Objective Morality and Hard to Get at Truths

Bob Seidensticker has been checking out C.S. Lewis, and he’s put up a post explaining why he still doesn’t think it makes sense to talk about morality as objective.  I’m going to reply over here, but I’d love to have Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist step in and backstop me.

You see, back when Hemant and I were scrapping on Justin Brierley’s radio show, Hemant agreed with me that the Taliban are flat out wrong about the moral status of women, as wrong as people who think the earth is flat.  I was trying to press him on where the yardstick or rulebook or whatnot comes from, such that we can say that we more closely resemble this external standard than does the Taliban.  We didn’t settle the question in an hour.

But Bob Seidensticker diverges from Hemant and me one step further back.  While we’re arguing about what kind of thing the yardstick is, Bob denies it exists at all.  (I’m tempted to say he denies the cat).  He writes:

“Right” and “wrong” come with an implied point of view. I’m happy to say that the Nazis were wrong, but when I do so, the word wrong is grounded in my point of view. (Kind of obvious, right? I mean, whose point of view would I be using but my own?)

That statement is simply a less clumsy version of, “The Nazis were wrong according to Bob.” There is neither a need to imagine nor justification for an absolute standard.

…Like Lewis, I insist that you keep your commitments to me, that you follow the basic rules of civility, and so on. When you don’t, I’m annoyed not because you violated an absolute law; you violate my law. It ain’t much, but it’s all I’ve got, and that’s enough to explain the morality we see around us.

It’s funny that this comes up right after we were talking about E-Prime.  E-Prime strikes “to be” and all it’s conjugations to remove some illusions that we’re talking about a shared reality.  Truer to say “I feel that X is wrong” or “X makes me feel icky” than to just go round asserting truths everyone may not assent to. (E-Prime does allow “should” “ought” “must” and other normative verbs, though).

Before you can ask, Bob’s already taken a good hard bite of the Nazi bullet in the comment thread, so I’ll have to attack on a different front.  Let’s go back to Lewis.  One point Lewis brings up in Mere Christianity is that we treat supposedly subjective moral opinions very differently than we treat subjective aesthetic opinions or other mere preferences.

I have to tell people that I care if they wear shoes in my home, because that’s a preference we think people can reasonably vary on.  But I generally don’t think it’s necessary to tell people I’d prefer they not steal my shoes, since I have a strong expectation that they know that rule already.  It’s not just my law.

And even if you slot an awful lot of things into the “preference” category, when I slide up a meta-level and ask whether thwarting people’s preferences is a ok thing to do for its own sake, there’s a darned near universal intuition that the answer is no.

This agreement could be a matter of coincidence.  It’s easy to think of widespread consensus that turned out to be untrue (the geocentric solar system comes to mind).  But Bob is asserting something much stronger; he’s claiming that we can’t even ask if consensus is correlated with anything, since there’s nothing for the consensus to be true about.  I think the standard of proof he sets to check if our map actually has a territory to correspond to is impractically high.  His criteria is going to box out a lot of useful kinds of objective amoral truth.  Take a look:

To the person who insists that objective morality exists, I say: show me. Take a vexing moral issue—abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, capital punishment, sex before marriage, torture, and so on—and show us the objectively true moral position. If you want to say that objective morality exists but it’s not reliably accessible, then what good is it? This kind of objective morality that looks nonexistent might as well be.

I can think of some objective truths that exist but aren’t reliably accessible.  At one end of the scale is Russell’s teapot (there either is or is not a teapot in orbit around the Sun somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Mars).  That truth might be hard for us to verify, but our uncertainty doesn’t shape reality.  The teapot either really exists or really doesn’t.  (And we can make some educated guesses without any direct observations based on our prior beliefs about the world).  So, the truth of the teapot is fairly inaccessible, but it still is either true or false.  We just don’t much more about this question than we do about the exact number of socks currently in the DC metro area.  (An answer exists, but it’s not very salient).

But moral law, if it exists, is extremely salient.  If Bob’s main objection is that morality cannot be objective because our access to it is too imperfect and that’s unfair, then he’s really bringing up a theodicy problem — an argument against the existence God, not against some kind of objective moral rule.  Absent an agent to help bridge the gap between humans and moral law, there’s no reason we can’t just endlessly transgress out of ignorance, like a race of Oedipuses.

After all, physics and math are interesting, relevant, human-independent, and quite difficult to access.  Plenty of  physics questions were untackleable until our instruments got better.  And even as we learn more, a lay consensus is slow to emerge.

Physical laws may be true, but we aren’t forced to notice them.  When I look at an object, I immediately perceive its color, but not other facts about its physical existence (like that it’s made of quarks).  My knowledge of the physical world is limited, but with a good epistemology and more data, I can make it more accurate.  I can talk about becoming more accurate only insofar as there’s something the model in my head can more accurately resemble.

If Bob doesn’t think there’s some external standard that his personal understanding of morality can grow to more perfectly resemble, then I’m really baffled about how he approaches new questions.  Is the goal just to more perfectly and consistently live out your essentially arbitrary moral preferences?  Because then how did authenticity sneak  in as a universal virtue here?  (I’m reminded of Bobby’s fatalism as an excuse for inaction in Company).

As it stands, I don’t understand why Bob feels a particular loyalty to his arbitrary moral preferences.  Any debating atheist knows that we’re running on buggy hardware, and that humans unique in that we are the only creature that can study our programming and subvert it.  There’s no reason for Bob to treat his moral preferences as any more sacred or central to his identity than his gastronomic preferences.  Either set could be maladapted to his current environment, and it’s worth poking around to see if he can come up with something better.  Does he really think we’re powerless in the face of these questions?

In his framework, we seem to be little wind-up dolls.  We can’t direct our moral development, not because of a lack of power, but because there’s nothing to direct it towards.  The only reason we should follow the dictates of our conscience is because it makes us feel uncomfortable when we don’t.  That’s the same kind of discomfort we feel when we see a snake-shaped stick and don’t run, or when we see someone weird/unexpected looking and shudder.  There’s no higher demand in Bob’s metaphysics that pulls us off the path of least resistance.

 

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative 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."

  • http://animavoluminis.blogspot.com Timothy Davis

    Most people worth talking to assume there is truth in the realm of reasoning and logical deduction. Some might say there is an analogous sort of truth in the natural sciences (even though the theories put forward by the natural sciences can never, strictly speaking, be verified, only further confirmed). Some fewer claim there is a truth in moral judgments. Now the only way I can see to deny this is if we claim no action is preferable to another, and rigorously hold to this assertion. In fact, I have never seen anyone to do so – The Friendly Atheist being an obvious example. His metaphysics clearly does not support the claim he makes: that the Taliban is simply wrong in its treatment of women. And even if one were to hold to this claim that no action is superior to another, it still might admit of refutation, depending on our reading of Aristotle’s Metaphysics Γ.4 and 5.

    • jose

      “Some fewer claim there is a truth in moral judgments. Now the only way I can see to deny this is if we claim no action is preferable to another”

      There’s an easier way: to claim that moral statements have no truth value at all, like questions, suggestions, encouragements and exhortations. Thus values are rooted in people, not in external things and actions. We’re all different. We care about different things. We’re also all human, so we share some grounds. Diversity of values is allowed in this view, the same way diversity of opinions is encouraged in other aspects of our lives. For example, would Leah or Fincke say that since politics aren’t human-independent, there is no justified reason not to vote for the other guy?

