Human-Independent Morality

Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism recently reran an essay he wrote in response to Peter Hitchens (“Atheists Don’t Just Want Sex and Drugs”).  Specifically, he was taking issue with Peter Hitchens’s claim that a moral system that lacked God must lack authority.  Hitchens wrote:

For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself.

I’ve gone back and forth on whether I believe that first sentence (it depends a lot what the meaning of ‘nonhuman source‘ is), but I’m pretty much in agreement with the second claim.  And this causes a lot of confusion in my atheist worldview (which I’ve mostly dealt with by taking a neo-platonic line on the whole question), so I was really curious to see how Adam dealt with the question.  He wrote:

As much as religion’s defenders would like us to believe otherwise, there is no non-human moral authority. Every religious text in the world was written, edited, translated, and printed by humans. All edicts, interpretations, decrees, proclamations and fatwas issued by churches are human opinions. If a huge, glowing set of tablets with commandments engraved on them descended from the sky accompanied by angels blowing trumpets, we’d be having a very different debate, but there is no such thing. All moral opinions come to us from human beings. The only question is whose opinions we should accept as normative, and why.

I don’t like the way Adam is drawing the distinction between human-dependent and independent moral system.  It sounds like, by writing and thinking about morality, humans are tainting the whole system with our subjectivism, and a truly independent morality would be like the sky-commandments — untouched by human hands or thoughts.  If we shift these criteria to another branch of philosophy, I think we can see them as flawed. (By now you can guess the next paragraph is going to be about math, right?)

All mathematical truth comes to us through human writings and human teachers, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that the truth or falsity of the Riemann Hypothesis is human-independent.  Heck, all of our experience of the reality of the physical world is human-mediated, but the fact that we experience the world subjectively wouldn’t lead us to discount it as ‘real’ or ‘objective.’

The fact that we are our own instrument to study the world doesn’t negate our observations anymore than using microscope invalidates the images you see because you see them indirectly.  (Though in both cases we should study our instrument and get acquainted with its blind spots so we can revise and/or compensate).

I asked Adam in the comment thread whether he thought morality differed in some fundamental way from mathematics or the physical reality of the world.  Is it only in the case of the moral law that studying it through a human lens means the phenomenon itself must be human-dependent?  Or would he apply this rule to my other two examples as well?

Adam posted a reply, and I’ll respond later today or tomorrow.  For now, I’d be interested in your rules on what qualifies as human-independent (give examples!) and your thoughts on when we should care whether a truth-claim is human independent in the first place.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • anodognosic

    For my part, I believe that the idea of human-independent morality is incoherent. Any morality that is human-independent only has power to persuade us of its rightness insofar as our intuitions say that it is right. It seems that these intuitions are largely contingent–mantis-men would have very different moral intuitions about love and marriage, for instance–in a way that math cannot be.

    At the same time, we cannot change our intuitions, at least not easily or very much. So this metaethical view does not imply that a person can simply do as he or she chooses. However, since these intuitions are low-level abstractions, and moral systems are high-level abstractions, there can be significant variation in bona fide moral systems. For example: empathy and reciprocity are fairly low-level moral intuitions which can lead to competing high-level moral claims, like criminal rehabilitation and the death penalty.

    Finally, there can be such a thing as a moral authority outside a person. Human moral intuitions seem to be largely universal, and it takes reasoning to get to higher-level moral truths. A person who can think with especial clarity on such issues may be trusted to generally have it right. By the same token, God could be a moral authority in that He would be able to arbitrate perfectly (one presumes) between human moral intuitions to choose the highest good. But even here, it is the intuitions themselves, and not God, that makes something right or wrong.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

      Well, it is the intuitions which discern something right or wrong. Intuitions do not make a thing one way or another. Otherwise you pull a Hamlet …

      “… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

      … who later in the scene insists that he’s feeling somewhat crazy.

      “For by my fay, I cannot reason.”

      As the audience knows, however, the entire thing is a fake-out. Not only is this sentiment a kind of crazy, but it’s a fake crazy that nobody believes.

      To demonstrate this, I present Peter Kreeft’s practical test against certain strains of moral relativism. Because I can’t find a reference, I paraphrase from memory:

      “OK, so morality is only power. I’m the teacher, you’re the student. I have the power. By this power, I declare that all the men fail and all the women pass.” Inevitably, they say something like, “That isn’t right,” or “It isn’t just.”

