute. At least at the ground level — would you say that such laws are moral claims?

    I wouldn’t. I don’t think laws saying that we’ll all drive on the right are moral claims. Even if they use deontological (moral) language. I don’t think the law is saying that it’s “bad” or “immoral” to drive on the left. I would actually go so far as to say the same thing about laws forbidding murder.

    This is very much in line with the way Joshua Greene defines morality in his dissertation, which is written in a very accessible style, and which I couldn’t recommend more:

    http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Greene-Dissertation.pdf

    He talks about how it is possible to be a moral anti-realist — to reject the idea of objective moral truth, and still see the value, to oneself, of creating/living under a legal/political system, which defines our interpersonal relations.

    But, even the legal positivists (well, many of them) cave in at the end and say, well, ok, we can move up the ladder, keeping morals and laws separate all the way, but, if, at its very core or its very creation, a legal/political system did not have as its central aim justice, etc., or if it did not incorporate basic moral precepts like equal protection, then no one would feel any sense of moral obligation to abide by it and it would be rejected.

    So, even if we reject objective moral truth, and we make a whole bunch of laws, which define our interpersonal relations without making moral claims, we still have to engage with the moral majority at some level, at some point, because we have to find a way to convince a vast majority of persons to accept this legal/political system.

    You know what?

    That may actually be true. If you went around and asked everybody right now? Want to live under a legal/political system without morality? I’m guessing most people would say no.

    But, that’s not really how societies evolve.

    It’s usually a much more gradual process than that.

    I think there’s a lot about our current US system of government on both the federal and state levels that would really surprise the founders. Especially the creation of a vast quasi-fourth branch of government in administrative and regulatory agencies, which lie somewhere nebulous between our legislative branch and our executive branch. They wield enormous power granted them by both Congress and the President. Much of what they do lies in an extra-constitutional netherworld. Many of them have their own judiciaries as well.

    Did anyone ask you if you wanted to live under that form of government? Did a new Constitutional Convention take place? Nope. That’s how governments really evolve. Usually.

    And, I think our judiciary especially, as I mentioned above, is evolving towards eradicating any concept of morality from its case law.

    I see this as a good thing.

    That’s why I get so worried when I hear about atheists who want to create an atheistic morality based upon reason and evidence and science and facts, because they think they can access objective moral truth via science.

    Because #1 you can’t. (IMHO) and #2 just because atheists have science on their side shouldn’t make them think that they can win the moral majoritarian battle and #3 all of my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbors just got really excited, because they think they have lots of evidence for their subjective moralities too.

    Does that make sense?

    I appreciate your comments so much.

    I hadn’t actually reread the second one.

    But, I just covered a lot of ground, so I probably covered some, if not all, of that one too.

    I’ll double check after I post this.

    Thanks again. If you still want to argue, feel free.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    But, I do expect the day when supercomputers will spit out our laws.

    GIGO?

    So, we’ll make laws that say we’ll all drive on the right side of the road or not kill each other.

    But the left side is the right side, at least it is over here. Moral relativism?

    Sorry, specious contribution but I couldn’t resist :)

  • Sarah Braasch

    Michael,

    I find your second comment so intriguing, and I want to give it some more thought.

    I’ll paste here:

    If some will not agree to even the most basic government mechanisms (perhaps your very concept of “law” in fact) as per their morality, where does that leave us? Does not even the amoral law “impose” a subjective personal view on them? Who says what is best? If there is no objective morality, perhaps then any “one size fits all” view is rejected?

    I should probably vacate for a while, but, I guess the out I had given myself on this one was two-fold.

    #1 — I said, well, even if I can’t create an entirely “amoral” legal/political system, if at some point I am smuggling in a personal, subjective value somewhere, then at least I recognize that it is a subjective value judgment, and I’m not “imposing” it upon anyone, because all determinations of legal validity are also subjective. No one can prove to me using objective facts that a law is legally valid (moral, just, worthy of adherence) and the same holds true for a legal/political system in its entirety. I decide to abide by a law or a system or no.

    #2 — And, as far as those who reject the notion of law — anarchists? Well, I certainly wasn’t suggesting with my idea that laws wouldn’t exist and that sanctions wouldn’t exist. It’s just that the laws are not meant to impose morality but simply to define our interpersonal relations. So, for anyone who broke the law, there would be sanctions. But, I don’t see this as imposing any other morality upon the individual except, like you mention, if you reject completely the idea of living under a legal/political system. So, I guess, yes, technically, then, an anarchist would be imposed upon, but no more and no less than anyone else who broke a law. So, in my view — the system is still “amoral” — the laws define our interpersonal relations; they don’t impose a moral view.

