A cynic’s definition of morality

Our moral lives are rooted in our interests and our agreements. If we want to explain our moral lives, from gut-level moral perceptions to moral discourse intended to persuade others and ourselves, we need not go beyond very thisworldly interests and agreements. Hence morality is, broadly speaking, politics.

If morality is politics, it is ugly. It is not true that there are moral truths all rational agents must agree upon. This does not mean anything goes. But quite a lot things can go. Not every way of life is stable and successful in reproducing itself. But there are invariably many competing ways of life, which support different moralities, in our moral ecologies.

Attempts to provide a basis for morality, from stories about the will of the gods to sophisticated moral philosophies, are attempts to transcend politics. Interests and agreements are plural and fluid. Morality is something we care about very deeply, so it must be made more secure than that. It must be based on something higher.

One of the functions of discourse about the basis of morality, then, is to conceal the nature of morality.

To say that morality is partly concerned with concealment is not to deny that it is useful. Honesty and openness might be wonderful in an idealized academic context, but real human groups cannot function without deception. Our interests almost always demand a measure of concealment, deception, and coercion. Our moralities, because they typically condemn these as vices, allow us to make efficient social use of deception and coercion. It is best if our vital vices remain hidden.

Understanding the nature of morality requires some critical distance to morality. A more amoral perspective can help. This is only so, naturally, if we want to understand what is going on with morality. More often, we are interested in morality as moral actors. We want to persuade or reassure people (including ourselves) about taking a certain course of action. We want to engage in apologetics for our own deep moral commitments. Presenting morality as transcending politics is a temptation that is hard to resist. After all, it appears to work.

Secular moralists are often very similar to their religious colleagues in this regard. Philosophers tend to retain many implicitly Capitalized superstitions even when they find no use for one of the old favorites, God. Chief among these is Reason—reason as something transcendent, rather than a useful cognitive tool.

Our moralities are all very thinly supported by reasons. It is more accurate to think of our moralities of having causes. These causes make who we are, including our interests and agreements, and hence our moralities. We can be reflective about our moral convictions. But there can be many different points of reflective equilibrium, even for wide reflective equilibrium. We still have a moral ecology, where many ways of life are stable upon reflection as well as other small perturbations.

An intellectually coherent scientific naturalism must come to grips with moral ecologies and moral pluralism. It must act against the desire to make morality transcend politics. By doing so, however, naturalism renders itself socially useless, perhaps even dangerous, in many contexts.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    Nice post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “Our moral lives are rooted in our interests and our agreements.”

    This idea appears to contain an internal inconsistency or contradiction. How can agreements be the foundation for moral rules or constraints? Isn’t one of the basic rules of morality that one should honor one’s commitments and agreements?

    If I make an agreement with you, for example, to not steal your stuff in exchange for your not stealing my stuff, why should I keep my agreement if you obtain something of value to me and I think that I can steal it from you without being discovered?

    Agreements or contracts or promises are a useful bit of human interaction – they provide utility or benefit to human beings. But if people disregard their agreements, contracts, and promises most of the time, then these institutions or practices cease to exist (similar to Kant’s issue of lying not being universalizable), and then the utility or benifit of these practices goes away.

    So, you might be able to base the practice of agreements, contracts, and promises in human interests, but then agreements, contracts, and promises appear to be moral practices that are themselves grounded in human interests.

    Agreements, contracts, and promises seem to me to be moral phenomena rather than being a non-moral foundation of moral rules, moral practices, or moral constraints.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Bradley Bowen: “This idea appears to contain an internal inconsistency or contradiction. How can agreements be the foundation for moral rules or constraints? Isn’t one of the basic rules of morality that one should honor one’s commitments and agreements?”

    There is no contradiction. I’m explicitly arguing against any notion of a “foundation” for morality. And there’s no such thing as basic rules of morality, unless, of course, you find yourself part of an agreement on certain rules.

    Note that I say morality is politics. Think of agreements in a political sense. Mechanisms to enforce agreements are implied. And yes, your agreements are only as good as the extent to which external policing and internalization of norms enforce your agreements.