      We talk about a supernatural realm of moral essences, but what we see down on planet earth is people with different values getting along by compromising, negotiating and reaching agreements. I say we don’t tell the patient he’s dying, so he dies happy because he’s afraid of death; you say we tell the patient, so he won’t live his last days deceived by a false hope. I care about his happiness, you care about his right to know. Which one is demonstrably invalid? Which one is permeated by the essence of Justice (or Goodness or whatever virtue platonics would apply here)? Should we lie to maximize his well-being, flourishing levels or any other metrics utilitarians may choose to use?

      This approach says those are suggestions, not descriptions, so truth doesn’t apply to them. The sentence “Let’s do this” can’t be true or false. So we work it out and life goes on. In more extreme cases, we can’t work it out. If nations can’t work out their differences, a war takes place. This is everyday stuff really. Seems odd to me that people dismiss the way morality actually is applied in real life in order to propose moral Russell teapots that must exist for some reason.

  • Tom

    It would seem to me that if morality isn’t objective, then the most horrifyingly immoral statement, say, “Kicking puppies and taking candy from babies are the cornerstones of a moral life,” can’t be any worse than, “Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ is vastly superior to Mozart’s ‘Requiem,’” or “‘Batman and Robin’ is the greatest superhero film ever. ‘The Dark Knight’ seems like it was made by a fourteen year old writing fanfiction.”

    You can’t objectively prove the last two statements are false. If someone does believe them, all we can do is leave them to watch Bat-nipples and blast Rebecca Black Why not with morality, if it’s subjective?

    The “affecting other people” argument doesn’t apply if the person in question’s morality doesn’t object to that, according to the same principle of subjectivity.

    • deiseach

      Why does it matter if it affects other people? If the only statement we can make is “The Nazis/torture/stealing is wrong, according to Bob”, then why should I care about Bob? I had my purse stolen once, so would I have been justified in turning around and stealing someone else’s purse to replace my loss?

      We can’t point to a block of “justice” or a astronomical position for the asteroid of “right”, but if we fall back on “Whoever has the biggest gun makes the rules”, then we have to admit that we have no right to arrest and imprison serial killers for any other reason other than we don’t want to be their next victim (and if I am not the type that this particular killer likes to torture and mutilate, why do I have any duty to my fellow citizens to call the police or otherwise inconvenience myself?)

      • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

        can you even use the word justified? what if your morality was that purses are common property to be used by whoever happens to pick them up?

        • deiseach

          Then my morality is to whack your morality over the head with my handbag, you lousy thieving swine that robbed me in the shopping centre so I had to find a public phonebox and reverse the charges to get my brother to drive all the way to tje city to pick me up because my bus ticket, bank cards, weeks’ wages and library card were all in there, you swine.

          Why no, I am not still bitter ten years later, why do you ask?

    • Steve

      Tom… I’ll tollerate a lot, but I won’t tollerate blasphemy…

      To even suggest as a hypothetical that ‘Batman & Robin’ is the greatest superhero movie ever is inexcusable, even as a joke. Shame on you sir. For Shame!

      Seriously though, judging the value or ‘betterness’ of artistic works is ultimately a subjective thing, even if there is an overwhelming consensus that one, say ‘the Godfather’, is superior to another, ‘Battlefield Earth’. While it is difficult to see how this subjectiveness might apply to ethics, the same idea applies. Even if there is overwhelming consensus that something is ‘wrong’, even to the point of making that value effectively objective, these judgements still are per subjective the tastes of the individual.

      • Tom

        But then ultimately, there’s no sense getting worked up about people with different moral values, no matter how abhorrent you may find them. The most pressing questions of morality are, to continue the entertainment metaphor, nothing more than Metallica vs. Megadeth or Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

        The only way that someone could logically devote his or her life to fighting for certain moral values, according to this theory, would be if they directly affect that person, and even that’s only based on “I want the maximum amount of what’s good for me.” It would be profoundly illogical for somebody in America to fight for the end of human rights abuses in China, or for the end of the civil war in Darfur, or the equality of women in Afghanistan.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Good post! I have also responded to Bob here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2012/10/6780.html

    • Erick

      I really like this post from Fr. Dwight. And I like how he clearly states the very first evidence of objective morality: Existence.

      Existence is morally good. How do we know? Because from any philosophical school you approach it with, its truth stays as is — There is existence. Independent of us, there is existence as opposed to non-existence.

      • Niemand

        So, the big bang was a moral good.

        • deiseach

          Sounds about right to me :-)

        • Erick

          In a way yes. The fact that there was a big bang constitutes a (literally) universal choice for existence – whether its a decision made by God or some atheistic cosmological evolutionary choice doesn’t matter. Whether you believe in a God or not, choosing to exist therefore must be good, because if it wasn’t then there should be nothing in existence. Morality at its very base is just the choice to do what promotes good. The first good being existence.

          • Alan

            You are just begging the question – you assume that what is (in some universal sense) is good therefor existence is good. Why does the ‘universal choice for existence’ have to be a good choice? Why couldn’t there be a choice to exist that is neutral or even bad?

          • Erick

            The concept of “good” is a relative term. But existence is an objective truth. There is no denying existence. There is a universe. Therefore, there is something instead of nothing. So, however you define “what is good”, existence must fit it, because there is existence. For example, if you are utilitarian, then existence must be a utilitarian good, because there is existence.

          • Erick

            Forgot to add… If existence is “good” regardless of how you define “what is good”, then existence is an objective good.

          • butterfly5906

            @Erick
            Couldn’t we also say:
            The concept of “evil” is a relative term. But existence is an objective truth. There is no denying existence. There is a universe. Therefore, there is something instead of nothing. So, however you define “what is evil”, existence must fit it, because there is existence. For example, if you are utilitarian, then existence must be a utilitarian evil, because there is existence.

            What am I missing?

          • Erick

            @ butterfly5906

            Evil is not, strictly speaking, a relative term. Evil is always defined as “what is not good”. You only think evil is relative, because good is relative.

            Evil is not an independent concept. Evil is defined always in relation to good in the same manner that cold is defined in relation to heat. So you cannot actually have a definition of evil (no matter how relativistic you are) without first defining what is good. This is because evil is merely “what is not good”, just as cold is just “a lacking of heat”.

          • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

            @Erick: What do you mean by “good is a relative term”? Relative to what? For that matter, what do you mean by “Evil is not, strictly speaking, a relative term.” You go on to say that “Evil is defined always in relation to good….”

            I want to reply to your other statements, but I’m afraid I’d be tilting with a straw man unless I understand where you’re coming from on this point.

          • Erick

            @ Robert King

            To answer your questions, I was allowing for Bob’s argument. For Bob, good is a concept that depends on POV. This is what I mean by it’s relative. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

            Even if we allow for Bob’s argument that the meaning of good depends on POV, evil still has just one true definition – what is not good. Having only one definition means evil is not, strictly speaking, a relative term.

            Evil only has this one true definition, because evil and good are not two separate scales. Good and evil are really just one concept, just as heat and cold are really just one concept. When we say something is cold, we really mean it’s a certain low level of heat. When we say something is evil, we really mean it’s a certain low presence of good.

            So, if I read Fr. Dwight and Natural Law as he put it correctly, the problem with Bob’s analysis is the fact that there is existence. Existence is required for any and all POVs of good, so existence must be an objective good.

            As an aside, notice that, even if I allow for the evil argument brought by butterfly5906, there is still an objective morality – there is a concept that is objectively evil.

          • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

            @Erick: I understand now. Thanks!