    Compliance would be no different than it is now. Some people comply out of habit. Some comply out of fear. Some comply because they see a personal benefit. Some comply out of a sense of moral obligation. Some apply a game theoretic model.

    I wasn’t so concerned with compliance and sanctions as the process of legislation. Like I said — my goal has always been to do away with the moral majority. I want to free the legislative process from morality and communitarianism.

    Let me give it some more thought.

    But, I am really enjoying this train of thought.

    Take care.

    Back soon.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Steve,

    I love your specious contributions. I’m going to get to your comment soon.

  • http://twitter.com/GGlick ANTLink

    Sarah wrote:

    Sure, no problem.
    I can apply a system, which is yet to be created, to your scenarios.
    It would be my pleasure.
    Just let me get into my time machine, which I haven’t built yet, and travel a couple of years into the future.
    Thanks for being a . . . , I mean, thanks for playing.
    (BTW, admitting that you are unable to do something isn’t exactly ignoring requests to do something, but keep asking, because I love it. And, it’s such an easy way for you to stroke your own ego, so, really, how could you resist. It’s like taking candy from a baby.)

    If my post sounded like ego-stroking, I apologize; that wasn’t my intention at all. Nor am I trying to make you look foolish by getting you to admit you are unable to do something. No, I really do just want to know how the system you are trying so hard to convince us to implement would function in real-life scenarios. Of course that system doesn’t exist now, but are you telling us that you really can’t imagine how it would work if it did? Not even on an extraordinarily simplified, idealized level? Am I missing something here? If you don’t even know what your system would look like in practice, how do you know we’re not already using the closest possible real-world implementation of it now (like what Scotlyn said back in comment #39)?

    Look. I’m not a lawyer, a legal student, or even a seasoned debater. I’m much more of an ignorant lay-person than any of the brilliantly intelligent people writing here, including you. I’m not trying to attack your position; as I said in my earlier comment, you’ve already convinced me of its merit. I’m on your side. All I want to know is, if you got what you’re fighting for, what would happen next? How would it play out in society? If anyone could answer these questions, it seems to me like it would be you, the one who came up with this new system and is fighting to realize it. So why are you unable to do so? And why do you not see that as a problem?

  • Sarah Braasch

    Verbose Stoic,

    First of all, wow. Smug, self-satisfied grinning. I wish I felt that confident and secure in my position. It must be nice.

    I post here and engage in debate here in order to learn.

    In fact, if you bother to look at the number of conversations we’ve had on this topic here, you’ll notice that my position has altered significantly.

    Next — and all of this philosophical evidence for objective moral truth is? Where exactly? And, don’t forget, I count myself amongst the moral anti-realists. So, I don’t think you have any.

    Also — logic may be objective in one sense, but not in the sense that I mean. Logic, like M/string theory may work out beautifully on paper/in your mind/mathematically, but if it bears no relationship to the real world, then, for my purposes here, it’s about as interesting to me as canon law.

    Thousands of years of religion disagrees with me as well, but that doesn’t hurt my feelings either.

    Even if you arguably had piles upon piles of philosophical evidence for objective moral truth, you would still have to contend with the objective fact that the world looks and runs exactly as we would expect it to if morality is an entirely personal, subjective exercise, and not at all as we would expect if objective moral truth exists.

    Your second point –

    I am actually equally unimpressed with any claims that studying the brain will magically discover our objective moral truths.

    Sure. We can study the brain. Sure, we can determine the neurobiology responsible for our most basic moral precepts. Sure, we can study how these precepts evolved to help us live in groups.

    We can learn everything there is to know.

    Doesn’t say anything about objective moral truth.

    I think a lot of things and have a lot of evolutionarily programmed instincts / intuitions with a neurobiological basis.

    Doesn’t make a one of them true.

    (I’m not even going to broach the subject again about how much none of us should want a morality based upon biology or evolution.)

    Your third point –

    Ok. Great. I told you what would convince me that objective moral truths exist. Or, what evidence would make me call my disbelief in objective moral truth into question. I’m not really interested in playing semantics games.

    You asked. I answered. Sorry that you don’t like my answer.

    Your point about Utilitarianism is another digression.

    I think we both know, and so does everyone else reading this comment, what we both mean when we say “objective moral truth”. Sure, Utilitarianism gives an answer and Libertarianism gives an answer and all kinds of other isms give answer/answers. But, we want the objectively morally right answer, or range of answers. The one. It doesn’t have to be universally true. But, for that set of circumstances in that moment, it has to be objectively morally true. Not up for debate. Not dependent upon one or another person’s viewpoint. Not an opinion. But, an objective, indisputable fact.