      • anodognosic

        I don’t see you exactly engaging with the substance here, Ubiquitous. That final blockquote seems like the straw man of straw men. I said nothing about morality being merely power. Morality derives from intuitions which we cannot change, and which, as I said, are fairly universal. It is perfectly possible to argue against arbitrary discrimination based on shared intuitions.

        In any case, I think so-called “objective” morality has a bigger hurdle to clear. I mean, say that intuitions are merely a way of perceiving morality, which exists in some unspecified realm of ideas. Well, why should we follow it? Because morality is by definition the right thing to do? Well, holy question-begging, Batman! What if a person simply has no inclination towards being moral? This is not a merely theoretical question. Moral monsters do exist: psychopaths don’t care a whit about other people or the greater good. Any objective moral imperative for altruism would utterly fail to sway a psychopath. And what they seem to lack is not a faculty of abstract perception, but a faculty of empathy. Meanwhile, an appeal to fairness and altruism can convince those of us who are able to feel empathy. And yes, you may call empathy a kind of perception, but the point is that what it perceives is not morality, but others’ emotions, and is inextricably tied to feeling itself. So it seems pretty obvious from this that the relevant capacity here is one of feeling, not abstract perception. If, by nature, we lacked empathy completely, I can guarantee that our moral systems would be very, very different.

        Contingent as our natures are, the only possible argument for so-called objective morality that I can imagine is that humans were created so that their natures lined up with the values of the creator. But then, all we have established is a causal connection between our natures and this objective morality. In this scenario, what we actually perceive when we engage in moral reasoning is still our own natures; it’s just that they would happen to be in line with something you may call “objective morality”.

        • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

          I was purposefully not engaging the substance. I made, or meant to make, a pedantic point that moral intuition was not shown to “make” a thing right or wrong, only to recognize it. If human nature did make rather than merely recognize a moral precept, I do not see how the question of power does not follow. In any case, especially the last blockquote was meant a general case against relativism, an illustration that we all know there are some things we do not control, that we are playing fake crazy when we insist we do more than recognize transcendent principles no man change. I apologize if it didn’t follow.

          Since you’ve continued the conversation, I am happy to oblige!

          I affirm, in a general way, moral intuition. My problem with sola intution: Intuition is not infallible as you accurately demonstrate. Given man’s capacity to talk himself into whatever he wants rather than what is right, there needs to be some check and balance more our intuition. Men qua men know no untrammeled intuition.

          And what they seem to lack is not a faculty of abstract perception, but a faculty of empathy.

          I would say conscience instead, a larger principle that likely includes some attributes of what you mean by empathy.

          I think I take issue with this line of thought:

          Morality derives from intuitions which we cannot change, and which, as I said, are fairly universal.

          But then, all we have established is a causal connection between our natures and this objective morality.

          Greeks would agree, or so I’ve heard, but …

          In this scenario, what we actually perceive when we engage in moral reasoning is still our own natures …

          This, I think, is the sticking point. This presumes no active role of this Creator you presume.

  • Patrick

    “Is it only in the case of the moral law that studying it through a human lens means the phenomenon itself must be human-dependent?”

    First reply:

    You need to set out what the facts are that you’re trying to explain. Is your project “there exists a thing called moral law and I want to know more about it”?

    Or is your project, “human beings have feelings of moral rightness or wrongness in varying degrees under varying circumstances, and I wish to study this”?

    Otherwise I think you’re just going to obfuscate matters.

    Second reply:

    I think that if you demand that a moral system satisfy an infinite regress of why questions, you’re never going to be happy. I’m not aware of any proposed moral system, ever, that successfully satisfied that demand. Even straight up epistemology doesn’t satisfy infinite why regresses. That’s why we have Bayes.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    Human independent morality seems like an oxymoron to me. Morality is defined presicely with human beings in mind; you can’t say the same thing about mathematics. Did the Pythagorean theorem not “exist” before humans came around? Did 2 + 2 = 42 before the first sentient homonid? Our emotional or physiological reation to math shouldn’t have any effect on the timelessness of some mathematical axiom or theorems. That, I believe, is what makes it truly objective.

    As a counterpoint with morality, we all agree that rape, murder, etc. are immoral due to our human physiology. But what if our physiology were different? What if people couldn’t be maimed but simply grew back their limbs after being cut off? What if in some alternative evolutionary pathway female mammals could only be induced to ovulate if they had sex against their will? That would be rape, but it would also be absolutely necessary to have any offspring; imagine how much different human society, and our sense of morality, would be in that universe.

