Stepping Across the Is-Ought Gap

Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape has fallen among the atheist community like a cannon shell, and I for one couldn’t be happier. This is an important and long-overdue project for us to begin: to take morality out of the hands of religionists, to rigorously define it as the achievement of human well-being rather than the set of rituals that must be undertaken to please an ineffable god, and to begin a discussion about the best way to accomplish this end. Establishing this firm foundation will give the atheist community its own distinct and recognizable voice, and will make us a stronger and more compelling alternative to the religious dogmas that pass for ethics in society’s discourse. (It doesn’t hurt, I have to admit, that Sam’s argument is the same one I’ve been making for years.)

But from the discussions I’ve seen, a lot of people are misunderstanding Harris’ basic point. In this post, I want to address that misconception.

It’s true that you can’t take any catalogue of facts about human nature, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: “We ought to value human flourishing.” But for the same reason, it’s also true that you can’t start with any catalogue of facts about human history or the world, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: “We ought to use the scientific method to study reality.” Does this cast doubt on the legitimacy of science as a human endeavor? More importantly, does it imply that there exist other ways of knowing that are just as valid?

No system of thought can be derived out of thin air. They all have to be based on axioms that can, in principle, be rejected. But if that’s a strike against objective morality, it’s also a strike against philosophy, science, mathematics, and every other branch of human inquiry as well. Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, “Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?”, the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, “Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?”

These people are beyond talking to, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have this conversation. We don’t have to subject every system of thought to a heckler’s veto. Instead, we rational people who can agree on a basic set of goals should have no problem recognizing the superiority of some methods over others for achieving those goals. We want to learn how the world works by the most consistent and reliable method possible so that we can better control it to our benefit. Therefore, we should use the scientific method. We want to live lives of happiness and flourishing. Therefore, we should empirically study what policies best advance human well-being, and then live by those policies and encourage society to adopt them. There, I just stepped across the is-ought gap, and it seemed a lot more like a hairline crack to me than a chasm.

And what to do with those stubborn philosophical skeptics, who insist to their last breath that we can’t prove that human well-being should be valued above other qualities? Let them be. If our approach to morality is correct, its superiority will be borne out in practice and people will eventually be persuaded to come along for the ride, just as theists switched from faith healing to antibiotics when they saw how much more effective the latter was. If the error theorists are correct, any attempt to rationally work out the principles of ethics will only end in discord and confusion (and since they, by definition, believe that no other outcome is possible, it’s hard to see why they should object to the attempt).

On the other hand, if we’re correct, people who begin with the same moral premises will eventually converge on the same conclusions. In fact, I would argue that human history offers some important clues that this convergence is already in progress!

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.

  • http://sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    I can’t help but think that well-being as the foundation of morality needs no justification. The question is rather one of recognizing the central role that the desire for well-being plays in human psychology. It’s embedded within our biology. When people try to reason it away, it only leads to misery. When they ignore it, it leads to injustice. Well-being isn’t merely an option among choices, it’s the reason morality exists at all, and it’s time we started to understand it so we can manifest it within our social systems as optimally as we can.

  • http://debaptized.com RevWubby

    The “is-ought” problem is, in my view THE problem. It shouldn’t be “is-ought”. Everything we do is about decisions and choices. In fact, you can’t NOT make a choice, because refusing to choose something is itself one of the choices.

    We need to redefine it as “is-which”. The “which” is homeopathy or hospital (or neither). One is better than the other(s). We get the “is” from: I desire/require treatment (for I am sick). “Which” choice is better? You don’t even need to get to the ought, because you have already answered it with the desire to get better. the “ought” is implicit.

    If you want X, the choices are A, B, and C (or other). C will result in X. Which do you choose? This can be applied to everything.

    Every choice has an outcome, and the “is” is what we know about that outcome. The choice you make defines the outcome you desire. We don’t even need to define “human flourishing” because each choice is link in a chain at the immediate level, even if it’s based on a future projection (fossil fuels or renewable) it’s based on immediate desires (I want to stop global warming).

    This argument needs work, but I think I’m close to what I want to express.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    We also need to distinguish between well-being in the short term and well-being in the long term. The two may be incompatible and we need to look at this like a chess game, trying to see a number of moves ahead.

    Another issue is the well-being of other species. Is it a given that preseration of various other species fosters human well-being? Again, it’s a chess game, looking down the road to estimate the effects.

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

    The “is-ought” problem is, in my view THE problem. It shouldn’t be “is-ought”. Everything we do is about decisions and choices.

    But if (cue Sarah:) we want to define an empirically deduced morality “ought” is what gives it a moral dimension. Defining what “ought” to be the choice is the crux of the problem. If your “is” is a need for a fast buck, one choice may be to steal it. It’s a valid “which” and possibly the rational solution, but “ought” you choose it?

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    @RevWubby:

    I find that a insightful point, for this reason: there seem to be a surprisingly large segment of people who don’t appear to realize that tearing down, redefining, or replacing an existing system of ideas is itself an value proposition and a choice that has particular implications on their own worldview. People from every philosophical vantage point seem to make this same mistake, thinking that there is somehow a default or natural state which itself is exempt from being called a system of values; something that is not a choice but merely is.

    @Steve Bowen:

    Insufficient information. Why do you need the money? What gain is there to you (or others) to have it, and what loss to the victim?

    It’s trivial to come up with different scenarios of just and injust thefts. Are we Robin Hood or pirates plundering the coastal village?

    The difficult cases are where gain and loss are on the same order of magnitude, or where it is not feasible to acquire enough information to figure out what would happen. It makes sense to establish a fundamental background of property rights for those cases, otherwise any thief could claim to be a hero merely by asserting special knowledge of great and unknown purposes yet-to-be-unveiled.

    In any case, it’s nonsensical to judge cases without context.

  • http://lettersfromlevrai.blogspot.com Juno Walker

    My problem with Harris’ attempt is the nebulous “well-being” concept. Harris readily admits that there can be competing definitions of human well-being; and further, he admits that these competing definitions can be equally valid – that is, equally moral. These are the many peaks on his ‘moral landscape.’ To push the analogy a bit further, he sort of argues that there is a baseline of misery that every human being would wish to avoid – we could call this the horizontal base of the landscape. The competing views of human well-being make up the various peaks and, according to Harris, “there will be right and wrong ways to move toward one peak or another.”

    But is this really a good argument in support of his claim that science can determine human values? Is there a bait and switch going on here? In his book “Beyond Good & Evil,” Nietzsche said that every philosopher so far has sought – and thought he found – a rational foundation for his philosophy. Harris obviously thinks he has as well. But I think he falls short. Not only can Harris not define human well-being (and as mentioned above, he even admits that some competing definitions are equally valid and moral), he hasn’t really given us concrete examples of his ‘science’ in action – he merely asserts, with confidence (because he is a neuroscientist), that science can determine human values. So, really, he wants us to trust him.

    And if Harris is arguing for a type of utilitarian consequentialism, why did he feel the need to write his book in such a way as he did? Others have argued for the same thing, and more convincingly, in my opinion. Harris cites contemporary philosopher Owen Flanagan as an intellectual ally and pre-print collaborator. But I find Flanagan’s account – which is a chapter called ‘Ethics as Human Ecology’ in his book “The Problem of the Soul” – to be much more convincing and thorough. In fact, I’d take Flanagan’s 54 pages over Harris’ 191 any day.

    Unfortunately, I can’t offer a route through the Scylla and Charybdis of our ethical discourse. On the one hand, having divisive figures like Harris come out with books that simply preach to the converted isn’t going to reach a wider audience – the people who need to engage in an honest appraisal of the issues aren’t even going to pick up the book. On the other hand, philosophical treatises in the manner of Immanuel Kant or David Hume – or even Bertrand Russell – aren’t going to convince the man on the street either. Besides, Nietzsche suggested over a hundred years ago that “reasons” don’t really work against something like the self-righteous certainty of Christianity, which is so affect-laden to begin with.

  • Petrucio

    Is it a given that preseration of various other species fosters human well-being?

    And if the conclusion somehow is that is does not, at least in some cases, is it then ethically ok to dispose of them? What about if we eventually find out they may have self-conciseness? Or if we find alien species?

    The debate is often put in terms of what is best for our species, which is all nice and well, but I find myself frequently pondering ethical questions about us and other species, and they seem far from trivial.

    BTW, before anyone asks, I eat a lot of beef, and I think that’s just dandy for both species (methane output is my highest problem with beef).

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

    Insufficient information. Why do you need the money? What gain is there to you (or others) to have it, and what loss to the victim?

    I don’t see the relevance unless you’re begging the question. The need is an “is” in the context of the comment regardless of why, the “ought” is a moral position that assumes a justifiable morality, which is what Harris is trying to establish.

  • mikespeir

    Take a sheet of paper and list every generally accepted moral precept you can think of that isn’t prescribed or proscribed solely by religion. Then look for the common denominator(s). What do you get?

    It’s just an idea that occurred to me the other day. I haven’t developed it. I’m not sure it goes anywhere.

  • hiero5ant

    They all have to be based on axioms that can, in principle, be rejected.

    We should start, then, by rejecting this one. All systems of thought must resemble geometry? All of them? This is simply taking one spatial metaphor (truths are “based” or “grounded on” other truths which serve as their “foundation”, like in architecture) and reifying it across the whole of human discourse in a hegemonic fashion. Why can’t a system of thought be like a “raft” lashed securely together which is not “grounded”, but rather “floats”? Or like a verdant garden, which “yields fruit when it is “carefully nurtured”?. Foundationalism just seems like a hangover from theism.

    Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, “Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?”, the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, “Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?”

    The most screamingly obvious disanalogy is that the latter group in principle shares with the rest of us the goal of accurately predicting future observations with minimal computational overhead, and so relative to that goal one can compare the results of various strategies. It’s simply not the case that there is some univocal goal towards which every moral agent is striving. The second disanalogy is that while repeatibility and falsifiability can be cashed out in operational terms, “well-being” is simply a placeholder.

    What Harris is trying to do is get people to take morality more seriously. That’s a wonderful goal. But the astonishing claim on the tin that “The authority of Science (TM) *proves* my moral views” is laughable and not borne out in any of his arguments — arguments which, by the way, are often qualitatively indistinguishable from standard-issue Christian apologetics. I applaud his motives, but he claims a source of authority he manifestly does not possess, and that really sticks in my craw. It also doesn’t help that his black-and-white thinking leads him to denounce those of us who posit even the slightest degree of irrealism or subjectivity in this domain as somehow complicit in moral nihilism and atrocity.

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

    The most screamingly obvious disanalogy is that the latter group in principle shares with the rest of us the goal of accurately predicting future observations with minimal computational overhead, and so relative to that goal one can compare the results of various strategies.

    I don’t agree with that at all. Creationists are clearly not interested in the goal of “accurately predicting future observations with minimal computational overhead.” They are interested in espousing their religious views and getting others to tell them they are right, regardless of other considerations…like reality.

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

    Take a sheet of paper and list every generally accepted moral precept you can think of that isn’t prescribed or proscribed solely by religion. Then look for the common denominator(s). What do you get?

    It strikes me that most deontological moral injunctions are proscriptive, not prescriptive. There are a lot of “thou shalt nots” and very few “it would be nicer if you would”.

  • hiero5ant

    @OMGF Well, I did say “in principle”. Nominally, creationists say that our experience does not contain, nor is it likely to contain, observations of such-and-such fossils, or new genes of a certain character, or rocks of a certain age etc. In practice, their dogmas are driven not by empirical concerns, but by moral and cultural concerns such as institutional prestige, perceived implications for sexual mores, and the notion that everything happens as part of some sort of providential plan. That explains their recalcitrance in abandoning their failed predictions. They’re simply spectacularly bad at playing the language game, and too stubborn to realize the fault lies in their play strategy, not because the rules have been rigged against them. Like Harris the moral objectivist, they are driven by an inner conviction that science — some how, some way — simply must vindicate their moral views, and they become impatient when people point out the two simply don’t line up that way.

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

    Sorry I realise I’m quote mining but…

    They’re simply spectacularly bad at playing the language game, and too stubborn to realize the fault lies in their play strategy, not because the rules have been rigged against them.

    Doesn’t ring true. Creationists believe they are right, because they believe they [must] be right. It’s not because they don’t understand the logic, they are convinced the logic is irrelevant in the face of their belief.

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

    Hiero5ant,
    I think the point, however, is that the creationists seem to regard their beliefs as first and the science as second (or rather that the science is inconsequential to having the right beliefs – they’ll simply throw out anything that they deem as not in accord with their already determined belief structure)…and I think you agree with that, which makes me wonder why you posted what you did in #10 that I objected to in #11.

  • Orion

    Ebon,

    I hope you haven’t already written me off as someone worth talking to. I don’t feel very welcome here after this post. Is it really necessary to take the stance that no atheist could question you for any reason other than pride and spite? I am not simply trying to tear down any discussion of ethics. On the contrary, I’m passionate about ethics. I’m doing my BA thesis on ethics right now. I want to write on ethics for a popular audience. I hope one day to teach “atheist sunday school” and get responsible ethical views to children. I criticize because I *care*.

    Before you call me a heckler, please understand that there are ways of approaching ethical life that do not rest on “objective” moral laws. In our last discussion I did not expound on my system because it is your space and it might take me a great deal of words to explain it. I will probably not have room in this comment to go into detail about my ethical views, as there are several others topics in this post I want to touch on. I am happy to explain my approach to ethics by your request at any time.

    THE IS/OUGHT BARRIER

    “We want to learn how the world works by the most consistent and reliable method possible so that we can better control it to our benefit. Therefore, we should use the scientific method. We want to live lives of happiness and flourishing. Therefore, we should empirically study what policies best advance human well-being, and then live by those policies and encourage society to adopt them.”

    Let me begin by saying that I agree 100% with everything in the quoted text. The premises are true, the conclusions are true, and the argument is valid. Neverthless I must reject your assertion that you have “crossed the is/ought barrier.” As I see it, you argument actually have two premises.

    P1: The scientific method enables us to understand the world
    P2: We want to understand the world
    C: Therefore we should use the scientific method.

    You didn’t derive an ought from an is here; you have an ought in your premise, so you are allowed to have an ought in your conclusion. Only if you omitted P2 would you break the barrier. This would be dishonest because it exempts your *values* from cross-examination.

    ON WELL-BEING

    Let me begin by saying that I agree wholeheartedly that human well-being is the highest good. It’s an axiom, improvable, but it’s also intuitively obvious. I am not interested in talking to anyone who would deny that well-being is paramount. So when you say, we should empirically study ways of increasing well-being, I say, “of course!”

    The trick is that people of good faith can disagree about what maximal wellbeing looks like in ways that can’t be resolved empirically. I think we can all agree on what the basics look like: Freedom. Security. Longevity. Health. Education. Entertainment. Achievement. I think we would all agree that anything that increased one of these without decreasing others would be worth doing. But real life is mostly made of trade-offs.

    I find a pure joy in reading stories. Sure, I could argue that reading novels helps me hone my thinking; make friends; develop empathy, whatever. It has positive effects on the world. But so do many ways of spending your time. I think it’s obvious that those fringe benefits–developing skills and relationships–are smaller than those I would get by spending the time reading nonfiction, or networking, or the good I could do by volunteering somewhere. The only way reading novels makes sense is if reading is an end in itself; the joy I experience is of moral value, it “counts” as well-being. Now, obviously, that joy *does* count. Joy is part of well-being. But how do you *measure* that? To take an example that mostly only effects me , I could be exercising instead of reading. I would then live longer and be healthier. But should I?