            Re: the big bang, I think it’s important to note that “good” (and, for that matter, “evil”) can be used in a variety of senses. So I’m not sure I would say that the big bang is a “moral good.” A moral good I take to be one that involves an action by a person endowed with intellect and will, that is, a choice made by someone who can choose, and has responsibility for the choice. But the big bang is an event of nature, or perhaps a thing (if you consider it to be the universe in toto at the beginning of time), which is good exactly insofar as it exists according to its nature. So I would call it an ontological good, but not a moral good.

            To call it a moral good would presume that the big bang was the act of creation by a creator, and that is another question entirely. Even within Christianity, I think, we would distinguish between the act of creation (a moral act) and the event itself (an ontological act). This is why Catholic moral theology focuses on the act intended by the agent, rather than on the outcome or consequence: only the intended act – whether it succeeds or fails at achieving its intention – is a moral act. The outcome or consequence of the act is good or evil ontologically, that is, it fulfills its nature to a greater or lesser degree, but it is not itself responsible for its act.

            So, I think we can say that existence is objective, and I think we can grant that good is “relative” in the sense that something good is only good if it is good *for* someone, so it depends on a person. The trick is finding the connection between existence and good, the bridge between “is” and “ought”.

            It seems to me that teleology (which is largely what Natural Law theorists mean by “nature”) is the bridge, or at least the foundations of the bridge.

          • Alan

            Erick – that is just a string of words put together. I could just as easily say that the true definition of ‘good’ is anything that leads to a lack of existence – it is a relative term as you say and that definition does account for the objective truth that their is existence.

            You are just begging the question – what ever good is it must include what is, existence is therefor it is good.

            And when you say “Evil is always defined as “what is not good”” – why can’t it be said that Good is always defined as ‘what is not evil’. Why can’t evil be the independent concept and good the dependent one?

          • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

            @Alan – not to jump on Erick’s toes here, but I’ll offer a quick answer: it is possible to have good without evil; but it is not possible to have evil without good. Evil is dependent on good – even if evil is taken as a positive quality, such as destruction or harm or cruelty. How can you be cruel if there is nothing good to be cruel to? How can you be cruel if there is no justice or charity or kindness to offend against?

            On the other hand, good is not merely an absence of evil any more than light is an absence of darkness. Good does not require evil to make it exist, much less to make it good. Music may be the clearest example: most people find music enjoyable, desirable, good. There is no need for discord or cacophony to enjoy music. Likewise with moral acts: there is no need for an injustice in order for there to be justice, or a cruelty in order for there to be kindness. I can bring my grandmother flowers, or pay my employees’ wages, without needing to refer to some evil.

            This is why good is traditionally defined as the goal which all things seek, while evil is defined negatively, as the absence or distortion or destruction of a good.

          • Alan

            Robert – Can’t I also bring my grandmother rotten fruit or take a little extra out of my employees paychecks as ‘withholding’ without referring to some good?

            I don’t need something good to be cruel to – something of neutral value will do. In fact, all I need is existence so since existence is all that is necessary for evil existence must be evil itself.

          • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

            @Alan – are you just being a contrarian troll? Or do you really think that you can substitute “evil” for “good”?

            If the latter, and if you really are trying to make a point, then please explain what you mean by “evil,” what its positive definition is. At present, your responses are making no sense to me.

          • Alan

            The entirety of my point is that existence is not inherently good in itself simply because without it humanity, or anything we may call ‘good’, wouldn’t exist. It only becomes good when we assert it as so because we feel some need to justify our own existence.

          • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

            So you are saying that “good” does not refer to any reality, that it is merely a category of the mind? Do I understand you correctly?

  • Ashley

    “There’s no reason for Bob to treat his moral preferences as any more sacred or central to his identity than his gastronomic preferences.There’s no reason for Bob to treat his moral preferences as any more sacred or central to his identity than his gastronomic preferences.”

    Yes there is, and you provided that reason earlier in your post: moral questions are more salient. Moral decisions are more important to our well-being, our place in society, and our relationship with others than whether we like curried chicken or chicken fried steak. That’s also relevant to an earlier point you raised:

    “I have to tell people that I care if they wear shoes in my home, because that’s a preference we think people can reasonably vary on. But I generally don’t think it’s necessary to tell people I’d prefer they not steal my shoes, since I have a strong expectation that they know that rule already. It’s not just my law.”

    Societies in which people disagree about where shoes should be worn can get along just fine. Societies in which people disagree over whether or not stealing is ok probably didn’t prosper. We have some examples of tribal societies in which a lot of property was shared freely, but we don’t see that in larger civilizations. Do small tribes have different objective morals than larger societies? Or is it simply that larger groups lack the familial and group connections that make that kind of sharing feasible?

    We have a pretty good though still young scientific understanding of the origins of moral behavior. This understanding fits what we know about biological and cultural evolution, human psychology, and human history. If you’re going to claim that there’s some kind of objective morality, you need to show it. You need to give us some hypotheses that show how we reach these objective truths. Who’s right and who’s wrong about embryonic stem cells and pre-marital sex, and how did you arrive at that? Right now, objective morals are in a worse position than Russell’s teapot. While we might not be able to prove that there’s not a teapot, in principle we could prove that there is one. With objective morality, we can’t even do that.

    • leahlibresco

      Thanks for commenting, Ashley. “Prosper” usually carries a normative implication, and we’re arguing about whether we’re justified in using normative language at all. I think moral questions are salient because we’re able to get them wrong. Bob doesn’t think there are any wrong answers. Is a desire for long life or stable society an aesthetic choice? Vikings longed for the chance to die gloriously in battle, so a peaceful society would be, to them, one that inhibited flourishing.

      I can only talk about prospering/flourishing in the context of a moral ideal, which is exactly what Bob says is out of bounds.

      • Ashley

        I don’t agree with the idea that we can only use normative language if moral questions are right or wrong. Evolutionary biologists use terms such as design and purpose all of the time as shorthand, not because evolution actually has purpose or follows a design. Our languages favor that mode of thought, and it’s really cumbersome to constantly say “the liver has evolved such that it filters toxins from our blood” instead of “the purpose of the liver is to filter our blood”.

        Normative language serves the same role even for people who don’t believe there are any shoulds or oughts.

        I really don’t understand your statement that “I think moral questions are salient because we’re able to get them wrong.” The example you provided in your post of a non-salient question was the number of socks currently in the DC area, which is clearly a question we can get wrong. I’m sorry if that seems nitpicky, but I find that confusing.

        Finally, I don’t think the word prosper has to be normative. Surely we can talk about societies growing and persisting without bringing in any moral context. I think your example illustrates what I’m talking about: the Vikings and the Spartans revered combat and glorious bloody death. How’d that work out for them versus more peaceful societies? Societies that have balanced peace and war have grown more and lasted longer than societies that don’t or can’t fight and ones that do nothing but. I don’t think that it’s just a coincidence that most of us embrace that approach today.

        • Irenist

          “I don’t agree with the idea that we can only use normative language if moral questions are right or wrong. Evolutionary biologists use terms such as design and purpose all of the time as shorthand, not because evolution actually has purpose or follows a design.”
          That seems reasonable to me. But what when you unpack normative language from its shorthand forms, what do words like “salient,” “good,” and so forth, mean for you?

          • Ashley

            Completely unpacked (and of course assuming we’re talking about morality and not just equivocating) they simply refer to the moral judgments and reasoning that we’ve ended up with through the historical process that has led to the society we have. Stealing is wrong because the society we live in (and the individuals in that society) has come to disapprove of stealing through some complex historical process that may have been influenced by cultural, biological, and environmental factors.