    Stop looking for foundations. I’ll never understand why nonbelievers, or at least ostensibly naturalistic nonbelievers, keep thinking that they need to beat the theists at their metaphysical games. We should recognize that the games are bullshit, and refuse to play them instead.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07261055264955640315 theHausdorffMetric

    IMHO Morality is a set of behavioral rules of thumb, evolving in social interactions. Seen from a game theoretic point of view, moral behavior is simply individually rational stategic behavior which emerges in repeated games (typical social interaction). Group selection processes push towards efficient equilibria. Real life people don’t necessarily compute equilbria for each strategic situation they encounter but use reasonable rules of thumb which on average will be consistent with equilbrium behavior.

    In nontypical situations their behavioral rules of thumb will break down and they will behave immorally because it is obviously in their own interest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis


    I’ll never understand why nonbelievers, or at least ostensibly naturalistic nonbelievers, keep thinking that they need to beat the theists at their metaphysical games.

    There need be nothing metaphysical, transcendent or “higher” about the idea that there are moral truths.

    In my opinion, moral truths are like the truth that its “bad” ( intrinsically not desirable), in and of itself, to be in agony.

    This isn’t true dependent on any metaphysical theory, its not in any way transcendent or a “higher” truth. Quite the opposite: its true precisely because of the subjective content of the experience described by the word “agony”.

    From this fact, I think, all truths about morality derive. Moral truths are subjective but nonarbitrary.

    It is a truth that love is of intrinsic value because of what its like to love and what its like to be part of a community of loving individuals.

    As to the method by which these moral truths are to be recognized I think ideal observer theory provides it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09642613040643385503 ANTI-ISLAMIST
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17824272261068748642 Eric Koski

    To say “morality is politics” is refuted by too many of the data of moral and political discourse, and obscures too many of the important ways in which morality and politics interact without coinciding. Morality functions as something outside of politics to which political arguments appeal, and as a source of the problems politics must solve. Much of liberal political philosophy (which you of course have the option of rejecting — it’s a free country!) is concerned with resolving conflicts between competing moral standpoints. To identify morality with politics makes the problem seem to disappear, but it doesn’t, really.

    If your real purpose is to offer a deflationary conception of morality, wouldn’t it be clearer to do so explicitly, by putting forward the sort of Error Theory your remarks suggest?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17824272261068748642 Eric Koski

    On your view, it’s not clear how there can be a critical moral standpoint from which political arrangements can be assessed. What’s wrong with “might makes right”? Why not starve a few million Ukrainians? The move of saying that morality is politics (part of the ‘superstructure’) has been tried before …

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Eric Koski: “To say “morality is politics” is refuted by too many of the data of moral and political discourse, and obscures too many of the important ways in which morality and politics interact without coinciding. “

    Only if you take a narrow view of politics, for example, as a struggle for control of state power. I’m talking about politics in a considerably broader sense, in terms of negotiating conflicts of interest and constructing agreements and institutions. Departmental politics is also, in this sense, politics, as is what goes on within families, and so on and so forth.

    If you still think this conflicts with “data,” I’d like to see some of this data.

    “If your real purpose is to offer a deflationary conception of morality, wouldn’t it be clearer to do so explicitly, by putting forward the sort of Error Theory your remarks suggest?”

    I write books for a reason. Indeed, I am quite sympathetic to error theories. See chapter 9 in The Ghost in the Universe.

    “On your view, it’s not clear how there can be a critical moral standpoint from which political arrangements can be assessed.”

    Oh, you can have plenty of moral standpoints from which you can be critical. You just can’t have anything you can call the moral standpoint. Nothing objective, universal, that commands the assent of all rational beings etc. etc.

    But again, don’t confuse moral pluralism with an “anything goes” variety of moral nihilism.

    “What’s wrong with ‘might makes right’?”

    Nothing’s wrong with it. For that matter, nothing’s right with it. Not, at least, if you think of wrong and right as something objective, universal, etc. etc.

    From where I stand, a crude “might makes right” attitude can be dangerous, sometimes stupid, and certainly a menace to those things I care about. If I can get some others to act in concert with me, we might, if lucky, do something about all this. End of story.

    If you’re concerned about some great injustice as you perceive it, get together with some like-minded people and get your hands dirty. Trying to establish a Higher Moral Truth about the matter might make your convictions seem more secure, but that, I think, is often overrated.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17824272261068748642 Eric Koski

    “I write books for a reason.” Fair enough. I still can’t help pointing out that if morality is an error, then it isn’t politics (which I assume you would agree is not necessarily an error).

    Morality is also about what happens when I meet a stranger on the road, where politics doesn’t come into play.