    Science plays a *role* in my decision making. Science can come in and say, you’re trading 1 QUALY (quality-adjusted years of life–what the British NHS maximizes) for the joy of 25 novels. But I’m skeptical that science will ever be able to tell me which side of that deal is better. I can conceive of any test you could do that would compare the amount of well-being “encoded” in each life.

  • Alex Weaver

    And what to do with those stubborn philosophical skeptics, who insist to their last breath that we can’t prove that human well-being should be valued above other qualities? Let them beGive them their privacy and discreetly place a box of kleenex within easy reach

    Fixed it for you.

    More in a bit.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    @hiero5ant:

    The most screamingly obvious disanalogy is that the latter group in principle shares with the rest of us the goal of accurately predicting future observations with minimal computational overhead, and so relative to that goal one can compare the results of various strategies. It’s simply not the case that there is some univocal goal towards which every moral agent is striving.

    I don’t necessarily agree with that. Sam Harris makes the point in TML that for the most part, religious people are attempting to maximize well-being. The reason they’re going about it in such a starkly different way is because they believe in another life after this one, compared to which everything in this world is irrelevant, and the only thing that ultimately matters in this life is following God’s arbitrary commandments to secure a good eternal fate.

    @Orion:

    The trick is that people of good faith can disagree about what maximal wellbeing looks like in ways that can’t be resolved empirically. I think we can all agree on what the basics look like: Freedom. Security. Longevity. Health. Education. Entertainment. Achievement. I think we would all agree that anything that increased one of these without decreasing others would be worth doing. But real life is mostly made of trade-offs.

    That may well be true. But you may be assuming Harris to be making a stronger claim than he is. I think his point is that there are many actions – uncontroversial actions, or at least they should be – that are straightforward Pareto improvements for human well-being. Once we’ve reaped these obvious wins, then we can start arguing about the really difficult dilemmas. I viewed his argument as a call for people to be more rational about morality so that we can take that all-important first step.

  • archimedez

    I’m glad to see this article, Ebon, considering I just read Harris’ The Moral Landscape recently. Harris’ Introduction and first 2 chapters are pretty good, though not very rigorous, more like a conversational style–which is I suppose more appropriate for the mass audience. I think the last 3 chapters are a bit disorganized and that they don’t support his case much, but they are interesting, for those of us who are interested in cognitive neuroscience. Overall, I was quite pleased with the book.

    Harris’ analogy between a proposed “science of morality” and health science is a good one. For readers who want to get a sense of what Harris is arguing, an online example is here:
    http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-critics/
    We could also add engineering, or other applied sciences to the list.

    And yes, values underlie pure (not just applied) science, including the basics like valuing truth, logical consistency, the importance of evidence, and so on.

    I agree with others who find that Harris’ notion of well-being is not adequately defined.

  • Samuel

    Science is great for alot of things that are obscure moral questions. I’m thinking of economics, but things like “what is the optimal level of inequality”, “what is the optimal tax rate”, “what is the best aid system” and the like are all emperically testable questions. Of course, they are also ones heavily debated and any study on them that becomes important will be attacked, but they are answerable.

    Other things like “what mthod of child rearing results in the best kids”, “how safe are the streets and is it better for your kid to be exposed to them rather than live in fear” and “how much are kids influenced by TV and computer games and how can we make ones that are family friendly”.

    The problem is that these are psychology problems and psychology has… difficulties in being a methodical science.

  • Johan

    The problem with Harris’ argument is that morality comes from sentiments – or feelings – not reason. As Hume observed, if someone was to prefer the destruction of the whole world over a scratching of one’s finger, that person is not necessarily irrational, he just has sentiments that most of us would find odd.

    That being said, I do think that we should work to improve human well-being, or in Sam Harris’ words, build a flourishing global civilization. I just don’t think desiring this is a scientific imperative. It is a sentiment of mine, and (hopefully) many people share that sentiment. Reason (and thus science) can help us to get what we value, but it can’t tell us what we ought to value. Science has taught us how to part the atom, but it can’t tell us whether we should use that knowledge to build nuclear reactors or nuclear bombs.

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

    The problem with Harris’ argument is that morality comes from sentiments – or feelings – not reason. As Hume observed, if someone was to prefer the destruction of the whole world over a scratching of one’s finger, that person is not necessarily irrational, he just has sentiments that most of us would find odd.

    But presumably there is a reason, identifiable scientifically why most of us would find such a sentiment odd.

  • Michael

    The is-ought problem is a strike against objective morality because, if one cannot draw is from ought, there is by definition no such “objective” or absolute morality at all, appealing as Harris’ or your ethics may be. If one does value human wellbeing and flourishing, as most all do, science can inform us about that. Really, it reminds me of the misuse of logic with Star Trek. Logic cannot by itself derive morality-the axioms have to be chosen first, then one can deduce it from there. Science in this case is the same. For those people who do not value human wellbeing and flourishing, they reject your axioms so this is of no interest, whether or not the scientific method can inform it. They exist, believe me-the philosophical biocentrist and nihilist, for one, place human wellbeing second if they count it at all. For nihilists, there is only preference anyway. We might like human wellbeing, but it’s akin to saying you prefer vanilla to chocolate. I’m not a nihilist, but they’re out there. Still not sure what moral anti-realism is…have to read that paper Sarah linked before. Rambling, sorry.

  • NoAstronomer

    it’s also true that you can’t start with any catalogue of facts about human history or the world, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: “We ought to use the scientific method to study reality.”

    Fundamentally disagree with this statement. IMHO any meaningful analysis of human history lead to the *inevitable* conclusion that the scientific method is the *only* way to study reality.

    Unless you’re suggesting that we shouldn’t study reality at all.

  • jemand

    I actually think Ebon’s post convinced me. I used to think logic and science could only veto quite a large majority of those moral systems that aren’t based on valuing human flourishing and promoting it through methods tested by science– on the basis they were inconsistent and their methods did not match up with their stated values, because of using divine mandate or some other non-scientific method of finding out how to bring about the stated values.

    However, the point that those people who don’t value epistemological systems designed to root out actual truth may have a problem with the scientific method, but that these people are irrelevant to the rest of us, pretty much convinced me. I actually think these people with their stated values of 1) not valuing epistemological truth or 2) not valuing human flourishing, are actually of necessity inconsistent.

    It’s possible (perhaps) for such a system to be inconsistent somehow floating in ether by some other kind of thinking mechanism unaffected by reality, but these minds are housed in bodies, and even the most stalwart believer in mystical unreality denying matter exists is still going to duck his head to enter a low door. Truth matters, because his consciousness reside in a body that must interact with reality. Even the most stalwart nihilist is going to treat herself well with the resources that are available to her. (and if not, it would be because of a mental disorder such as depression, but never ideologically driven.)

    There really only is one sensible moral system of values and only one sensible epistemological system of values when you take into account we are humans embedded in reality.

    People may claim to have others, but I think they are irrelevant and either are internally inconsistent, in the system and values themselves, or externally inconsistent, in being completely inappropriate for the kind of creature we are.

  • http://angel14.com/ evanescent

    To quote another atheist philosopher:

    “It is only an ultimate goal, and end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of “value” is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of “life.” To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.”

    In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.” ”

    The is-ought problem was solved decades ago.

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

    Ebonmuse,

    “This is an important and long-overdue project for us to begin: to take morality out of the hands of religionists, to rigorously define it as the achievement of human well-being rather than the set of rituals that must be undertaken to please an ineffable god, and to begin a discussion about the best way to accomplish this end.”

    It’s been done in moral philosophy for hundreds if not thousands of years, with much comment on all the relevant problems. You’re actually late to the party, not the ones starting it. Little attention is paid to “God’s will” in moral philosophy.

    “No system of thought can be derived out of thin air. They all have to be based on axioms that can, in principle, be rejected. But if that’s a strike against objective morality, it’s also a strike against philosophy, science, mathematics, and every other branch of human inquiry as well. Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, “Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?”, the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, “Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?” ”

    But in a sense I can indeed say that if you don’t care about falsifiability, repeatability, or empirical evidence you aren’t doing science. Whether or not that matters — ie whether or not one should want to in any instance care about doing science — is a closer comparison to the issue raised about “well-being”, and is equally unanswerable. To put it better, if I reject “well-being” as being what determines the moral good, is it appropriate to just reply “Well, then you just aren’t doing morality”? Hardly, as there are many views considered reasonable attempts at morality that have no place for well-being, at least specifically, like Kantian or the Stoic moralities. They are clearly doing morality, but reject the idea that it can be defined by “human happiness or well-being”. Happiness is not relevant to either Kant’s Categorical Imperative or his “Treat others not merely as means, but as ends in themselves”, and the Stoics reject happiness as justifying things moral; they argue that if being immoral would make you happy or if being moral would make you unhappy the problem is with you, not with morality.

    They are, indeed, all doing “morality”. They disagree on what precisely that entails. That’s a valid complaint, and might be akin to someone saying “But is falsifiability REALLY required for science?”. You could not answer the last question by simply dismissing it as not understanding science; you would want to give good reasons why falsifiability should be considered part of the scientific method.

    “We want to live lives of happiness and flourishing.”

    Yes, I agree with this … but not at the expense of the moral. I, personally, am willing to sacrifice my own happiness and flourishing — or even that of every human that exists — if that is the moral choice. As a thought experiment, imagine this: at some time in the future, we build a machine that can give humans perpetual happiness at the expense of all life everywhere else in the universe (they just all automatically die). I think there’s a real moral conundrum here. Your view should say that that’s all settled. If you don’t think that this is an easy question to answer morally, there may be issues with your view that human happiness and flourishing defines what it means to be moral.

    “And what to do with those stubborn philosophical skeptics, who insist to their last breath that we can’t prove that human well-being should be valued above other qualities? Let them be. If our approach to morality is correct, its superiority will be borne out in practice and people will eventually be persuaded to come along for the ride … ”

    But you need a shared goal to evaluate that. You can make humans happy all you like and I, the Stoic, may still disagree that your approach really is superior, because you have given me insufficient reason to determine moral value and superiority by that standard. For me, being happy or happier is not sufficient grounds to say “morally superior”. Moreover, it’s just obvious that some cases of “happier” seem morally suspect. Imagine, for example, my having an ability to temporarily take over someone’s mind, get them to do whatever I want, and leave them completely unaware that any of that happened. Even if no one other than me would know and so no one else’s happiness was impacted, surely some ways of increasing my own happiness doing that — for example, using it to get sexual favours — would be seen as morally suspect. But if the overall happiness in the world was unaffected — as my example says — except in a positive manner — through mine — why would that be so?

    “On the other hand, if we’re correct, people who begin with the same moral premises will eventually converge on the same conclusions.”

    Well, I think error theorists would agree with you on that; they just don’t think that that means that you’ve said anything that is true in any interesting sense.

    Have you read Russell Blackford’s review of the book? It might help you out with error theory since he’s a very strong error theorist.

    http://jetpress.org/v21/blackford3.htm is where the review is.

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

    evanescent,

    I can refute your stance with one line:

    I think it obvious that one should give one’s life when it is moral to do so.

    At this point, you either have to convince me that I’m wrong (ie prove that that’s right) or accept that your principle and link between value and life doesn’t settle the moral question.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Stoic:

    “I think it obvious that one should give one’s life when it is moral to do so.”

    Your statement presupposes that one has already identified what morality is, which means a code of values to guide action. I actually agree that under some circumstances it is moral to give up one’s life (non sacrificially).

    Values without a valuer is meaningless. One must identify the proper nature of the life form with reference to reality to discover what values are a benefit to it. Morality is therefore a question of what is good or bad for man based on his nature; therefore what is the proper way for him to live. So the “is ought” problem remains unproblematic – man’s nature determines how he ought to pursue his life.

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

    Ebonmuse,

    One comment on Harris’ view of well-being and that there may be legitimate alternatives: When I criticized his response to Sean Carroll’s response to Harris’ TED talk, I pointed out that it wasn’t clear how disparate that view of “well-being” could be. For example, the Stoics defined “The Good” as the proper aim of humans, which for them was reason (this was the way they viewed morality, and I like it a lot better than what we do now). So, for them, we should all strive to live rationally, and as such we should avoid passion and emotion and ensure that we don’t care too much about indifferents. Those indifferents pretty much include love, life, money, comfort and a lot of the things that make people happy.

    On one view of “well-being”, the Stoics are simply a different peak in the moral landscape. But it’s a radically different one. On a different view of “well-being”, as said above the Stoics don’t think well-being matters to morality.

    Sam Harris is quite unclear about which view he’s espousing.

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

    evanescent,

    I think the objection to your latest line is:

    Are you referring to the nature of man as man currently is, or the nature of man as man ought ideally to be? The value argument you make seems to support the latter, but that is, in fact, an “ought” argument, and all the ises in the world won’t get you there, as they’re firmly in the former.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Stoic, man is a volitional being and his primary means of survival is reason. There is no getting away from this – so this is what man is. But because man is volitional however (unlike animals) he has the choice whether to be rational or not (it does not come automatically), so unlike animals, man can choose to act for his own destruction. Since he is a being of a certain nature and the reality that surrounds him is of a certain nature, reason is the only way man can accurately select his values. He needs to choose his values because it is his values that further his life – his life as a rational being; i.e. the type of being that it is proper for him to be, man qua rational being. You cannot have one without the other.

    The identification of values proper to man is the field of ethics.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Reading Harris’ “Response to Critics” was interesting. It makes it pretty clear that to various degrees, Harris and his critics are talking around each other more-so than to each other.

    For instance, look at the sub-title of the book, “How Science Can Determine Human Values”. Some of the critics seem to have misread this as “How Science Should Determine Human Values” — as though there were something in the scientific method or in an authority (scientific or otherwise) that would dictate values.

    Harris’ actual point appears to be quite frankly, self-evident: that you can use science to figure out (a) what people actually want, and (b) how to give it to them. Naturally. It’s hard to understand why a simple idea like that would generate such a firestorm of responses. Then again, it’s also extraordinary how a simple concept like atheism generates so much bluster and vitriol as well.

    His comparisons to science and medicine are apt, but I think the same concept can be applied almost to any form of human endeavor. You always begin with a certain set of premises, shared propositions, or concepts to derive results from. I think it’s worth pointing out that this is true also in mathematics, theology, games/sports, law, and many other systems.

    The most controversial thing Harris says in his response article, is probably the section on social reprogramming. That is, the solution to dealing with scenarios where values don’t align is to make them align by changing viewpoints to be consistent with each other. This is not fundamentally a bizarre or even uncommon idea, and societies constantly use it in their application of law and punishment.

    The problem, of course, is this: which method do we use to determine whose views are correct? By default, and in reality, what happens is that either the most powerful entities win (if they are willing to use their power sufficiently), or the most numerous entities win (especially if they can drown out competing voices with much greater volume). The only major recourse of the losing party is typically to leave the society in question, if the matter is truly that significant.

    Thus, we have a serious issue in conflict resolution left behind even if we are able to figure out the optimal global course of action. It doesn’t mean much to say that we can determine that the sadists and the psychopaths of the world are morally wrong — and even they would be able to realize it given sufficient knowledge/experience. There’s no way to ensure that we have enough time, resources, or power to convince them.

    Furthermore, one should take a step back and look at the situation from the external perspective. We see the value difference between people and cultures as a difference of knowledge, experience, or understanding. Yet we must admit that our own faculties are limited in those respects. Therefore, it is reasonable to think we might be wrong, and the only way we would be guaranteed to learn this is after someone had forced the realization of it upon us.

    Paradoxical, isn’t it? Of course, paradoxes only matter if you value reason.

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

    kagerato,

    “Harris’ actual point appears to be quite frankly, self-evident: that you can use science to figure out (a) what people actually want, and (b) how to give it to them. Naturally. It’s hard to understand why a simple idea like that would generate such a firestorm of responses.”