    Finally — the world:

    What most people think about most anything says nothing about whether or not those things are true. (But, I actually disagree. I don’t think nearly as many people recoil from slavery, rape, torture, incest, murder, etc., etc., as everyone seems to like to think. You learn this quite quickly when you work in human rights.)

    So, then, let’s go with objective moral facts exist allegedly, but no one seems to know what the hell they are.

    And, we’re back to hanging out with the Tooth Fairy and Yahweh.

  • Sarah Braasch

    ANTLink,

    Ok. Sorry. I think I was feeling a little under siege and may have lashed out a bit harshly.

    I think a lot of these concerns will fall out of the exercise.

    Why? Because I’m not that free to live my life as I might wish to if my society is in ruins, without order, safety, security, social safety nets, for myself and others. I’m not terribly free if I’m starving to death, dying for lack of healthcare, uneducated, unemployed, etc., etc., or if my water source is polluted, or whatever else.

    It’s why I’m not that free, even as a man, to live my life as I wish, in lawless countries.

    But, not having conducted the exercise, not having even begun conducting the exercise yet, I can’t really say much more about it than that.

    I’m really not understanding why everyone is having a hard time with this.

    Is it really so devastating to talk about something in theory, as a hypothetical?

    This is the fun part. We can imagine whatever we like, play.

    Regarding racial discrimination, etc.:

    Most people see these issues only as moral issues.

    We have to end racism, sexism, just because it’s bad, because it is, because it’s a moral imperative.

    I think that’s a really lousy reason to do anything.

    Usually, I think of these types of issues as issues of optimizing our democracy / minimizing power differentials amongst groups / identities.

    But, since I’m trying to do away with morality and communitarianism in the legislative process (basically trying to get rid of the majoritarian part of our democracy) –

    A lot of “bad” isms will fall by the wayside. I hope.

    Because, there’s nothing to gain. What would be the point?

    Right now — we reward people for engaging in moral/religious/racial/national/ethnic communitarianism (of whatever type) with electoral power.

    Of course, we’ll still have sexism, until we get those artificial uterus machines and make babies in factories.

    Not a great system for fostering cohesion and unity.

    What more do you want me to say?

    I am neither a game theorist nor a philosopher (yet).

    I am teaching myself game theory, and I am planning on going to grad school this fall to get a philosophy PhD, starting with an MA, because my undergrad is actually in engineering, not philosophy, not even close. And, as most of you know, I graduated from law school not long ago.

    I’ve been reading a ton of essays and articles by moral anti-realist philosophers and legal positivists and game theorists, but pretty much everything I’ve learned is in this piece.

    So, there’s really very little that I can say right now.

    It’s just an idea.

    But, there are people doing work in this field.

    Really interesting work.

    But, I still think there is a ton of room for innovation in this area.

    So, I’m super excited.

    And, succeed or fail, I think interesting things will come of the effort.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ok, I’m out.

    Steve, we’ll talk later. I think I’ll have to get to your comment tomorrow.

    I have to go back to my life for a while.

    Thanks everybody. I really, really appreciate all of your contributions.

    Bye.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I just wanted to say, as much as I appreciate the contributions of all, I’m just not going to engage in sniping contests with people anymore.

    I know, I gave back in kind, but it’s hard not to.

    But, it’s aggravating and enervating and I have better things to do with my time. And, it’s really just not a necessary part of the learning process, even though we’ve been led to believe, seemingly, that it is, at least, in the online world.

    So, in the future, write all of the catty, sniping, smug, and disdainful comments you like, but I’m not going to respond to them.

    If you want a response, be civil.

    And, I’ll be civil in turn.

    But, I really do think all of the commenters here are terrific and brilliant and thanks again.

    I have learned an incredible amount from my participation here, and I am so happy that DA and I found each other. Thanks, Ebon. You’re the best.

  • Michael

    Sarah:

    Patience is my name, lol.

    There is no perfect system, all we can hope for is what seems to be the best, though of course people are hardly agreed what that is, no more than anything else.

    Quote: As Sam Harris so astutely points out — most people know nothing. Their opinions don’t matter, and we shouldn’t regard them as having any merit whatsoever. So, why do they get a say in how we live our lives?

    Well, they certainly disagree about that as you know. They would say that about us as well, since our views are in the minority, as to atheism (or liberalism, since most seem atheists seem to be liberals too, US sense of the word). The reason such people have a say in our lives is representative democracy. If that is a flaw of it, then its entire structure is flawed, which I personally agree with. I must point out that framing it this way is a sure way to alienate them as well. The word “elitist liberal” will come to my mind for them.

