In Defense of Moral Non-Cognitivism, a Response to Neil Shenvi

I found Neil Shenvi’s interesting article entitled “Do Objective Moral Values Exist?” while reading Dangerous Idea. In his article, Shenvi argues for the position that objective moral values exist, which he defines as “moral values that are true independent of the beliefs of human beings”. This piece started out as a comment on the blog, but I quickly realized that in order to properly address it, I would need quite a bit more space. In arguing for this position, Shenvi puts forth five pieces of evidence:
  1. Nearly universally across human cultures, there exist the same basic standards of morality. In addition, there exist in all cultures truly altruistic acts which lead to no personal or genetic benefit.
  2. The majority of people who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists.
  3. There exists a nearly universal human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong.
  4. The majority of philosophers recognize the existence of objective moral facts.
  5. Many naturalists (like Sam Harris or Shelley Kagan) affirm the existence of objective moral facts, despite the problems inherent in grounding these facts in the natural world.
Before I set out to evaluate Shenvi’s argument, I’d like to say that I’m not settled one way or another on the question of whether or not moral facts exist. Presently, if I were forced to give an answer, I would argue towards a non-cognitivist understanding of moral statements which is motivated by other epistemological and metaphysical commitments. This is important because I think Shenvi only recognizes moral relativism and moral realism without taking seriously other anti-realist positions, such as error-theory, quasi-realism, and non-cognitivism. 


Shenvi asks us to consider the five points above against the theoretical backdrop of two possibilities: (1) moral facts exist and we have immediate, intuitive apprehension of their existence, and (2) moral values do not exist and any belief that they do exist is therefore an illusion. If we take seriously the other types of moral anti-realism that exist, we can see that these two possibilities are not exhaustive of the moral positions, and in fact Shenvi’s second possibility is a weak and unappealing caricature of what many anti-realists believe. 

Many anti-realists don’t think that people expressing moral claims are simply uttering nonsense based on an illusion. There are, of course, a few other possibilities. Perhaps objective moral values don’t exist, but our proclamations of “murder is wrong” are actually prescriptive statements meaning “Do not murder” (prescriptivism, a version of non-cognitivism). Or, maybe our moral sentiments are expressions of our own attitudes towards moral rules, or norms. (Norm-expressivism) These other varieties of anti-realism still give us a way to interpret moral claims, but they argue that moral statements are not propositions that are either true or false. 


This may seem like philosophical jibber-jabber, but it’s an important distinct. Relativism is fraught with meta-ethical problems, and has been a traditionally difficult position to hold. Anti-realist positions of other sorts, however, often are more consistent within themselves, and with the data that we observe regarding moral sentiments and attitudes. 
In this essay, I’d like to argue that a non-cognitivist understanding (informed by naturalism) better explains Shenvi’s five pieces of evidence than does moral realism. Additionally, I’d like to introduce difficulties that may have previously gone unnoticed with these pieces of evidence in relation to his own position. 

Let us turn to address Shenvi’s evidence. His first point is that “Nearly universally across human cultures, there exist the same basic standards of morality. In addition, there exist in all cultures truly altruistic acts which lead to no personal or genetic benefit.” Shenvi argues that across human history, cultures around the world have largely agreed on basic moral truths. Actions like murder, theft, stealing, lying, and some others have been widely declared wrong. However, I think we can easily understand how these things would also flourish under an evolutionary perspective. Human cultures and societies that promoted these actions as laudable would, as Shenvi notes, perish rather quickly. 

Shenvi further argues that “true altruism” (which Shenvi defines, a la Coyne, as “behavior that will not even indirectly confer benefit to oneself or one’s relatives”) is surprising given the facts of biological evolution alone. It’s easy to agree with this assessment, prima facie, as we wouldn’t expect true altruism to increase evolutionary fitness. It would be far too lengthy of an assessment to speculate on possible evolutionary explanations here, but Coyne does a good job of laying out some possibilities here.  

The most glaring difficulty with Shenvi’s first piece of evidence is that he papers over the vast majority of moral claims that human history has shown we conclusively do not agree upon. Some examples: slavery, war, genital mutilation, the equality of men and women, abortion, gay marriage, incest, honor-killing, euthanasia, racism, jihad, blood sacrifices, monogamy, polygamy, sexual activity in general, etc. We can look to human history and find an abundance of widespread and vehement disagreement over the moral status of these ideas. Even religions that claim to have found a system of objective values still have widespread disagreement over what exactly those values are.

This is an important difficulty, because Shenvi is arguing that our comprehension of moral values is both immediate and intuitive. However, if we take the issue of slavery to be wrong, it is quite clear that for a great deal of human history, this claim was neither immediate nor intuitive, and in fact most people (even relatively recently!) thought the practice of slavery was an honorable tradition.

These disagreements and agreements are quite easily understood under the banner of non-cognitivism. If moral claims are merely expressions of prescription or attitude towards norms and rules, we would expect wide-spread disagreement over these matters, especially in lands that are quite disconnected from each other and will have understandably different cultures.  As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, we might expect a shared system of wants, desires, and needs to become evident and perhaps our moral claims might further begin to coalesce (think about the Enlightenment’s impact upon western culture generally).
Another difficulty for Shenvi’s first piece of evidence is that it seems that basic moral intuitions, such as fairness positively correlate with norms and institutions rather than persist consistently across the board. From the abstract of a study in Science by Joseph Henrich (emphasis mine)

Using three behavioral experiments administered across 15 diverse populations, we show that market integration (measured as the percentage of purchased calories) positively covaries with fairness while community size positively covaries with punishment. Participation in a world religion is associated with fairness, although not across all measures. These results suggest that modern pro-sociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history.”

If prosocial behaviors were informed by immediate and intuitive objective moral values, it seems we should expect these behaviors to be relatively stable across the board. If, as non-cognitivists might suggest, expressions of moral values are reflections upon norms or prescriptions, it would be easier to understand why societies with pro-social norms and institutions will reflect greater prosocial behaviors. (Compare, for example, early American history with contemporary America regarding slavery, racism, sexism, and other aspects closely related to fairness.)

Let us move to Shenvi’s second point: “The majority of people who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists.” Here, Shenvi argues that moral relativists still seem to act as if objective moral values exist. Why don’t moral relativists, or moral anti-realists, cheat on their taxes? Or shoplift? He argues that the “vast majority” of relativists lead moral lives, and this doesn’t make sense if they truly believe that cheating on their taxes is neither right nor wrong. 

Of course, we can do all of these things without needing to believe that they are objectively right or wrong. While I know Shenvi was intentionally avoiding “You can’t act moral without believing in God”, this response dangerously treads upon it.  It may be that our psychology from birth has endowed us with an inclination towards these behaviors. Or, as the above study in Science indicates, our culture’s structure may have influenced our pro-social behavior. We may fear punishment or retribution, or not wish to disappoint those around us who expect moral behavior. There is no shortage of responses here, and we need not posit moral objectivity to explain these behaviors. 

His third point is almost identical to his first, and suffers from the same weakness. He argues that individual human beings have an intuition that certain things are objectively right and wrong. Of course, we can also explain this from an evolutionary perspective without any need for objective moral values. As we covered in the discussion of (1), this is not at all clear or obvious. Human beings regularly disagree about a great deal of moral statements, and even ones that seem fundamental. 

Shenvi’s fourth and fifth point are made of the same cloth. His fourth piece of evidence argues that a “majority of philosophers accept moral realism” and his fifth argues that even naturalists have argued for moral realism despite problems within the general conception of naturalism. I’m not generally interested in appeals to authority/popularity, but I do feel it’s pertinent to correct his inflated estimation of consensus among philosophers. He argues that philosophers, at a rate of two to one, “favor” moral realism to moral anti-realism. The poll he’s using is a Phil Papers survey, and here are the percentages: 56.3% accept or lean toward moral realism, 27.7% accept or lean toward moral anti-realism, with 15.8% declaring other.  This is a pretty weak consensus/majority, as we can see much stronger ones in other domains (atheism – 72.8%, scientific realism 75%, ‘switch’ on the Trolley problem – 68.2%).  We also don’t have a notion of how many “accept” versus how many “lean towards” (which is pretty ambiguous language), so I think that using this individual survey as evidence is tenuous at best. 

This doesn’t mean that we should totally ignore these points, as obviously many people feel that they have justified reasons for believing these to be true. We should investigate the evidence and reasons they have for believing in moral facts, not merely appeal to the fact that they do. 
In summary, I think that non-cognitivism gives us a better explanation of the evidence that Shenvi argues for than does his proposition of moral realism. The “nearly universal” basic standards across cultures is over-stated, while Shenvi largely passes over the vast and immense disagreement over most moral matters. This disagreement is better explained under non-cognitivism, whereas if there was an immediate and intuitive understanding for objective moral law, we wouldn’t expect large scale disagreement about such a vast array of moral values. Finally, an appeal to philosophers and to naturalists who are inclined toward moral realism may be indicative of sufficient epistemic warrant, but it won’t suffice as evidence itself.  

About Matt DeStefano

Matt is pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Arizona.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Well, I didn't bother to read Shenvi's article, but it strikes me as self-contradictory if he is defining objective moral values as 'moral values that are true independent of the beliefs of human beings' and in support he offers five examples all derived from human beliefs. (And if OMV are independent of human beliefs, how can he, being human, ultimately know this, i.e., does his article also solve the problem of knowledge?)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    Hey Chris,

    Shenvi does emphasize the difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology, so this particular essay isn't concerned with the problem of moral knowledge.