    I also can’t see why a sophisticated form of “might makes right” is any less dangerous than a “crude” form.

    A useful analogy might be to the assertion that “economics is the marketplace”, which neglects the fact that people somewhere need to actually make things, and that the things they make need to have some use other than as trading tokens.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Eric Koski: “if morality is an error, then it isn’t politics.”

    The kind of behaviors we pile under the label of morality, including moral discourse, are not errors. They are inescapable parts of interacting with the world, for a social animal.

    The error is, I think, in describing all this as an imperfect reflection of something higher and beyond politics, broadly speaking.

    “Morality is also about what happens when I meet a stranger on the road, where politics doesn’t come into play.”

    I think politics shapes such interactions as well. Our histories as social beings makes us who we are; we don’t shed our identities when on the road.

    You might take a Rawlsian or ideal observer kind of view, aiming to reach an objective moral standpoint by stripping us of our particular interests and backgrounds, getting rid of all the ugly politics. But then, I think that’s an important reason why such attempts at moral rationalism are not convincing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    Rational ethics may be a futile endeavor, but Rawls at least begins (the “original position”) from the standpoint of what reasonable and disinterested people would most likely choose in terms of social and economic models–really a variation of the prisoner’s dilemma. It has the problems any hypothetical reasoning does, I suppose, but it’s not like the theistic, or statist alternatives have proven any more successful.

    With some tweaking (or parameter setting, perhaps) a Rawlsian template could conceivably work, though resource problems remain an issue (or Malthusian problems really–overpopulation, lack of fuel, nationalism, etc etc). Or perhaps the Theory of Justice could be tied to a rights document–the Constitution, the UN statements, etc. There are I contend even some vaguely Rawlsian ideas in the Federalist papers, though probably due to Hamilton and Madison’s readings of Hobbes. Unlike Hobbes, Rawls seems rather optimistic however that his political liberalism (and the somewhat socialist “difference principle”) will be implemented by democratic means.

    Note the triablogue jesters do not even bother discussing secular ethics: “if writer X (Hume, Rawls, Darwin, etc) has been given a secular star, the X shall be considered anathema.” Triablogue–sort of like an online Padua, circa 1300–or is it Bellevue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to Taner Edis…

    Sorry, I was reading your comments in terms of a proposed ground for morality when that is the sort of thing you are protesting against.

    I’m more comfotable with the philosophical tradition of looking for a ground of foundation for morality and I unthinkingly translated your comment into such a theory.

    Your view of morality seems to be very much like my view of legality. On your view of the nature of morality, is there any room for moral critique of laws and legal systems? If so, can you give an example and explain how that would make sense, given your view of morality?

    It seems to me that we can evaluate and critique laws and legal systems on the basis of moral considerations, such as fairness.

    A standard objection to moral relativism is that it does not leave room for moral critique and evaluation of the norms and practices of people outside one’s own society, and that it does not leave room for judgements of moral progress.

    I’m wondering if these objections apply to your view of morality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    There are different sorts of relativism and different reasons and motivations for adopting relativism.

    Cognitive relativism asserts that the truth of any claim is relative to some point of view. One sort of moral relativism is based on cognitive relativism, and asserts that the truth of any moral judgment is relative to some moral point of view.

    I don’t think that Taner Edis is a cognitive relativist, so he probably has some other reason for finding moral relativism an appealing idea.

    Another simpler sort of moral relativism is conventionalism, which asserts that the rightness or wrongess of an action is relative to the moral rules or convetions of the society in which the action takes place.

    I don’t think that conventionalism is the view of Taner Edis, because conventionalism (on this def) implies a kind of objectivity of morality and moral judgements (even while allowing a diversity of valid moral viewpoints).

    If one makes the truth of moral judgments relative to a moral viewpoint, this too can imply a kind of objectivity, if one specifies the sort of moral viewpoint that is relevant.

    One could follow conventionalism and assert that the truth of a moral judgment is relative to the moral viewpoint of the society in which the action in question occurred.

    By specifying the sort of moral viewpoint that is relevant, one makes moral judgments objectively true (or false) even while allowing for a variety of different moral viewpoints to be valid – they would just be valid for different actions.