    Quote: This is how this all started. Because I was thinking about how we can get rid of the moral majority.

    I don’t see how we can. A) People will always have moral views. B) There will always be a majority view. C) The minority(ies) will by definition not agree with this. In some places, states of the US included, people who share your views have a majority. They are thus a “moral majority.” It’s mistaken to equate any “moral majority” with the views of the Moral Majority, TM, that former organization which shared the name and in fact did not have such a national majority. There can be other majorities.

    Quote: But, I do expect the day when supercomputers will spit out our laws.

    I think we should welcome this. I don’t think we should fear it. I’d rather have a computer making our laws than my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbor.

    One question: who informs the supercomputer? This is an idea I have been fascinated by, and in my view it’s flawed. If, as we agree, there is no objective morality, or at least none everyone agrees to, how will the supercomputer decide? If this is AI and thinks for itself, where does its morality come from? Most likely, as with ours, its own core programming (genetics for us) and experience. The supercomputer will have a subjective moral view that others have no reason to accept over theirs. Or if the supercomputer is not an AI, it will simply reflect whoever programs and feeds data into it. My point: a supercomputer may be more able to calculate the effect of laws, their consistency, etc. but it still cannot determine them at the beginning. In either case, the law will still be a moral claim, whether spit out by a super-computer or anyone else.

    Quote: You don’t like my definition? Morality is the categorization of human behaviors as “good” and “bad” and law is how we define our interpersonal relations?

    I have no problem with your definitions. My disagreement is with your view that defining our interpersonal relations can be somehow detached from morality, whether claimed to be subjective or not. Everything about our interpersonal relations is a series of (competing) moral claims.

    I’m sorry, but what the courts essentially said, in my view, was that: “Your morals do not constitute a valid ground for law. We need something more.” Yet what more exactly is there? To my mind there is a hidden assumption: your view is subjective and wrong, ours is informed by something more…i.e. “objective.” Now as I said I’m not disagreeing with the actual conclusions per se. I see it as hypocritical though, in that all interpretations of what the 14th Amendment means must be done by the judges, who of course have subjective, biased opinions. Every interpretation theory, whether original intent or understand, textualism, living constitution, etc. is followed by different judges, and it not coincidentally matches with their personal views. This is not surprising.

    For instance, the US Supreme Court in a series of cases has ruled the death penalty is unconstitutional due to an interpretation of the 8th Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Now, the criteria used was “evolving standards of decency,” in the living constitution theory. Now, who’s evolving standards of decency exactly? Most people in the US? A national “moral majority” then? Certainly not in the states where these death sentences were passed on the prisoners. Liberals invariable go for the living constitution theory, conservativess for textualism or either originalist theory. Again, not coincidentally, these best support their personal views.

    Justice Scalia (of course) supports textualism and original understanding. Hence, the “cruel and unusual punishment” standard, in his view, does not hold for merely putting to death minors or the mentally ill/disabled, except in the latter case if they are completely incapable of understanding their action. How do we “prove” one view or the other wrong, without some objective morality? I contend we cannot. Hence the base hypocrisy of the Lawrence and Perry courts poo-pooing using morality to inform the law, as we all do that. I say this even though in this case the decisions they reached coincide with my subjective moral views-i.e. consensual homosexual sodomy and same-sex marriage should be legal. Being consistent, I must call this what it is-opinion, which we call our judicial rulings anyway.

    Sorry that was a long explanation, but it expands on my view. If it hasn’t become obvious I should mention I’m a legal professional by degree (paralegal, unemployed) so I’ve had some familiarity with these concepts and time to reflect on them.

    Quote: I don’t think laws saying that we’ll all drive on the right are moral claims. Even if they use deontological (moral) language. I don’t think the law is saying that it’s “bad” or “immoral” to drive on the left. I would actually go so far as to say the same thing about laws forbidding murder.

    Well, deciding the rule is to drive on the right as opposed to the left is not a moral claim, no but:

    Quote: So, we’ll make laws that say we’ll all drive on the right side of the road or not kill each other.

    There’s the moral claim. Whether it’s right or left we drive on is irrelevant-we can flip a coin for that bit. The moral claim is before that. I can’t see how an issue of murder can be anything except a moral claim, however.

    I meant to ask for that dissertation you mentioned: thanks for the link.

    Quote: He talks about how it is possible to be a moral anti-realist — to reject the idea of objective moral truth, and still see the value, to oneself, of creating/living under a legal/political system, which defines our interpersonal relations.

    I can agree with that, but the idea that law could be “amoral” makes no sense.