    I'm not sure that it's self contradictory per se, but I did find it strange (and perhaps this is what your comment is getting at in some sense) that in his opening statements he says that he's not arguing that our perception of moral values are reliable/accurate, but his first three pieces of evidence rely upon the idea of universal consensus.

    It seems as though he wants to have his cake and eat it too. This way, he can write off moral disagreement by saying "Well, I said that our perception of moral values is often unreliable", while at the same time declaring that moral consensus serves as evidence of our intuitive and immediate moral knowledge.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    One wonders what might be the observational difference Shenvi sees between people behaving as though there are moral facts simpliciter, and people behaving as if there are objective moral facts.

    One must also wonder how this alleged "intuitive perception of moral truths" performs as an explanatory device in cases of moral progress. Presumably, the segregationist who comes to realize the moral equality of mankind regardless of skin color has not undergone any genetic modification, so analogies to perceptual maladies like tone-deafness or color-blindness simply won't work.

    But then, what factual information was such a segregationist lacking? I am no historian of the civil rights movement, but I'm pretty sure people didn't change their minds because of fMRI data demonstrating that racism is wrong.

    Whereas someone who says that moral beliefs are a matter of empathetic identification, not any sort of cognitive process, has a very straightforward and parsimonious account of how these conversions occurred.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    Whoa! The preview screen is seriously jacked here. Might want to consult your coder. Now I have no way to check my post, so, let the reader beware.

    ********

    First off, congratulations for moving up the ladder. First getting published, then moving to this forum… as annoyed as I am with you over "other stuff" I can already see the improvements in your writing and thinking. So, good on that. Although—and I grant that you fired this off in somewhat of a hurry—I would proofread more (because I saw a few typos). But, not a bad launch at all.

    That said, I don't think you mount a very good case against 1 because we would still expect variance given objective moral values. Moral realism does not entail absolute moral uniformity, and I think you need to provide a better explanation of the moral uniformity we observe. You just kinda gloss over that, but I think it is very difficult to explain given naturalism. IOW, pro-social behaviors are relatively stable across the board, and they have been for thousands of years. Again, this is not the same as a demand for absolute moral uniformity. The case for moral realism doesn't unravel just because we lack absolute moral uniformity. We would still expect disobedience or "evil" given moral realism, because that's exactly what it posits: good, and evil.

    I also feel you didn't successfully object to 2 or 3. For example, that "we can do all of these things without needing to believe that they are objectively right or wrong" isn't a rebuttal to 2. You need to show how moral anti-realism / non-cognitivism can explain 2 better than moral realism. Your treatment of 3 suffers from the same weaknesses as your treatment of his first point. In fact, it's just a hand-off. As you yourself note elsewhere, a single study hardly suffices to prove a point. That "we may fear punishment or retribution, or not wish to disappoint those around us who expect moral behavior" doesn't explain why people often act morally when they could get away with it. Then again, you could argue that fear of judgment by God explains that. So, out of your entire piece, this seems to be the strongest possible counter-explanation, but it certainly doesn't make the case that non-cognitivism better explains the data.

    I tend to agree with you regarding 4 and 5, but I still think Shenvi does a much better job of explaining the data, overall.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    Hiero5ant,

    Whereas someone who says that moral beliefs are a matter of empathetic identification, not any sort of cognitive process, has a very straightforward and parsimonious account of how these conversions occurred.

    This is a great point and shouldn't go unnoticed. When this argument is broached in casual conversations, I haven't heard a good explanation for it. This is one aspect in which I think naturalist treatments of moral realism do succeed quite nicely. If we take seriously, for instance, Harris's argument that moral facts are natural facts about the well-being of sentient creatures, it makes sense that as we learn more about the operations of nature, we would likewise progress in our knowledge of moral facts.

    This might not work for your example regarding segregation (although I suppose a case could be argued that we learned more about the equality and similarity of different races during this time), but it could work for cases involving the humane treatment of animals, homosexuality, psychological maladies, etc.

    cl,

    Thanks for the kind words and comments. I'm a horrid copy-editor, and apparently my wife isn't much better. If you find any that are particular detrimental to the clarity of the post, please don't hesitate to point them out. I can't speak for any of the other technical issues, although I'll shoot an e-mail to Jeff.

    That said, I don't think you mount a very good case against 1 because we would still expect variance given objective moral values. Moral realism does not entail absolute moral uniformity, and I think you need to provide a better explanation of the moral uniformity we observe.

    Shenvi's argument for #1 is based off of the observation that "nearly universally across human cultures, there exist the same basic standards of morality." However, I contest this point by arguing that there are more instances of moral disagreement about moral values than there are of moral agreement. If that holds, then it fails to support his conclusion. I certainly appreciate your point that we would expect moral variance given moral realism, but Shenvi's argument relies upon a [near] universal consensus about moral values rather than a mere uniformity.

    I also agree that I didn't flesh out a naturalistic explanation for the uniformity we do see, but it simply wasn't necessary in order to show why #1 fails as better evidence for moral realism than non-cognitivism. We would expect there to be lots of disagreement given non-cognitivism, and there is no shortage of it.

    For example, that "we can do all of these things without needing to believe that they are objectively right or wrong" isn't a rebuttal to 2. You need to show how moral anti-realism / non-cognitivism can explain 2 better than moral realism.

    He's using the behavior of moral anti-realists as evidence for the existence of moral realism against moral relativism. Unfortunately, this objection doesn't work against relativism because they could easily respond "Well, that's just how I see it. Cheating and lying are wrong to me, so I don't do it." I also sketched out plenty of naturalist responses as to why we might behave in pro-social (or moral) ways, and it seems to me that the recognition of objective moral values is hotly contested by the high rate of error amongst human beings.

    As for #3, it again suffers from an immense over-generalization. It is not at all clear that "a nearly univeral human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong" exists, and the alignment or uniformity of moral behaviors doesn't buttress this point in any way, as there is more disagreement about objective morality than there is agreement.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks again for your gracious and fair response to my article. Let me first offer two clarifications and then try to respond to your specific concerns.

    First, I should first state up-front that am not a philosopher, so my use of terminology might be sloppy if not outright incorrect. I was also trying to write for people with no experience with philosophy, which is why I simplified some concepts. For instance, you rightly noted that I more or less used 'moral antirealism' and 'moral relativism' interchangeably, although they are distinct. However, as I said on dangerousidea, I believe that my argument applies equally well to any version of moral anti-realism, because any moral anti-realist philosophy has to provide a better explanation for the five facts I mentioned than the one I provided.
    Alternatively, even if the moral anti-realist can show that all five pieces of evidence are completely irrelevant, that still does not provide us with any case for moral anti-realism. He would have to go farther and provide a positive case that objective moral values do not exist.

    Second, I should emphasize that the five pieces of evidence I presented are truly independent and should be treated as such. Although you rightly note that 1+3 and 4+5 are related, they are independent because we could imagine observing each point independent of the other. For instance, point 1 deals with behavior while point 3 deals with beliefs. We could imagine a tribe which clearly exhibited moral behavior and true altruism. Yet when asked for the reasons for their behavior, we could imagine them giving some completely non-moral explanation like: 'I do not murder because that is just the way my whole tribe behaves, not because I think it is objectively bad' (i.e. 1 without 3) Conversely, we could imagine a tribe which emphatically believed that true altruism and moral behavior are objectively good and consistently chose to flout these facts in favor of doing what they considered objectively bad (3 without 1).

    The same is true of points 4 and 5. We might imagine that all moral realists would be non-naturalists (4 without 5) or that moral realists were a minority despite a few remaining naturalist moral realists (5 without 4). So all five points are truly independent pieces of evidence (even if we regard them as weak) and should be addressed separately.

    In my next comment, I'll treat your responses to each point.
    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Let me now move to your critiques of my specific points.

    With regards to point 1, the universality of basic standards of moral behavior and the existence of true altruism, you didn't provide an evolutionary explanation or address how it would solve the free rider problem. As I noted, Coyne explicitly denies that natural selection provides an explanation, saying "In short, we know nothing about the evolution of true human altruism except that it probably didn't evolve." He reiterates this point in the very post you cited, saying "How can “true altruism” evolve if it hurts the genetic prospects of its donors? There is only one way: through a form of group selection…But this is unlikely. This whole evolutionary scenario is unstable…The fact is that we know very little about the evolutionary basis—if any—of true human altruism." So if Coyne is considered a reliable authority on evolution, the current answer regarding the origin of true altruism is: "we don't know."

    You then observe that "The most glaring difficulty with Shenvi’s first piece of evidence is that he papers over the vast majority of moral claims that human history has shown we conclusively do not agree upon." This is true. You also anticipate one of my responses which is that I do not claim that all standards of morality are all universally accepted. Nor do I claim that our immediate perception of OMVs is infallible. However, while the issues you listed might weaken the case that nearly-universally accepted standards of moral behavior exist, they don't do justice to the broad consensus on moral behavior across all human history.

    For instance, in the examples you listed, you noted that societies differ on the moral acceptability of 'war…,abortion, …honor-killing, euthanasia, …jihad.' But what is missing here is what is nearly universally agreed upon: killing a person for no reason or for mere personal gain is wrong. In other words, cultures differ about what constitutes justifiable grounds for killing, but do not differ about whether killing is wrong apart from such justification. Similarly, cultures might differ as to which sexual relationships are permissible and how serious is a transgression of these boundaries. But they do not differ greatly as to whether there are any boundaries at all. The same is true of moral values like honesty, respect for property, justice, respect for elders, etc… A good resource for the universality of moral behavior and standards is Appendix A of C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, in which he demonstrates the agreement between the moral codes of widely disparate cultures.