    For example, society 1 has moral viewpoint A, and society 2 has moral viewpoint B. Moral judgments about actions that occur in society 1 would be evaluated in terms of moral viewpoint A, and not in terms of moral viewpoint B. But moral judgments about actions that occur in society 2 would be evaluated in terms of moral viewpoint B, and not in terms of moral viewpoint A. This sort of relativism implies that there is a correct answer to moral questions (at least in so far as a moral viewpoint can be used to determine answers to moral questions).

    Again, I don’t think Taner Edis would accept this sort of moral relativism, because I think he would reject the objectivity of moral judgments it implies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    Any ethical theory which defines “morality” via consensus faces the problem of relativism. Utilitarianism of whatever sort (or a popular vote) does not assure that the “right” course of action was selected. Fairly obvious, perhaps, yet some secularists seem to have an naive faith in the soundness of democratic methods and consensus, when history suggests otherwise (majorities voted in Blackshirts, and they voted in Dianne Feinstein for that matter).

    In some circumstances, something like Justice or moral realism applies–. Most rational humans would probably (or hopefully) agree that were it established that Bush and Cheney lied about, or even greatly misrepresented the dangers of iraqi WMDs and terrorism to justify an invasion, they committed an injustice regardless if the consequences were “good” for the USA, or pleasurable, or the mis-rep was approved by the majority. One puts the mobster on trial, regardless if everyone in the ‘hood considers him a hero.

    Objective justice seems related to a Kantian type of ethics, though I contend Kant’s celebrated Categorical imperative still suggests consequentialism (we universalize any supposed act-maxim by determining possible outcomes, eg effects–otherwise would not know intuitively whether it’s proper or not). Consequentialism works in most contexts, but not all, or at least allows for what seem “injust” actions. Maybe Biff and Bunny should still be required to read the cliffsnotes to Plato’s republic, along with their courses in String theory and advanced Eugenics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Perezoso wrote: “Any ethical theory which defines “morality” via consensus faces the problem of relativism. Utilitarianism of whatever sort (or a popular vote) does not assure that the “right” course of action was selected. Fairly obvious, perhaps, yet some secularists seem to have an naive faith in the soundness of democratic methods and consensus, when history suggests otherwise (majorities voted in Blackshirts, and they voted in Dianne Feinstein for that matter).”

    Utilitarianism can be defined as whatever does, in fact (i.e., objectively), maximize utility. Any advocate of such (e.g., J.J.C. Smart in _Utilitarianism: For and Against_) will just say that whatever utilitarianism recommends *is* right, despite intuitions to the contrary. And it’s not a matter of popular democratic vote.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    The point holds, regardless, and the problem with utilitarianism–a type of consequentialism– does relate to the tyranny of the majority, as I believe Mill pointed out: lying, deception of various sorts and other moral “injustices” could often maximize utility (a fancy name for pleasure).

    The point is that mere consensus, whether by utilitarian means or otherwise, does not insure something like justice–many hollywood formula dramas display that problem: say a judge, DA and jury in a small town conspire to put an innocent person charged with a crime away (the real culprit was not found), because they don’t like him, he looks shifty, etc. It might be that the townspeople approve–that smooths things over, everyone’s happy, etc. Regardless that would be injust. Mill sort of touched on that as well.

    That doesn’t mean one starts quoting the Summa, or believes that Justice has something to do with theology, but humans do often refer to something like a Justice “form”, independent of subjective interests, whether one holds that is transcendent or not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    intuitions

    you mean like the intuitions of any person expressing their preferences for a particular policy , which they believe will, eh, get the most bang for the buck, aka maximize their utility, or does some Utility resource person decide that for them? (I believe one of the old clowns–Bentham or Mill–suggested as much. Marx considered the util. the shopkeepers’ code or something).

    IN a democracy, there are various factions attempting to maximize utility. Obviously their needs and goals will often conflict (like GOP vs. Dem). Without some mechanism to prevent pure populism (really, pure utilitarianism), tyranny of the majority remains a problem (and for that matter, a majority rule does not mean “correct”, anymore than a show of hands in a calculus course will necessarily produce the correct answer).

    The rights-preserving mechanism might be a social contract (the Declaration of Independence, really) or charter, or, Osiris forbid, the catholic church. A social contract, however, is not a matter of utility: for one, denying peoples’ rights (say to a minority group) might be in the best interest, ie maximize the utility, of a larger group (as the confederacy believed).