    As to legal positivism, this goes back to your supercomputer idea. One could give the supercomputer a Utilitarian framework, say, as your “constitution”, in which it might be able to give you laws that best follow it. However, that supercomputer (assuming it doesn’t think for itself) can only give you a pure legal positivist answer: “This statute does not contradict the constitution” or “this is what the constitution says.” Even then however different interpretation theories will come into play. Is our supercomputer to be originalist, textualist, living constitution theorist? How can we get away from such problems?

    I would say you must convince the moral majority of your claims, unless some kind of minority dictatorship is to occur, which you obviously do not want. Otherwise it may not last long.

    Obviously if you asked people whether then wanted to live under a legal/political system without morality they would not only say no, but not understand how that could even work. I would be one of them, as I’ve said.

    I agree with all the points you made on how societies evolve, and this reflects the changing moral standards, whether the minority or majority at work. Of course much law existing now would surprise the Founders, not to mention outrage them. Our regulatory state of course, but also certain modern things like equal rights.

    Quote: Did anyone ask you if you wanted to live under that form of government? Did a new Constitutional Convention take place? Nope. That’s how governments really evolve. Usually.

    This is exactly why social contract theory has no merit, in my view. People (mostly) want a government, but not the one they get. As you say, they evolve on their own. I think not “usually” it occurs this way, but always. Whether that’s good or bad is of course an entirely separate issue.

    Quote: And, I think our judiciary especially, as I mentioned above, is evolving towards eradicating any concept of morality from its case law.

    I have of course disagreed with this, and it reflects my point about “evolving standards of decency” which is the standard used by living constitution theorists, who spuriously claim that “personal morality is no basis for legislation” while of course what they really mean is “your” personal morality. Their own view, as ever, is tacitly seen to be the True Way. Of course their opponents, with the old moral views, have the same idea. Again, this is not surprising.

    Quote: That’s why I get so worried when I hear about atheists who want to create an atheistic morality based upon reason and evidence and science and facts, because they think they can access objective moral truth via science.

    Because #1 you can’t. (IMHO) and #2 just because atheists have science on their side shouldn’t make them think that they can win the moral majoritarian battle and #3 all of my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbors just got really excited, because they think they have lots of evidence for their subjective moralities too.

    I understand this view, it does make sense. However, my point (as you reflected yourself with the question of people accepting allegedly “amoral” law) is that foundational myth is always with us. Repugnant as it may be, a theory of law based on the “noble lie” might be necessary. In other words, a moral anti-realist will not convince many people, so they may have to “pretend” there is objective morality. Pious fraud, we may say. I’m not recommending, just stating an observation.

    I’ll keep commenting, discussing (arguing?). This is quite interesting.

    On your second post:

    Quote:
    #1 — I said, well, even if I can’t create an entirely “amoral” legal/political system, if at some point I am smuggling in a personal, subjective value somewhere, then at least I recognize that it is a subjective value judgment, and I’m not “imposing” it upon anyone, because all determinations of legal validity are also subjective. No one can prove to me using objective facts that a law is legally valid (moral, just, worthy of adherence) and the same holds true for a legal/political system in its entirety. I decide to abide by a law or a system or no.

    While no one may be able to prove laws are valid or invalid, your idea that a law will not be imposed does not follow. A law must be imposed (enforced) or it would be a recommendation. The difference being “thou shalt not murder, because I feel it’s not nice” versus “do not murder (however defined) or you will be put to death, sent to prison for life (whatever the punishment may be)”. Obviously we decide to obey or not, but my feeling is that a system of law which claims no moral basis will have little if any persuasive value. In other words, people will seek to replace it with one they feel to be moral, which is of course subjective.

    Quote: #2 — And, as far as those who reject the notion of law — anarchists? Well, I certainly wasn’t suggesting with my idea that laws wouldn’t exist and that sanctions wouldn’t exist. It’s just that the laws are not meant to impose morality but simply to define our interpersonal relations. So, for anyone who broke the law, there would be sanctions. But, I don’t see this as imposing any other morality upon the individual except, like you mention, if you reject completely the idea of living under a legal/political system. So, I guess, yes, technically, then, an anarchist would be imposed upon, but no more and no less than anyone else who broke a law. So, in my view — the system is still “amoral” — the laws define our interpersonal relations; they don’t impose a moral view.

    Certain anarchists might reject the idea of law itself (their views on this are diverse, like everyone’s) but note I said “your” concept. So for instance there are many people that reject any notion of secular law, in favor of what they feel is divinely ordained. However even many atheists believe in a (godless, in their case)natural law theory, which you disagree with. Law will of course need penalties, as I said above, or it’s just recommendations (the joke of “the ten commandments, not the ten suggestions” come to mind typing that). Humor aside, if one has penalties, there is by definition imposition. Now just an anarchist but anyone who disagrees with the law is then imposed upon. Whatever they include, anyone who feels opposite to it has been imposed upon if penalized (sanctions is a pleasant euphemism). My view, as I’ve repeated throughout, is that defining our interpersonal relations “necessarily” imposes moral views, however they may claim to be derived. If one says “thou shalt not murder” that is a moral view: murder is bad. Rules of the road mean a moral view that it’s bad to not have them.