    Probably because it’s generally conceded that giving people what they want isn’t always the moral thing to do. If that’s the extent of his point, he’s both a) wrong if he relates it to what is moral and b) uninteresting, as we’ve talked about that sort of thing for quite some time now.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    kagerator, you said “The problem, of course, is this: which method do we use to determine whose views are correct?”

    The method of reason, of looking at man and looking at reality and making a decision. So in this way, the matter of whose views are correct is just as readily answerable as the length of a meter or the diameter of the earth.

    “By default, and in reality, what happens is that either the most powerful entities win (if they are willing to use their power sufficiently),”

    Which is why the good is not decided by a dictatorship.

    “or the most numerous entities win (especially if they can drown out competing voices with much greater volume).”

    Which is why the good is not decided by a majority, i.e. democracy.

    “We see the value difference between people and cultures as a difference of knowledge, experience, or understanding. Yet we must admit that our own faculties are limited in those respects.”

    Limited, in what respect? This all depends on what your standard of morality is.

    “We see the value difference between people and cultures as a difference of knowledge, experience, or understanding.”

    The value differences between people and cultures is exactly that!: a difference in the values those cultures are pursuing. Are they pursuing values that are beneficial or detrimental to human life? And here we have our moral standard. It is against this we can judge various cultures/decisions/actions/systems as moral or immoral.

    (Slightly off topic: Incidentally, whilst I agree that ethics can be considered a science, in that it can be empirically evaluated upon natural facts, even science is founded on philosophy. It’s the job of philosophy to lay the groundwork upon which science is built. If however, one wishes to assert that science can identify values and ethics as objectively as it can identify atoms and planets and new species, then fair enough – but then why does any doubt remain over how we decide between competing ethical systems, since we don’t have any doubts over the earth’s distance to the sun or the atomic weight of carbon? This is only a dilemma to those who agree that objective morality is possible, that science can discover it, but then raise some kind of confusion over how we choose between ethical systems…)

  • jemand

    quick note, evanescent, can we talk about people?

    Your posts are confusing enough to parse for points without me having to figure out what subset of humanity you are talking about at a given time.

    Of course, if you don’t WANT to consider half of all people in your science of ethics, you’ll have to justify that somehow too.

  • jemand

    Verbose Skeptic:

    “I, personally, am willing to sacrifice my own happiness and flourishing — or even that of every human that exists — if that is the moral choice. As a thought experiment, imagine this: at some time in the future, we build a machine that can give humans perpetual happiness at the expense of all life everywhere else in the universe (they just all automatically die). I think there’s a real moral conundrum here. Your view should say that that’s all settled. If you don’t think that this is an easy question to answer morally, there may be issues with your view that human happiness and flourishing defines what it means to be moral.”

    I think that it’s obvious moral systems should be tuned to the optimal flourishing of all conscious and self-aware entities, all *persons.* Besides, by the time it is possible to build a machine that has galactic effects (don’t think universal is possible, given light-speed limitations), we are no longer going to be the same genetic species known as “humans” today anyway.

    And further, I actually think it is impossible for optimal conscious flourishing, even of some subset of self-aware entities, to be achieved by neglecting the experiences of other subsets. Maximizing the well-being of any particular group is only possible by setting up optimal systems that allow for the protection and promotion of well being of *all* conscious persons. To do otherwise, limits what is available because when we interact, we can do so in a value-added way. To maximize what any one gets, one has to maximize the opportunities for interacting in win-win configurations, which necessitates helping others to be in a position to have something of value to offer, and treat them fairly so as to encourage positive future interactions.

    However, I think morality really does need to be a community wide endeavor, something done by societies as a whole, and in setting up the rules and norms of community and social interaction. The choice poor “thought experiments” pitting various moral imperatives or other individual conundrums are not valid on a societal level, which is where we should be operating.

    It’s very possible to put an individual human into a situation with no viable optimal moral choice– but the fault of that is collective, on all of us who allow that kind of situation to arise. Debating what is the right course of action *at that point* is never going to solve the problem, and I think misses the point.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    “quick note, evanescent, can we talk about people?”

    jemand, I am talking about people. In a discussion on ethics, what else could we be talking about? Specifically, I am talking about the good and bad for a human being. Since we are all fundamentally human, our fundamental nature is the same – so what is good or bad for humans is applicable to all.

    As an aside, I’m not sure what you find so confusing about my posts? Perhaps if you pointed out how I’ve phrased something poorly, I can try to improve in future.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    jemand, you said: “However, I think morality really does need to be a community wide endeavor”

    Could you please define exactly what you mean by “morality” in this sentence? And if morality is a guide to our actions, since we can only control our *own* thoughts and therefore *only choose our own* actions, please explain why this necessarily-individualistic behaviour must be a “community” endeavour, how that makes sense, or is even possible?

    Or, did you simply mean that in order to live in peace and harmony we must all practice our code of morality; ie we should all make the effort (individually)?

  • jemand

    Can you please not use man as synonymous to human, and use he as the generic pronoun? You are the only poster yet on this thread doing it consistently, and it is disconcerting and disorienting for me to read, when you are taking so universally but so clearly grammatically cutting me out.

    You are also aware, that historically, legal cases have hinged on the use of “he” as “generic pronoun” to bar women from entering various professions and educational institutions, so appealing to history as validating your usage is not going to fly– in fact, it is more likely to underscore the exclusionary nature of your word choice.

    So this is a simple request… can you please consider changing your word choice? It has nothing to do with the topics under discussion and it’s distracting, unnecessary, and likely to spread to other posters who are engaging with you. I don’t want to derail this thread, so lets not debate this subject in this space, but I don’t see any significant reason to continue using your current phrasing, which is not actually conveying what I presume you meant to convey.

  • jemand

    Ok! to the more interesting stuff! Morality as a community issue. We humans are social animals, it is part of our natures, a necessary, deeply embedded part that is what makes social punishments such as ostracizing and shunning so terribly hurtful and effective at conveying group displeasure toward an individual.

    Morality doesn’t exist in an individual, but in interactions. What is moral or not, is not dependent on single “snapshots” but in how we are interacting, whether interacting to ourselves, or others. We also, very, very often, act in groups. In fact, we probably more often find ourselves members of groups and affecting social norms of a group and influencing others in our group to act as we are, than we are acting alone.

    Our countries, our governments, our law, all are examples of this. Not even any dictatorship is in actuality a system driven by an individual, they are ALL about small groups of humans, our interactions among ourselves, and group interactions with others outside the group, and with other groups.

    Morality, in sum, is a characteristic of larger social groupings, not of individuals. It is the duty of each of us as members of larger social groupings to organize our societies, our laws, our governments, so as to minimize the amount of no-win situations any given individual may find himself or herself in, because we are far, FAR more powerful collectively than individually. Similarly, we are far more capable of setting up optimal systems when we organize ourselves collectively.

    We can’t be moral alone.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    jemand, I find your objection to the use of the male pronoun as offensive a result of some politically-correct ideal. Please do not try and use word games, legal games, or emotional blackmail on me; I need not point out that the word “man” refers to man the species, to humans. It never occurred to me that any reasonable person would find this offensive!

    I am most definitely and clearly NOT cutting out women in any regard, since women are also humans and covered by the category “man”; if you really would take offence at this and overlook the *content* of someone’s arguments, and think that “man the human being” excludes you, that is your error not mine. The confusion is your dubious emotionalism towards a simple word, which as I say is probably more due to political-correctness than anything rational.

    Now, since I don’t want to get off-topic or confuse anyone, I can simply replace man for “human” or “rational being”, or alternatively, you can pretend you see these words if the word “man” is so offensive to you.

    Now that that’s over with, I don’t believe I used the word “man” in my last post to you; so maybe we could deal with that?

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    jemand: “We humans are social animals, it is part of our natures, a necessary, deeply embedded part that is what makes social punishments such as ostracizing and shunning so terribly hurtful and effective at conveying group displeasure toward an individual.”

    I agree with you that social interaction is of enormous benefit to individuals, but let me ask: if you were alone would you suddenly stop thinking, wither away and die? I disagree with you here because there is actually something more fundamental than a person’s interaction with another: how that person *themselves* thinks and acts, whether they are alone or not.

    An individual, even alone, has to make decisions – and those decisions can be good or bad for that individual. He needs a guide in making those decisions; in choosing between the good and the bad. Therefore he needs morality. So, morality *precedes* social interaction. Indeed, social interaction is itself based on moral principles.

    “Morality doesn’t exist in an individual, but in interactions.”

    But only individuals interact, and those individuals make choices over their lives. A *consequence* of those choices is how we interact, but before that – individual choices must be made. How does one make such choices? By asking others? What if no one is around? Who does that person ask? Who does that person ask? Where does it end?

    “We can’t be moral alone.”

    As I demonstrated above, this is false, but you didn’t define your use of the word “morality”. What is morality? What is its goal? Why is it needed? Who needs it?

    (Btw, I slipped into using gender pronouns again simply because it is easier and *practical* to do so. I could use “she” instead of “he” if you like, but then would the males here object to their exclusion? I wouldn’t have thought so, would you? It would be best to simply overlook this irrelevance.)

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

    jemand, I find your objection to the use of the male pronoun as offensive a result of some politically-correct ideal.

    Apologies for perpetuating this derail since there a few other current threads on DA where this discussion is more relevant :) But, at one time I would have agreed with you…sort of. However “man” is more than a gender loaded word, it has a gender specific meaning in most contexts and is exclusive even if you don’t want it to be. For the same reason I don’t think it is egregiously politically correct to substitute “access cover” for “manhole cover” as it implies women never work in sewers. As for “he” it doesn’t seem too much like hard work to type s/he which might be better (but I’m a man so maybe I’m not the best person here to judge).

  • hiero5ant

    @Steve Bowen “Doesn’t ring true. Creationists believe they are right, because they believe they [must] be right. It’s not because they don’t understand the logic, they are convinced the logic is irrelevant in the face of their belief.”

    I don’t see how this disagrees with the quoted passage.

    @OMGF “I think the point, however, is that the creationists seem to regard their beliefs as first and the science as second (or rather that the science is inconsequential to having the right beliefs – they’ll simply throw out anything that they deem as not in accord with their already determined belief structure)…

    When you look at how they actually operate, you see (as I tried to point out) that it is their moral beliefs which come first, not their empirical beliefs, toward which they really indifferent. Have you ever tried to get a YEC to debate a Day-Ager? Doesn’t happen. The most you will ever get is each accusing the other of being “unbiblical”.

    The reason YECs and Day-agers are on the same side is the same reason AGW deniers and AGW is good for us-ers are on the same side, which is the same reason 9/11 deniers and LIHOPers are on the same side, even though their empirical beliefs are wildly incompatible: they are primarily driven by moral and cultural concerns, and so they make common cause with their moral and cultural allies regardless of what the facts say.

    and I think you agree with that, which makes me wonder why you posted what you did in #10 that I objected to in #11.”

    Then I’m at a loss as to what you think you’re disagreeing with. Maybe I should have bolded words like “in principle” and “nominally” to make the emphasis clearer. Nominally, notionally, avowedly, purportedly, allegedly, theoretically, ostensibly,(thesaurus runs dry here), creationists are offering scientific descriptions. None of this is incompatible with the highest degrees of deception, self-deception, delusion, and lack of basic competence in the task.

    @ebonmuse “I don’t necessarily agree with that. Sam Harris makes the point in TML that for the most part, religious people are attempting to maximize well-being. The reason they’re going about it in such a starkly different way is because they believe in another life after this one, compared to which everything in this world is irrelevant, and the only thing that ultimately matters in this life is following God’s arbitrary commandments to secure a good eternal fate.”

    It’s simply wishful thinking to suppose that all non-pathological moral disagreement is the result of mere empirical disagreement about the non-moral facts. Our species does not require metaphysical doctrines about the afterlife to suborn cruelty or tribalism or contempt towards women. Antebellum southerners certainly were not “insufficiently acquainted” with the day to day realities of slavery.

    And again “well-being” in such a context has mostly been evaporated of any substantive content into a place-holder term for “the highest bestest awesomest way to be”. It becomes a non-cognitive expression of what we yearn for rather than a definite description of it. Even given the truth of eternal bliss in an afterlife (of the Abrahamic faith of your choosing), it would remain an open question whether bliss purchased at so steep a price in human suffering would be conscionable for any truly moral man.

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

    hiero5ant,

    Then I’m at a loss as to what you think you’re disagreeing with.

    So am I. I thought you were claiming that creationists were/are concerned with accurately predicting reality. I think we’ve both disabused each other of that notion (that creationists actually care about reality) by this point, so I’m not sure what you were actually trying to say there.

    evanescent,
    What do you mean by “morality” especially if you are talking about it being relevant to a single entity that lives completely alone and has no other interaction with any other living entity?

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    I will be going afk shortly so apologies in advance for not being able to reply so soon should anyone continue a chain of discussion that I’m involved with, but:

    Steve, it is totally irrational to be offended by words. Since most of us here are atheists, we take for granted that offending, or being offended, is not a crime. What is important is not the words, but the *idea* behind the words. If I called you a “jokflogk” you would hardly be offended, until I told you that it’s a vile swearword on planet Blargon 7. Similarly, if the word “man” is clearly used to refer to the species “human” or in Aristotle’s words the “rational animal”, when why on earth would one be offended by this?

    It is simply more efficient and practical to type using gender pronouns, and in this respect we are limited by nature to male or female. I have in fact never known a man to get offended by the use of the pronoun “she” when referring to inanimate objects such as boats or ships (e.g. “she’s a real beauty that starship Enterprise.”), so why the quasi-genuine offence of certain women to “he” or “man” when referring to the concept of humanity? The *idea* behind “man” here is clear – so there is nothing to be offended by, except that which you bring with you.

    Political correctness is not a moral or noble ideal to strive for. As atheists who claim to follow reason, this sort of nonsense should be beyond us.

  • jemand

    “I agree with you that social interaction is of enormous benefit to individuals, but let me ask: if you were alone would you suddenly stop thinking, wither away and die?”

    Yes. Eventually. You would too, this is simply how humans react to sudden deprivation of external stimuli, especially social interaction. In fact, without social interaction as children, our brains *literally* fail to develop. We literally lose significant capacities for logical thought unless we are exposed to sustained social interaction as children, and our psychological health regresses and our rational mind can be destroyed, even as adults, under sufficiently sustained and extreme enough social deprivation. That idea of “individual” we have, is constantly tested, honed, refined by interaction with others. With comparing and contrasting. With give and take. Without others, even the very idea of self eventually vanishes. Interaction shapes individuals as much and more than individuals chose between interactions.

    With only 30 seconds of googling, I find stuff like this: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/1898

    Takeaway quote:
    Previously healthy prisoners have “develop[ed] clinical symptoms usually associated with psychosis or severe affective disorders” (2) including “all types of psychiatric morbidity.” (4) Many have committed suicide.

    Another example: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/30/090330fa_fact_gawande

    Takeaway quote:
    A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”

    Second Takeaway quote:
    EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

    More descriptions here: http://www.prisoncommission.org/statements/grassian_stuart_long.pdf

    Without human contact, the mind becomes delirious, subject to hallucinations, paranoia, failures of memory and concentration, intrusive obsessive thoughts, and more.

    Another source on the effect of insufficient social interaction on children: http://dcollson.wordpress.com/2006/09/28/severe-social-isolation/

    Takeaway quote: Most SSI children cannot tell the difference between hot and cold, they can’t walk smoothly, and they have little retention and memory loss. All of these symptoms are signs of underdevelopment of the brain and according to research on brain development the brain stops (or slows extremely) developing in adolescent age. If a child passes through adolescence in SSI then they will never fully develop therefore the effects of SSI are permanent.