            Damn, that’s a mouthful. Stealing is bad! So much easier. I suspect this is similar to the observation that while “lightning bolts are thrown from the sky by Zeus” is actually a much more complicated idea than modeling lightning with Maxwell’s equations, the former is much easier to say and explain than the latter.

          • Irenist

            I think I’m misunderstanding you. Let me try to apply your unpacking to show why:

            So the reason the Taliban’s treatment of women is wrong is because because the Western society we live in (and the individuals in that society) has come to disapprove of the Taliban’s behavior through some complex historical process that may have been influenced by cultural, biological, and environmental factors. In other words, “because WE say so.”

            That doesn’t seem like a very useful ethical framework. So I feel like I’m missing some of what you’re getting at.

          • Ashley

            Irenist, I think the misunderstanding we’re having is that you’re talking about ethical frameworks and I’m talking about the origin of ethics and morality. I do think “because we say so” is more or less what ethical judgments ultimately mean, but that’s not a moral framework. A statment that the liver is the product of a billion-year process of random mutations and natural selection is true, but that doesn’t tell us anything about what the liver does or how to treat it when it’s malfunctioning (or even what “malfunctioning” means in the context of the liver).

            Moral decision-making and moral frameworks encompass much more than just a rational position on the origins and objectivity of morality. For instance, when I was three my mother was holding my newborn sister in her lap. I was very jealous that she was holding her and not me, so I bit my sister as hard as I could. My sister started sobbing, my mother spanked me, I started sobbing, then my mom started sobbing because she thought she had hit me too hard, and we all sat there in a puddle of tears. I have no doubt that that incident factors far more heavily into how I respond to feelings of jealousy than my opinion on objective morality.

          • Irenist

            “I think the misunderstanding we’re having is that you’re talking about ethical frameworks and I’m talking about the origin of ethics and morality.”
            Hmm. In other words, I think, you’re saying that your position is something like “It is a fact that all human morality is just a contingent product of the interplay of biology and culture, and there is no objective morality that allows us to make non-contingent value judgments.”
            And what I’m saying in response to that is:
            Okay, the evolutionary history of animal livers tells us little of medical use. Just so the evolutionary history of morality. Given your view of what morality reduces to, how on earth do you go about the process of moral reasoning? What, for you, does moral reasoning look like? Now that I know how you (and I) think the liver evolved, what does the practice of liver treatment look like in a world where medicine (to stretch your metaphor) is just a matter of personal preference with no best practices? How do you examine your life without ethics?

          • Ashley

            “Given your view of what morality reduces to, how on earth do you go about the process of moral reasoning?”

            My view of morality, whether or not it is objective, and so on, doesn’t really factor into my moral reasoning. I act as if my moral assumptions and frameworks are more or less universal, and go from there. I doubt my process differs substantially from most people, assuming most people are not virtue ethicists.

          • Irenist

            “I act as if my moral assumptions and frameworks are more or less universal, and go from there.”
            Fair enough. But isn’t it a kind of bad faith to act “as if” you thought your assumptions are universal, if in fact they aren’t? It seems to me like the ethical-reasoning equivalent of a Jamesian pragmatism that believes in an unbelievable God just because it seems to conduce to happier living.

          • Ashley

            I don’t think it’s bad faith. First of all, just because I don’t consider my morality to be absolute doesn’t mean I value it less. I do hope it helps me inject a little bit of humility into ethical and political fights, but otherwise there is a kind of society I want to live in, and I’m passionate about it. I’ve never felt the need to insist that my values be universal.

            The other factor is that it’s just damn hard to behave any differently, and I don’t see that forcing myself to think in those terms would affect my moral decision-making anyway. Let’s say I consistently focus on the arbitrary nature of moral assumptions. Regardless, I still end up starting from the same place when I make moral decisions.

    • Irenist

      Ashley, you use lots of terms that your own theory makes nonsense of:
      “moral questions are more salient.”
      In your subjective view of salience?
      “Moral decisions are more important”
      In your subjective view of importance?
      “to our well-being,”
      In your subjective view of well-being?
      “Societies in which people disagree about where shoes should be worn can get along just fine.”
      Fine by what metric?
      “Societies in which people disagree over whether or not stealing is ok probably didn’t prosper.”
      Prosper by what metric?
      “We have a pretty good”
      Good in what way?
      “you need to show it. You need to give us some hypotheses”
      Why does she need to do anything?
      “objective morals are in a worse position”
      Worse how?
      Lastly, I’d note that the fact that we can theorize about the adaptive landscape that promoted altruism in human tribes no more makes morality subjective than our ability to theorize about the evolutionary origins of eyesight makes telescopic astronomy subjective. Moral truth exists. We have evolved a brain that partially perceives it. What’s so unlikely about that?

      • Ashley

        You can read my response to Leah above. I’m using prosper to mean a society that spreads, grows, and persists. That’s not a subjective standard and it has no normative implications. Once you understand that, most of your objections dissolve. For instance, disagreeing over where shoes can be worn has no impact on whether a society spreads or persists. Societies where people disagree over stealing are not likely to spread or persist.

        “Good in what way?” That seems like a pretty obtuse question, but I’ll bite. “Good” in this context means accurate.

        “you need to show it. You need to give us some hypotheses”
        Why does she need to do anything?” I presume Leah is trying to convince people that she’s right. That generally requires people to do things.

        “Moral truth exists. We have evolved a brain that partially perceives it. What’s so unlikely about that?” The problem is not that moral truth is unlikely, it’s that no one seems to have any idea how to even describe what moral truths are, where they come from, how to access them, or how to dissolve moral disputes. We’re not even close to being able to determine the odds.

        • Irenist

          Thanks for your response, Ashley. I was being a bit obtuse, as you said above, in my earlier post. Sorry about that.
          “I’m using prosper to mean a society that spreads, grows, and persists. That’s not a subjective standard and it has no normative implications.”
          Okay. But why should we care if society prospers, then? Or is it just a brute fact that most of us do care, and are therefore predisposed to cooperate toward that end? Further, various unpleasant regimes have spread, grown, and persisted for quite for decades at least. If living under those regimes, would someone with your viewpoint have any moral ground from which to challenge those regimes? In other words, if theism has to answer for Euthyphro, I think relativism has to find an answer to Antigone.

          • Ashley

            Actually let me apologize for the “obtuse” remark. Under my system of no absolute moral truths, it was rude and uncalled for.

            I’m trying to think of a concise way to answer your question. I think there are limits to what we can say in a moral context, just as radical skepticism puts hard and so far unrefuted limits on knowledge claims. However, radical skepticism hasn’t stopped us from saying a whole hell of a lot of things about the universe that we can’t actually know exists. We can talk about morals and use normative language, but ultimately it all rests on assumptions that are not themselves morally justifiable and that are not universal. Like mathematical axioms, they aren’t right or wrong, but they can lead to different geometries.

            So do we have moral grounds to challenge regimes? Yes, but only in the context of our personal moral assumptions. That’s the only context in which moral questions even make sense. Now, that makes me a little uncomfortable, but I think it’s true.

            Of course, all of that is mostly irrelevant to actual moral decision-making. Day-to-day I still think of the eye as “designed” and right and wrong as pretty much absolute categories. I think the big inputs for most people are our evolved social nature and how our moms react when when we bite our sisters (see above if that makes no sense).

    • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy

      If you’re going to claim that there’s some kind of objective morality, you need to show it. You need to give us some hypotheses that show how we reach these objective truths. Who’s right and who’s wrong about embryonic stem cells and pre-marital sex, and how did you arrive at that?