    In passing, I would also note that evolutionary biologists and psychologists would hardly be offering various theories of the 'evolution of morality' if the phenomenon itself did not exist! This enterprise demonstrates the existence of a uniformity of moral behavior which begs for an explanation.
    (cont…)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Moreover, my argument about true altruism (which according to Coyne does not have any satisfactory evolutionary explanation) does not depend on consensus. Its presence in almost any degree in any culture (let alone nearly all cultures) provides evidence for my thesis and is difficult to reconcile with moral antirealism unless you are provided to offer a plausible evolutionary explanation, which Coyne agrees does not yet exist.

    Finally, you write: "basic moral intuitions, such as fairness positively correlate with norms and institutions rather than persist consistently across the board" and cite a recent Science article. When you quote the abstract you highlight the following: "These results suggest that modern pro-sociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history." However, I would have highlighted the word solely which turns out to be extremely important. I accessed the full Science article and found that the actual data actually strongly confirms my point (BTW, if you have access to Science, the article is a fascinating read; I recommend it).

    The authors performed a game in which a "dictator" was given one day's wages and then given the option of sharing his earnings with a complete stranger, whom he would never see again. The authors do observe that "norms and institutions" play some role in the sharing level of the dictator. But what is fascinating is how small this factor is in an absolute sense.

    In the most 'primitive' cultures, dictators shared the least. In the most 'market-driven' cultures (like the US), they shared the most. However, even in the most primitive societies, the average amount shared was ~31% while in the most market driven cultures, the average was ~44% (see Fig. 1 in the paper). Think about that. If humans were purely rational actors following the dictates of game theory, the percentage of sharing would be exactly 0%! In other words, all human beings regardless of culture displayed unreciprocated, wholly unnecessary, truly altruistic sharing to an astonishing degree. While markets and religion (one of the other factors which strongly correlated with sharing) play a role, the overall baseline is far higher than would be expected if humans were acting in a purely 'rational' fashion. Something else needs to be invoked to explain the bulk of the behavior, which is precisely my point.

    I don't know if I'll have time to respond to your other comments tonight. Hopefully tomorrow.
    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    @Matt

    "This is one aspect in which I think naturalist treatments of moral realism do succeed quite nicely. If we take seriously, for instance, Harris's argument that moral facts are natural facts about the well-being of sentient creatures, it makes sense that as we learn more about the operations of nature, we would likewise progress in our knowledge of moral facts."

    I'm confused. Are you offering a (severely) qualified endorsement of my point, or did I not communicate it properly? If my thesis is correct, then Harris's analysis is wrong.

    And I think it's obviously wrong. Surely some mistaken moral beliefs are the result of mistakes about ancillary non-moral facts, but it doesn't follow that all of them are, and it certainly doesn't follow that being wrong about certain non-moral facts constitutes moral error. Descartes was screamingly wrong about animals' capacity to feel pain, but I don't think people in general throughout history have been unaware of the reality of animal proprioception. They just didn't care.

    Likewise with the other examples. It is not as though people gained new cognitive awareness about the "well-being" of the blacks whose votes they sought to suppress (and in places like Texas, still seek to suppress). Rather, they gained an empathic, emotive awareness of it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    I'm confused. Are you offering a (severely) qualified endorsement of my point, or did I not communicate it properly? If my thesis is correct, then Harris's analysis is wrong.

    No, it was my own fault for misreading. (my apologies!). Initially, I read you as arguing that it would be difficult to account for the accumulation of moral knowledge (and moral progress) for an account like Shenvi's, and that this difficulty would be easier to account for under a naturalist perspective where material knowledge about the way the universe operates would also provide us with moral knowledge.

    Rather, they gained an empathic, emotive awareness of it.

    Why might this occur?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    You guys/gals can just call me Neil. 'Shenvi' sounds stuffy.
    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    No, I definitely think this criticism applies to descriptivist approaches across the board. I take this to be complementary to your thesis that non-cognitivist approaches better explain NS's alleged "facts".

    "Why might this occur?"

    Go read To Kill A Mockingbird, or listen to MLK's most famous oration, and try to find the valid deductive arguments, or the citations to fMRI results. You'll be a while. One doesn't get assassinated for making speeches like "I have a regression analysis." MLK was rightfully praised for his grasp of rhetoric, not his command of bleeding-edge neuroscience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    Neil,

    I'm about to post another response to Matt, but I just wanted to ask you to read it and correct me if I've misinterpreted anything you've written. Cheers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    Alright, two more gripes: Blogger's idiotic 4,096 character limit, and these annoyingly difficult to read captchas. If you really want to laugh try the audio captcha, it sounds like a record played backwards. Feel free to forward to the webmaster. Improvements in this regard would facilitate the lengthy exchanges philosophy tends to breed. Argh.

    Re copy editing, nothing that impacted clarity, just very minor things made for awkward jumps in the reading. If I catch anything in the future I'll let you know.

    "However, I contest this point by arguing that there are more instances of moral disagreement about moral values than there are of moral agreement… there is more disagreement about objective morality than there is agreement."

    That's just a naked assertion from your own intuition, and it seems historically demonstrable to posit that a core morality is ubiquitous, from the code of Hammurabi to the Bible to now. In fact, I think that claim is so well established we can call it non-controversial, but if you disagree we can go there. One could take it further and note that we observe core values across many species in the animal kingdom (both of those claims deserve fleshing out but neither time nor space currently allow me that luxury). Regardless, in order to overthrow 1, you need to establish that your proffered moral disagreements outweigh this ubiquity, and even if you can do that, it doesn't overthrow Neil's conclusion that objective moral values exist (as I'll explain in more detail below).

    "If that holds, then it fails to support his conclusion."

    As I just alluded to, I don't think that follows, even if your key assertion was incontrovertibly proven. In the same way lack of scientific consensus does not entail that no objective physics exists, lack of moral consensus does not entail that no objective moral values exist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    CONTINUED

    "Neil's argument relies upon a [near] universal consensus about moral values rather than a mere uniformity."

    That's inaccurate on at least two fronts.

    First, I think you've inadvertently, ever-so-slightly misrepresented 1. Neil doesn't claim "near universal consensus about moral values," but rather, "nearly universally… the same basic standards of morality." You might be tempted to accuse me of pedantry or hair-splitting but precise argumentation requires precise language and I think a principled distinction can be drawn. "Near universal consensus" is a much stricter criteria that leaves very little room for moral divergence. OTOH, "nearly universally… the same basic standards of morality" simply recognizes an ubiquitous core that is difficult to explain on naturalism. Do we observe an ubiquitous core of values in music? Sports? Art? If morality is not objective, why doesn't it lack an ubiquitous core like those fields?

    Second, Neil's argument does not rely on this core; only the first prong of his two-pronged premise 1 does. Therefore, neither lack of near universal consensus nor lack of an ubiquitous core falsifies moral realism. Said lack would only challenge the first prong of 1 in his argument for moral realism. However, this is all irrelevant at this stage in the game because in order to even get your objection airborne, the onus is on you to show that the moral disagreements you allude to outweigh the ubiquitous core Neil alludes to.

    "I also agree that I didn't flesh out a naturalistic explanation for the uniformity we do see, but it simply wasn't necessary in order to show why #1 fails as better evidence for moral realism than non-cognitivism."

    It most certainly is, because your key objection has no evidence to support it, and even if it did, you haven't won the race. You still need to dispense with the second prong of 1, and 2-5. Moreover, even if you can do that, you still need to show how non-cognitivism better explains the data, else you have an argument from ignorance that takes the form of "non-cognitivism is correct because moral realism has been falsified."

    "We would expect there to be lots of disagreement given non-cognitivism, and there is no shortage of it."

    True, but as I argued in my last comment, we would also expect significant disagreement given moral realism, in the same way we observe significant disagreement given scientific realism. You can't just point to vague notions of moral disagreement and claim they favor your theory over Neil's, and you still have to explain how non-cognitivism explains the core better than moral realism. In short, it seems you have a mountain of work to do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    Thanks for the reply, Neil.

    With regards to point 1, the universality of basic standards of moral behavior and the existence of true altruism, you didn't provide an evolutionary explanation or address how it would solve the free rider problem. As I noted, Coyne explicitly denies that natural selection provides an explanation, saying "In short, we know nothing about the evolution of true human altruism except that it probably didn't evolve.

    You’re right that natural selection doesn't explain it , but that doesn’t mean we are completely empty-handed when it comes to building an evolutionary narrative.

    We need not posit that a trait evolved as a product of natural selection in order to account for it. Here’s one possibility that Coyne gives us: “True altruism could, though, represent a cultural expansion of evolved tendencies. If we have evolved to be helpful to members of small groups in which we used to live (see below), we could, through reason alone, extend that behavior to others even when it confers no reproductive return.”

    However, unless you mean to fill in the gaps with a supernatural explanation for true altruism, I'm not sure where this gets you.

    But what is missing here is what is nearly universally agreed upon: killing a person for no reason or for mere personal gain is wrong. In other words, cultures differ about what constitutes justifiable grounds for killing, but do not differ about whether killing is wrong apart from such justification.

    But what constitutes “justifiable grounds” are precisely what OMVs would give us. For instance, you note that human beings universally agreeing that killing is wrong apart from justification, but “no reason” and “mere personal gain” are part of the moral proposition itself.