    Obviously, compliance to law will always be for many different reasons. However I must say that compliance in most cases is based on fear of penalty. In a game theory equation, if there is little to no chance of penalty, most will happily violate the law (running a red light is an example). Most will probably not murder, as they have a strong objection to this anyway, but some would, and do, if they think it can be gotten away with.

    I’m glad this is enjoyable, it certainly has been for me. Take your time, be well.

    PS. Even though I fundamentally disagree with you, I’m not seeing why this has gotten so uncivil in some cases. Perhaps your thesis is disturbing for some? I disagree, but it doesn’t bother me. Being the lone defender of an idea (nobody agrees that I’ve seen thus far) is very lonely, so hang in there. We all need our ideas to be challenged, so lay on and I will too.

  • http://twitter.com/GGlick ANTLink

    Okay Sarah, I think I now understand your position as well as I can. Thank you for taking the time to respond more in-depth; I really do appreciate it. And please don’t worry about lashing out earlier (not that I think you did much ;) I may well have come across as more harsher and confrontational in my original post than I intended to, and I can see how I may have inadvertently given you the wrong idea. As long as we were able to communicate a bit more clearly in the end, and I think we were, I’d say it’s all good.

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

    Sarah,

    “First of all, wow. Smug, self-satisfied grinning. I wish I felt that confident and secure in my position. It must be nice. ”

    You’ve read in intentions from my [grin] that I didn’t, in fact, intend. I use that to lighten up a statement to avoid it being taken more harshly than I intended. Specifically, in the “thousands of years of philosophy” case I was using that to try to avoid you taking it as my saying that you didn’t know what you were talking about, which is not what I was trying to imply. What I was trying to imply that there are a lot of good arguments against the idea that objective and scientific are synonymous, and that you can only get objectivity from the scientific. I wasn’t even trying to imply that you were wrong, just that it’s more complicated than your statement seemed to imply.

    It’s hard to be that confident in my ideas when I continually concede that they could very well be wrong, and that you may be right [grin].

    “Next — and all of this philosophical evidence for objective moral truth is? Where exactly? And, don’t forget, I count myself amongst the moral anti-realists. So, I don’t think you have any.”

    Um, moral anti-realists may well — and often do — concede that there are reasons and arguments for moral realism. They do think them flawed, but in general don’t think that moral realists have no reason to think that moral realism is true. And that’s where I’m coming from on this: there are reasons but they are not — yet — compelling, and that’s what I mean by evidence.

    However, here you do seem to have missed my point, since in the first part of the comment I was challenging you conflating “objective” with “scientific”. And I think that philosophy could use this as a motto: “Philosophy – being objective for thousands of years before science even existed.” There’s no reason to say that in order to have an objective morality that it would have to be scientific, at least not in the sense that if it wasn’t scientific it wouldn’t be objective.

    “Also — logic may be objective in one sense, but not in the sense that I mean.”

    The question, though, is not if it is objective in the sense you mean, but if it is in the sense that those who think objective morality exists mean it. Thinking on it, the laws of logic seem objective in pretty much the way I mean it, and probably how people like Kant thought of it. After all, I think that morality is not something out there in the world that you can study scientifically, but more an epistemic claim, about what moral agents should do. I consider those rules to hold even if there are no moral agents, just as there is a right way to screw in light bulbs even if no light bulbs exist.

    And this, of course, is where I see problems with your focus on science. Most people who believe that objective morality exists do not think that it is studyable through science (though the light bulb thing probably is). This is because of the is/ought or normative/descriptive distinction; you can’t get normative principles from a descriptive practice, anymore than you can get the laws of logic from scientific study. Some do think it is, and Sam Harris is an example. But if you limit it to the scientific without giving good and full reasons, you’ll risk talking right past them, and concluding that it would be impossible for an objective morality to exist that most people didn’t think could exist in the first place, while leaving open the sorts of objective moralities that people were actually arguing for.

    “I am actually equally unimpressed with any claims that studying the brain will magically discover our objective moral truths.”