      You don’t really need that. You can use a reductio ad absurdum type of proof. You do need to use some moral intuition. So it is not purely scientific. Still the proposition that there is no objective morality does lead to absurd conclusions.

      Once you discern that objective morals exist then you can look at the various ways of finding them and figure out which is likely the best. Yes, you get into religion and whether there are people with special insights into these objective truths. That is another topic. The first thing to nail down is whether there is anything to find.

      • Alan

        Name one such absurd conclusion and why you think it absurd?

        • Irenist

          I’m guessing Randy is thinking of something like this:
          If you are an opponent of objective morality, then how can you make ethical arguments coherently? Much ethics is about arguments of the form “We should do X, not Y.” In a world of fact without value, how can such arguments be made? If they can’t be made, how do you live without ethics? Do you just follow your gut?

          • Alan

            The same way I can recommend my favorite dish at a restaurant without worrying about any objective measure of taste.

            One can make moral decisions based solely on subjective context – it isn’t difficult and it is quite clear that it is being done all the time.

          • Irenist

            Proverbially, Alan, de gustibus non disputandum. So if morality is merely a matter of taste, how do you argue for a moral position against someone who disagrees with it? If morality is mere taste, how can you reason effectively about it?

          • Alan

            Irenist – I argue for taste positions against someone who disagrees with it all the time. There are entire industries that thrive on disagreements which are obviously merely matters of taste (who was better the Rolling Stones or Beatles? Was MASH the best comedy of all time?). People have found plenty of ways to reason effectively about different characteristics or art, wine and cheese but at the end of the day they are still a matter of taste.

            Just because something can be pithily said in Latin does mean it any way reflect reality.

        • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy

          The genocide question is the obvious one. If a government thinks it is in the best interest of society to wipe out one people group can we say they are wrong based on morality. Do we have to pick through their argument and simply say we disagree with their logic. That would be inadequate because they are the government and their vision is what they should be implementing. We have no right to say our logic should be prefered the theirs.

          Do we have to say it is perfectly fine? That might really does make right? Different a-moralists have different answers but I would call them all absurd.

          • Alan

            I can recognize that my reasoning is not based on some external objective truth and still not agree that it is perfectly fine for Honey Boo Boo to be on TV and in fact do all within my power to fight against it.

            The idea that just because morality isn’t objective means one must throw up their hands and not fight for what THEY think is right simply because it is what they think right is what is absurd – and completely counter to the reality that has been experienced by human beings. And at various time, as a result, the very same act has been seen as morally right and morally wrong – yet we are still more than capable of continuing to argue both sides of these issues.

          • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy

            Sure you can argue. But if the government is legitimately the government then you need to concede that it is their call. So what about their call on genocide is different from other policy disagreements you might have with a sitting government? If there is no higher law to appeal to then the “just following orders” defense is OK.

            Even when it comes to a government canceling elections and executing political opponents. There are levels of disagreement. There is the normal level where the government has the right to implement policies I don’t like. Then There is the higher level of disagreement where I need to resist a government that breaks what is sacred. It is more than just me that has been offended. Something deeper is involved. Something that it makes sense to die for. That means it is bigger than my opinion.

          • Alan

            My post seemed to have been lost so I’ll try again.

            I don’t need something deeper or sacred to have been broken in order for me to resist the government at whatever level – all I need is to choose to do so. You act as though people have never rebelled for trivial reasons or ones that would generally be considered morally dubious.

            I don’t need to appeal to a higher law to rebel or overthrow a ‘legitimate’ government (whatever that is). I just need to act. I don’t need any objective morality to decide that the actions of my or any other government have crossed a line – I just need my own subjective morality upon which I judge my own choices.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            See Lee Harvey Oswald was right to shoot JFK? His subjective morality is enough to decide the government has crossed the line. There is no higher law the government needed to violate. Just Oswald’s own law is enough to justify him acting as he did.

            To me, you are already at an absurdity.

          • Alan

            Ah Randy, so sad. What is absurd is your idea that ‘justification’ has any relevance at all. Lee Harvey Oswald did what he did, whether he viewed it as ‘moral’ or not I don’t know but for the sake of argument let’s assume he thought he was doing it as a rebellion against the government. Even if he had some higher law that the government violated to reference, how would that have changed at all his ‘justification’? Let’s say there is a higher law that demands we provide equal material goods to all in our society and capitalism is morally bad – even if that were true Lee Harvey Oswald would still be a lone gunmen who shot a beloved President and nobody would cry over when he he was shot himself. If someday everyone had come to believe that higher law to be the correct morality maybe he would be held up as a patron saint in the fight for true justice – but it would all still be independent of any hypothetical platonic ideal.

            The absurdity here is the notion that some independent morality matters to actual human action and reaction.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            The absurdity here is the notion that some independent morality matters to actual human action and reaction.

            Actually the notion that it does not matter seems absurd to me. How do you think people arrive at ideas about what they should do? They think along moral lines. This is good. This is not good. I struggle to think of examples where something other than “some independent morality” matters to human action. Some low level stuff maybe. Basically we are thinking beings and we are moral beings. I am just having trouble making any sense of your statement. If you are trying to show how you can avoid absurdity it isn’t working.

          • Alan

            That doesn’t really conform to how people actually behave , what your describing is some sort of philosopher dream not the how biological humans act. The psychological literature demonstrate pretty conclusively that people behave situationally with at best an ever changing notion of what that independent morality is which changes based on external situations – in other words, not much of an independent morality at all.

            Basically, we are thinking beings and we are animals – we have done a decent job of rationalizing our animal behavior by constructing post-hoc models of morality which conform to it. As you continually demonstrate here, we do it so well we fail to even notice when we are doing it and blind ourselves into thinking that any acknowledgement of the true driver of our behavior is absurd.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            It is like saying diets don’t influence the way people eat. Saying formal published diets don’t influence them would be wrong but not wildly wrong. But informal diets, like having an idea about what is the right way to eat that comes from your mother or an old roommate or whatever, those kind of diets hugely influence people’s eating. Sure they have hunger but people think. They act on their thinking.

            Same thing with morals. Formally and informally what seems right to people will control what they do more than the passion of the moment. So, yes, saying whether what Oswald did was right or wrong matters. It becomes part of the thinking of many people. Part of their moral diet if you will.

          • Alan

            Randy – Again, I’d suggest you check out some of more of the actual psychology studies, what they find does not conform to how you assume people make decisions. And it isn’t just the mere passion of the moment, even well deliberated moral decisions are influenced by such situational trivialities of whether the individual found a dime on the floor before making the decision or not (Isen and Levin study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21).

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            The study says short term situational factors matter. I don’t say they don’t. What I am saying is that thinking matters. I would say the thinking matters more when it gets to the subconscious level. That was my point about the informal diet. Thinking patterns are often followed in an uncritical way. Only occasionally do we reflect on how we make those choices and perhaps change out pattern. Still the reflection is all we have. The rest of it is just us being managed by our world (including our subconscious mind).

            This is a bit of a tangent. The actual absurdity was getting the wrong moral answer. Then you kind of said wrong answers don’t matter. Another can of worms. Another absurdity, to be sure, but not a rabbit hole I want to go down right now.

          • Alan

            But see, your absurdity begs the question that there is a right moral answer. You assume objective morality – which is the assumption in dispute. There may be a generally desired moral outcome – though history has shown those to be very situational as well (even in modern times with regards to the very question of genocide).

            That is, once again, the true absurdity in this whole conversation – you are continuously begging the question and claiming not accepting your assumption leads to absurdity because if your assumption is true then the consequence of it not being true is absurd.