    According to some cultures, it is permissible to kill a family member in order to save themselves and other family members from dishonor. That certainly seems like “no reason” and even ventures into “personal gain” territory. Honor killing, from an OMV standpoint, is either objectively right or objectively wrong. Yet, we have disagreement about whether or not these are permissible. Historical cultures have also killed (and felt justified in doing so) for reasons such as: religion, political alliance, skin color, race, nationality, sexual deviance, witchcraft, resource scarcity, etc.

    The problem here is that you can’t divorce justifiable grounds for actions from OMVs, as that is just what is at stake in the debate.

    In passing, I would also note that evolutionary biologists and psychologists would hardly be offering various theories of the 'evolution of morality' if the phenomenon itself did not exist! This enterprise demonstrates the existence of a uniformity of moral behavior which begs for an explanation.

    I would note here that they are observing certain human behavioral patterns and are using “evolution of morality” as a shorthand for these types of investigations. We need not beg the question against anti-realists by arguing that by using the word morality that they are referring to universal recognition of OMVs.

    We could draw similarities to evolutionary parlance which talks about "purpose" and "function".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    In the most 'primitive' cultures, dictators shared the least. In the most 'market-driven' cultures (like the US), they shared the most. However, even in the most primitive societies, the average amount shared was ~31% while in the most market driven cultures, the average was ~44% (see Fig. 1 in the paper). Think about that.

    Unfortunately, as I haven’t yet attempted to use my new university's subscription service, I currently don’t have access to the full article. But, it’s important to note that 13% is a substantial increase. The point in using this example was to show that what uniformity of moral values there is could also be explained by the uniformity in material conditions in those cultures. If this is true, it would also stand to reason that the material conditions in our evolutionary past might also have influenced our moral behavior and moral psychology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    Matt / Neil,

    OMV's huh? Nice shorthand. I'll replace "moral realism" with OMV's from here on out. Anyway, much that could be said but for now just focusing on this (not trying to step on your guys' toes, either, just want to also engage in the discussion):

    "But what constitutes “justifiable grounds” are precisely what OMVs would give us."

    Here you seem to be implying that if OMV's exist we should expect absolute uniformity WRT to justifiable grounds. Can you support that assumption? Neil, what do you think about Matt's assumption here?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    @Neil Shenvi your harping on the need for an "evolutionary explanation" for moral thought and behavior is misplaced. Not even the epistemically greediest of panadaptationists make the crude reductionist claim that every aspect of culture can or should be given an explanation in terms of biological selection. E.g. no one thinks that "having a southern accent" needs to be explained as an adaptive strategy for reproducing one's genes.

    To use the classic example, you're barking up the wrong tree asking why liking candy bars and soda pop gives us an "evolutionary advantage". Rather, we evolved in habitats where fruit was rare, and so it makes perfect sense to develop a satisficing rule of thumb "eat as much of this sweet-tasting stuff as you can, whenever you find it".

    Just so, the rule of thumb "be compassionate to your ingroup" evolved when we were in bands of maybe a dozen or so, all conspecifics. So to the extent that true altruism involves evolutionary forces as opposed to acquired characteristics (and it obviously involves both), it does not get an explanation in terms of its current utility for reproductive success.

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

    Matt,

    Shenvi asks us to consider the five points above against the theoretical backdrop of two possibilities: (1) moral facts exist and we have immediate, intuitive apprehension of their existence, and (2) moral values do not exist and any belief that they do exist is therefore an illusion. If we take seriously the other types of moral anti-realism that exist, we can see that these two possibilities are not exhaustive of the moral positions, and in fact Shenvi’s second possibility is a weak and unappealing caricature of what many anti-realists believe.

    Moral facts either exist or they don’t. If they don’t exist then there are many ways one may think about moral behavior, moral reasoning, moral feelings, moral concepts, etc. – but the fact remains that those who believe that moral facts exist are suffering from some kind of illusion. Thus I think that Neil Shenvi’s positions are exhaustive.

    I’d like to argue that a non-cognitivist understanding (informed by naturalism) better explains Shenvi’s five pieces of evidence than does moral realism.

    I think the physical sciences have already established two facts beyond reasonable doubt: 1) The physical closure of the universe, and 2) The perfect correlation between physical states of our brain and our experiences. Given these two facts naturalism becomes unfalsifiable, in the sense that it is capable of explaining any data, objective or subjective, we may possibly possess. Suppose for example that it is the case that we all should agree that belief in theism is more reasonable than naturalism. Naturalism would then explain why it is that we think and feel this way. Which implies that even such general agreement would not amount to a defeater for naturalism.

    [continues bellow]

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

    [continues bellow]

    Given the above I have no trouble accepting that naturalism explains all data we have which relate to morality, including moral behavior, thought, and feelings, how these change along geographic, social or historical lines, and so on. And thus explains perfectly well Neil’s five pieces of evidence (even though given the actual state of scientific knowledge perhaps a naturalist cannot today fully explain one or the other pieces of evidence).

    Suppose further that moral realism (informed by theism, say) fails to explain these five pieces of evidence as well. Or at least suppose that S (an intelligent, educated, and free-thinking person) judges that moral realism informed by theism fails to explain these five pieces of evidence as well as, say, moral non-cognitivism informed by naturalism. Would this make it likely that S will reject moral realism? Or would this make it reasonable for S to reject moral-realism?

    I think probably not, because it seems that in real life one gives a lot of emphasis to the issue of epistemic cost too. The naturalistic explanation, even should it work better, comes with a huge cost, namely one must accept that one’s moral perception is nonsense, that one’s sense of free will is nonsense, that one’s impression that one’s thoughts are about something is nonsense – and so on.

    In conclusion my argument is that the trouble with any view which rejects moral realism is not so much that it fails to explain the evidence, but that it represents too heavy an existential burden.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    cl,

    As I just alluded to, I don't think that follows, even if your key assertion was incontrovertibly proven. In the same way lack of scientific consensus does not entail that no objective physics exists, lack of moral consensus does not entail that no objective moral values exist.

    But the argument can't have it both ways. It can't be that on the one hand moral agreement (Or a moral "core", or what have you) is indicative of OMVs while disagreement is also expected.

    The scientific consensus bit is a poor analogy. We don't take scientific consensus as evidence for objective physics, while Neil is suggesting that a moral consensus that spans culture and time period is evidence for OMVs existent ontological status.

    First, I think you've inadvertently, ever-so-slightly misrepresented 1. Neil doesn't claim "near universal consensus about moral values," but rather, "nearly universally… the same basic standards of morality."

    Neil says near universally across human cultures . A ubiquitous core doesn't quite cut it here, as he's making a claim that spans culture and history.

    As to why moral non-cognitivism better explains the data, I've already alluded to an argument in this post but I didn't have the space to lay it out in its entirety. You're right to state that I need to flesh it out to a better extent, but this post was already on the long side. I think we can expect widespread behavioral consistency on some level due to a shared evolutionary heritage. If we take moral non-cognitivism to mean that the expression of moral statements is emotively reacting to norms and rules, we can also expect there to be disagreement from culture to culture based on other conditions.

    However, my primary purpose (in this post) was arguing that Neil is vastly over-estimating the moral consistency found among human beings. Since his entire argument, besides two appeals to authority, relies upon shared moral beliefs and actions, I felt it was pertinent to undercut this notion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    Dianelos

    I think probably not, because it seems that in real life one gives a lot of emphasis to the issue of epistemic cost too. The naturalistic explanation, even should it work better, comes with a huge cost, namely one must accept that one’s moral perception is nonsense, that one’s sense of free will is nonsense, that one’s impression that one’s thoughts are about something is nonsense – and so on.

    I don't see that one has to accept that one's moral perception is nonsense, just as the scientific anti-realist need not think that science is complete nonsense. They simply have to realize that these are tools we use to understand the world around us that don't have actual ontological status.

    It seems disingenuous to reject a theory on the grounds that it upends your own understanding of the universe. We should chase what's true, not what's convenient or easy for us to believe. See the "Litany of Gendlin".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Matt,
    You write: "You’re right that natural selection doesn't explain it , but that doesn’t mean we are completely empty-handed when it comes to building an evolutionary narrative."

    Hiero5ant writes: "Just so, the rule of thumb "be compassionate to your ingroup" evolved when we were in bands of maybe a dozen or so, all conspecifics."

    I think what you're neglecting is the fact that moral behavior and true altruism do cry out for a deeper explanation than evolutionary theory can currently provide. Coyne offers a hypothetical scenario as to how we might have accidentally ended up with moral and altruistic behavior as does hiero5ant. But he is emphatic that we really do not know whether these conjectures are true or not.

    In fact, the dissent of biologists like E.O. Wilson strongly support the idea that morality and true altruism do demand an explanation that current evolutionary orthodoxy cannot provide. That is why they insist that group selection must have occurred at some point in human history, despite the protests of Dawkins, Coyne and Pinker that it is an impossibility.

    So these are the two positions:
    1. Biologists like Wilson insist that the data cry out for a deeper explanation and posit group select

    2. Dawkins, Coyne, and Pinker emphatically deny group selection but also admit that we do not have a good theory of the emergence of morality and that it probably was just a fluke. Consider the following essay by Dawkins in which he says that "Good Samaritan urges are misfirings", that altruism is a "'mistake' or 'by-product'", "misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes", etc…
    (Google "Richard Dawkins on the lust to be nice")

    So if current evolutionary explanations are nonexistent (unless one wants to defend group selection), shouldn't we at least consider another hypothesis (the actual existence and perception of OMVs) that explains the data?