    In conclusion, we aren’t even fully human except as we can continue to participate in human society through human interaction. Therefore morality *cannot* be based solely on the individual, because that individual, even as a self-concept, requires continued social interaction to remain stable.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    OMGF: “Morality” is a code of values to guide human life. Since only life can be an end in itself, all values must be judged with one’s own life as the standard. Since only an individual can think for itself, only an individual can choose for itself, and then only an individual can act for itself. Since we cannot think, choose, or act for another – our guide to pursue our ultimate goal – life, is fundamentally an individual matter. Proceeding from those ethical principles, the question arises of how people should interact. But you cannot answer the latter until you have established the former; and the former applies to all individuals, whether alone or in society.

    Now that I’ve defined morality and justified it, would you care to return the favour?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    The confusion is your dubious emotionalism towards a simple word, which as I say is probably more due to political-correctness than anything rational.

    This is really remarkable. We just got done discussing this, and now someone else is practically begging me to bring the hammer down!

    evanescent, jemand made a polite and reasonable request of you. You responded with sexist condescension, hostility and dismissal. This is not acceptable behavior. In the future, if you choose to continue commenting here, you will be more respectful of others. Please do not mistake this for a request.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    jemand, it is not a good idea to base your concept of humanity simply on children, because children are by nature immature and their minds not fully formed. You are very right that children need rational guidance and proper interaction to help them attain an adult state of independent rational thought. In other words, we want our children to attain the *proper* state of individuality. It is to this independent rational being that morality then applies.

    To deprive children of important stimuli during their development actually proves my point. An animal will automatically follow its instinct; humans don’t. Children left alone would die, until they’re at an age to think and provide for themselves. It’s precisely because humans must think and act that morality applies to individuals; individuals capable of rationality. What is morality if not “good or bad” in relation to choice?

    To put this in explicit terms, I will paraphrase myself: “you can take a human being out of society and they are still humans. But take the mind out of a human and they are animals.” So despite what horrid and turtuous experiments you quote to demonstrate the importance of companionship to humans, they are *nothing* compared to what would happen to a person without their mind!

    “Therefore morality *cannot* be based solely on the individual, because that individual, even as a self-concept, requires continued social interaction to remain stable.”

    This sentence really overlooks and ignores what I said previously. Can I suggest you go back and re-read it please? The concept of morality is epistemologically derived from the concept “value”, which itself is based on the concept “life”; since human lives are individual not collective, values are individual not collective, therefore morality is individualistic, not collectivist.

    (Also, you still haven’t answered my questions above: What is morality? What is its goal? Why is it needed? Who needs it?)

  • Yahzi

    Are you alive?

    Then by definition you value continued existence. That is part of the definition of “alive;” that the organism is in a particular state of organization and attempts to maintain that state.

    We have noticed that some things are in a particular state, and take actions intended to preserve that state. We call this state “alive.”

    Turns out, human beings are alive. So it’s no surprise they value aliveness. This “is-ought” argument ought to join the Ontological argument in the junkyard of silly ideas.

  • jemand

    But as my links show, taking a human out of society DOES take the mind out of that human– the mind undergoes the same effects as that caused by physical brain trauma– down to changing the structure of the brain and it’s function.

    Not only is human interaction necessary to *attain* a state of mature individuality, but it is ALSO necessary to *maintain* that state.

    The sentence describing the instability of the self-concept of individuality and the necessity of social interaction for maintaining basic mental functioning is a description of reality. It’s a simple fact. It can’t be “ignoring” or “overlooking” some conceptual platonic ideal you’ve described previously– facts don’t work that way.

  • Yahzi

    “The concept of morality is epistemologically derived from the concept “value”, which itself is based on the concept “life”; since human lives are individual not collective, values are individual not collective, therefore morality is individualistic, not collectivist.”

    No. Morality deals with transactions between moral agents. In the individual case – that is, if there were one and only one moral agent in the universe – there would be no morality. Nor would there be a need for one.

    Morality is an evolutionary strategy for maximizing survival in social, self-aware populations. That’s all it is.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Yahzi :) Are you the same Yahzi from IIDB many years ago?? If so, you won’t remember me on this handle but I remember you. I was a mod over there a long time ago. I hope you’re well.

    Apologies for the off-topic.

    “Morality is an evolutionary strategy for maximizing survival in social, self-aware populations. That’s all it is.”

    No, that is not true – precisely for the reasons I said in the passage you quoted. Your first sentence is simply an assertion which was already contradicted by everything else I wrote. You cannot talk of morality without value, you cannot talk about value without life, you cannot talk about life in terms of collectives. What I said stands.

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

    @ evanescent
    If you have the time and the inclination read the practically interminable thread on this post where I spent a long time arguing in favour of your point about language (though less aggressively I hope). Needless to say I’ve changed my mind to a large degree, thanks in no small part to the articulate and thoughtful jemand.

  • monkeymind

    I dunno, Yahzi. I would definitely prefer death to certain ways I could continue being alive. It’s not that easy.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Steve, I have read that and will give it another read. I really don’t wish to derail this thread or appear to be spamming, and I think the subject is very emotionally loaded. Suffice it to say that whilst I agree with the *intention* of the article and I despise racism and sexism in any form, I don’t agree that the use of a particular pronoun has any necessary bearing on the idea behind that usage. I would think this position is self-evident. Anyway, this is the last I will say on this matter.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    “I would definitely prefer death to certain ways I could continue being alive. It’s not that easy.”

    Monkey, I couldn’t agree more :) That’s why “life” is not merely existence, but life proper to a rational being. Which is why the “good” and “bad” for humans isn’t just a matter of what keeps us alive from one moment to the next, but what compliments our minds as well as our bodies. Life is flourishing, the pursuit of values, the purpose is happiness.

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

    Just so I am not only posting off topic here I am in agreement with the concept that morality is a societal value. It has no meaning at an individual level as another moral agent must be at least notionally present for a moral judgment to be made. Unfortunately TML has not been published in the UK yet!!! so I’m only getting the hypothesis second hand atmo but I see nothing wrong with the idea that science generally or psychology or sociology could be a tool for determining or defining moral values (sorry Sarah, I still don’t get it.Not that I’m convinced you’re wrong, just can’t get my head around a practical application of your argument)

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Steve, I’ll give you a practical example:

    You are alone. There is a severe storm coming. The conditions will severely harm you, perhaps kill you. You can build for yourself a shelter and hide or you can stand in the path of the storm and pray to a higher power to wish the storm away.

    Which is the *right* choice? Which choice is the one based on your nature and reality? Which choice identifies not just the course of action you must take, but also the *principles* behind that course of action (i.e. that action, not wish, causes change)? In the example above the choice is clearly: rational thought vs irrational whim, or if you like, reason vs faith.

    This is what I mean that morality is a code of values to guide an individual in his/her life. All moral principles in social interaction are meaningless without reference to the individuals involved. Here is another practical example: I cannot act freely (since free actions are the result of free thought) where force is present. Therefore it is hostile to my life for force to be used against me, as a human being. Since you are a human being, it must be wrong (for the same reason) for force to be used against you. Therefore, when we interact, we must not use force against each other. See how *socially* moral principles are predicated on the individual?

  • monkeymind

    Why would any moral principle be involved in the storm scenario? I don’t see why ethics come into it at all, unless there are others to which I have an obligation of care, or if I consider the burden placed on others to care for my sorry mangled ass after the storm is over.

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

    @evanescent
    I would dispute that is a moral decision. It’s a practical one about survival, although I take your point that faith in Zeus at that point would not be a rational decision. A moral decision would be who else do I protect, if there is no-one else I do not have to judge or care.

  • hiero5ant

    @OMGF “So am I. I thought you were claiming that creationists were/are concerned with accurately predicting reality. I think we’ve both disabused each other of that notion (that creationists actually care about reality) by this point, so I’m not sure what you were actually trying to say there.”

    I don’t feel particularly disabused. They do care. They’re just bad at caring. I guess I just don’t share the intuition that it is somehow conceptually or psychologically impossible for a person to say one thing but do another, or to try at something and fail. Which they do. Gloriously.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Monkey and Steve, both your positions *presuppose* that morality is a matter of how we interact with others – but that is precisely the position I am questioning. We must go further back than that. We must ask ourselves, “if morality is a question of good or bad, good or bad *for whom*?” If morality is a question of values, *whose* values? And why?

    That is why I repeatedly ask people to define the word “morality”; I wasn’t being pedantic, but this definition is essential.

    Monkey, the moral principle involved is whether to use reason or not. No further discussion of morality can take place before this critical one. This is most definitely a moral issue!

    Steve, if morality is not a guide to how to live our lives, then what is it?

    Please allow me to use a comment of yours above to demonstrate a point:

    “another moral agent must be at least notionally present for a moral judgment to be made. Unfortunately TML has not been published in the UK yet”

    So moral judgements can only be made by *another* moral agent? Why not ourselves? Who judges the judgement of that other moral agent? Who then judges that? Notice the infinite regress fallacy? What you are suggesting is actually moral *relativism* and subjectivism, where there are no rules and anything goes. To be objective, morality must reduce to reality, *not* someone else, society, community, god etc.

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

    I guess I just don’t share the intuition that it is somehow conceptually or psychologically impossible for a person to say one thing but do another, or to try at something and fail.

    But that’s just them arguing or acting in bad faith, surely?

  • monkeymind

    Morality is the set of principles that guides human interactions with other sentient beings.

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

    evanescent, who said I was a moral objectivist? I may be a moral realist, I don’t know, my internal jury is still out. But, to be fair (moral judgement?) and to put some cards on the table, I am not a moral relativist in the sense that I do not believe that culture can exonerate the maltreatment of sectors of society on the basis of tradition or religion. There are things that one individual should not do to another, but that pre-supposes a minimum of two individuals.

  • monkeymind

    “you cannot talk about life in terms of collective”

    Why not? Biologists do it, zoologists do it, even educated fleas do it.

    “To be objective, morality must reduce to reality, *not* someone else, society, community, god etc.”

    With the exception of god, all those things are real.

  • jemand

    From what I said earlier “The choice poor “thought experiments” pitting various moral imperatives or other individual conundrums are not valid on a societal level, which is where we should be operating.”

    How it applies to the person in the path of an oncoming storm. This is a very contrived, rare situation, and focusing *only* on the points of action at that particular moment by that particular actor is missing the bigger picture. Most people are never faced with such a situation, the few who are would likely be in a group. Almost never does a storm come slowly enough that you would even have time to construct a very strong shelter– certainly not alone what a community could do with time and planning and interaction.

    Even if you are alone, ready to act, and you have time to act before the storm arrives, you probably left human society with some sending off, some social preparation, some socially shared natural know-how, some goods gathered through trade and interaction, and without these, you would surely have an elevated risk of dying no matter your actions. Without shared information about previous human experience, you probably wouldn’t even KNOW the most effective course of action.

    And, of course, it is possible you are in that situation because some others threw you out of their community. Perhaps instead of giving you some real information, you were fed nonsense, and run off. Perhaps social systems were set up so that your group, your nation, your family was impoverished and dying where they were, and you set off searching for a better life. Whatever the case, your chances of dying facing a storm are higher than if the society you left, or the society you are trying to join, had been better structured. The full responsibility does not lie on you alone, but on the systems which influenced your present situation.

    And all these systems, were created by groups of humans. Through social interaction. Furthermore, the purpose of surviving is to continue a trek, a quest, which is ultimately premised on rejoining human society again. Either with some insights gained through your trial to share with others, or to join a different culture in some different locale etc.

    The interesting moral question is not what the individual should do in the face of the approaching storm, but in all the human interactions previous to and planned after that moment. What the person does depends on all of those other factors.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Steve, but that presupposes that there are some things that are inimicable to one individual’s life that preclude the actions of another. Therefore the actions of that other must be morally wrong, yes? But that person performs those actions based on *their* decisions. So are *their* decisions right or wrong? And then, if that person can reduce their decisions to what is harmful or beneficial to a human life – they can therefore apply the same principles to *their own* life – i.e. an individual. In other words, if it’s “good” for a man to use reason instead of faith, it is good whether he is alone or in a society.

    There is a difference between Rights and morality. Rights are social principles based on morality; they govern how people should interact. But morality is the foundational code for Rights.

    Again, you need only define “morality” by your thinking and we can see where it leads?

    Finally, your honest admittance that your mental jury is still out is refreshing, but as you say, you are compelled to make moral judgements. As I’m sure you’ve already discovered in your own mind, moral relativism is self-refuting (and downright silly to be honest). Notice how, in your last sentence, you again presuppose that morality is about how people interact? Let me be clear: I am not saying that morality has nothing to do with human interaction. On the other hand, morality most definitely is vital when considering human interaction, but society is not the basis upon which to found morality, because, again, morality is a code of values to guide our lives; the lives of individuals.

    To argue against this, one must define morality differently, but as I’ve demonstrated, you cannot get away from the fact that each of us must make intellectual and practical decisions constantly in our lives. What do we base these decisions on? Guess? Whim? Prayer? Gossip? Rumour? The ‘norm’? No. We need an objective guide, and the name for this guide is “morality”; you might disagree with this definition – and *that* is exactly why a discussion of morality is not the realm of the sciences, but of that which all human understanding, including science, is based on: philosophy.

  • jemand

    Well as for definition of morality, I said ebon more or less convinced me of Harris’s point (though I haven’t read the book yet) that morality is predicated on that which maximizes human well-being, and that science should be used to figure it out.

    It is pretty clear that individual codes are not going to be as effective in maximizing well-being as social action. Acting alone isn’t enough, we need help. We depend on each other. How we choose to pattern our societies is the most pressing moral question we currently face, in that our societies are the unit by which large groups of people either flourish happily or languish in despair and repression.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    jemand, I can address your post by pointing out one essential from what you said:

    “Even if you are alone, ready to act, and you have time to act before the storm arrives, you probably left human society with some sending off, some social preparation, some socially shared natural know-how, some goods gathered through trade and interaction, and without these, you would surely have an elevated risk of dying no matter your actions. Without shared information about previous human experience, you probably wouldn’t even KNOW the most effective course of action.”

    The human society you speak of, the “sending off”, the “preparation”, the “known-how”, the “goods”, – all of these did not pop into thin air. They were created and discovered by individual minds. Society as a collective does not invent, create, or produce – brilliant individuals do, (which any one of us is and can be). So even your assessment of the importance of society is not an appraisal of society *as a whole* but rather the importance that certain interactions can be, i.e. the interactions and trade of *chosen* selected individuals with other individuals. For example, the works of Leonardo da Vinci, or the best survivalist’s guide, the essays of Richard Dawkins etc are individual contributions to your life which you chose to accept, as opposed to say the Koran or the Bible or Buddhism etc which are of no use.

    And of course, all of these beautiful and brilliant inventions in society have a common source: an individual mind’s.

    (I totally disagree with you that you wouldn’t survive without some societal preparation. If a person’s mind is so impotent that they look at a storm coming and cannot reason that they need to make changes in the real world to ensure their survival, then they have far more serious issues than an advancing storm, but a total lack of independent and rational thought. If anything, that person is so totally dependent on other’s ideas and opinions they are useless to their own lives; in effect, a parasite or total intellectual dependent on others.)

  • jemand

    Society is what creates individuals, which then shape society. You can’t chop it up into pieces like you want to– the process is inseparable.

    And I’d argue the survival differential between standing and watching a storm approach in defiance or religious reverence or ignorance, and acting to build a shelter before it arrives, is ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE less, than EITHER of those courses of action, compared to staying with your social group, your town, city, whatever.