            In other words, just one big logical fallacy.

          • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

            It does not really beg the question. It contemplates what your answer means. How deep into the a-moral pit are you willing to go? If you are willing to go all the way you can make your position logically consistent. My experience is most are not. This is a good thing.

            But if you are not then you need to say there most be some objective morals. That implies strict materialism is false. Something exists that cannot be described by matter and energy interacting. That is something called metaphysics.

          • Alan

            But it requires no such a-moral pit. I can be perfectly logically consistent and assert what my moral opinion is and assert that you should believe it as well – neither of those acts makes that opinion an objective fact of the universe but that doesn’t really constrain human interaction in any way.

            And this doesn’t require a denial of metaphysics or an absolutist materialistic stance either – that is irrelevant and a non sequitur.

    • Ted Seeber

      I assert that not only do small tribes have different objective morals than large organizations- but that in fact the objective morality of the tribe is actually more suited to scientific truth.

      The Catholic Church also asserts this- the above is basically what we Catholics call Solidarity and Subsidiarity- we human beings band together into families and clans to support each other, but the best decisions are made by the least competent authority- that is to say, by the smallest government physically closest to the situation.

    • deiseach

      “Moral decisions are more important to our well-being, our place in society, and our relationship with others than whether we like curried chicken or chicken fried steak.”

      Suppose Bob does not eat curried chicken because it gives him dreadful indigestion. The same way, Bob does not want to be hit over the head by a mugger and robbed because it is a painful experience. But why should we distinguish one form of bodily pain as better or worse or less culpable than another?

      No-one is arguing that all curried chicken should be banned just because one person (or several) cannot eat it without discomfort. Why should we then, by the same token, enact laws to prevent muggers hitting people over the head? After all, even the most industrious mugger can’t hit every person in the city over the head in a working day!

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

        …But there’s a pretty clear magnitude difference between “stomache ache from curried chicken” and “hit over the head and robbed”. If you made the magnitudes equal- if Bob is allergic to curried chicken, and will swell up and go to the hospital and possibly even die if he eats it- then force feeding Bob curried chicken is exactly as morally objectionable as beating and mugging him.

        We need laws to prevent mugging because mugging is universally bad, unlike curried chicken. If there were a significant subset of people who enjoyed both mugging and being mugged, even though it’s bad for them, we might designate times and areas where it’s ok for people to mug each other, and make sure that only people who want to get mugged go to these events. We already do this kind of thing for smoking, after all (though perhaps a better analogy would be MMA, where people fight each other for enjoyment)

        In addition, other people eating curried chicken has no negative effect on me. Other people mugging has a huge negative effect on me (in an expected value sense- even if I happen to get lucky and not get mugged, there is some proportion of the population who is not so lucky)

        You seem to be equating making a choice and being a victim. The biggest fundamental difference between curried chicken and mugging in your example is that no one is going to force feed you curried chicken (and we would morally object if they did)

        • deiseach

          But why is mugging universally bad? In a universe where, when we come down to brass tacks, morality has no more of a basis than “what I like/what the majority of us like or can be persuaded to support”, why should I care if Bob gets hurt, as long as I don’t?

          Why do we have laws about mugging but – on the same basis – no laws closing down the <a href="http://www.baltitriangle.com/what.html"Balti Triangle? What, in this universe, is the distinction between Bob being a victim and Bob making a choice (if we even accept the notion of free will and ability to make a choice)?

          Bob did not consciously choose to have a bad physical reaction to eating curried chicken, anymore than he conciously chose to have a bad physical reaction to being hit over the head. If Bob protests to a mugger “Don’t hit me over the head!”, why cannot the mugger answer “Then don’t put yourself in a position to be hit over the head, anymore than you would put yourself in a position where your only food choice was curried chicken”?

          Why should Bob’s condition restrict the mugger’s moral choices?

          • deiseach

            To clarify what I’m trying to say: if morality is purely subjective and boils down to ‘a matter of personal taste or convenience’, then eating curried chicken is ‘wrong’ for Bob but ‘right’ for me. In the same way, becoming a mugger may be ‘wrong’ for Bob (because he does not like stealing or hitting people over the head and the uncomfortable feelings that result from doing these things dissuade him from being a mugger) but no-one can tell me it is not ‘right’ for me to steal or hit people over the head, based on anything other than “They don’t like being stolen from or being hit over the head!”

            So what? Okay, maybe they all get together and put me in jail, but there is still nothing out there to say that what I did was wrong by any standard other than “The majority used force to prevent you doing what you wanted because they did not share your preferences”. Illegal is not the same as immoral, and vice versa. The only reason otherwise for me to change my ways (apart from the threat of incarceration, or violence to my person from those whom I have robbed or hit over the head) would be if I too had uncomfortable feelings after stealing or hitting, and those are merely subjective matters of personal taste. You or Bob or anyone cannot persuade me to change on grounds of “Stealing is wrong in itself.”

          • Alan

            Mugging isn’t universally bad – there have places and times where the context of a mugging may have made people shrug there soldiers and move on.

            Why can’t I try to persuade you it is wrong the same way i would try to persuade you that reality television is an affront to good taste?

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

            But why is mugging universally bad?

            Because people consistently and universally object to being mugged. I go back to the MMA example- some people enjoy fighting. In a vacuum, I would have claimed that fighting was morally wrong because it was universally bad. But it turns out it’s not universally bad (injury concerns aside), because some people like it. So I have no interest in prohibiting it- just in stopping the minority who want to fight from forcing the vast majority who don’t want to fight to participate.

            In a universe where, when we come down to brass tacks, morality has no more of a basis than “what I like/what the majority of us like or can be persuaded to support”, why should I care if Bob gets hurt, as long as I don’t?

            Two reasons- first, because you recognize that what separated you from Bob was chance, not design. It could just as easily have been you who got hurt, and you want to live in a world that is optimized for your happiness- meaning less chance of you being hurt. When making macro-level decisions, you care about expected value, not about actual occurrences. And second, because humans are fundamentally social creatures, and Bob getting hurt is not an event that you’re totally unaffected by. You care about Bob because evolution has cultivated in you an instinct of empathy, and Bob getting hurt actually hurts you (to some lesser degree) as well.

            What, in this universe, is the distinction between Bob being a victim and Bob making a choice?

            I’m a little confused by the question. I assume you can actually see a distinction between the two- are you just asking me what the difference is between a moral agent (Bob’s attacker) and an amoral non-agent (curried chicken)? You make a choice when you take an independent action (even if it ends up badly for you). You’re a victim when someone else makes a choice, and it ends up badly for you.

            if we even accept the notion of free will and ability to make a choice

            Whether or not we can I don’t think has a huge affect on the conversation. Even if we reject free will, we can still use “choice” as a proxy for “super complex system that reacts to external stimuli and takes self-directed action”. Rather, our experience does not change, even if it turns out free will is an illusion, so using words like “choice” is still coherent (if not entirely accurate)

            Bob did not consciously choose to have a bad physical reaction to eating curried chicken, anymore than he conciously chose to have a bad physical reaction to being hit over the head

            …But he chose to eat the curried chicken. He did not choose to be hit over the head.

            Why should Bob’s condition restrict the mugger’s moral choices?

            Because in moral relativism, the condition of Bob and the mugger are the only things that restrict (or rather, define) moral choices. If Bob were a rock, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If the mugger were a bear, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Only when one moral agent takes an action that is harmful to a self-aware agent (not necessarily a moral agent- replace Bob with a dog and this is still a moral question) does talking in terms of morality even make sense.

            if morality is purely subjective and boils down to ‘a matter of personal taste or convenience’, then eating curried chicken is ‘wrong’ for Bob but ‘right’ for me.