    We actually have a similar sort of morality to that in this universe: food. The only way we can live is if another living thing dies. I’m unaware of anyone 2,000 years ago being outraged at the consumption of other living things to live (there were scant vegetarians), yet imagine some sort of transhumanist future where we don’t need to eat other living things to live. People would probably see living thing consumption as immoral.

    So I think morality has to be defined by humans. Because morality is a reflection of culture and our physiology (maybe morality is culture?), both human-dependent things. The only morality that doesn’t take those things into account would be amoral.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

      As a counterpoint with morality, we all agree that rape, murder, etc. are immoral due to our human physiology.

      As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger during a Cheyenne ambush, “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

      Did 2 + 2 = 42 before the first sentient homonid?

      Correlatively, did gravity exist before Newton?

    • Daniel A. Duran

      “I asked Adam in the comment thread whether he thought morality differed in some fundamental way from mathematics or the physical reality of the world.”

      Morality and immorality differs from mathematical objects in that the former depends on rational and free agents for their existence and numbers do not.
      Morality differs from physical material reality again in that it needs a rational and free agent and “rational” and “free” are not properties of the material world. Frankly, if you are a naturalist or materialist the consistent thing to say is that there’s no such thing as moral good or evil, free-will or intellect.

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com DelphiPsmith

      So I think morality has to be defined by humans. Because morality is a reflection of culture and our physiology…both human-dependent things.

      +1 to that. Well said.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

        Distinguish, please, between the opinion “this outfit is modest” and the overarching moral law which says “be modest.” I have no interest in arguing the former sort, but instead only the latter.

      • deiseach

        Very well; morality is a matter of human physiology and cultural constructs.

        My culture keeps slaves, your culture does not. You tell me this is wrong – by what measure? I don’t beat, starve, rape or torture my slaves, so their physiology is as unharmed as that of a poor, free man in your culture. You tell me enslaving another person is wrong. I tell you that it may be wrong in your culture but we are currently living in mine, dear visitor, and so for as long as we are standing on my native soil, I am right and you are wrong.

        Unless you can appeal to an external, objective standard that “Human beings are not property, not even well-cared for, cherished property”, then I am free to keep slaves in my culture and you are free not to keep slaves in yours and neither one of us can say the other is wrong.

        • Patrick

          Leaving aside the fact that this argument is probably being used as a fallacy, lets go with it.

          I argue that there is an objective standard that “human beings are not property, not even well-cared for, cherished property.”

          Your reply: “No, you’re incorrect. The objective moral standard is that human beings ARE property, particularly when they’re well cared for.”

          How are we to resolve this dispute?

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            If your first paragraph has any meaning at all it is doubtlessly objectionable.

            And while I’m at stealing quips, that there is controversy about who a kids father is does not make us presume it has no father. So an argument about the objective moral standard being hard to ascertain ain’t impressin’ me much either.

          • Patrick

            But you just said that if “morality is a matter of human physiology and cultural constructs,” then certain things flow from that. You wrote,

            “Unless you can appeal to an external, objective standard that “Human beings are not property, not even well-cared for, cherished property”, then I am free to keep slaves in my culture and you are free not to keep slaves in yours and neither one of us can say the other is wrong.”

            I am pointing out that two people can each appeal to objective standards that contradict. In fact, this happens constantly. Why, if it is a problem that someone cannot appeal to an objective standard, is it not a problem if two people can appeal to contradictory objective standards with no objective means of determining which (if either) is true?

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            I am pointing out that two people can each appeal to objective standards that contradict. In fact, this happens constantly. Why, if it is a problem that someone cannot appeal to an objective standard, is it not a problem if two people can appeal to contradictory objective standards with no objective means of determining which (if either) is true?

            I totally agree with your first two sentences. I think the point which theists (or anybody else claiming an objective morality) would dispute is this last part (formatting added). Just because there is such a thing as a scientific fact does not mean two scientists cannot disagree about matters of science; merely that one is right and the other is wrong. Theists (typically) claim God as the origin of this objective morality, and say that by *insert religious instruction here*, you can discover and act on the will of that God- hence objective morality.

            And to preemptively respond to a point you will no doubt make- I agree that it’s really hard to make an argument for that kind of knowledge being “objective”

          • Patrick

            Jake- I probably wasn’t as clear as I should have been.

            Deiseach doesn’t realize it, but he basically just proposed an outsider test of morality, and insisted that an “objective” moral system would satisfy it. My answer was in the context of responding to that claim. “Follow our religion for a while and eventually the truth will become known to you” is only a valid answer to this problem if it is 1) true, and 2) no other religion can claim that if you follow it and perform its teachings, you will eventually perceive its claims to be true. But even if (1) is true, (2) is demonstrably false. So that answer is falsified as a response to the original problem he posed.