    Unfortunately, I gave you more than a claim, but an argument: that if morality is about human behaviour, and if human behaviour is driven by the brain, then it is not unreasonable to say that studying the brain will lead to us discovering objective morality. I agree with you that that won’t work, but recall that the point I was using that against was your response to the idea that we don’t know enough yet to actually find objective morality. Sam Harris, again, would claim that we just don’t know enough about the brain yet. He may have a point.

    So, what precisely is your objection to that? If his theory works, it looks like he could answer your challenge, but you seem to be ruling it out a priori.

    “Ok. Great. I told you what would convince me that objective moral truths exist. Or, what evidence would make me call my disbelief in objective moral truth into question. I’m not really interested in playing semantics games.

    You asked. I answered. Sorry that you don’t like my answer.”

    The problem is that you’ve lost the context of why I was asking that in the first place. I was asking that because you stated that the claim that there is an objective morality is an extraordinary claim, and so requires extraordinary evidence. You said this because there was no evidence for it. I asked what would count. You replied in a way of what would convince you that objective morality existed, and cited what would be a proof. I then replied that that would seem to be abusing the “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” principle, since you would be claiming that before it could be considered not extraordinary and therefore no more extraordinary than moral anti-realism it would have to be proven true. That doesn’t seem to work.

    Additionally, as the replies to me when I replied to Ebonmuse’s challenge about what would convince me that God doesn’t exist indicated, if you set the bar of evidence that would convince you so high that no one could ever possibly prove it to you even if it was true, you’ve probably set them too high, and I think you’re risking that here. Especially since, again, most objective moralists don’t think it’s scientifically proveable.

    “Your point about Utilitarianism is another digression. ”

    My point about Utilitarianism was addressing one point, which I did and still need clarified: what do you mean asking for one answer of moral or immoral in all cases? I took it as it having to be unambiguous — ie one answer — and noted that most objective moralities don’t promise that, and Utilitarianism’s case of ties in utility is a great example. If that’s not what you meant, then that’s fine, but at least do me the courtesy of pointing that out.

    As for it being proven … well, that’s exactly what people are working on. Utilitarians think that their ideas are right and capture what morality really reflects, and only don’t win because people can raise doubts. But this applies to pretty much all scientific theories all the time as well, so it’s only the tie to philosophy that raises the burden of proof. Ultimately, all we’ve seen is that we don’t have a proven answer yet, but that in no way indicates that there isn’t one.

    “What most people think about most anything says nothing about whether or not those things are true. (But, I actually disagree. I don’t think nearly as many people recoil from slavery, rape, torture, incest, murder, etc., etc., as everyone seems to like to think. You learn this quite quickly when you work in human rights.)

    So, then, let’s go with objective moral facts exist allegedly, but no one seems to know what the hell they are.”

    The problem here is that the world is, in fact, what you were using as evidence that objective morality doesn’t exist, by making claims about how the world looks exactly like it would be if objective morality didn’t exist and not at all like it would look if objective morality did exist. As I pointed out, your argument seems to stand on an implicit premise that objective morality would be innate. If it isn’t innate, and it’s something that we must learn, then the world either looks like a world where there are no objective moral facts or where there are objective moral facts but we don’t know what they are yet. Thus, the evidence equally supports both contentions. Your remarks against what people believe cut just as strongly against your case as the objective moralist’s case, since your evidence is based on that same behaviour that you’re undercutting.

    Additionally, I am not claiming that most people think slavery and things like that are necessarily wrong. I am claiming that most people think that there is, in fact, an objective answer to that question, be it “morally demanded”, “morally acceptable”, “morally unacceptable”, or “not a matter of morality”. That’s all that there being objective moral facts directly commits one to.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Hey guys,

    I’m burned. So, I’m going to give you guys the last word(s), which doesn’t mean that I won’t fully absorb and appreciate your latest comments.

    Thanks again for all of the great contributions.

  • Michael

    Aw, I understand Sarah. Best to you.

    It’s been enlightening, thanks so much.

  • archimedez

    I was just reminded of this thread. Sarah, in #99, above, you asked:

    “If we could devise a legal/political system that defines our interpersonal relations, without sacrificing the interests of society as a whole, but without categorizing human behaviors as “good” and “bad” (i.e. a system devoid of morality), given that our whole human history is essentially a litany of opposing moral camps waging war upon one another and the most powerful moral groups oppressing and terrorizing the less powerful, wouldn’t you at least want to try?
    You don’t see any value at all in at least trying to free our law of the horrors of morality?”

    I would agree with the proposal if you intend to free law from “morality” that is based on erroneous or unsupported beliefs about the world and human beings. (There are examples of failures in our attempts at morality, as there are examples of failures in our attempts at science). But if you are proposing that we remove moral concepts such as harm, fairness, equality, etc., then obviously I don’t agree. I don’t think you are unconcerned about harm, fairness, and equality, as evidenced by your own statements (see quoted below). I don’t think my answer is other than what you might have expected, but I provide it to show the problems with your use of the word morality.