            I think this is the heart of the problem. Subjective morality boils down to ‘a matter of personal taste of convenience’ in the same way that objective morality boils down to ‘because God said so’. They’re both technically correct, since ‘boils down’ means “I’m massively oversimplifying”, but neither are very helpful. Let me try to frame some of your own arguments the other way around-

            “In the same way, becoming a mugger may be ‘wrong’ for Bob (because he agrees with some really powerful guy that told him so) but no-one can tell me it is not ‘right’ for me to steal or hit people over the head, based on anything other than “God said it’s wrong!”

            So what? Okay, maybe God throws me in hell, but there is still nothing out there to say that what I did was wrong by any standard other than “The guy with the most power used force to prevent you doing what you wanted because he did not share your standards”. Disagreeing with someone more powerful than you is not the same as immoral, and vice versa. The only reason otherwise for me to change my ways (apart from the threat of hell, or violence to my person from followers of that God) would be if I too shared God’s standards about stealing or hitting, and those are merely my own beliefs. You or Bob or anyone cannot persuade me to change on grounds of “Stealing is wrong because God said so.””

            Ok, so it’s not a perfect analogy :) But my point is, there are really good reasons for moral relativists to say something is “wrong”, even if they admit that the underlying definition of wrong is dependent on the nature of the moral agents involved in the interaction. As I said in another combox, moral relativism doesn’t rob a moral framework of all meaning, just as reductionism doesn’t rob the word “airplane” of all meaning- it just admits that a moral framework is not a fundamentally complicated thing.

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

            Gah! I would be so much better at commenting if my browser didn’t mark correct spellings of “blockquote” as misspelled! XD

  • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

    0. In retrospect, I ended up rambling. At least it’s relevant to what you wrote?

    1. Russell’s teapot is my favorite.

    2. Karsten Harries used to talk about some Cog Sci guy at Yale who treats morality (and free will) as a programmatic delusion that follows necessarily from the structure of the human mind.

    3. This (probably unknowingly) is just an adaptation of the Kantian idea of transcendental illusion put forward in the Critique of Pure Reason: our minds operate according to certain rules; these rules are rightly applied in particular cases to finite, sensible objects; the structure of the rules begs the question of their application ad infinitum; this infinite application leads us to posit all sorts of nonexistent metaphysical entities and quandaries (free will/determinism, substance, the soul, God); by ironing out the rules and their proper sphere of application, we can eliminate the illusions.

    4. Of course, I think the Kantian approach, while very clever, is also ridiculous, in part because it gives a highly improbable genealogy of certain questions and concepts. (Kant is very weak on genealogy: for example, in the metaphysical deduction of the categories he just dumps this ornate table of concepts on you without arguing for it at all.) Long before anyone was bothered to think about experience as a synthetic product of schematized categories, people asked “Why” of things: how did it come to be, what makes it what it is, what is it for, what it it made of, etc. A philosophical system that employs the concepts developed for these questions to say that the entities sought for by the questions are illusory and the questions are meant only to be asked in a certain way (that I’ve just invented after 2300 years of philosophy), ends up satisfying no one. Similarly here, if we have fundamental topics of interest and sources of intelligibility and the modes of inquiry and discourse developed primarily in terms of and for the use of these topics/sources, and then we take those modes of inquiry/discourse and use them to say that the original topics are meaningless and nonexistent, we run into some big problems. The intelligibility of the answers given in the system already depends on an interest in the fundamentals which those answers are attempting to exclude.

    5. Of course, here we enter into more complicated problems: in what case can an investigation carried out within a given system ultimately destroy the principles of the system itself. We might think of Principia Mathematica and Goedel. What’s necessary (and, I think, what Kant is trying to do in his Antinomies) is to show how the logic of a system drawn to its conclusions necessarily destroys the system itself. There needs to be a fundamental contradiction, or some ultimate unravelling. In fact, this method is basically what Aristotle uses to argue against those who reject the principle of non-contradiction in Metaphysics Book IV. Realizing that you can’t positively prove the principle, he looks at the most compelling alternatives, and shows how their presuppositions ultimately make it impossible for people to speak about things.

    6. So it comes down to this. The moral relativist needs to ask himself whether he can establish some fundamental incoherence within the idea of objective morality which serves to unravel any system based on it. The moral objectivist needs to ask himself whether the denial of moral truth establishes some fundamental incoherence which makes it impossible to meaningfully speak about such things as morality, and then, if this is the case, whether it can be shown that the intelligibility of the moral relativist’s own speech and acts suffers (fatally) as a result. Can the relativist make sense of what he’s doing, given his relativism? Can he talk about things coherently?

    7. I think it’s very difficult for the relativist to establish his side of the problem. I have never heard someone say that objective morality is fundamentally incoherent. However, the objectivist seems to have an easy time showing that relativism causes difficulties. This is what I was getting at in #4. A moral relativist (really, any sort of relativist) quickly loses the ability (are you reading this, E-Prime people?) to share a moral universe with anyone else. The motivations for acts the understanding of prohibitions and imperatives, etc., can no longer flow from things, but begins to be imposed on things by the mind. Instantly we end up with a thrasymachean world (which, given their rhetoric, is probably not what the relativist wants).

    8. But more basically it’s impossible to explain to oneself why these things are desirable and other things are not. In other words, we’re reduced to a dichotomy: on one hand we have to resort to some nature to ground morality, in which case we find that we are actually objectivists; on the other hand, we can deny that any nature grounds morality, in which case we have to say that the moral agent is natureless, causa sui, and fundamentally unintelligible. We might say (like Sartre) that the moral agent is the ground of the intelligibility of his actions, but this really doesn’t explain anything. How do I positively bestow goodness on things? When do I choose to do this? Why would I choose either way at all? And in this case any rational or intelligible decision-making process dissolves completely, and another dichotomy presents itself: either human beings are machines suffering from an illusory consciousness and generates lies about its own behavior, or human beings are big fleshy random output generators and any attempt to make sense of what they do is futile. Whichever you choose you’re a nihilist, and no one wants to be a nihilist. (Provided their toes are all intact.) More relevantly, any talk about morality becomes meaningless.

    9. So it seems like the moral objectivist wins.

  • Niemand

    A philosophers’ strike. Who would that inconvenience?

    Never mind that…it’ll hurt and hurt bad.

    0.5 geek points to anyone who gets the reference.

    • Ted Seeber

      Deep Thought, when the 5th Dimensional Mice objected to the Earth Mark 1 being built.

      • Niemand

        1/2 a geek point to Ted Seeber!

  • Niemand

    Somewhat more seriously, three questions about this statement: “I was trying to press him on where the yardstick or rulebook or whatnot comes from, such that we can say that we more closely resemble this external standard than does the Taliban.”

    1. How would you answer that question? What external standard of goodness do we (whoever “we” are in this context-I could be the ghost of bin Laden for all you know…but that’s a different issue) meet or come closer to than the Taliban?
    2. Why does it have to be an external measure? Why can’t we say that the “standard western” position is more morally correct because it results in a happier, healthier, more productive society and oppresses fewer people than a Talibanesque theocracy does? That’s an internal measure of morality, but IMHO, a reasonable one.
    3. The Taliban are attempting to use an external measure for their morality. Why don’t you accept their measure? How do you know that their “objective” standard is wrong?