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            First some credit-fixing: While I agree with everything she said, it’s actually deiseach who said it and not me.

            OK, now to the main point: If upholding your objection requires her having proposed something without knowing it (and without it being reasonable interpretation of the text either) I think Friar Occam would recommend the simpler conclusion that your objection was a non sequitur.

            Actually she wasn’t talking about convincing people at all, just about the objective fact that without objective morality there is no way for the slaveholder to be wrong and the abolitionist to be right. You say that even if he is right the abolitionist will have a hard time convincing the slaveholder of that fact. And that’s true, such is the reality of sin clouding the intellect. But as true as it is it is also totally irrelevant, because you are talking debating tactics when deiseach was talking truth.

          • Patrick

            My apologies for mixing the two of you. That was my fault. I did, in fact, treat you both as if you were the same person developing the same argument across two posts, and my conclusion that she didn’t understand the point she was making was due to combining what you wrote with what she wrote earlier, and thinking it was the same person.

            That being said, you don’t understand what she wrote.

            She isn’t JUST arguing that there’s no way for one to be wrong and the other to be right. She’s also arguing this, which I quoted in full before, and will now quote in full again, this time with added capitalization for emphasis of the part that I think is most interesting:

            “Unless you can appeal to an external, objective standard that “Human beings are not property, not even well-cared for, cherished property”, then I am free to keep slaves in my culture and you are free not to keep slaves in yours and neither one of us can say the other is wrong.”

          • Patrick

            Ok… I fail at blogs. I hit enter to go to the next line of my post while the program’s focus was outside of the text box, and it posted. This is going to muddle things. Just ignore the above post, and take this as what I meant to write. I’m sorry about screwing things up in this manner twice in the same conversation.

            Deiseach also argues that people are “free to” do X if there’s no objective moral law against X. Unless she means this as a claim about whether the opponents of X can convince her to stop, there’s no way this comment makes any sense. So, I interpreted her post as a classic example of the trope of “if there’s no objective morality, you can’t convince people doing things we don’t like to stop doing those things.”

        • Ray

          “as long as we are standing on my native soil, I am right and you are wrong.”

          By what moral standard do you appeal to in order to justify the claim that the natives are the ones who get to decide what the rules are. That’s a normative stance too, and Delphi is by no means committed to it (although I’ll let him speak for himself mostly.)

          Seriously though, universally shared moral premises are not needed to persuade a single person. If you have any moral premises that lead to the desired conclusion, I can convince you of it, whether those premises are shared by third parties or not. Of course, sometimes even this isn’t satisfied and your stuck resorting to this sort of thing:

          “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” — Charles James Napier

          But humans are similar enough in their wants and needs, that usually this state of affairs is rare and temporary. If you show people there’s a better way to live, all but the oldest and most set in their ways will realize that they want to live that way too. If you can’t convince them your way is better, perhaps it isn’t.

    • ApuCalypso

      I think you pretty much nailed it in your last paragraph. Every kind of morality system in human history is a complex combination influenced by a large number of variables. All of those variables are essentially defined by humans, which is why, as cultures and societies change, so does their morality. Just because certain elements of a society claim that parts of that morality are given by some higher, non-human, power doesn’t mean they actually are. As what is considered moral in a given society changes, in due course mainstream religions will either adapt in some way to those changes, or accept a loss of a number of followers when its own moral teachings start diverging clearly from what is considered moral by society at large.

  • Ray

    I think the sort of human independence you are asking for in the case of morality is stronger than can be satisfied, even by mathematics. It’s fairly uncontroversial that the choice of axioms is almost entirely human dependent (some axioms are more useful than others for doing physics, which in turn is useful for satisfying certain particular human wants like transportation or medical technology, but I don’t think this is what you’re looking for.) Anyway, if you change the axioms for deciding what counts as moral, you pretty clearly have a different moral system.

    Furthermore, I know from previous statements you’ve made that you have more stringent requirements for what counts as assent to a moral proposition than what counts as assent to a mathematical proposition. All that’s required to assent to mathematical propositions is that you do *something* different when you see a true statement than a false statement. Perhaps you utter the words “that’s true” when you see a true statement. But even if you say “that’s false” for the true ones and “that’s true” for the false ones, you can make it absolutely clear that you understand what’s going on. On the other hand, you do not consider it possible to believe an action is immoral while doing it anyway. Thus you believe there is only one possible translation of moral truths into the language of action. On the other hand, assent to mathematical propositions can be expressed in any language you like as long as you do it consistently, and since any act of communication is itself an action, there is no unique correct translation of mathematical truths into the language of action.