    So even if raw survival is all you care about, you’re going to have to take a broader view than you are right now.

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

    So moral judgements can only be made by *another* moral agent? Why not ourselves?

    I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
    Robert McCloskey

    What I meant was that in the absence of another moral agent, real or notional, our decisions are not moral. That notional agent may be fictitious AKA god(s) but either way our decisions are relative to an external agent. In reality we are surrounded by other moral agents, we exist in an environment of other people and the perpetuation of that environment is key to our own survival. This does not mean that we have to abide by the mores of everyone we meet, and therein lies the “meat” (apologies to veggies) of the debate.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    jemand, your statement that “Society is what creates individuals, which then shape society” is not only false, it’s actually self-contradictory. If individuals shape society then surely individuals create society?

    Could you please define exactly what you mean by society? I would define it as: a collection of individuals occupying a specific geographical location. Society is just a collection of individuals. The way you talk of society is as some living transcendent entity in its own right. That is bordering on the mystical.

    “And I’d argue the survival differential between standing and watching a storm approach in defiance or religious reverence or ignorance, and acting to build a shelter before it arrives, is ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE less, than EITHER of those courses of action, compared to staying with your social group, your town, city, whatever.”

    Ah, but why should an individual wish to stay with their group, town, city, whatever? Why should they choose one group over another? One town over another? One city over another? One society, one religion, one lack of religion, one idea – over another? Is it because it is beneficial or detrimental *to their life*?? You cannot get away from it – the good and bad are primarily individual concepts. Every example you use must ultimately presuppose the individual as the standard to have any meaning.

    Steve, you said “That notional agent may be fictitious AKA god(s) but either way our decisions are relative to an external agent.” In other words, “God” is the listener who must hear the tree fall in the forest for it to produce sound? I use that example for a specific reason; we’ve all heard the analogy. This is the ethical equivalent. Let us use a variation: if a stone rolls off a cliff, does it hit the ground if no one is around to see it? Objectively, we must say yes. Now, ethically, is a course of action good or bad for a person if no one else is around to say “yes, I approve”? Notice the same principle? In the former, you’d demand that objectivity reduces to reality and say “yes, the stone fell!” but in the latter you’d say “no, even though this action was good for me, that word means nothing, because no one else was involved or approved.” And again, this is moral relativism, the very thing you should be arguing against.

  • hiero5ant

    @Steve Bowen

    Surely. With creationists, the old maxim still applies. “Honest, Intelligent, Informed: pick any two.”

  • monkeymind

    If no one else is affected by my actions, I’m free to be guided by my preferences. I don’t feel the need to dress up my preferences in moral language.

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

    his is the ethical equivalent. Let us use a variation: if a stone rolls off a cliff, does it hit the ground if no one is around to see it? Objectively, we must say yes. Now, ethically, is a course of action good or bad for a person if no one else is around to say “yes, I approve”? Notice the same principle? In the former, you’d demand that objectivity reduces to reality and say “yes, the stone fell!” but in the latter you’d say “no, even though this action was good for me, that word means nothing, because no one else was involved or approved.” And again, this is moral relativism, the very thing you should be arguing against.

    I want to just call false equivalence and leave, but Schrodinger’s cat could be alive or dead for all I care if I am not the one fishing out the corpse. Rocks are probably falling (or not) all over the universe for all I know, but if someone sentient is not under it and I am not there to witness it there is no moral skin off my nose. But to make a moral decision I have to be aware my standing in respect of other moral agents. If i am alone on Maxima Prime, 1 million clicks south west of Betelgeuse the only thing I need to care about is if the frackin’ rock is going to land on me.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ monkeymind

    “If no one else is affected by my actions, I’m free to be guided by my preferences. I don’t feel the need to dress up my preferences in moral language.”

    Whether you choose to dress up your preferences in ‘moral language’ or not, moral decisions they most definitely are. Every decision you make in your life, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, has a direct bearing on your life, i.e. it is either good or bad for you, right or wrong. When we talk about good/bad or right/wrong the word ‘moraility’ is exactly the category it falls under, whether one is alone or in company.

    I spent a long time subscribing and promoting the ‘morality’ that Harris is advocating. I found many things difficult to comprehend when I first encountered Objectivism, but the first thing I realised is how utterly flawed, and in fact absurd, the widely accepted definition and use of the word ‘moratilty’ actually is.

    Everyone arguing against Evanescent here has been begging the question, nobody seems to be able to get past the assumption that morality relates to social interaction, i.e. we should only be concerned with doing right by others, not by ourselves. Well, that’s altruism and socialism for you. Nobody yet has justified that premise. Morality is even more important to the isolated man than the social man.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I am purposefully absenting myself from this conversation, but I just wanted to say:

    tobe38,

    That was beautifully put.

    That is why I go with the very simple and succinct definition that morality is the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad.

  • Orion

    Ebon, I hope you’re still reading the thread. If it turns out you aren’t, I hope you won’t mind if I choose to email this to you as well. If I could summarize where we left off, I would say that we agree that human well-being is self-evidently the good, that well-being consists generally of freedom, comfort, health, longevity, learning, and achievement, or something like that. We agree that empirical study can reveal how to maximize any one of those values, and that there are Pareto-efficient improvements to be made.

    I still have a problem with the language in your posts, and in (what VERY little) of Sam Harris’ I have read. Two problems, actually.

    First, if what you’re doing is empirically studying ways of implementing values you’ve already agreed on, why even call what you’re doing “moral philosophy” or “ethics”? Why not call it “urban planning” or “standards of care” or “welfare economics” or “best practices.” Those terms seem to better capture the spirit of the enterprise.

    Second, I still believe that even though the value of well-being is self-evident, it is also unprovable, and nobody is rationally required to acknowledge it. And I believe that it is vitally important to acknowledge that and not overstate our hand. Because the entire point of discussing values in themselves (rather than as they apply) is to create apologetics, and apologetics are necessary.

    There are basically three groups of people in the world. For some, it’s intuitively obvious that well-being is the good. They don’t need ethical philosophy, they only need urban planning and medicine and jurisprudence and welfare economics. Then there are those who value the opposite, who exalt oppression, death, and suffering to the the status of values. Those people aren’t worth wasting time on. But there is a third group. There are a great many people in the world who mostly value well-being, but have other values too. Maybe they value happiness and prosperity, but also tradition or hierarchy or retribution. And we need to be reaching out to those people and persuading them to make the right choice, to put well-being first.

    The trade-offs they have to make between, say, health and tradition, are exactly likes the trade-offs we have to make between health and freedom or health and comfort. For the same reason, there’s no empirical test that tells you which choice is right. To pretend otherwise would be dishonest, and I think they will notice our dishonesty. That’s why I’d prefer to simply admit that the only tool I have to make others share my values is emotion and rhetoric. Then give them a hell of an emotional speech.

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

    Tobe38 (a real blast from the past A Loaf of Bright was the first atheist blog I got into..how the devil are you?)
    Anyway

    Everyone arguing against Evanescent here has been begging the question, nobody seems to be able to get past the assumption that morality relates to social interaction, i.e. we should only be concerned with doing right by others, not by ourselves.

    Not quite. The idea of a totally isolated sentient person is a fiction, at best it is a thought experiment. Even if I really was stranded on another planet watching to see if rocks fell I would be aware of other people somewhere, social connections, a notional moral agent outside of myself. Even so the cartesian illusion we all carry around in our heads creates another notional agent, but I don’t think the words “good” or “bad” are as morally loaded when it comes to our own well-being, they may stand relative to some biological imperative to satisfy needs but you can’t reduce morality to those two words.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Steve Bowen

    Tobe38 (a real blast from the past A Loaf of Bright was the first atheist blog I got into..how the devil are you?)

    Very well, thanks (although so embarrassingly out of touch that I’ve just had to Google “how do I blockquote in html?”!), Steve, I of course remember you well from ALOB, I hope all is good with you too, mate.

    Not quite. The idea of a totally isolated sentient person is a fiction, at best it is a thought experiment.

    Well, there are plenty of well documented real life Robinson Crueso/Castaway events, but as it happens you’re kind of missing the point anyway. The point Evanescent has been trying to make is that every decision we make is a moral one, whether it involves other people or not. He used an extreme thought experiment to illustrate it, but the truth is, when you’re on your own in the house in the morning and you decide whether to have cereal for breakfast or blueberry pancakes, that’s a moral decision too! It’s so mundane that there’s a good chance that no other human being will ever know what your decision was. (I’d go with the pancakes, if I could be bothered making them.)

    Any use of the word ‘good’ has to answer the questions: good for whom?, good for what? and good by what standard? These questions must be answered because saying something is good gives it value, and value without a valuer is a contradiction in terms.

    Evanescent has answered these three questions: good for the valuer, for the protection or furtherance of his life and with his own life as the standard. As a volitional being man’s weapon of survival is his mind, which means whenever he is faced with alternatives he must make a choice. Morality is his code of values to guide these choices, all of them.

    So, ignoring for a second the question of man being on his own or in company (because I think a lot of people are getting confused and distracted with this), tell me – how can anything be ‘good’ in any way other than moral?

  • monkeymind

    I think you missed everyone else’s point about a notional connection to other moral agents. I find it kind of strange that you would think our social connection to other people goes away when they are not physically present. I don’t need (at a certain level of moral/intellectual development) other people to evaluate my actions, but I do evaluate my own actions for myself in the context of my social connections, real or notional. In terms of the importance of notional connections for morality, I think a stronger example than castaways would be those who found themselves stranded in moral deserts and find the will to dissent and document the crimes against themselves and others. “Let History Judge”, etc.

    …tell me – how can anything be ‘good’ in any way other than moral?

    Well, pancakes can be good or bad without reference to morality.

    The things you and evanescent say seem like the kind of thing philosophers say, but is it philosophy? Because it sounds like word games.

    Take this sentence by evanescent:

    No, that is not true – precisely for the reasons I said in the passage you quoted. Your first sentence is simply an assertion which was already contradicted by everything else I wrote. You cannot talk of morality without value, you cannot talk about value without life, you cannot talk about life in terms of collectives.

    Of course you can talk about life in terms of collectives. Biologists and zoologists don’t study individual mice or fish or fruit flies. Individuals only become important when you have complex brains in complex social groupings. Without complex social groupings, individuals are not worth studying.

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

    What monkeymind said. I can’t improve on that.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ monkeymind

    You are still assuming your definition of morality, which you need to explicitly explain and justify before you even mention ‘moral agents’. Evanascent and I have both defined morality – a code of values to guide man’s actions, with his life as the ultime value and standard.

    Well, pancakes can be good or bad without reference to morality.

    I explained exactly why they can’t, this is just an assertion to the contrary. If the pancakes are good, good for whom? Good for what? Good by what standard? These are not word games, they are simple questions which you either need to answer, or explain exactly why you don’t think they need to be answered.

    Biologists and zoologists don’t study individual mice or fish or fruit flies.

    As it happens, that’s exactly what they do. They study individual animals, or groups of animals (which consist of individuals) and use the results to form conclusions about the species.

    The point is that whether you are talking about fruit flies or humans, only the indivdual is alive. The species fruit fly is not alive, and when talking about humans, society is not alive – it is simply a collection of individuals who are.

    It seems that you are not missing our points so much as outright ignoring them.

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

    jemand,

    “Verbose Skeptic:”

    Verbose Stoic, actually. I’m not a skeptic. Or, at least, I don’t think I am, but I can’t be certain since I’m not clear on what it means to be one [grin].

    “I think that it’s obvious moral systems should be tuned to the optimal flourishing of all conscious and self-aware entities, all *persons.* ”

    I don’t think that obvious at all. Or, at least, I don’t think it obvious without knowing what precisely you mean by “flourishing” and “persons”. Without that, you may not even be able to demonstrate that my original thought experiment doesn’t capture a case where wiping out all other life in the universe provides for the flourishing of all persons.

    As for the rest of your comment, I admit that I’m not sure exactly what your objection actually is. My thought experiment was aimed at Ebonmuse’s view and was aimed precisely at showing that, in that case, it seemed that choosing the “flourishing of persons” there was not, in fact morally uncontroversial, as it had to be for the claim that it’s just obvious that that’s how we judge morality (by appealing to well-being or flourishing or whatever). That means, basically, that he — and now you — have to justify the contention that that is what it means to be moral. Everything else you’ve said seems to me to be the same sort of thing; you may believe that society is required or that morality is a certain way, but it isn’t obvious to everyone and so you have to support it with solid arguments. You can’t rely on obvious, or at least just that, to prove that stance in light of objections from people with a different view of what makes the moral moral than you.

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

    Yahzi,

    “Then by definition you value continued existence. That is part of the definition of “alive;” that the organism is in a particular state of organization and attempts to maintain that state.”

    This is false; suicidal people do not value continued existence by definition, even though they are certainly still alive.

    “Turns out, human beings are alive. So it’s no surprise they value aliveness. This “is-ought” argument ought to join the Ontological argument in the junkyard of silly ideas.”

    Yes, we tend to value being alive. Does that mean that we ought to? Probably. Does that mean we ought to value that over all other things we can value? That’s a bit more controversial. Does that mean that morality is not made up of other values that may be equally important, at times, to the moral action? That’s highly doubtful, actually.

    I will remind you of the Stoics, who insist that it is better for you to commit suicide than act in a vicious manner. Theirs is a valid moral option, that may or may not be right. As stated above, I agree that humans do value being alive and even that they may value being alive more than anything else. My problem is with whether we, indeed, OUGHT to value being alive that way. You have no established that we ought to, and the big difference between our moralities would be pretty much that one. Thus, the is-ought distinction is not only not a silly idea, it’s the key point of contention between us.

    “In the individual case – that is, if there were one and only one moral agent in the universe – there would be no morality. Nor would there be a need for one.”

    This is a contradiction; if there exists a moral agent, there must exist a morality, because being a moral agent means having the capacity to be moral ie to act according to a valid morality. You may be able to argue that there would be no interesting moral judgements if there were no other moral agents, but this would depend on the morality that gets developed. But it’s quite controversial to suggest that you have no obligations to yourself AND no moral obligations to things that are not moral agents — such as most animals.

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

    tobe38,

    “You are still assuming your definition of morality, which you need to explicitly explain and justify before you even mention ‘moral agents’. Evanascent and I have both defined morality – a code of values to guide man’s actions, with his life as the ultime value and standard.”

    Moral agency just means the capacity to make moral judgements and (possibly) to act on them. One can concede that one does not know what is precisely moral while still talking in general about moral agents. Your and evanescent’s definitions include a definition “A code of values to guide man’s actions” and a normative component “with his life as the ultimate value and standard”. I think pretty much everyone agrees that that definition is at least part of the definition of morality, but many people disagree with the normative component. But no one need give an alternative normative component to object that yours doesn’t seem right to them.

    “I explained exactly why they can’t, this is just an assertion to the contrary. If the pancakes are good, good for whom? Good for what? Good by what standard? These are not word games, they are simple questions which you either need to answer, or explain exactly why you don’t think they need to be answered.”

    They taste good, which means that they taste pleasant to at least some people (including me). That’s not a moral judgement by most standards, and I fail to see why it should be considered one. Especially noting that for that sort of judgement we accept that it’s all about taste and subjective opinion, which is not the case for morality most of the time.

    “The point is that whether you are talking about fruit flies or humans, only the indivdual is alive. The species fruit fly is not alive, and when talking about humans, society is not alive – it is simply a collection of individuals who are.

    It seems that you are not missing our points so much as outright ignoring them.”