    That or just forget about democracy, sign onto the USS Nietzsche: willst zu Macht! That’s maximizing utility.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I’m with Jim. Utilitarianism states an objective standard of right and wrong that is independent of popular concensus or majority opinion or accepted social conventions.

    Even if 100% of a society firmly believes that act A by person P is morally right, they are all wrong, if act A fails to maximize utility (or if act A fails to meet whatever standard is defined in relation to the aim of maximizing utility).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    Utilitarianism states an objective standard of right and wrong

    Not exactly. Utilitarian’s based on a hedonic calculus, ie pleasure–utility is no magic term, but merely means, yes, bang for the buck. In fact Bentham quoted Master Hume in regards to the impossibility of rational, objective ethics.

    Remember “greatest good for greatest number”? that’s good ONLY in sense of pleasure, maximizing pleasure-utility, NOT some abstract Justice, or morality. So a type of consequentialism, and important in some situations–even very important (say a proposed environmental policy), but not the entire scope of ethics.

    Pleasure-maximization implies consensus (some peoples’ pleasures ain’t anothers); ergo, that implies relativism, if not amorality.

    At the very least social contract theory ala Rawls tries to get around the problems of consensus (and I would say the problems of populism, if not Darwinian amorality). So do moral realist theories, whether Kant or Plato, or theologian’s (tho’ I think Kant really crypto-consequentialist). T

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Utilitarianism is a subspecies of consequentialism; there’s no reason you can’t come up with an objective notion of aggregated utility that is to be maximized (though it suffers from the measurement problem, and the problem of determining what policies would actually result in maximization).

    Consensus is not a requirement of utilitarianism, even if you choose pleasure as your measure of utility, as opposed to happiness or some other measure (cf. recent research on happiness by country, which some use to argue for public policy; Will Wilkinson’s paper on the subject is an essential read for anyone wanting to make such arguments).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Bradley Bowen: “On your view of the nature of morality, is there any room for moral critique of laws and legal systems? If so, can you give an example and explain how that would make sense, given your view of morality?”

    If, for example, I woke up to live under a legal regime that privileged Christians, I’d be pissed off. I’d be seriously provoked into action if these were substantial rather than just symbolic privileges. I’d be arguing my head off trying to persuade others that this was a bad idea. Among liberal-minded people, including liberal Christians, I would expect to find enough commonality of interests and similarity of moral perceptions that I could make some headway.

    But in such an example, the criticism I imagine myself engaging in still takes place in the context of doing politics. What else?

    “It seems to me that we can evaluate and critique laws and legal systems on the basis of moral considerations, such as fairness.”

    Sure. If you’re in the company of people who care about fairness or can be persuaded to care, such criticism can go quite some distance. And since I figure that for an intelligent social species, an inclination to care about fairness is well-nigh inescapable, I expect these won’t be unusual circumstances.

    If someone doesn’t care about fairness, I’d call them an asshole. But I don’t think trying to assimilate that into the notion of irrationality is workable.

    “A standard objection to moral relativism is that it does not leave room for moral critique and evaluation of the norms and practices of people outside one’s own society, and that it does not leave room for judgements of moral progress.”

    That’s too strong, I think.

    I can express in some detail why I want to avoid a Christian legal regime. This will include plenty of evaluation of norms of the Christian culture I do not belong to.

    To the extent that I know what I care about, I can also have a good idea how much progress we have made toward achieving such aims.

    What I am doubtful about is saying that everyone damn well ought to care about the same things I care about. That, I think, is demanding too much of reason.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    There’s no reason you can’t come up with an objective notion of aggregated utility that is to be maximized

    I would say political and historical conditions do provide a reason (sufficient, even) why “utility” cannot be aggregated, or easily aggregated; and is it merely a matter of combining all the utility-choices, and then sort of generalizing? Again, sounds like a recipe for populism, and does have a direct relation to democratic politics (what is a vote if not a measurement of utility? LCD politics). There are many groups with different utilities (goals, interests, etc), or in Madison’s terms, factions; moreover, utility is not some objective and permanent entity.

    Rawls’ original position, however hypothetical it might seem, circumvents that sort of vague, subjective utility. The utility-interests of the chambermaid (or a huge chambermaid union), do not necessarily match the utility-interests of the Professor, either: Rawls criteria of rationality, while not really fleshed out, acknowledges that difference in skills to some degree. Which is to say, a utilitarian society could easily become a tyranny of the majority (and does).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Bradley Bowen: “I don’t think that Taner Edis is a cognitive relativist, so he probably has some other reason for finding moral relativism an appealing idea.”