    A final thought: human dependence seems really tricky to define in the case of knowledge, since something has to be *knowing* the difference between the true and the false, and if not a human, then what? We can make theorem provers that “know” the difference between true and false mathematical statements, and we’re fairly confident that sufficiently intelligent aliens could copy the behavior as well if they saw us doing it. We might even expect mutual agreement that the aliens had invented their own body of knowledge isomorphic to our mathematics. Nonetheless, what does intelligence mean here that is less human-dependent than “exhibiting behavior similar to human mathematicians?” What makes our expectation of similar intelligence in aliens any more of a metaphysical truth than the expectation that flying aliens would have wings similar to those of birds?

    • Ray

      Shorter version of my position on math:

      We invent axioms and definitions. We discover theorems. The theorems we are discovering are facts about the axioms and definitions we invented.

      (It doesn’t seem problematic to me to say that we can discover things about our inventions that we didn’t know when we invented them.)

      Likewise, in morality, we invent moral systems and discover the consequences thereof. Problem is, more than one moral system has been invented (it’s arguable that there are as many moral systems as there are people. Although, to be fair, there is plenty of overlap.) Thus, when people argue about the moral theorems they have discovered, it’s not clear they are talking about the same invented system of axioms. We don’t have this problem in math, because mathematicians have gone to a significant amount of effort to lay down their axioms and definitions in an unambiguous way and to publish them widely. It is only because of this that mathematicians know that they’re talking about the same thing when they dispute the truth of the Riemann hypothesis, say. Natural language terms like “moral,” “immoral” or indeed “orange,” “brown” and “off-white” have not gone through this process of standardization, hence the trouble with fuzziness around the edges.

  • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

    Ok, I guess I’ll play devil’s advocate :)

    If there is such a thing as an objective moral standard to which we all ought to adhere (which is the claim of pretty much all theists and more than a few atheists), then doesn’t this moral standard have to be independant of humans? While I agree that it seems like a moral standard has no bearing outside of the context of a self-aware moral agent who’s capable of taking action based on this moral standard, I’m not sure it follows that the moral standard does not or cannot exist without a human host. Certainly if we’re going the route of claiming a God (and in particular the relational triune God of Christianity) then morality can and does exist without Humanity. But even if we’re not, to claim that morality is Human-dependant seems to contradict the claim that morality is objective, and we get back to the traditional “How do you say your morality is better than ____’s” argument

    • Ray

      Depends what you mean by “objective moral standard” and “ought.” If you mean “objective” in the sense that rational humans can agree whether a given set of actions meet the proposed standard, regardless of their own personal preferences, all you have to do is write your rules unambiguously. Furthermore, if you define what a person “ought” to do as whatever conforms to the proposed standard, you’re done.

      I don’t think the objectivity provided by the above process is any weaker than the objectivity involved in defining a meter to be the distance light travels in 1/299792458 seconds. Of course, fewer people seem to agree on the definitions of terms like “moral” and “ought,” but this fact seems more political than metaphysical when phrased like this.

      Anyway, there is obviously no universally agreed upon moral standard in the world in which we live. However, this fact does not prevent me, or any collection of people, from defining a particular moral standard as the correct one and sticking to it (Much as the IAU did with the definition of the term “planet”.) Now that there is an agreed upon definition of “planet,” is the fact that there are 8 planets within 100AU an objective fact? If we don’t grant that agreement on definitions is sufficient for the objective truth of a statement that does not explicitly appeal to the desires of the speaker, are there any objective facts left?

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

    As I recall, the last time you ran a response to this essay, your reaction was precisely the opposite, that overall your disagreement with Adam was likely definitional. (I might not be reading carefully enough.)

    I have several points:

    1. Taking what Adam says for what it is, if he means only that we do not have shining tablets, then I think he absolutely overestimates the utility of clear signs from God — they rarely work. How often is Israel a faithless bride, after all? At least once does Jesus seem to grudgingly work a miracle for someone who wants only the miracle and does not really care for “putting on Christ.” You do not have to accept the authority of the Bible to admit that, supposing God exists as we say he does, this is very likely how men at all times and places would react to him, that if God really did come down to our level we’d execute him. (Cf. “the suffering servant,” against “the good man suffering.”)