    I think part of the underlying objection, though, is why does alive in that sense matter so much to morality. I think the collectivity argument, if I recall correctly, was raised to supposedly support why being alive mattered so much, so introducing it and then retreating back to the concept of life isn’t getting the argument all that far.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Verbose Stoic

    Moral agency just means the capacity to make moral judgements and (possibly) to act on them. One can concede that one does not know what is precisely moral while still talking in general about moral agents.

    It is meaningless to talk about moral agents before you’ve defined morality. It’s not a question of knowing what is or isn’t moral, but what morality itself actually is.

    I think pretty much everyone agrees that that definition is at least part of the definition of morality, but many people disagree with the normative component. But no one need give an alternative normative component to object that yours doesn’t seem right to them.

    Yes, they do. The questions: of value to whom, for what and by what standard? must be answered for the word ‘value’ (and therefore ‘morality’) to have any meaning.

    They taste good

    They taste good to you. So, you chose to eat something that tasted good to you because enjoying food is a value – to you, and it furthers your life, no matter how small the difference. So your choice was based on your code of values. But, you don’t think that’s a moral choice?

    I think part of the underlying objection, though, is why does alive in that sense matter so much to morality. I think the collectivity argument, if I recall correctly, was raised to supposedly support why being alive mattered so much, so introducing it and then retreating back to the concept of life isn’t getting the argument all that far.

    Because morality has to have a standard to be compared to, and as only an individual is alive, it must be the individual’s life which is the standard. It was not me or Evanescent who introduced a collectivist argument for the value of life.

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

    tobe38,

    “It is meaningless to talk about moral agents before you’ve defined morality. It’s not a question of knowing what is or isn’t moral, but what morality itself actually is.”

    As I pointed out, your definition included both. And I still deny that it is meaningless to do so, since some concepts can be examined just from the general “capacity to be moral” definition of moral agents even if we aren’t clear on exactly what that capacity entails.

    “Yes, they do. The questions: of value to whom, for what and by what standard? must be answered for the word ‘value’ (and therefore ‘morality’) to have any meaning.”

    Except that if you say — as you said — that moral value is primarily derived from life I can certainly object that that doesn’t seem to be the right “value” — ie the normative component — without having to tell you what the right alternative is.

    And you need to establish that any proper discussion of “value” is moral. While the is-ought argument claims that morality is about values, it never argues that anything that relates to value is moral, and for the most part this doesn’t seem to be true, as we do often value things that we consider amoral or even immoral.

    For example, someone may value music but see no moral connotations to that value.

    “They taste good to you. So, you chose to eat something that tasted good to you because enjoying food is a value – to you, and it furthers your life, no matter how small the difference. So your choice was based on your code of values. But, you don’t think that’s a moral choice?”

    You’ve made a huge leap here. That it tastes good to me may well be a reason for me to NOT eat it, if I hold certain beliefs that one ought not — yes, a value — eat to enjoy food. I can also hold that the taste of food is irrelevant to whether or not I should eat it. But the term “good” as in “tastes good” will still apply regardless of that set of values. Thus, good does not always refer to a moral good.

    I also think that decisions on what I do may indeed not be moral at all. Taking the Stoic line, decisions about what I should eat could, in general, be indifferents and have no relation to the virtuous — the moral — and the vicious — the immoral — at all. As long as a judgement about an indifferent is not vicious or virtuous, it would be morally neutral, and so not a moral decision. And we can indeed have decisions based on things we value that are not moral, because we are not appealing to moral values. It may get messy in practice — when are moral values really irrelevant — but certainly in principle — which is where the argument is at the moment — a decision may be completely amoral. How this all shakes out depends on the actual normative morality that we end up with.

    “Because morality has to have a standard to be compared to, and as only an individual is alive, it must be the individual’s life which is the standard. It was not me or Evanescent who introduced a collectivist argument for the value of life.”

    But evanescent DID argue that you couldn’t see life collectively as a response, I think, to the “morality is societal” argument. And I think you’d need to provide more detail about the individual’s life being the standard, because this is drifting precisely into the same problem that Sam Harris has with well-being: put one way, that’s just trivially true but doesn’t settle any of the actual disagreements, but put another way there are legitimate disagreements to it. In both cases, the Stoics are excellent examples because they do hold that the individual should follow the proper end for a human being and act rationally, but that rationality as the ultimate good is radically different from most standards that others are promoting.

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Stoic,

    “That it tastes good to me may well be a reason for me to NOT eat it, if I hold certain beliefs that one ought not — yes, a value — eat to enjoy food. I can also hold that the taste of food is irrelevant to whether or not I should eat it. But the term “good” as in “tastes good” will still apply regardless of that set of values. Thus, good does not always refer to a moral good.”

    The word “good” when referring to taste is a more specific matter than the principle of choosing to eat nice-tasting food in general. The former “good” is a matter of personal preference, whereas the latter is a moral principle. It is wholly rational (and usually healthy) to prefer enjoyable food over disgusting food. What matters is that one’s choice is rational. This is not a word-switch on my part; let us be clear about this: there is an equivocation on the word; “good” in regard to personal tastes is a contextual assessment. But we can most certainly evaluate the “good” in that context in ethical terms. For example, cat meat is good for cats but bad for humans. It is good for cats to eat cat meat but bad for humans to do so. Some moral judgements require a very specific context, and some are more universal, but all valuations can only be done within the context of a living being, vis a vis – what is good for that being or not.

    Now, the taste *might* be irrelevant, if, for example a tasty snack is loaded with poison. Here again, the good is the furtherance of one’s life. This doesn’t mean that every single right decision will be pleasurable (a painful life-saving operation) or every single wrong decision will be painful (i.e taking heroin); that is exactly why the values that further our lives must be rationally identified, and the automatic reaction to the achievement of values (emotions) honed to correspond to reality, since reality will never adapt to fit our emotions. The “good” and “bad” are ethical descriptions of those decisions we make in our lives in the pursuit of values.

    For example, if one is hungry and wishes to eat, but is unaware that the food is poisoned, the choice is still moral; the individual has made a rational choice to further their own life; this is a moral decision, and the action cannot be condemned. If however one was aware that the food was poisoned but decided to eat anyway i.e. if they couldn’t resist the taste, that would be irrational and therefore immoral.

    Life is the only possible ultimate value a moral being can hold; it is the only thing that is an end in itself (i.e. all other life-affirming values are directed at life, but life is not directed at anything but itself); it also provides the context for all other values. Since we can’t survive without reason, Objectivism prescribes rationality as a primary virtue; it is the most fundamental moral choice, because it precedes all other choices: to think or not to think.

    “someone may value music but see no moral connotations to that value.”

    Well this depends on what your definition of morality is; have you provided one yet? Values do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in the context of your life. There is only one alternative to life: death; therefore all values in your life, however big or small, either ultimately contribute to it or harm it. Music in most people’s lives is an immense value. (I will not expand on the Objectivist theory of art and esthetics here though.) You cannot disconnect the choices you make from the practical effect they have on your life. So, if morality is a code of values to guide you in purusing life (as Objectivism defines it), every choice you make *must* be an ethical matter. If you wish to assert that some choices are so tiny and insignificant that it is a waste of time of consider them, fair enough. But if those choices are irrational, they are immoral – that is the key point.

    “But evanescent DID argue that you couldn’t see life collectively as a response, I think, to the “morality is societal” argument.”

    What I said, and Tobe38 clearly elucidated, is that a collection of individuals is not itself a lifeform; I am somewhat baffled by the tendency of atheists to give “society” some reverential place, as if it was an organic consciousness in its own right. I suggest reading some of the great dictators of the last 100 years and noticing the similarities. I must consistently point this out, because it is a very worrying and dangerous trend from those supposedly commited to reason and the anti-mystical. It is no coincidence that the political Left, especially in America, seems to attract humanists and atheists.

    I am off for the evening so will be unable to reply. A good afternoon and evening to all.

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

    It’s unfortunate, but seemingly inevitable that discussions like this end up in a quagmire of semantics. I am investing a different meaning to the word “moral” than I am to the words “good” or “bad” although they can be used interchangeably if not symmetrically. I am happy to assign a behaviour that I consider moral the label of “good” but not necessarily to assign something I call good the label of “moral”. As “D” would probably have said were she here atmo “these are words and words are made up”. Pancakes taste “good” because they are sweet, and we are evolved to like sweet things because of the energy content, but actually they are “bad” because access to sweet things is easy now and obesity is a health risk. Now I accept that we can make moral judgments based on this information, “the pancake tastes “good” but the vegetable soup would be “better” for me”. But this assumes a) vegetable soup is an option b) I hold information about health outcomes c) I care. I think “c” is the only moral dilemma, and in order to care I need other people to at least notionally judge the value of my decision.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Steve,

    You are a non-cognitivist, and so am I.

    That just means that you think you can use deontological (moral) language (should, ought, good, bad, etc.) without making moral claims.

    Error theorists don’t think you can. They think we should(!) abandon moral language, because it is just too confusing.

    But, both non-cognitivists and error theorists reject the idea of objective moral truth.

    They are both moral anti-realists.

    Sorry. I’m out now.

    I said I wasn’t going to participate in this thread, but it’s hard for me not to, because I find it so fascinating.

    Good discussion. I feared that I was monopolizing the morality conversation, and I wanted to hear what others had to say.

    But, I have to go out for a while, so I won’t be able to participate anyway.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    The number of posts practically doubled in less than day. (-_-)

    Society is what creates individuals, which then shape society. You can’t chop it up into pieces like you want to– the process is inseparable.

    Absolutely, jemand. evanescent and tobe don’t seem to be grasping the concept of mutual dependency. You can’t raise a human being outside of society and expect them to become a complete person. Likewise, it is the sum interactivity of many seemingly minor individual contributions that both form and reshape society.

    One would think that the concept of co-evolution would not be particularly controversial on this forum. Society and individuals are as much co-partners in moral evolution as populations and individuals are mutually linked in natural selection. Asking where societies or populations emerge from if not individuals is missing at least half the equation. (The other part it ignores is the fact that societies and populations are not static, so we cannot talk about morality generally as though it were static or locked into any particular context.)

    You are still assuming your definition of morality, which you need to explicitly explain and justify before you even mention ‘moral agents’. Evanascent and I have both defined morality – a code of values to guide man’s actions, with his life as the ultime value and standard.

    Tobe, you have done little to demonstrate the accuracy of a definition of morality as a code formed strictly from individual values, so calling someone out for unproven assumptions is highly ironic.

    If, on the other hand, you were implying that we can somehow eliminate the premises of an argument, I would really start to wonder.

    Far more importantly, the concept of morality as purely individualistic is completely self-defeating — and this discussion is precisely the evidence. Repeated questions of “value for whom? valuing what?” and so forth lose all meaning when one asserts that the answer to these questions are solely individually determined. If that is the case, knowing others’ answers to such questions has no impact on your own behavior and there is subsequently no reason to ask.

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

    Sarah, you are a complete pain in the ass! :) Now I have to go away and learn something. (I’m putting everyone on notice that I may become a fundie right wing christian creationist because expressing opinions is way easier when you don’t actually have to know stuff!!!)

  • Yahzi

    Comment #57 by: monkeymind
    I would definitely prefer death to certain ways I could continue being alive. It’s not that easy.

    That doesn’t invalidate my claim. Our evolutionary strategies are not pure; they are constrained by other factors. Just because people sometimes choose to lose money does not mean capitalism is not a strategy for maximizing wealth.
    In any case, I doubt your statement. Is there any fate you would avoid that you wouldn’t embrace if it meant the continued existence of your culture/kin/ideology? Wouldn’t you consider it moral to live in pain if it meant that millions of children wouldn’t? Yes, you can construct scenarios where mere survival is not valuable; but we aren’t talking about mere survival. Humans define survival as more than just the continuation of the body. Our cognitive selves have hijacked the biological machinery.

    Comment #89 by: Verbose Stoic
    This is false; suicidal people do not value continued existence by definition, even though they are certainly still alive.

    Part of the definition of a car is that it has four wheels. But cars without four wheels can be found in any junkyard. Does this mean the definition of car cannot include having four wheels?

    Does that mean we ought to value that over all other things we can value?

    See my response to monkeymind.

    But it’s quite controversial to suggest that you have no obligations to yourself AND no moral obligations to things that are not moral agents — such as most animals.

    Plenty of people in this thread have suggested exactly that. I don’t think it’s that controversial. Morality is a transactional system. Your only moral obligations to yourself are imposed by your moral obligations to others. In exactly the same way debt is a transactional system, and you can’t be in debt to yourself in the absence of any other economic agent.

    Comment #81 by: Sarah Braasch
    That is why I go with the very simple and succinct definition that morality is the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad for a given context.

    Fixed that for you. BTW, the context is not necessarily the approval of a supernatural being. It might be the sustained survival of a genetic/ideological collective.

    Comment #55 by: evanescent
    Are you the same Yahzi from IIDB

    The one and only. I married Greyline from IIDB and we moved to Australia and started writing science-fiction (Google Song of Scarabaeus). So, yes, we are well. :)

    You cannot talk of morality without value, you cannot talk about value without life, you cannot talk about life in terms of collectives.

    A variety of people have answered this, particularly monkeymind. I agree with them. Also, see my answer to Verbose Stoic, above, about the limits of morality/debt.

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

    Humans define survival as more than just the continuation of the body. Our cognitive selves have hijacked the biological machinery.

    exactly. (anyway trying to study now. shush!)

  • FWB

    This is a very interesting discussion. I have followed the attempts to overcome the “naturalistic fallacy” and put ethics on a naturalistic basis for the last three decades or so, and look with favor on all steps which take us further in this direction.

    A distinction often made by modern philosophers of ethics or morality is between the prudential and the moral spheres. Acts which affect only the welfare of the actor are said to involve prudential considerations, while acts which affect others are said to involve moral or ethical considerations. I believe this is a useful distinction, and it’s one that was almost taken for granted at the time I took formal courses in ethics in the 1960s. This distinction has been common among philosophers since the time of Kant, who spelled out the distinction in detail.

    I notice that so far, despite the many comments, no one has used the term “prudential,” although there have been several disagreements over whether what I (and others who favor this distinction) would term prudential matters are properly part of moral considerations, or should be considered separately. Admittedly, the type of metaethical theory one favors will have an influence on whether this distinction is seen to be attractive and useful. Theories of virtue ethics will often be hostile the distinction.

    See pages 1-4 of this link for a discussion of the Kantian approach to the distinction:

    http://www.philosophy.northwestern.edu/conferences/moralpolitical/07/Frei.pdf

    Some brief remarks on the prudential may be found by searching this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article for “prudential.”

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasoning-moral/

    While I think the distinction is useful, and take the position that the question of what conduct is good for oneself, i.e., a prudential question from my POV, is not always, and may not even typically be a moral question, I do not claim that prudential questions are hardly ever moral questions. I hope this isn’t too tangential to the main subject of discussion.

  • Kaelik

    100 comments, a book, and who knows how many ebonmuse posts later, and still no answer to my question.

    Why should I care about (or act on behalf of) the “well being” of people I have never met, and never will meet?

    It would be strictly superior for “human flourishing” or “the well being of persons” or whatever for me to work myself tired, sleep, wake up, and do it again, all while owning no possessions, and giving all but the barest essentials needed to keep living to starving Africans, and then slitting my throat to save everyone else the medical costs when I am an old used up shell.

    Instead, I live a comfortable life, and don’t give two shits (or a single cent) to poor starving Africans, or anyone else who could use that cent far more than me.

    If your morality claims that I should do the first one [insert stupid apologia about how it doesn't, even though Harrisian/Musian well being does in fact claim that] it should damn well give a reason for me to do so.