    Whether I’d agree to be called a moral relativist depends a lot on what you mean by relativism.

    If you use relativism like Gilbert Harman, as a kind of wastebasket taxon containing relativism, error theory, noncognitivism, etc. etc., sure, no problem. If, like Harman, you think that for many modern, science-minded people such relativism seems obviously correct, again, no problem. If you mean adopting Harman’s specific version of relativism and his arguments, well, that’s a different story.

    In other words, I’d locate myself within a kind of convergence of sensibilities, not necessarily in any particular philosophical metaethics. I’m most interested in the question of explaining what people are actually doing when they are going on about morality, and how this takes place in a world as understood by physics chauvinists. I come at this informed more by game theory, evolutionary biology, and cognitive neuroscience, plus an acquaintance with complex physical systems and native cynicism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    If you think so cynically about morality, why should I believe you when you say you care about fairness, and not suspect that you only claim to care about fairness because doing so is expedient in your negotiating issues with me?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Dianelos Georgoudis: “If you think so cynically about morality, why should I believe you when you say you care about fairness, and not suspect that you only claim to care about fairness because doing so is expedient in your negotiating issues with me?”

    A perfectly reasonable suspicion. You’d be foolish to trust me in a situation when anything is at stake, without knowing me better.

    But then, that is not different for anyone else, is it? If you’re much less suspicious of people who speak about morality in a starry-eyed idealistic fashion, well, that seems to be naive.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    In response to Taner Edis:

    The problem is that no matter how well I know you, if I also know about your cynical understanding of morality then I will tend to trust you less. Suppose now an entire society of moral cynics. In such a society everybody would tend to trust everybody else less, and the result would be that everybody would lose. So, if you are right about morality then it’s bad news for all of us.

    The deeper question is this: Can reality be such that the more truth we know about it the more difficult it will be to achieve our goals and live as we wish to live?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01875109580933192779 Perezoso

    cynical understanding of morality

    Some Darwinists seem prone to a type of reductionist thinking, and consider any ethical discussion (even of secular sort) as VERBOTEN. Dawkins and his followers uphold that, shall we say, Monty Pythonesque treatment of religion, ethics, philosophy, etc. With a wave of their hands they call in the demolition crews to Notre dame: aye, lad, you needn’t bother with all that old spooky BS–and when the schedule Notre Dame for demolition they want the philosophy library removed as well……The idea (bogus, I believe) that “Darwin disproves all normative claims” was begun by TH Huxley, if not before.

    While I do not think convincing arguments can be given for moral realism or theology, that doesn’t mean that religious ethics should be considered irrelevant. Kant remains somewhat relevant, even if his arguments do not always hold. There may be some pragmatic utility to moral realists as well: whether Plato or JC or Kant……..at least the young Sam Harris-to-be should deal with the arguments on their own terms, instead of resorting to Ad Darwini (“Darwin says we are animals fighting for survival; ergo, normative claims are meaningless, unless they advance our genetic interest”)

    It’s not only the Jerry Falwells or Roger Mahoneys (they might deserve it) that Dawkins and gang are taking down: it’s TS Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Bach, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    I think one of the biggest questions anyone can ask as a rational person is, if you’re right (that there are no “higher” Truly Objective ways to derive a moral system)… then what? I personally tend to stick within a very particular, very strong set of ethical beliefs… yet fundamentally I have no way of justifying this, I just think what I think. I could appeal to a “conscience” but I don’t think that’s any kind of answer, since it’s not clear what a conscience is and whether everyone has one. I guess you could say I’m like most people, in that I have an almost religious faith in my own ethical system (I do believe in an objective system of ethics, strongly) yet I have no way of knowing how.

    Frankly, I think it’s all right for people to stick to a general “rule of thumb” ethical system, because most people are neither very bad nor very good (at least from my perspective, where I do define a “bad” and “good” subjectively.) I say Robert Mugabe is bad and secular humanism is good, morally, and leave it at that. The problem is when people try to construct complex moral systems and stick to them with over-the-top vehemence. Individualist morality is OK most of the time, seeing that most people (for whatever reason) don’t desire the kind of general anarchic “state of nature” that most moral systems work against.


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