    2. Suppose we live in a society whose baseline assumption is that there is no non-human moral agent, furthermore that morality is simply made. What prevents a sufficiently charming, clever and prideful strongman from usurping control? More to the point: What prevents him from keeping it? I take it as self evident that fascism is certainly wrong, but maybe Our Beloved Leader’s will to power will change even this. How will a society which truly buys into rule by “the morality we create” depose a despot? Will every nation be like Russia after 40 years of Soviet rule, as a whole not quite resisting or resenting but suffering nonetheless?

    Say what you will about rule with Christian assumptions, that it is a slow salve, none at all, or worse, but I think the effect of Christian principles is pretty evident from the slow, steady, no-turning-back transition from a working class of slaves to a working class of serfs to very nearly a working class of free citizens between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. Even as men in power were often corrupt and cruel, there were more and more limits, and some men in power resented this enough to fuel schism from the Church during the Reformation.

    3. Regarding his formulation of the triumph of the will, which is little more than the third chapter of Genesis upside down: It is precisely recognizing the transcendence of morality which limits human atrocity. For example, when the state decided heresy was a capital offense, the Church stepped in to moderate. But leave the moral power in the hands of only local, human authority and you have something different than the Inquisition, and something far more terrible: You have witch trials. In the hands of a larger authority you have pogroms and the Holodomor. I have no hope that even if we harnessed the whole of humanity as cloud computing harnesses a network we would suddenly find ourselves farther from, not closer to, the next great guillotine. We must at least behave like we have limits, that we are not the law unto ourselves. If we really find out that we were the sole source of morality, it would be the last thing we’d ever learn.

    4. If instead Adam only means that moral truth, which exists perfectly, can only be known imperfectly because it is through the intermediary of mere men, and from there constructs a case against this idea of morality, then he does a wonderful job. Against Protestants. However, against Catholics, the only Christians for the first millenium and most Christians in the second, this can only beg the question. (cf. Papal infallibility.)

    • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

      I think the effect of Christian principles is pretty evident from the slow, steady, no-turning-back transition from a working class of slaves to a working class of serfs to very nearly a working class of free citizens between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.

      Interesting to note, I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and one thing it demonstrates is how historically illiterate the above passage is. Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular had de facto control of Western society for many centuries, during which time it made no serious or concerted effort to abolish slavery. Indeed, what “Christian principles” could you possibly be referring to, given that both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible endorse slavery in no uncertain terms, and given that the medieval popes put their stamp of approval on it?

      As Pinker shows, the disappearance of slavery came about not slowly, but suddenly, during the period of two centuries or so generally referred to as the Enlightenment. Nothing about Christianity’s numbers or political power changed significantly in this time. What changed, rather, was the emergence of liberal humanism as a philosophical and political movement, bolstered by the invention of the printing press and the concomitant rise of mass literacy, which enabled people to imagine life from other people’s perspectives and to freely debate and discuss ideas in a way that had never really been possible previously. It was this widening circle of perspective that enlivened people’s consciences to the horrors and cruelties of slavery and made them decide to abolish it.

      For example, when the state decided heresy was a capital offense, the Church stepped in to moderate.

      Are you seriously making this claim? You want us to believe that the state just spontaneously decided, of its own accord, that heresy should be a crime, and the kind-hearted medieval church then stepped in and tried to moderate this cruel law? Friend, you are delusional.

      • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

        Pinker’s books are chock-full of errors and misrepresentations. I happen to like The Blank Slate, but that is despite its high error-per-page rate. Mike Flynn pretty much deflates The Better Angels of Our Nature in this post: http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2011/12/fun-with-statistics.html Basically Pinker’s stats are made-up crap. Enjoy his work if you like, but don’t trust it. It’s propaganda.

        It is a funny belief of Enlightenment enthusiasts that suddenly a light turned on and people became sane for the first time in history. One with a historical interest would wonder WHY that happened at that point (printing could help, but the ideas in the books are more important). For example the concept of a subjective right (“my right” not “this is right”) became a big deal in the Enlightenment. But that idea comes from 12th century Catholic canon law, as Brian Tierney explains in his book The Idea of Natural Rights: http://www.amazon.com/The-Idea-Natural-Rights-University/dp/0802848540/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334206052&sr=8-1

        “Humanism” doesn’t spring out of nowhere either, it has a history in the renaissance, and Catholic folks like Erasmus and St. Thomas More were rather into it. And come to think of it, the initial renaissance had a rather Catholic flavor to it as well.

        • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

          To be fair, Mike Flynn affirms the general thesis. He just destroys the methodology.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

        Christian principles? Well, imago Dei comes to mind. And proof-texting your Jefferson’s Bible won’t endear anyone.