    Matt wrote: "However, unless you mean to fill in the gaps with a supernatural explanation for true altruism, I'm not sure where this gets you."

    Well, that is what I personally believe. But for the purposes of the essay, my aim was to show that moral realism provides a better explanation for these facts than moral anti-realism. The fact that naturalists who are moral realists face precisely the same problem as naturalists who are moral anti-realists in accounting for #1 doesn't lessen #1 as an argument against moral anti-realism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Matt, you write
    "The problem here is that you can’t divorce justifiable grounds for actions from OMVs, as that is just what is at stake in the debate."

    I disagree here on two counts. First, I think it is possible to divorce justifiable grounds for actions from OMVs. You can semantically demand that 'justifiable grounds' be included in any definition of moral behavior. But in reality, no one believes statements like 'eating is wrong apart from justifiable grounds' or 'painting with the color red is wrong apart from justifiable grounds.' We recognize that some actions are amoral while others are usually immoral and therefore require justification. The fact that murder, theft, adultery, etc… are all actions which humans nearly universally recognize as falling into the 'immoral' category rather than the 'amoral' category is all that I need to make my case.

    Second, even if we insisted that 'justifiable grounds' were included in the definition of OMVs, I maintain that there would still be near-universal agreement on what does not constitute justifable grounds. For instance, you will not find cultures claiming that 'I wanted his money', or 'I felt angry' are justifiable grounds for murder.

    However, as I said on dangerousidea, I think this is where we may have to agree to disagree. While cl and I see more agreement than disagreement, you see more disagreement than agreement. In general, this is hard to quantify, so we may be at a stalemate. But I would add a parting shot.

    The study you provided does enable us to mathematically quantify the level of 'agreement' versus 'disagreement'. It is hear that I thought your position was weakest. When I pointed out that market-driven cultures show only 13% more generosity than primitive cultures, you claim this is a 'substantial increase.' But I think this clearly demonstrates your precommitment to seeing more moral disagreement than agreement.

    As I said, a rational agent playing the dictator game would give 0% to the second player. Yet the average given across all cultures was around 37% with about 7% difference due to social factors. To claim that the 37% difference between what game theory would dictate and what is actually observed is insignificant but that the 7% difference due to social considerations is a substantial increase is clearly wrong. This study provides at least one instance in which our moral agreement is quantifiably far, far greater than our disagreement.

    And as cl pointed out, the evidence regarding true altruism (1b) stands independent of whether we think moral disagreement outweight moral agreement.

    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    So if current evolutionary explanations are nonexistent (unless one wants to defend group selection), shouldn't we at least consider another hypothesis (the actual existence and perception of OMVs) that explains the data?

    A lot to unpack here. One, it's not that they are non-existent apart from group selection. Coyne puts two prospects on his own blog, while Haidt and others argue that we have a definitive explanation for these behaviors. While you may find them unsatisfactory , to call them "non-existent" is quite inaccurate.

    I also find the "We don't currently have a [confirmed] explanation [of true altruism], therefore the explanations are non-existent" to be a bit God-of-the-gaps like. If you are arguing that we cannot, in principle, find an evolutionary explanation, that might be enticing. As of now, it just sounds like an "elan vital" argument for morality.

    We should consider other hypotheses to explain the data, of course. However, as I've pointed out, I don't think moral realism actually explains this data at all. In addition, as other commenters have pointed out, the problem of moral knowledge and moral progress makes moral realism (especially a supernatural moral realism) even more difficult to hold in light of this evidence. (Consider hiero5ant's example of racism and MLK.)

    We recognize that some actions are amoral while others are usually immoral and therefore require justification. The fact that murder, theft, adultery, etc… are all actions which humans nearly universally recognize as falling into the 'immoral' category rather than the 'amoral' category is all that I need to make my case.

    A vast majority of the history of ethical philosophy has been defining what counts as "murder", "theft", etc. It's a bit naive to brush this problem under the rug and assert that most people simply find these actions to be "immoral" because most people don't agree on the definitions to begin with.

    As I said, a rational agent playing the dictator game would give 0% to the second player. Yet the average given across all cultures was around 37% with about 7% difference due to social factors. To claim that the 37% difference between what game theory would dictate and what is actually observed is insignificant but that the 7% difference due to social considerations is a substantial increase is clearly wrong. This study provides at least one instance in which our moral agreement is quantifiably far, far greater than our disagreement.

    Human beings are about as far as creatures get from being ideal rational agents. The list of inclinations we have towards fallacious thinking is long and ever increasing. To put the bar for normalcy at the level of "what game theory would predict' is absurd. This is why we find characters like "Spock" on Star Trek so fascinating, we can't possibly imagine what it's like to have that type of decision making. It would be an evolutionary miracle if we had developed that sort of pure rationality. Our own rationality is fraught with mistake after mistake, and our emotions creep in at every turn.

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

    Matt,

    I don't see that one has to accept that one's moral perception is nonsense, just as the scientific anti-realist need not think that science is complete nonsense.

    Anti-realism is an ambiguous concept. I would say that if somebody believes that the order which scientists claim to discover does not exist, then she is saying that science is nonsense. For surely searching for and claiming to be discovering something that does not in fact exist is absurd.

    We should chase what's true, not what's convenient or easy for us to believe.

    Isn’t it incoherent for a moral non-cognitivist to make claims about what we should do? Anyway I have not been making a philosophical argument, but rather describing what I take to be a fact about the human condition. Namely, that a normal human being will tend to not embrace beliefs which are found to be existentially damaging, but will instead tend to embrace beliefs which are experienced as empowering. If then it is the case that 1) the world is religiously ambiguous in the sense that both a non-religious worldview (such as naturalism) and a religious worldview (such as theism) do explain all possible data one may have (and therefore are both possibly true), and 2) a religious worldview does help people have the good life they desire whereas a non-religious worldview doesn’t, then as a matter of fact people will continue to embrace the religious worldview.

    Indeed, obviously, that is the rational choice.

    [continues]

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

    Finally, a good life entails that one’s intellectual life be a natural and indeed “convenient” one, and not one which entails stressful and existentially damaging ideas, such as that our brain is massively fooling us in respect to practically everything we hold dear. Nor, for that matter, one that entails the idea of a resentful God. What one finds works best, is at the bottom of all cognition. And in my judgment at least the more coherent a naturalistic worldview is the worse it works on an existential level. Similarly, the more dogmatic a religious worldview is the worse I find it works on an existential level. But it is easy and commendable to abandon dogmatism, whereas of course it is not so to abandon coherence.

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

    Neil,

    Responding to Hiero5ant you write: “I think what you're neglecting is the fact that moral behavior and true altruism do cry out for a deeper explanation than evolutionary theory can currently provide.

    Perhaps current evolutionary theory cannot provide an adequate explanation. So what?

    If the universe is physically closed, then there is a perfectly adequate naturalistic explanation for (what is normally called) moral behavior, including altruistic behavior. That science has not yet advanced to the point that we know what that explanation is, is irrelevant. And it will remain irrelevant even if it is the case that for some reason or other it is impossible for science to discover that explanation.

    So the only relevant question is whether the universe is physically closed. Given the huge advancements of modern science it really seems to be so. Could it be that the physical universe is closed in all phenomena except those related to morality? It could, but why suspect that? Indeed why should a theist suspect that? I don’t see any reason at all. Nothing of value for theism hangs on this question. On the contrary, as a theist it would strike me as kind of inelegant if the author of nature would arbitrary choose to make an exception on that point.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    @Neil "So if current evolutionary explanations are nonexistent (unless one wants to defend group selection), shouldn't we at least consider another hypothesis (the actual existence and perception of OMVs) that explains the data?"

    It seems you quoted from my post, but failed to engage the main point, either approvingly or critically. Surely you understand the difference between these two claims:

    "There is no current evolutionary explanation for X"

    "There is no current explanation for X"

    Evolution is not a scripture and it is not a theory of everything. Only creationists think scientists think it is. What's next, a complaint that evolution didn't predict the Higgs Boson, or can't tell you who the next winner of American Idol will be?

    "…shouldn't we at least consider another hypothesis (the actual existence and perception of OMVs) that explains the data?"

    No, because that does not actually "explain" anything. What is the specific, testable hypothesis for how we came to have these veridical perceptual faculties? There are very good reasons to doubt that this is possible. (PDF link)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Matt,
    "Coyne puts two prospects on his own blog, while Haidt and others argue that we have a definitive explanation for these behaviors. While you may find them unsatisfactory , to call them "non-existent" is quite inaccurate. "

    Fair enough. But if we want to argue that group selection is sufficient, you do need to offer a solution to the free rider problem. The fact that biologists like Coyne and Dawkins are so emphatic that it is not plausible should at least give us pause. To make my case, we need only conceded that current explanations are 'unsatisfactory.'

    "the problem of moral knowledge and moral progress makes moral realism (especially a supernatural moral realism) even more difficult to hold in light of this evidence. (Consider hiero5ant's example of racism and MLK.)"

    This is interesting, because I would see the notion of 'moral progress' as a death-blow to non-cognitivist moral theories and moral anti-realism in general. How do we declare something to be 'moral progress' if moral statements are merely emotive or prescriptive? How does moving from 'Yay, racism' to 'Boo, racism' constitute 'progress' unless some kind of objective moral statement can be made about racism? It would be like arguing that change in pop music genres constitutes 'musical progress'. I would be extremely interested to hear your answer to this question.