    In your proposal (in your article at the top), you include liberty as the primary variable, with one of the justifications for its inclusion being that it can be measured objectively. I agree; and I think liberty is a moral concept. I also think harm, fairness, and equality can be to some extent measured objectively; liberty is not unique in this respect. Your goal to maximize liberty is (descriptively, and, I think, prescriptively) a moral aim. In addition, you cite liberty as “non-arbitrary.” I agree; and desiring something that is non-arbitrary is a moral concern. Underlying all this is a motive to make the world a better place than it is now, better with respect to specific variables. You mention the needs of the individual and society, and express (what I take to be) a goal to “balance” these. I think that concern about balancing such needs is essentially a concern about fairness, i.e., a moral concern.

    You mention “a minimum threshold level of security and safety and order” and write that

    “I am not terribly free to live my life as I see fit, if I can’t afford to feed and clothe my children, if I’m dying for lack of decent healthcare, or if I can’t get a decent education. And, I’m not going to be at liberty to pursue my individual goals, unless there are minimum guarantees in place for my societal peers as well.”

    I agree; a minimum of economic resources, healthcare, education, safety, security, and order (etc.) is needed to ensure that each person has the opportunity to actualize their liberty, pursue their goals, etc. These are moral concerns.

    You wrote:
    “Law is the mechanism (usually a set of norms/rules with corresponding sanctions) by which we define interpersonal relations.”

    That could be a definition of morality.

    You wrote:
    “Morality is the categorization of human behaviors as “good” and “bad”…”

    A definition should classify morality while distinguishing it from other kinds of phenomena.

    Morality does not only involve the classification of human behaviours as good or bad, but it involves the prescription of what we ought to do in response, or in anticipation of, or upon reflection in relation to, those behaviours. The classification (or measurement, judgement, etc.) is not an exercise in isolation but is in relation to what is to be done (or not done) about those behaviours once they are classified, or during an interim before they can be classified properly. This is only the beginning of a definition that would include concepts such as values, rewards and punishments, fairness and proportionality, desert (as in deservedness) and justification, rights and responsibilities, health and harm, risk, knowledge, capacity (physical and cognitive), conscience, perception, evidence, etc.

    “…which, I would argue, is a wholly personal, subjective exercise without recourse to objective moral truth or authority.”

    Moral decisions about behaviours are decisions about objectively observable phenomena. Generally speaking, is it good, i.e., a preferable course of action, to reduce or restrict behaviours that are directly harmful to humans? Is it generally a good idea to treat people fairly? Generally, is it good, preferable, to seek and report the truth in science? Some assumptions are so basic, yet cannot themselves be assessed objectively. Science, the bedrock of our understanding of the world, is itself based on a moral (and perhaps aesthetic) preference for truth, evidence, logical consistency, predictability, understanding; it is driven by “personal” “subjective” motivations like curiosity. We don’t reject science on these grounds.

    You have agreed that liberty can be measured objectively (at least to some important extent). I would add that harm, fairness, and equality can be assessed objectively to some important extent. I consider these to be aspects of morality, and thus I consider morality to be, to some important extent, in some respects, objective, in the sense that applied sciences are objective.

    What we ought to do is remove empirically unsupported notions of harm, etc., from our notions of morality, and thus from the law. Since I think law is a branch or subcategory of morality, I don’t agree that we should (or even can) remove morality from the law.

  • Sarah Braasch

    archimedez,

    I am sorry. But, I am just kind of over this thread at the moment, and can’t really bear the thought of returning to it.

    I appreciate your time and energy and effort so much.

    Thank you for your comment.

    But, I am just going to let this sleeping dog lie for a while.

    Don’t wake him.

  • Lou Bricano

    Big steaming load of sophistry and a failed attempt at sophistication. Morality, regardless of its source, is at the root of all law. The bromide “you can’t legislate morality” is a shrill, factually false motto typically of young pseudo-sophisticated minds that imagine they have “moved beyond” such quaint notions as morality.

    In fact, morality is nothing more than a sense of what’s right and wrong, and it incorporates justice. Moral values may be shared widely or more narrowly. Law is nothing more than those very widely shared moral values about which people feel very strongly. Laws proscribing murder are there because there is a virtually universal, strongly held moral belief that killing another except in self defense is wrong. Laws proscribing various sexual acts have been relaxed or repealed because the moral consensus underlying them has shrunk, and because those who still hold those values tend not to hold them as passionately as in the past.

    All law is morality.


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