        Slavery is a non-sequitur, considering the context of the observation was in the overall framework of society. Slavery was, shockingly, not essential to, say, the Hanse or even the earlier Medieval cities. For the first time in human history, it was a bug, not a feature. However, even ignoring this, there are several responses that could be made.

        1. Please cite a secular abolitionist. You’ll certainly be picking and choosing, and certainly against the grain.

        2. Notably, there were first millennium Church Fathers who questioned slavery — unprecedented, to say the least — and certainly Medieval Popes who spoke out strongly against it, too. Picking and choosing, again.

        3. The immediate question in hand for the Church in the Middle Ages was never massive social reform top-down. As evidenced by the Carolignian Renaissance, that sort of approach fails. Instead, the concern of all the saints though certainly not all the popes was the salvation of souls, on an individual level. If you want to think of it in modern terms, consider that it was a real grassroots effort, and successful, affording an accumulation of small changes which piled up. Slavery was flicked off in an instant, like a scab — my point is that there was real healing, if in other realms, done in those centuries prior that made this possible.

        You want us to believe that the state just spontaneously decided, of its own accord, that heresy should be a crime …

        No spontaneity about it. Considering first everyone’s favorite inquisition, remember the Spanish had just liberated their homeland from an invading force which by all appearances remained set on conquering the whole of Europe. It wasn’t until Lepanto and Vienna that the Saracens met a high-water mark, after all. Against the Cathars, the second worst inquisition, remember that the Cathars were a mustache and a bomb away from being Edwardian anarchists.

        Also consider that folks blasphemed deliberately to get to the Inquisitorial court. I could try and dig up a more robust source, but this is just an Internet comment.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

        Adam: My first and last points were not at all addressed, and I’d argue that the thrust of the middle two was similarly ignored.

      • deiseach

        “As Pinker shows, the disappearance of slavery came about not slowly, but suddenly, during the period of two centuries or so generally referred to as the Enlightenment.”

        Ah yes, when we think of abolitionism, we all think of William Wilberforce, the well-known humanist and liberal Christian – thank goodness he wasn’t one of those Bible-bashers who had a born-again experience and published religious treatises, or we’d never have made any progress!

        As for your bull “Dum Diversas”, someone has actually gone to the trouble of finding it, getting a translation from the Latin, and putting it in historical context. And yes, turning prisoners of war into indentured servants was not a great credit to the Church, but I’ll be more embarrassed about it when the busy eugenists of the 19th century who were doing their damnedest to prove scientifically that certain races of mankind were naturally inferior, and dragging Darwin’s evolutionary theory into it to bolster them up, are (1) acknowledged as their own the same way we Catholics are asked to acknowledge as our own the Crusades/the Spanish Inquisition/your bull “Dum Diversas” and (2) held up to as much public scorn by the free-thinking community.

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com DelphiPsmith

      I think the effect of Christian principles is pretty evident from the slow, steady, no-turning-back transition from a working class of slaves to a working class of serfs to very nearly a working class of free citizens between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance…

      I’m pretty sure this was a function of economics, not from Christianity. The rise of a powerful middle class has done more for democracy and human rights than religion ever has. Christianity had nearly 2000 years to outlaw slavery and it never did, not to mention women as chattel and other assorted nonsense.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

        I encourage you to read Women in the Days of the Cathedrals.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

        Come to think of it, the rise of a powerful middle class was exactly what I was referring to by describing the rise of slaves to serfs to vowed (and avowed) tradesmen. Read up on the Hanseatic League, for that matter — even just read Eifelheim, if you’re more of a fiction buff.

      • deiseach

        Why shouldn’t women be chattel? What universal objective exterior standard, rather than the changing currents of culture and society, make you say that?

        Maybe we’re smarter and better nowadays and know it’s wrong, but give me the standards by which you lay down that it is wrong for all times and all cultures, and how you measure these standards.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    “I’d be interested in your rules on what qualifies as human-independent (give examples!) and your thoughts on when we should care whether a truth-claim is human independent in the first place.”

    Leah, the sun does not depend on humans for its continued existence. Your computer would still to exist even if all humans disappeared right now. I take it that by mind independent you mean immaterial objects like numbers, am I correct?

    There are several classes of immaterial objects:

    1- things that lack physical extension such as mathematical objects.

    2- universals are immaterial but depend on objects for their continued
    existence: felinity and greenness would be examples of this (if you think universals are material, what is horseness made of? If you think universals are human-dependent, would the universal red cease to exist without humans thinking about them?)