    "Human beings are about as far as creatures get from being ideal rational agents"

    Agreed. I'm merely pointing out that in this case, we have what seems to be clear, quantifiable evidence that moral agreement is larger than moral disagreement. The only way you can avoid that conclusion is to say 'The baseline should be 40% because human beings are irrational.' But that simply begs the question. Yes, humans are acting 'irrationally' in a consistently moral way. That is the whole point. We have significant, self-sacrificial, altruistic moral agreement. How do we best explain it?
    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    Remember, your entire objection is dead in the water until you provide evidence for the aforementioned assertion. Everything that follows is secondary. Also, try not to get too frustrated, because I'm going to respond by claiming that you've misunderstood a few key points.

    "But the argument can't have it both ways. It can't be that on the one hand moral agreement (Or a moral "core", or what have you) is indicative of OMVs while disagreement is also expected."

    You're misunderstanding what I'm saying. The argument isn't "having it both ways." Again, given OMV we would expect an ubiquitous core, but we would also expect disagreement over specifics. Neil explained this clearly when he said that we may disagree over what constitutes an unjustified killing, but across cultures and time, we find a persistent value that unjustified killing is wrong. Same with theft, lying and many other things. Even hardened criminals whom we would charge with unjustified killing tend to accept the premise that unjustified killing is wrong (despite their apparent disobedience of it). They tend to react thus if you kill their children. At any rate, the point is that given OMV, we would not expect 100% absolute moral uniformity—which seems to be what you are suggesting. If you are not suggesting that, please clarify. If you are suggesting that, please justify.

    "We don't take scientific consensus as evidence for objective physics…"

    I didn't say we did. You misunderstood. Again, I said, "In the same way lack of scientific consensus does not entail that no objective physics exists, lack of moral consensus does not entail that no objective moral values exist." IOW, your proffered disagreements do not undermine OMV. Put differently: pre-Newtonian disagreement over gravity didn't falsify or even challenge the theory of gravity.

    Now, you are correct to say "Neil is suggesting that a moral consensus that spans culture and time period is evidence for OMVs existent ontological status." There's no tension between that statement and my analogy. That is exactly what 1 suggests, and as Neil and I have both explained, we observe an ubiquitous core of moral consensus, despite disagreement over specifics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    [CONTINUED]

    "…he's making a claim that spans culture and history."

    Exactly. That's exactly what I mean by "ubiquitous core." One meaning of the word "ubiquitous" is "constantly encountered." So, by "ubiquitous core," I mean a core morality that is constantly encountered, across culture and history. Since this should have been evident from my line, "from the code of Hammurabi to the Bible to now," may I politely suggest more careful reading?

    "Since his entire argument, besides two appeals to authority, relies upon shared moral beliefs and actions, I felt it was pertinent to undercut this notion."

    I made a mistake here. Earlier, I said I tend to agree with you re 4 and 5, but when I reread Neil's piece more carefully, I now think that your "two appeals to authority" objection is a terribly uncharitable reading. For one, Neil wrote,

    "Obviously, an appeal to professional philosophers does not prove that objective moral values exist."

    …yet you persist in accusing him of an appeal to authority! May he correct me if I'm wrong, but I read him as implying that, since most philosophers are atheists who accept evolution, why do the majority of them accept OMV? That's what you need to grapple with. It strikes me as either disingenuous or sloppy to simply accuse him of an appeal to authority despite the fact he took efforts to clearly state that wasn't his argument.

    Anyways, this is all moot for the time being, because your central objection has no evidence to support it. To make that objection stick, you need to do more than just wave perfunctorily towards a few issues where humans disagree on what is moral. In order to undercut 1, you need to either argue persuasively against the existence of an ubiquitous core, or show that naturalism / non-cognitivism better explains the ubiquitous core. It also wouldn't hurt to include some falsifiable / testable claims, or predictions, or empirical evidence. I think you were on the right track with your previously cited study.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    Matt,

    "It seems disingenuous to reject a theory on the grounds that it upends your own understanding of the universe. We should chase what's true, not what's convenient or easy for us to believe."

    Now that's very interesting, on at least two fronts. For one, Dianelos didn't reject the theory on the grounds you claim. Now, I don't agree with Dianelos' treatment of the naturalism / moral realism issue, but in all actuality, it seems to me you've given Dianelos' remarks a disingenuous reading. Did Dianelos' reject a naturalist / non-cognitivist explanation? I think the answer is no.

    For two, if you really believe what you just wrote—that is, if you really believe that we should chase what's true, not what's convenient or easy for us to believe—why aren't you vocally opposing the criminal justice system? After all, your beliefs irrevocably commit you to the Strawsonian conclusion that nobody can be ultimately held responsible for their actions. Not even Hitler. Remember, you believe we're all just a bunch of random matter operating, not by free-willed choice, but by the mathematical / material state of the universe at the singularity. The inescapable conclusion is that there is no reason to punish people for their actions, other than it is convenient in dissuading further actions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Matt, hier05ant, and Danielos,

    Matt wrote:
    "I also find the "We don't currently have a [confirmed] explanation [of true altruism], therefore the explanations are non-existent" to be a bit God-of-the-gaps like."

    hiero5ant wrote: Surely you understand the difference between these two claims:"There is no current evolutionary explanation for X" "There is no current explanation for X"

    I have to say that, as a scientist, this is one of the most frustrating arguments I encounter from atheists. Yes, I recognize the danger of a God-of-the-gaps argument. Saying 'We don't understand X therefore God did it' is dangerous because if you discover a natural explanation for X, it might undermine your belief in God (although technically it should not; it would merely challenge one piece of evidence used to support a positive argument for God's existence).

    However, I think that fear (or disdain) for God-of-the-gaps often leads us to throw abductive reasoning out the window entirely. Abductive reasoning is concerned with finding the best explanation for the data that we currently have. If we are going to resort to speculating about data that we might have one day, we might as well give up examining the evidence altogether. After all, who knows? Dawkins himself says that in the future new evidence might come to light which causes us to abandon evolution entirely. Do we therefore conclude that all nebulous 'future evidence' should be taken into account when we search for a best explanation? No. So we need to actually deal with explanations as they are offered today and explanations as they exist today. There is no use speculating about future evidence to which we have no access.

    Moreover, although we criticize God-of-the-gaps, we seem to have no trouble whole-heartedly endorsing naturalism-of-the-gaps. Why should we have confidence that science will "one day" be able to explain the evolution of morality? If you argue that science has been consistently closing gaps that God needs to fill, I would point out that the discovery of the Big Bang, cosmological fine tuning, and the difficulty of abiogenesis all open up new gaps in our understanding that are arguable better filled by theism than naturalism. Now these gaps may also be filled eventually. But it would be naive to claim that science has been monotonically eroding all gaps that used to be filled by God.

    "What is the specific, testable hypothesis for how we came to have these veridical perceptual faculties?"

    If you are using Popper's falsifiablility criterion, I would point out that this only purports to provide a criteria for considering a hypothesis to be 'scientific'. Therefore, the most we could conclude is that the proposition 'OMVs exist and are immediately perceptible' is not a scientific proposition by Popper's criteria. And I think I would agree with that statement.

    Second, I might equally well ask what falsifiable, testable predictions you can make with regard to the proposition that OMVs do not exist?
    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    cl,
    You wrote: I made a mistake here. Earlier, I said I tend to agree with you re 4 and 5, but when I reread Neil's piece more carefully, I now think that your "two appeals to authority" objection is a terribly uncharitable reading.

    Yes, I didn't get around to points 2-5 yet. We're still on point 1! But you are correct in your assessment of my intent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    To make my case, we need only conceded that current explanations are 'unsatisfactory.'

    Coyne's first suggestion (that perhaps they are evolved tendencies which have been influenced by cultures over time) is much more satisfactory and explanatory than "OMVs exist, and they are immediately and intuitively perceptible to us". You still have to deal with the problem of moral knowledge, the problem of moral progress, and (depending on what type of OMVs you are endorsing), the problems associated with dualism.

    In fact, while you are arguing we don't have a sufficient evolutionary explanation, you haven't yet provided a sufficient supernatural explanation. While your evidence argues that there is a shared, near-universal common morality, we still don't know how it is that this is transmitted or instantiated. In order for your theory to count as explanatory, we still need to know:

    (1) What kinds of things are OMVs?
    (2) How do we have knowledge of OMVs?

    How do we declare something to be 'moral progress' if moral statements are merely emotive or prescriptive? How does moving from 'Yay, racism' to 'Boo, racism' constitute 'progress' unless some kind of objective moral statement can be made about racism? It would be like arguing that change in pop music genres constitutes 'musical progress'. I would be extremely interested to hear your answer to this question.

    This is a common mistake that people often make when dealing with moral anti-realism. When talking about things like "moral knowledge" and "moral progress", anti-realists are adopting terms used by moral realists in order to show an inconsistency in their philosophy. It's the same mistake that people often make when encountering the problem of evil for the first time and saying "Yeah, but how can atheists even call anything evil in the first place?"

    It's not moral progress under non-cognitivism. That's why it is a problem for accounts of moral realism, especially ones in which OMVs are both "immediate" and "intuitive". Did those immediate and intuitive OMVs suddenly become apparent in America during the 1960s w/r/t to racism?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Matt,
    You ask:
    "(1) What kinds of things are OMVs?
    (2) How do we have knowledge of OMVs?"

    I don't need to answer (1) (in my essay that is; I'd be happy to answer it here) because I am examining moral realism versus anti-realism. I need not argue for a particular form of moral realism in order to argue that the evidence I present is better explained by moral realism than moral anti-realism.