    So far, the only reason that you or Harris has ever presented for why people should care about other people’s well being as much as their own is “Because I said so.”

    But frankly, no one actually acts as if the well being of people who are not them trades at a one for one rate with their own, and so you can’t claim that it is obviously true that something no one actually believes is true.

    Your axiom is false, and every day that you eat a piece of cheesecake is a day that you prove that you don’t believe it either. You can’t claim “Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, “Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?”, the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, “Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?””

    Because literally every single day, you and every other human on the planet joins the skeptic in saying that human well being is not the only goal, and that instead, your own well being is more important than starving Africans.

  • Mrnaglfar

    But frankly, no one actually acts as if the well being of people who are not them trades at a one for one rate with their own, and so you can’t claim that it is obviously true that something no one actually believes is true.

    Your axiom is false, and every day that you eat a piece of cheesecake is a day that you prove that you don’t believe it either. You can’t claim “Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, “Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?”, the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, “Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?””

    Because literally every single day, you and every other human on the planet joins the skeptic in saying that human well being is not the only goal, and that instead, your own well being is more important than starving Africans.

    Very well put, Kaelik.

    In so many discussions of morally acceptable or not, people really do overlook the overwhelmingly popular moral standard of “What is good for me I consider moral; what is bad for me I consider immoral”. People seem to forget -or not know – that evolution can only favor proximate behaviors if they lead to ultimate payoffs.

    It’s not just that simple; it just almost is, at a very basic level. Much of morality is posturing, less acting.

  • Sarah Braasch

    But, if someone were trying to achieve a universal morality, then the context wouldn’t matter.

    Not to them.

    Which is why I keep my definition of morality simple and succinct.

    Morality is just the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad.

    This says nothing about the why or the how.

    Sam Harris thinks good means promotes well-being. And, bad detracts from well-being.

    Someone else thinks good means promotes survival of the species.

    Someone else thinks good means what Yahweh or Allah or Buddha or Krishna or Thor or Zeus says is good.

    Some people think this is dependent upon localized context — time and place and culture and geography and history and etc., etc., etc..

    Some people are trying to impose universal moral codes upon others.

    Some people think what is good should be based upon evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology.

    Some people think that good is whatever whichever philosophy says is good.

    Some people think that there are multiple or a range of answers to what is good, based upon localized context or universally.

    But, they are all trying to categorize human behaviors as good and bad.

    And, they have all of these different approaches, because they value different things.

    Now, the first thing any good philosopher will say is that just because people disagree, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a right answer(s) / range of answers, either universal or in localized context.

    This is true, but, I think if objective moral truth(s) exist, then we would expect to see a lot more agreement than we do.

    Why?

    Because being human means the same thing everywhere in the world.

    Being human means the same thing in Timbuktu as it does in France as it does in Tasmania. (Unless someone thinks that he or she has proof that human beings in one part of the world are evolving at a significantly faster pace than others. And, I really doubt that this is the case.)

    Objective moral truth(s) is/are a lot like God.

    I can’t disprove God’s existence, but there is nothing about the world in which we live, which leads me to believe in any way, shape, or form that God does exist.

    I can’t disprove the existence of objective moral truth(s), but there is nothing about the world in which we live, which leads me to believe in any way, shape, or form that objective moral truth(s) exist either.

    Is it possible that God/objective moral truth(s) exist, but no one has any idea what it/they is/are?

    I suppose.

    But, I think as Christopher Hitchens likes to say — something about which, by definition, nothing can ever be known is probably the least interesting thing in the world to me.

    I think this is a stumbling block to human societies advancing / evolving.

    This insistence upon clinging to myth.

  • archimedez

    Sarah,

    You write: “Morality is just the categorization of human behaviors as good and bad. This says nothing about the why or the how.”

    This also doesn’t say much about the what. Good or bad with respect to what human behaviours? Math, logic, grammar, abstract visual art, jazz music, wall-paper design, archery–all these are domains of human behaviour in which we could classify specific actions as good or bad. That doesn’t really tell us what morality is.

  • Sarah Braasch

    archimedez,

    Exactly.

    It all depends upon your personal, subjective opinion of what is good and bad.

    Which depends upon what you, personally, subjectively value.

    If you value the maximization of wealth, so you think good means promotes wealth and bad means does not promote wealth, then you might think abstract visual art, jazz music, wallpaper design, and archery are immoral. You might want to convince a bunch of your friends that these activities are immoral, so that you can all vote in legislators who will criminalize these activities, because they are immoral.

    Fortunately, we have an effective, independent judiciary, which (more and more often now) recognizes that a personal, subjective moral disapprobation of wallpaper design is not a legitimate basis for legislation.

    Except that the example becomes less funny when you replace wallpaper design with gay marriage or abortion or other constitutional and civil and human rights.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Except that Scalia would say that there is no explicit constitutionally enumerated right to wallpaper design, so if the moral majority wants to criminalize this activity, because they think it’s immoral, so be it.

    That’s all the due process he thinks the constitution requires.

    Oh, BTW, he applies this same logic to the humanity of women.

  • archimedez

    Sarah,

    My point was that a definition ought to give us adequate information about what something is. As I said in the other thread, a definition ought to classify and distinguish morality from other kinds of things. Taxonomically, we ought to get a sense of what kinds of things are like morality, and what kinds of things are not like morality. What kinds of things overlap conceptually with morality? Terms like good and bad, or right and wrong, alone, as features, do not adequately distinguish morality from other kinds of things. The terms are too ambiguous unless specified by some additional criteria and content. In some domains, such as those I listed (abstract visual art, etc.), application of terms like good and bad may not have much, if any, moral valence or meaning. Something else, then, needs to be added to your definition. Good or bad with respect to what? I would include concepts like harm, fairness, equality, liberty, etc.

    Narrowly, the issue I’m raising is not whether my concept of morality is personal or impersonal, objective or subjective. (Though as I said in the other thread, harm etc. can be measured objectively). The issue I’m raising is that your definition does not serve as an informative definition of morality. Your definition is not unique in this respect. Many popular dictionaries also avoid further specification. One problem is that a definition that doesn’t go beyond the words good and bad, or right and wrong, does not distinguish between aesthetics and ethics. Aesthetics and ethics (morality) are domains that both concern “good and bad,” and many people feel that both domains are “subjective” areas of experience. That tells us nothing of the difference between the two domains. Examining the question of how morality differs from other dimensions/aspects or areas of experience is an important exercise in understanding what morality is.

  • Sarah Braasch

    This distinction isn’t terribly interesting to me, for my purposes.

    My point is to say that there isn’t a great deal of difference between someone saying that a painting is “bad” and a human behavior is “bad” and, therefore, immoral, with respect to the law.

    Neither is an adequate or justifiable basis for legislation.

    Because both are merely subjective, personal opinions.

    However, do I think someone who says that a painting is bad is attempting to make a moral claim?

    No, I do not.

    Therefore, I get your point. I would argue that this supports the noncognitivist position — that it is possible to use deontological (moral) language without making moral claims.

    A moral claim includes an imperative, a prescription or a proscription, a normative element. (Legal positivists aver that it is possible to study and practice law in a descriptive fashion, not a normative fashion.)

    But, like I mentioned, this is not a terribly important distinction for my purposes (the distinction between aesthetics and normative ethics).

    I am trying to say that all subjective, personal opinions have no place in the law.

    Breaking those opinions down, taxonomically, into their different kinds, is not terribly interesting to me.

    And, whether or not those claims are subjective or objective is not terribly interesting to you, for your purposes.

    So, I think we are speaking about different issues.

  • archimedez

    Sarah,

    The subjective-objective distinction does interest me, but that’s not my point in the previous post. But, at this stage, I will not belabor the issue.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think, though, that I just solved your problem.

    Normative ethics (morality) differs from aesthetics in that moral claims include imperatives, prescriptions or proscriptions, normative elements, and aesthetic claims do not.

    So, morality is the categorization of human behaviors as “good” and “bad”, including the implication of either a prescription or a proscription that one should or should not engage in that behavior, because it is good or bad.

  • archimedez

    Sarah,

    I still think more specific content is needed in the definition of morality. One could also say aesthetics deals with prescriptions, oughts. Theories on why, and instructions on how, one ought to do a good painting (for example, where good might be defined more specifically in artistic terms like effective use of contrast), seem to be prescriptions. (The instructions could also be proscriptive, why/how one ought to avoid failure in use of contrast).

  • http://angel14.com evanescent

    Yahzi, congratulations on your new life, I wish you all the best! :) Sometimes I miss the IIDB days, I might re-awake my interest there one day.

    On topic: the conversation has moved on since my last involvement and whilst I find the objections to my position flawed, I don’t believe there’s anything more I can add without repeating myself, as I think my original comments still stand without defeat. This isn’t me getting a “last word” but simply noting the disagreements and bowing out without a sudden disappearance. Good day.

  • Sarah Braasch

    archimedez,

    As a non-cognitivist, I would argue that that is using deontological language without making moral claims.

    Unless, someone is actually arguing, as in my example above of the person who values the maximization of wealth above all else, that it is actually immoral to engage in abstract art.

    I would argue that aesthetics can easily become normative ethics, with the addition of a prescription or proscription — a normative element.

    It all depends upon what you personally, subjectively value.

  • Mrnaglfar

    It’s true that you can’t take any catalogue of facts about human nature, however comprehensive, and from them distill the conclusion: “We ought to value human flourishing.”

    Basically.

    Does this cast doubt on the legitimacy of science as a human endeavor? More importantly, does it imply that there exist other ways of knowing that are just as valid?

    Not at all in either case; why would it? Whether people decide they ought to use science or not has no logical bearing on its legitimacy as a means of knowing.

    Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, “Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?”, the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, “Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?”

    They can most certainly say those things; they don’t have to care if they don’t want to. They will also endure the consequences of their actions, either imposed on them by the wider social world or by objective reality.

    Instead, we rational people who can agree on a basic set of goals should have no problem recognizing the superiority of some methods over others for achieving those goals

    First, let’s not divide the world into the “rational” and the “irrational”.

    Some methods are no doubt superior to others; that doesn’t mean they ought to be used. If you want to reduce crime, no doubt one could do a superior job of it were some rights to be discarded in the process.

    We want to learn how the world works by the most consistent and reliable method possible so that we can better control it to our benefit. Therefore, we should use the scientific method. We want to live lives of happiness and flourishing. Therefore, we should empirically study what policies best advance human well-being, and then live by those policies and encourage society to adopt them.

    And when those two “oughts” run into each other one has to be favored over the other, hinging on context. There are ways we could increase our knowledge of how the world works and increase the happiness of millions of people at the detriment to the happiness of others who need to serve as human guinea pigs for researchers.

    There are also conflicts between “happiness” and “flourishing”. One could make a solid argument people the world over would be happier were they fed a constant supply of drugs, which might interfere with whatever “flourishing” is.

    One could make a solid case that humans could be far happier overall if there were fewer of them competing for the world’s resources. This would put far less of a strain on the world’s supply of natural resources and ecosystems, allowing each person to live in greater comfort. Science could tell us what that population is (in theory) and that the most effective way to limit population growth is mandatory, forcible castration. See where this is going? When two oughts run into conflict, no catalogue of facts will tell you which one you ought to value over the other.

    And what to do with those stubborn philosophical skeptics, who insist to their last breath that we can’t prove that human well-being should be valued above other qualities? Let them be.

    Please, compare that to your first statement I blockquoted. You literally said it can’t be proved from any set of facts that we should value human well-being, and here you’re saying that we ought to ignore the skeptics who said the exact same thing you did.

    As Kaelik pointed out, you don’t really seem to believe that human well-being should be valued, in the general sense, since you act as if your personal happiness doesn’t trade off at anywhere even close to a one-to-one with the happiness of others. Until you are literally doing everything you can to improve human well-being, you are one of those skeptics.

    Of course, an adaptation that consistently confers benefits onto others at a cost to oneself (genetically) cannot spread throughout a population. Were something like that discovered, it would disprove evolution.

  • archimedez

    Sarah,

    “As a non-cognitivist, I would argue that that is using deontological language without making moral claims.”

    An online dictionary site gives this for deontology: “Ethical theory concerned with duties and rights.”

    Talking about or advocating how one ought to do a painting is not using deontological (ethical rule-based) language. One can talk about how and why to achieve a goal, even though the goal and its achievement, and the means to the achievement, may have no, or no significant, ethical value.

    “It all depends upon what you personally, subjectively value.”

    1. All of a moral judgment depends on what one personally, subjectively values?

    2. And laws don’t depend on personal subjective values? Where do laws come from? Why do we maintain them? Why do we change them?

    3. If I think a law punishing blasphemy should be removed, must my opinion all be based on subjective personal preference?

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

    @Sarah

    You are a non-cognitivist, and so am I.

    I think I agree with you. So assuming an anti-realist position I can understand why you would be opposed to Harris’ approach to defining Moral. However, I wish to avoid moral relativism and argue that some moral positions are more justifiable than others (mine mostly)which you would fight out as individuals in the marketplace. I think the argument is better fought at an epistemological level. What you can (or should be able to) demonstrate is that one method of arriving at a moral position is better than others.

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

    Sarah,

    “Except that Scalia would say that there is no explicit constitutionally enumerated right to wallpaper design, so if the moral majority wants to criminalize this activity, because they think it’s immoral, so be it.

    That’s all the due process he thinks the constitution requires.

    Oh, BTW, he applies this same logic to the humanity of women.”

    To be fair, from reading the interview that was quoted at “Why Evolution Is True” it seems more that he’s saying that one shouldn’t read rights and intentions into the Constitution that clearly weren’t there in the first place. So, if you want to make a law defining a “right” — such as extending equal protections to women — nothing stops you from making a law on that, but it doesn’t make sense to insist that the Constitution really did mean to say that when it clearly didn’t. It’s only a small extension to say that if you want the Constitution to say that, there are procedures for amending the Constitution to have it actually say or have the intent that, say, women are human. And his stance not only protects stances you disagree with, but stances you agree with, since it would stop people from reading rights into the Constitution that someone claims that current society would have put in if only they’d thought about it.

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

    Sarah,

    “If you value the maximization of wealth, so you think good means promotes wealth and bad means does not promote wealth, then you might think abstract visual art, jazz music, wallpaper design, and archery are immoral. You might want to convince a bunch of your friends that these activities are immoral, so that you can all vote in legislators who will criminalize these activities, because they are immoral.

    Fortunately, we have an effective, independent judiciary, which (more and more often now) recognizes that a personal, subjective moral disapprobation of wallpaper design is not a legitimate basis for legislation.”

    But if the moral is unacceptably subjective to base the law on, what IS objective enough to base the law on? And how can the judiciary judge what is acceptable regardless of what the majority of the people think reasonable and maintain democracy without having an objective standard to appeal to?

    As an example, think of the concept of a “notwithstanding clause” as exists — in a small form — in the Canadian legal system. The government can, under certain circumstances, say that even if the Supreme Court determines that a law is unconstitutional in this case the will of the people trumps that. Are there any cases where invoking that would be valid? And without that, what stops the judiciary from being nothing more than a dictator imposing its subjective view on all of the people, and thus there no longer being a democracy?

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

    evanescent,

    “It is wholly rational (and usually healthy) to prefer enjoyable food over disgusting food.”