    3- logical relations and propositions are immaterial as well.

    4- there are immaterial things that do not depend on physical organs for their continued existence such as the intellect and its corollaries, free-will, morality, the ability to perform abstractions, etc. I know that you said to mention things that do not depend on humans beings but I do not think angels or God are humans beings. It does not matter if they exist or not, you can treat them as possible or potential immaterial beings if you like.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

    It sounds like, by writing and thinking about morality, humans are tainting the whole system with our subjectivism…

    That’s pretty much a good representation of the nut of his argument, I think. It reminds me of Protestant dogma. “Snow-covered dung heap” and “totally depraved” and the like. It’s not for nothing that one of Mike Flynn’s far-future sci-fi novels had a character refer to the half-remembered Richard Dawkins as a “Calvinist prophet.”

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com DelphiPsmith

    I’d be interested in your rules on what qualifies as human-independent (give examples!) and your thoughts on when we should care whether a truth-claim is human independent in the first place.

    I guess my definition of “human-independent” would be something that’s objectively testable, and which when tested by different people yields the same (or nearly the same) results. So: Pythagorean theorem=human independent. Quality of programming on SpikeTV=human-dependent. Law of gravity=human independent. Laws about marriage=human-dependent.

    By that definition, morality is definitely human-dependent because it’s not objectively testable, and in any given situation two “good” people may disagree on the right course of action.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    Hm. Didn’t we discuss this once before?

  • http://liseusetheloverofreading.wordpress.com/ Natalie

    Saying “no god” is like saying “no gravity.”

    Explaining three dimensionalism to a two-dimensional page.

    At any rate, believing that a glowing tablet descended from the skies millenia ago is not far from believing random specks exploded to create our universe (and essential selves) millenia ago.

    Just sayin..

    • @b

      Is that third-dimension to account for acts of God?

      Religions have no way to convince each other that a specific historical miracle was in fact a fact. That whole dimension is conjecture.

      Religions readily accepted the profound academic discovery that our universe in fact wasn’t eternal; it had a beginning. Now religions are rejecting the authority of physicists and their discovery that a Big Bang isn’t a fluke event, just normal subatomic physics.

  • Pingback: We Go Together / Like Essence and Telos / Doo-bop a doo-bee doo | Unequally Yoked

  • http://www.smidoz.wordpress.com Smidoz

    I eventually got bored reading the comments (with papal primacy, and other such nonsense, so I hope I’m not repeating, something that’s already been said.

    I find the human-dependent/independent morality a little difficult to work with. Within a religious framework, it seems ok, since there would be other moral agents, but within an naturalistic framework it’s a little more difficult to understand, since the only moral agents, as far as we know would be people. The subjective/objective morality is a debate I find myself in more often, and it seems to get down to the issue better. Is morality a subjective human experience, or an objective reality? Is your right right just because that’s how you perceive it, and nobody else has the right to tell you otherwise or not. This bothers me, and I generally find myself being shouted down, since, as a Christian, people generally think I’m arguing for an absolute morality.

    I never thought of maths as an analogy, but I’m not a mathematician, I’m a linguist, so I’ve always used language as an analogy. Like morality, language is changeable, that is, over time language may change, the way it’s used may change, but ultimately the goal is the same, communication. In order for communication to take place, the various aspects of language must be objective, otherwise people would understand each other. I generally have little problem substituting language and aspects of language into arguments for subjective morality, yet language is not subjective.

    Morality, basically defined, has to do with rules of right and wrong behaviour. Throughout history, and regardless of geography, the same basic premise has driven the formation of laws, the well being of society. It was seen as right to murder and burn babies in order to please the gods, since this would attain the best result for the society as a whole. As times have changed so have laws, but never the premise that it what is best for society, the lethal injection probably isn’t best for the person getting it, but it may serve benefits to society, but I think you’d have a hard time arguing that it does. Nowadays, we have an idea of morality and it’s relationship to personal freedoms, but without those freedoms, we’d have more uprisings, like the Arab spring, so even the person freedoms and protections found in modern law books, haven’t much deviated from the premise that seemed to drive Hammurabi’s code or any other major legal document of old.

    I feel that like language, moral rules will change over time, but the ultimate purpose won’t change. Objective? Yes. Measurable? Yes. Human-independent? Within a completely naturalistic paradigm, I doubt it.

    • http://www.smidoz.wordpress.com Smidoz

      Sorry, a couple of typos, but the most glaring being that if language was subjective, people wouldn’t be able to understand each other.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X