    I thought the answer to (2) was clear: we have immediate, though fallible, access of OMVs; we simply know that right and wrong exist and that certain things are wrong. In the same way, we have immediate, though fallible, access to the reality of physical objects through our five senses. We can be wrong about moral facts just as we can be wrong about physical facts.

    Incidentally, I forgot to mention how much I liked cl's comparison of agreement/disagreement in the moral realm to the realm of art or music. So when we consider the vast disagreement in other arenas, it makes it harder to ignore the level of agreement we see in morality.

    "It's not moral progress under non-cognitivism. That's why it is a problem for accounts of moral realism, especially ones in which OMVs are both "immediate" and "intuitive"."

    Ah, ok. So as long as you're clear that you are merely offering an internal critique of moral realism (just as the atheist can only offer the 'problem of evil' as an internal critique of theism). There are many answers depending on the flavor of moral realists you are. I personally would repeat cl's answer: our moral intuitions are fallible. As a Christian, I would go farther and say that our conscience is sinful and corrupted so that we routinely turn a blind eye to our moral failures and inconsistencies. But moral realists would differ as to how they would answer this question.

    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    @Neil

    Respectfully, in your last post you have repeatedly misread, jumbled and conflated multiple arguments, and as a result you have not replied to any argument I have made. I know it can be hard when one is arguing against multiple interlocutors whose views sometimes overlap and sometimes don't, but I think you're mistakenly attributing Matt's arguments to me.

    You quote both Matt and myself and then reply to what you take to be a sort of "naturalism of the gaps" argument. Setting aside the fact that I am not a metaphysical naturalist, if you will simply look at the text you quoted (and reread my previous post) you will see that we are making completely different arguments.

    My point (and Dawkins' point, if you'll reread him on the subject) is that we do currently have a plausible explanation. Not "don't". "Do". (Note also "plausible". Not "confirmed in every detail", not "confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt". "Plausible".)

    Like the moth which circles the flame because it is obeying the rule of thumb "keep the bright light above you" that works (from an evolutionary perspective) when the only light is the moon, we give money to starving children thousands of miles away whom we will never meet by obeying a rule of thumb that works (from an evolutionary perspective) when the most hominids you are likely to encounter will be conspecifics.

    This means that the explanation I propose invokes evolution to explain genuine psychological altruism (although of course there are any number of purely cultural and historical contingencies in play too), but it is not itself an evolutionary explanation in the sense that the behavior exists because it is or was adaptive in the modern circumstances in which it occurs.

    Moving on, I asked, "What is the specific, testable hypothesis for how we came to have these veridical perceptual faculties?" and you conflated this with an argument about alleged OMVs — you will note that I have not mentioned these or engaged them in this thread. That is Matt's argument.

    Reread my question. It is genealogical. It asks for a causal story of how we came to have the ability to detect these alleged objective moral truths. Like our very good causal stories about how we came to be able to detect truths about whether it is light or dark outside, or whether something is cold or hot. I have supplied one above. The group-selectionists have a rival one. I repeat: what is your causal explanation for how we came to have [whatever degree of moral agreement you think we have]?

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

    Neil,

    I agree that modern science has opened huge explanatory gaps in naturalism (the interpretation of quantum mechanics, consciousness, the fine-tuning of the physical constants and initial conditions – you name it). In a one-to-one comparison about which metaphysical theory has less gaps, or about which metaphysical theory is closing its gaps instead of opening new ones, theism would certainly win against naturalism.

    Still, I’d like to insist on the following point: If the universe is physically closed then the fact that we don’t now know a naturalistic explanation about some particular physical phenomenon is irrelevant, given that it in fact exists.

    And, given that the universe certainly appears to be physically closed, and given that there is no good theistic reason to think that it isn’t – why suggest any God-of-the-gaps argument in respect of physical phenomena, such as moral behavior?

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

    Matt asks:

    (1) What kinds of things are OMVs?
    (2) How do we have knowledge of OMVs?

    And Hiero5ant has a genealogical question pertaining to (2), namely “how we came to have the ability to detect these alleged objective moral truths

    I’d like to give here what I take to be the standard theistic answers. And would like to extend the answer to cover values in general and not just moral values in particular:

    On theism, all of reality is grounded in the nature of God which being personal also grounds values. Thus values are properties which are grounded by their similarity with the underlying nature of God. So, for example, loving is better than hating because to be loving is more similar to how God is. The face of Winston Churchill is more beautiful than Halle Berry’s in that the experience of looking at Halle’s face is closer to experiencing God than the experience of looking at old Winston’s. That “2+2=4” is true and “2+2=5” is false in that believing the former is what God believes.

    Since we are persons made in the image of God we have the cognitive capacity to perceive values, but since we are created imperfect that capacity is fallible. According to virtually all religious traditions our imperfect power of perception improves by leading the good life, which is a life characterized by the universally recognized virtues of love, courage, humility, reason, etc. (And since virtuous people affect the historical process, there is also a slow improvement in the moral zeitgeist.)

    Finally I understand Hiero5ant’s question as pertaining to the evolutionary process. Since God has created us through the evolutionary process God has guided that process so as to produce us with the basic cognitive capacity God wished us to have. Namely to possess the kind of brain which when functioning normally is able to clearly perceive some basic values such as that loving is better than hating, or that Halle’s face is more beautiful than Winston’s, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    I thought the answer to (2) was clear: we have immediate, though fallible, access of OMVs; we simply know that right and wrong exist and that certain things are wrong. In the same way, we have immediate, though fallible, access to the reality of physical objects through our five senses. We can be wrong about moral facts just as we can be wrong about physical facts.

    First, let me point out that this isn't an answer at all. Imagine if someone asked me how sight works and I told them "we simply see things, just like we smell them!"

    Second, this assertion (that our acquisition of moral knowledge is similar to our acquisition of physical knowledge) is quite problematic. Let me propose a thought experiment. We take two sample groups of Americans, one from the year 1840, one from the year 2012. We ask them two questions: (1) What colors are on the United States' flag? (2) Is slavery morally permissible?

    I would argue that the consensus and uniformity of answers on question (1) would be almost unanimous. However, it strikes me as entirely obvious that the second question would have a gulf of division over the time period.

    As Mackie contends in his argument from relativity: "Is it really plausible, he asks, that one culture enjoys access to the moral facts regarding [slavery] whereas the other lacks that access? Isn't it much more likely that [slavery] happened to develop in one culture but not in the other (for whatever cultural or anthropological reasons), and that the respective moral views emerged as a result?"

    This quote is stolen from a reference to monogamy, but the point largely remains intact.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    Hiero5ant,

    I wasn't going to say anything the first time, but since you're pressing the issue with Neil, I want to ask:

    Just so, the rule of thumb "be compassionate to your ingroup" evolved when we were in bands of maybe a dozen or so, all conspecifics.

    Well, sure… that's plausible, but without solid evidence this is just ad hoc speculation. Can you put forth your best empirical evidence for this claim? I'm not asking to challenge you. I'm asking because I've heard this line of argumentation repeated time and again, but never supported with any empirical evidence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Hiero5ant,
    I apologize if I have misrepresented your arguments. I am indeed trying to condense my responses to multiple people, and that sometimes involve intentional or inadvertent conflation of ideas.

    You say:
    My point (and Dawkins' point, if you'll reread him on the subject) is that we do currently have a plausible explanation. Not "don't". "Do". (Note also "plausible". Not "confirmed in every detail", not "confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt". "Plausible".)

    I would actually would actually question how 'plausible' Dawkins' account is for several reasons. First, I would ask along with cl whether you have any independent empirical evidence that this account is true. For instance, are you really suggesting in all the tens of thousands of years of the conjectured existence of modern humans, human beings never encountered groups that were non kin? Because, as soon as they did, the 'rule of thumb' Dawkins suggests would fall to the free rider problem. In fact, isn't the best evolutionary estimate currently that the earliest group of humans consisted of around 1000 individuals? Were these all kin? If not, then how plausible is it that such a 'rule of thumb' as Dawkins suggests would emerge.

    Second, the implausibility of this 'rule of thumb' is precisely what motivates the conjecture of group selection! Theists are not the only ones who think that Dawkins' explanation is ad hoc and unsatisfying.

    Third, a distinction needs to be made between a necessary and sufficient explanation. This is why Dawkins and Coyne use the language they do. While an 'evolutionary misfiring' provides a necessary explanation, it does not provide a sufficient explanation. They assert that there is no deeper explanation for why we exhibit altruism rather than, as Dawkins says, extreme xenophobia. It was, as Dawkins says, a "'mistake' or 'by-product'", a series of "misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes", etc… I am not saying that the lack of a deeper explanation means that 'misfiring' is completely inadmissible as an explanation. But it at least opens up the possibility that we ought to consider alternative explanations, whether group selection or the existence and perception of OMVs.

    You then write:
    "Reread my question. It is genealogical. It asks for a causal story of how we came to have the ability to detect these alleged objective moral truths."

    Providing such a causal story is not necessary to support the main thesis of my essay. If it were, then no one would have had warrant to believe in the veridicality of their sense experiences until 1859, when Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Just because we do not or cannot provide a causal account of how we came to know certain truths, does not mean that we cannot know these truths or our beliefs are not veridical.

    To address your question, different varieties of moral realists will have different answers. Personally, I thought Danielous gave a reasonable summary of the Christian position: God gave us immediate intuitive knowledge of moral truths. This is part of what it means to be created in God's image in way that other animals are not.

    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Matt,
    You write:
    First, let me point out that this isn't an answer at all. Imagine if someone asked me how sight works and I told them "we simply see things, just like we smell them!