    Well, this isn’t necessarily the case. Again, I return to the Stoics (which also answers giving my position on morality [grin]) and point out that the Stoics would say, quite rightly, that there’s no reason to prefer enjoyable food over disgusting food necessarily. The goal of eating is to provide energy to survive, and whether the food is enjoyable or disgusting doesn’t really impact that. That’s what they mean by “indifferents”; rationally, these are things that essentially you can take or leave (for them, mostly because they are external and you have no control over them). Now, deliberately refusing to avoid enjoyable food just because it is enjoyable and so that you might enjoy something is, to at least some of them — and to me — equally irrational. If, however, seeking out enjoyable food is either encouraging you to act irrationally in the cases that really matter — ie they get you to act immorally or not act morally — then that’s a problem and THEN you should avoid enjoyable food. But enjoying food is, in and of itself, an AMORAL desire or action.

    See, we both in some sense converge on an end of “Be rational”. But we disagree on what it means to be rational, and that difference cannot be settled with any sort of simple dismissal. We have to argue out which of us is correct.

    “There is only one alternative to life: death; therefore all values in your life, however big or small, either ultimately contribute to it or harm it. Music in most people’s lives is an immense value. (I will not expand on the Objectivist theory of art and esthetics here though.) You cannot disconnect the choices you make from the practical effect they have on your life. So, if morality is a code of values to guide you in purusing life (as Objectivism defines it), every choice you make *must* be an ethical matter. If you wish to assert that some choices are so tiny and insignificant that it is a waste of time of consider them, fair enough. But if those choices are irrational, they are immoral – that is the key point.”

    So, again, there is a major issue in that you are defining “rational” in reference to being alive and I clearly disagree, and have said that I have disagreed earlier. I and the Stoics literally choose death over dishonour. At this point, our views of what is rational diverge, and so what values we have will not agree. And we have to argue over that, as it is not clear that death before dishonour is not morally right.

    Second, I disagree that all values are necessarily moral. We can value things in a completely amoral manner, even under your view. I do not trace my valuing music over visual art back to anything to do with my life; I could quite easily live without either. Even by your definition, that’s an amoral value, but it counts as a value just the same.

    So there’s a lot more work to do here, and you and I mostly agree. Now try applying that to people like Ebonmuse who has a completely different basis for his moral values and you can see the problem with Harris’ book [grin].

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

    Yahzi,

    “Part of the definition of a car is that it has four wheels. But cars without four wheels can be found in any junkyard. Does this mean the definition of car cannot include having four wheels?”

    Absolutely, if you can still call it a car and not “A car missing its wheels”. And you can have a “car” in the colloquial with more than four wheels, if you look at, say, 1 ton trucks (which normally have two on each side on the back) and yet we will call trucks cars. Ultimately, if something is a part of the definition of the term if it doesn’t have it then it can’t still be called that term anymore by, ahem, definition [grin].

    “Is there any fate you would avoid that you wouldn’t embrace if it meant the continued existence of your culture/kin/ideology? Wouldn’t you consider it moral to live in pain if it meant that millions of children wouldn’t? Yes, you can construct scenarios where mere survival is not valuable; but we aren’t talking about mere survival. Humans define survival as more than just the continuation of the body. Our cognitive selves have hijacked the biological machinery.”

    Quite possibly, actually. Again, the Stoics literally put death before dishonour, and if that view can count as “life” by your definition then reducing everything to life has become pointless, just like Harris’ definition of “well-being”, as it’s so broad that almost any possible moral view fits it, including possibly that of the psychopath.

    I’m also interested in what we ought to think is the case, not in what we happen to think is the case.

    “Plenty of people in this thread have suggested exactly that. I don’t think it’s that controversial. ”

    It would mean that there is no moral connotation to animal cruelty, which is controversial, even if others have suggested it. And that’s just one example.

    “Morality is a transactional system. Your only moral obligations to yourself are imposed by your moral obligations to others. In exactly the same way debt is a transactional system, and you can’t be in debt to yourself in the absence of any other economic agent.”

    I disagree. I see that the only moral obligations I have are to myself, as that’s all that I can control, and that any moral obligations to others are imposed by those internal moral obligations. So, now that we disagree completely, you will have to settle this by appealing to arguments as opposed to simply asserting it. How, then, will we settle this?

    I think it settleable. Relativists don’t think so. Where do you fit?

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

    Sarah,

    “This is true, but, I think if objective moral truth(s) exist, then we would expect to see a lot more agreement than we do.

    Why?

    Because being human means the same thing everywhere in the world.”

    But why would you think that being human is enough to have the same opinions on what is or isn’t moral? Why can’t our own personal views and environments get in the way enough to obscure it? Why would you think that we’d all agree more if there really was objective morality? After all, even science — dealing with things that we can go out and look at — starts every new field with massive disagreement, and they can perform direct experiments to see how things work out. We can do that for moral philosophy. So why should it be that much better?

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

    I leave for the weekend and the thread explodes!

    hiero5ant,
    I think we’ll just disagree here, but I don’t see your objection as defeating Ebon’s point.

    evanescent and tobe,
    A lot of people have thrown a lot at you, but one thing that really stuck with me was what Kagerato said – that you (Tobe, but it applies to both of you) have no backed up your assertions of what morality is. The best I’ve seen is that you seem to be equating morality to rationality (something VS seems to have picked up on too). They are not, however, the same concepts. You’ve also seemed to say that moral = rational = being alive (as VS put it, paraphrased). What would you say about someone who wishes to end their life?

    Or, if we go back to the storm scenario, how is it immoral if I decide to stand and watch the storm, even if I lose my life? Perhaps I desire to see the awesomeness of the storm before I die in a lonely existence. What you are equating to morality is our internal desires. Those internal desires then dictate what the rational course of action is in this limited example. But, they do not comprise morality unless you want to claim that morality is simply what one desires and whether one acts on those desires or not. But, in the case of wanting to die, that would mean that the rational action to act on that desire would mean dying is moral, which you seem to be ruling out.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Steve,

    I absolutely think that people should use evidence and reason and science and logic to inform their personal, subjective moral opinions. I think we should do everything possible to encourage this, short of telling people to believe in the objective moral truth fairy.

    So, I totally agree with you.

    But, I still don’t think morality has any place in the law.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Verbose Stoic,

    You totally hit the nail on the head. And, I appreciate your comments so much.

    You’re right. There is NO objective standard upon which to base the law.

    None. Nada. Zip.

    Any appeal to an objective standard is fiction.

    This is why I call myself a legal anti-realist, just as I call myself a moral anti-realist.

    Thus, the moral majority.

    Thus, the various fictions.

    But, I don’t think it’s true that no one would subject themselves to a legal/political system based upon something other than the moral majority’s will.

    I’d like to give something else a try.

    Because, as we all well know, the moral majority are just as capable of atrocities and genocides and horrors as dictators, despots, and corporate and religious oligarchies.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ugh.

    I just reread my last comment, and I can already read in my mind all of the furious rebuttals.

    What I mean is this:

    Sure, you could say that we will base the law on biology.

    That would technically be objective.

    But, your choice of biology, rather than happiness or well-being would not.

    What I mean is that an individual’s determination of legal validity (of a law/legal system) is just as personal and subjective as his or her moral determinations.

    No one can show me that it is objectively true that a law or legal system is valid.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Verbose Stoic,

    Well, over thousands of years of human history, scientists have converged upon near global agreement on such a vast field of knowledge, because they have evidence.

    I don’t think there is any evidence that objective moral truth(s) exist.

    I know you have said that morality is normative, not descriptive (I agree), and that there is evidence, just not scientific evidence.

    But, what is this evidence? I’m not trying to be cute. I’m really asking.

    I think that if something is normative then it is subjective and lacks an evidentiary basis. It is a value judgment.

    What about logic?

    Well, to my mind, logic and math are one and the same.

    Yes, there are rules, but the rules are descriptive, not prescriptive.

    Logic and math are science. They describe the universe as it is, not as it ought to be.

    Yes, we can use them to make predictions about what will happen under whatever conditions, but this says nothing about how we ought to respond.

    Am I missing something?

    I’m not trying to be cheeky. I’m actually asking.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I’ve been thinking a lot about someone’s past comment about language.

    They said, of course morality is real, just like language is real.

    But, I don’t think that’s an apt comparison.

    Morality is normative, just like Verbose Stoic said. Language is not.

    I actually love the example of language, because I think it shows how a legal system could be amoral — could be descriptive, not normative, not prescriptive.

    Language is a set of rules, which defines our interpersonal relations (in a sense).

    But, it is a set of rules, which does not make moral claims. It is not normative.

    No one is saying that it is good or bad or moral or immoral to speak French instead of English or to use the word word for word.

    And the human species developed their systems of language over millennia.

    And, languages constantly evolve, just as cultures and societies and governments do.

    Language is descriptive, not prescriptive.

    But, there are rules.

    Why do people speak the languages they do?

    Did anyone ask them if they want to speak those languages?

    We organize ourselves into societies, because we are human beings.

    We speak languages, because we are human beings.

    What I am trying to say is that we can create a legal system which is descriptive, not prescriptive, just like language.

    I think we can create an amoral legal system, if we want to, which defines our interpersonal relations without imposing any one or another’s or the moral majority’s subjective, personal morality upon anyone else.

    And, I think people would follow it, for many of the same reasons that we all speak whatever languages we speak.

    Yes? What do people think of that analogy?

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

    But, I don’t think it’s true that no one would subject themselves to a legal/political system based upon something other than the moral majority’s will.

    Of course not, because it’s not true. We already have legal systems that are “based upon something other than the moral majority’s will.” Do you really want to continue to stake your claims on such obvious hyperbole and fear mongering?

  • keddaw

    Sarah:
    “But why would you think that being human is enough to have the same opinions on what is or isn’t moral? Why can’t our own personal views and environments get in the way enough to obscure it?”

    I would say that if morality was useful and objective then people would have found ways to uncover the objective truth and hence the utility of it.

    Since we haven’t there are only 3 options:
    1. Objective Morality does not exist.
    2. Objective Morality is not useful.
    3. Objective Morality is not amenable to being teased out of hiding by our current (or at least previous) tools and understanding.

    I am betting on 1. Sam Harris is obviously betting on 3. I actually prefer 2 though since it ignores the other two arguments and leaves this discussion in some dusty old backroom of the philosophy department where it belongs.

    Sam arbitrarily redefines morality as conscious well-being or human flourishing as befits his point, the religious define it as some nonsense in their books mixed with modern humanity – how is either side ever going to convince the other? Sam is trying to convince religious people they can be good without god using his scientific method, which pisses the atheists off who are already good without god using common sense and empathy and who have no real interest in an objective morality since it is only for the collective good and some of us aren’t willing to self-sacrifice for the sake of morality, or cause our families serious discomfort to help people thousands of miles away, and if that’s immoral then so what? It doesn’t bridge the is/ought gap for individuals.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Morality is normative, just like Verbose Stoic said. Language is not.

    This is a more controversial statement than would seem obvious at first. It’s true that on the surface, the rules of language don’t seem to describe how you should act.

    But in reality, don’t they?

    When you speak of the grammar of the language, you’re defining how words must be placed in relation to other words (or sometimes purely syntactical elements) such that the end result is correct. Further, when you look at the semantics of the language, you have a mapping between a word and the possible concepts which it is intended to express.

    In essence, language is proscriptive. It tells people how to act if they intend to actually communicate, rather than produce garbled and unintelligible nonsense.

    One may contest that this is arbitrary, much like the rules of geometry are arbitrary. However, this is only a problem for a concept of universality. Once placed into context, the rules are no longer arbitrary. They are described by the context itself. No one would dismiss the rules of Euclidean geometry or the laws of physics as meaningless on the basis that reality could have been totally different than it is.

    All the talk of individual morality and subjective views dominating society ignores this. People do not arise as gods, fully formed, from the abyss. To talk of morality as distinct, independent, and individualistic is to find a box of various fruit in a crate and then claim that apples, oranges, and bananas emerge independently and spontaneously as fully formed entities. The trees that spawned them (natural environment) and the people who gathered and restructured them (society) are wholly ignored.

  • Kaelik

    This is why I hate you Sarah. Every thread you enter consists 100% of you making dumb statements about laws that contradict you statements about morality, and then everyone gets to argue that absolute morality exists because your stupid statements about laws are contradictory with your statements about morality.

    So when I finally found a thread not about that, but about absolute morality, I posted attempting to get them to justify their statements.

    And then you came in and within 4 posts it was all about them beating up your punching bag of contradictory statements instead of fighting in the ring to justify their statements about how it`s obvious that well being of hunabity as a whole is the objectively correct preference to have for any given person.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Glad to be of help, Kaelik.

    Somehow, I take your post as a compliment.

    But, you’re going to have to point out some contradictions.

    I don’t see any. I am a moral and legal anti-realist.

    But, as I’ve said numerous times. I am also a pragmatist.

    So, I work with the tools at my disposal.

    So, I can see how some of my statements (here and on other threads) about the legal/political system, under which we currently live (me in the US at the moment), would seem to contradict my statements about moral and legal anti-realism.

    I am also a non-cognitivist, so I think we can use deontological language without making moral claims.

    If you don’t agree, I can see how my comments would be both confusing and ostensibly contradictory.

    This is exactly why error theorists think we should abandon deontological (moral) language all together.

    But, you’ll be happy to know that I am quite sick at the moment, so I am going to bow out for a bit.

    So, you can redirect the thread as you so choose.

    Or, you can continue to rail against me.

    But, I will politely request that you provide some examples of my contradictory statements, should you choose to do so.

    (And, I have already admitted that I am here to learn as much as to share and to teach. I am a very interested autodidact on this subject (at the moment) and profess no expertise. As I am sure that you are well aware, there are varying levels of expertise on this blog for all discussed subjects. Calling people stupid and telling them that their comments are stupid and that you hate them is not necessarily the best way to either learn, teach, or share information, or further the discourse. But, to each his own.)

    If you want everyone to talk about your subject of preference so much, then write a piece for the blog and submit it to Ebon. That’s what I do. Otherwise, these threads are open to the entire community. So, you’re just going to have to suck it up and deal with it. Your subject of preference (having everyone justify that the well-being of humanity as a whole is the objectively correct preference to have for any given person) just isn’t that important to me. I think there are bigger fish to fry.

    Have fun.

    Thanks, everybody.

    Great discussion.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Be civil, Kaelik.

  • Kaelik

    Address an argument instead of repeating the same unbacked assertions every post Ebonmuse.

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

    Keddaw,

    Well, since it was me who said that and not Sarah, it’s probably best that I address your argument:

    “I would say that if morality was useful and objective then people would have found ways to uncover the objective truth and hence the utility of it.”

    Moral claims seem to be the basis of how our laws and societies actually work. People do seem to make claims about what is “moral” in all sorts of cases, and cases where most people properly consider the claims to be moral. That’s one of the reasons why Sarah’s idea of taking morality out of law is controversial, as most people think that the law and morality are linked in interesting ways.

    We don’t have to know what the right answer is to think that knowing the right answer would be useful.

    But the question is still open. There are debates on what is the right morality, whether it can be objective, or even how to go about doing it. We don’t have any reason to think that there is no right answer to a question like “Is slavery morally wrong?”, even if that relates to individual societies or individuals.

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

    Sarah,

    “I think we can create an amoral legal system, if we want to, which defines our interpersonal relations without imposing any one or another’s or the moral majority’s subjective, personal morality upon anyone else. ”

    It seems like it would be impossible to do that without imposing any one or another’s subjective, personal VIEW — moral or not — on someone else, and if you are still imposing a subjective on people I fail to see why it being a moral view would be worse than your alternative.

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

    One way we could meet Sarah’s objective is if we focus on law being “descriptive” as opposed to being “prescriptive or proscriptive. You could effectively only have one law which said ” you will expose yourself to the possibility of being charged if you commit an act that materially, physically or psychologically harms another person”.
    In an adversarial legal system such a claim could be tried assuming we have an agreed epistemology on which to judge such claims.


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