    Well, if someone with no sensory experience -say, a robot- asked you "how do we have visual knowledge?", what would you say? Explaining how light refracts and how the retina works is not going to answer their question, because they are not asking "how does your eye work?" but "how do we have visual knowledge?" In the same way, I could talk about moral knowledge in terms of brain chemistry, or neurotransmitters associated with empathy, but I would still not have answered the question "How do we have moral knowledge?"

    Let me propose a thought experiment. We take two sample groups of Americans, one from the year 1840, one from the year 2012. We ask them two questions: (1) What colors are on the United States' flag? (2) Is slavery morally permissible?

    You are assuming that if moral facts exist, there needs to be as much consensus on moral facts as on physical facts. That is not true. In fact, it is not even true when it comes to scientific facts. Ask several different physicists if there is a multiverse and you will get opposing answers. Does it follow that there is no fact of the matter on whether there is a multiverse? And as I said, Christianity in particular has an answer for moral disagreement in that it recognizes that all of us our sinners. We do not recognize moral truth in part because we do not want to recognize moral truth. But that doesn't mean that moral truth does not exist.

    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Danielos,
    Sorry, you've raised this point several times and I've neglected to respond. I apologize. You write:

    "If the universe is physically closed then the fact that we don’t now know a naturalistic explanation about some particular physical phenomenon is irrelevant, given that it in fact exists. And, given that the universe certainly appears to be physically closed, and given that there is no good theistic reason to think that it isn’t – why suggest any God-of-the-gaps argument in respect of physical phenomena, such as moral behavior?"

    I would question whether the concept of 'causally-closed' has any meaning at all given the discovery of quantum mechanics. Strict causality exists only in the neorealist model of QM. So not only has 'causal closure' not been proven by science, I would say that we have come close to refuting it! See my essay:
    http://www.shenvi.org/Essays/QuantumMechanics.htm

    Second, even if we were to adopt a 19th-century classical view of the universe, I would still question whether science has proven causal closure. How would science go about 'proving' such a thing? Certainly, science can indicate that there do not appear to be regular, predictable violations of the laws of nature. But certainly Christians have never expected that there were. A miracle is a miracle precisely because it is an unexpected and extremely unusual event. If you're interested in this topic, there are two lectures I gave, the first on quantum mechanics and miracles and the second on the historical evidence for one particular miracle: the Resurrection of Jesus. I think they might both be relevant to your question:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOJTxk5sD80
    http://youtu.be/PfOIfvLhLR0
    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    Well, if someone with no sensory experience -say, a robot- asked you "how do we have visual knowledge?", what would you say? Explaining how light refracts and how the retina works is not going to answer their question, because they are not asking "how does your eye work?" but "how do we have visual knowledge?"

    Of course it does. If "visual knowledge" is taken to be the information we gain through the sense of sight, then explaining how the eye works undoubtedly answers the question.

    In the same way, I could talk about moral knowledge in terms of brain chemistry, or neurotransmitters associated with empathy, but I would still not have answered the question "How do we have moral knowledge?"

    Yep, I agree. So, let me repeat the question again, how do we come to have moral knowledge? You're claiming that human beings have it "intuitively" and "immediately", so it seems to me we should also know how it is that we accumulate it.

    You are assuming that if moral facts exist, there needs to be as much consensus on moral facts as on physical facts. That is not true.

    No, you compared our physical senses with our "moral sense", and I pointed out that the error rate of our "moral sense" is exceedingly high and the comparison wasn't a good one.

    If, as you claimed in your original argument, our knowledge of OMVs is "intuitive" and "immediate", why is the error rate so astonishingly high? We don't see disagreement across cultures about the color of the sky, but we do about the morality of slavery.

    In fact, it is not even true when it comes to scientific facts. Ask several different physicists if there is a multiverse and you will get opposing answers. Does it follow that there is no fact of the matter on whether there is a multiverse?

    Are you comparing disagreement about theoretical physics to a knowledge that is "intuitive" and "immediate"?

    And as I said, Christianity in particular has an answer for moral disagreement in that it recognizes that all of us our sinners. We do not recognize moral truth in part because we do not want to recognize moral truth. But that doesn't mean that moral truth does not exist.

    This makes your theory completely unfalsifiable, even in principle. If I were to demonstrate that moral disagreement is more common than moral agreement, the response will be "Well, yeah, we're sinners."

    It's near impossible to build a case against floating beliefs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Matt,
    You wrote: "If 'visual knowledge' is taken to be the information we gain through the sense of sight, then explaining how the eye works undoubtedly answers the question."

    Ah, I see the problem. I am approaching the question of 'knowledge' from the perspective of substance dualism while you are approaching it from the perspective of physicalism (I think). Let me try to provide an answer that might be acceptable to both of us using a physicalist definition of 'knowledge'.

    I do not think that awareness or knowledge of OMVs has to come to us by some continual supernatural revelation or intervention. I think God has constituted us biologically and psychologically to recognize right and wrong. In the same way that we intuitively and immediately recognize truths like the law of noncontradiction, we intuitively and immediately recognize moral truths. But this does not preclude a biological or neurological mechanism for recognizing these truths.

    Now where we probably disagree is whether this physical description alone can account for knowledge of anything, whether moral knowledge or physical knowledge or mathematical knowledge. But I think it answers your original question. God has 'hard-coded' into our biological and psychological make-up the ability to discern moral truths. That is how we have moral knowledge.

    No, you compared our physical senses with our "moral sense", and I pointed out that the error rate of our "moral sense" is exceedingly high and the comparison wasn't a good one. If, as you claimed in your original argument, our knowledge of OMVs is "intuitive" and "immediate", why is the error rate so astonishingly high?

    My comparison was not of error rates, but of immediacy. I agree that the agreement regarding physical knowledge is higher than for moral knowledge. But as cl pointed out, the agreement regarding 'artistic knowledge' or 'musical knowledge' is so low that we generally do not even recognize such a thing. Some level disagreement does not imply a lack of veridicality. See more below.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01453679254084173863 Neil Shenvi

    Are you comparing disagreement about theoretical physics to a knowledge that is "intuitive" and "immediate"?

    This is a valid objection, so I withdraw the analogy. Perhaps the law of noncontradiction is a better example. Presumably, it strikes you as immediate and intuitively true. But plenty of adherents of Eastern religions would deny that it is true. Is it therefore false?

    The main point of our disagreement seems to be this: you assume that if knowledge is immediate and intuitive, agreement about it ought to be nearly and universally unanimous. I think that claim is shown to be false based on the above instance of the law of noncontradiction. I also think that we see so much more agreement on the basics of morality and altruism than on subjects like art or music that we are warranted in seeing it as evidence for the perception of some objective moral realm. But I want to go a little further.

    For a moment, let's imagine that the Bible is true in its assessment of us. Then the best analogy to physical knowledge would be agreement regarding the color of the sky amongst people who have varying degrees of visual impairment. Would we be surprised that people with severe retinal damage cannot agree? No. If we knew this were the actual fact of the matter, would we be justified in rejecting the category of visual knowledge because of their disagreement? No.

    Now I understand that you'll label this a floating belief (which would still not make it false – only impossible to disprove). However, this is why I included the section "Why are we moral relativists?" in my essay. I want you to consider personally whether you (and I) have any experience with self-deception, rationalization or willful ignorance when it comes to moral matters. We certainly do. Five minutes of introspection will show you that you and I willingly ignore our own moral inconsistencies and often hide from the implications of our beliefs. Thus, I think that the Biblical diagnosis of our impaired moral perception not only explains the data but our own personal experience of moral reality.

    -Neil

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03818630173726146048 Papalinton

    Matt
    Surely and ineluctably this discussion board is being dragged into and drowned in the miasmic puddle of Apologetics.

    Firstly, "Five minutes of introspection will show you that you and I willingly ignore our own moral inconsistencies and often hide from the implications of our beliefs. " Matt, you, just as Neil freely tells you, are both fallen and imperfect specimens of humans, factually mandated in the bible. But unlike Neil, who acknowledges his sinful and tainted status, you are ignorantly blind to and in denial of your failures.

    However! All is not lost. There is hope for you after all. And the answer is in front of you; one only need to open one's eyes and look: "Thus, I think that the Biblical diagnosis of our impaired moral perception not only explains the data but our own personal experience of moral reality." Do as Neil has done, accept the 'revealed' truths of the OMVs, lest they be waved away at one's eternal and existential peril.

    The paucity of the evidence, not so much for the intuitive and immediate personal sense of OMVs, but rather that OMVs come from a Divine Creator, is best characterised by Dr Sam Harris, when he asks:

    "How have we convinced ourselves that, on the most important questions in human life, all views must count equally.? Consider the Catholic Church: an organisation which advertises itself as the greatest force for good and as the only true bulwark against evil in the universe. Even among non-Catholics, its doctrines are widely associated with the concepts of 'morality' and 'human values'. However, the Vatican is an organisation that excommunicates women for attempting to become priest but does not excommunicate male priests for raping children. It excommunicates doctors who perform abortions to save a mother's life – even if the mother is a nine-year-old girl raped by her stepfather and pregnant with twins- but did not excommunicate a single member of the Third Reich for committing genocide. Are we really obliged to consider such a diabolical inversion of priorities to be evidence of an alternative 'moral' framework? No. It seems clear that the Catholic Church is as misguided in speaking about the 'moral' peril of contraception, for instance, as it would be speaking about the 'physics' of Transubstantiation. In both domains it is true to say that the Church is grotesquely confused about which things in this world are worth paying attention to."


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