    • Irenist

      Niemand, are you using “external” and “internal” to mean more or less “objective” and “subjective”?
      1. A rough approximation might be: Respect for all people, including women, as ends in themselves.
      2. This reminds me of Rorty’s position of a sort of tribal loyalty to Western liberalism. It’s pragmatic consequences are probably congenial enough, but theoretically, all that the move from nihilism to Rorty seems to accomplish is that between “Because I say so” to “Because WE say so.”
      3. “Why don’t you accept their measure? How do you know that their “objective” standard is wrong?”
      Empirically, because the Taliban’s brutal combination of Hanafi Sharia with Pashtunwali doesn’t conduce to human flourishing as a Thomist virtue ethicist would describe it. Theoretically, because the loving God of the Cross more comports with the behavior attributable to an omnibenevolent Being (the existence of which I am convinced of on other grounds that it would be impossible to attempt to defend without threadjacking) than the God of extremist Deobandi/Wahhabi theology.

      • Niemand

        Respect for all people, including women, as ends in themselves.

        Why? I agree and I think most readers of this blog would agree-well, at least as long as we’re talking about the Taliban and not whether or not women should have the right to decide who controls their vagina or uterus-but saying that it is an end in itself and that is objective morality doesn’t really answer the question. Why is respect an objective good?

        • Irenist

          “as long as we’re talking about the Taliban and not whether or not women should have the right to decide who controls their vagina or uterus”
          You do a suicidal man no favors by loaning him a pistol, and it is the Catholic view that you do the eternal soul of a woman bent on abortion no favors by abetting her in that murder rather than prohibiting her from so sinning. You may disagree with the theological underpinnings of this view (many do) but for purposes of this thread it should be sufficient to note that *within* the framework of the Catholic worldview, it is consistent with the categorical imperative, and not susceptible to the sorts of “forced kidney donation” thought experiments pro-choicers usually trot out on this point. To dig further on abortion to test whether pro-life arguments suitable for deployment in the secular public square can also refute the kidney hypothetical would result in some threadjacking, I fear.
          “Why is respect an objective good?”
          This seems more on-topic. The alternative to respect for all people as ends in themselves would be an instrumental view in which rational persons are tools to some end. But other than the good of rational persons, what end would a discursive community of rational interlocutors settle upon?

          • Niemand

            you do the eternal soul of a woman bent on abortion no favors by abetting her in that murder rather than prohibiting her from so sinning.

            I expect the Taliban believes that you do the soul of a woman bent on immorally showing her eyes in public no favors by not forcing her into a full burka. Why should the Catholic view be right, the Taliban view be wrong? I have no reason to believe that it is any less heart felt than the Catholic view. Both claim to be aiding the soul of the person involved and therefore helping her, even if it might be against her current wishes.

            not susceptible to the sorts of “forced kidney donation” thought experiments

            I don’t see why. The person who denies the use of their kidney to a person dying of renal failure kills that person, just as much as the person who denies the use of her uterus kills the embryo. In the trolly analogy, the person who wouldn’t donate a needed kidney is like someone who wouldn’t flip the switch to change the trolly from a track with a person on it to an empty track and rationalize the decision as that it’s no fault of his or hers that there is a person on that track.

            But other than the good of rational persons, what end would a discursive community of rational interlocutors settle upon?

            So the good of a community or of persons within the community is an objective standard by which the morality of an act can be measured? I’m not disagreeing, just making sure I’ve got your position right.

          • Irenist

            “Why should the Catholic view be right, the Taliban view be wrong?”
            That Christianity is true and Islam false is a theological matter way outside the scope of the thread. So, against my better judgment, I’ll try for secular public reasons here:
            Burkas: Modesty is culturally self-norming: Amazonian tribesfolk are not titillated by nudity. The cultural equilibrium that forces women to wear burkas therefore severely inconveniences women without improving the chastity of men any more than a Western or Amazonian norm would. This is regardless of whether the burka is conceived as an instrumentalization of women in the service of male chastity, or, as some feminist Muslims conceive it, as a salutary protection for women from objectification. Even if it were salutary for women, though, it would be less salutary than the Taliban’s enforcement practices are harmful. OTOH, should a Muslim woman prefer to wear the burka for those reasons, in the absence of Taliban-like enforcement, more power to her. But that’s no one’s business but hers.
            Abortion: Outlawing murder doesn’t instrumentalize the murderer: murder rots the murderer’s character. Abortion, a form of murder, will necessarily have a coarsening effect on the character of its participants and defenders. Every now and then, some pro-choicer embarrasses the moderate majority of pro-choicers by joining Peter Singer in speculating about the acceptability of infanticide or euthanasia or eugenics, exhibiting that coarseness.
            “So the good of a community or of persons within the community is an objective standard by which the morality of an act can be measured?”
            Not necessarily. I’m just wondering how someone arguing against treating people as ends could effectively defend an ethical system that instrumentalized his or her interlocutors. The arguer might attain internal consistency, but I doubt many of us would find the system very attractive. If reason and conscience are evolutionary accidents, we have no reason to trust either. If both allow us to access something true, than our consciences’ revulsion at such a “Devil take the hindmost” ethic is an important datum.

          • Niemand

            It’s hard for me to argue the Taliban position well because I not only don’t believe it, I don’t really think I properly understand it. However, I’m pretty sure they would counterargue that the Amazon tribes in question are immoral heathens (or whatever it’s called in Islam) and that they’re risking their souls by having women run around almost naked among them, etc.

            Likewise, there’s no real secular argument for considering abortion murder. Certainly not a routine first trimester abortion that occurs before the embryo has stationary neurons. So calling abortion murder is a religious position and no more a part of secular morality than disconnecting the life support from someone who is brain dead. (Note that brain dead is unsubtly different from in a coma.)

            OTOH, the person who needs a kidney is clearly and definitely alive and has a working brain. So if refusing to move the trolly to the track without someone on it is murder then refusing to donate a kidney is also clearly murder.

            I think in the end the problem is that you’re using Catholic theology as your frame of reference and trying to justify it with secular arguments. I think the discussion would be easier if you simply said that your view was Catholicism is correct and that its tenants are the correct basis for objective morality.

            If that is, indeed, what you believe. It’s entirely possible and arguably likely that my understanding of your position is wrong. But if you do think that objective morality stems from Catholicism or Christianity, I don’t see any reason not to bring that out explicitly.

          • Irenist

            “Likewise, there’s no real secular argument for considering abortion murder. Certainly not a routine first trimester abortion that occurs before the embryo has stationary neurons.”

            The question is when/whether an animal (e.g., a human fetus) is also a person. If personhood is defined using a criterion of neurological performance like self-awareness when looking in a mirror, then Peter Singer is correct that it is worse to kill an adult chimp than a newborn human. However, if personhood is defined as being an instance, however incapacitated by immaturity, injury, disease, or senility, of the kind “rational animal,” then abortion and euthanasia are the killing of persons. No unhelpfully non-secular arguments about ensoulment of zygotes are necessary.

            “But if you do think that objective morality stems from Catholicism or Christianity, I don’t see any reason not to bring that out explicitly.”

            I am Catholic. Thus, I do believe that the objective reality of all facts, both moral and physical, stems from God. However, I think with the Natural Law tradition that it is possible for people of good will to reason toward and about objective moral facts in the absence of assent to the revealed truths of the Catholic faith in which moral reasoning finds its deepest fulfillment.

          • Niemand

            Irenist, how do you know when a person is dead?

          • Irenist

            “How do you know when a person is dead?”
            As medical knowledge advances, the definition of biological death becomes more of a gray area. Between a healthy human and a putrefying corpse, there are stages like cardiac arrest and whole brain death that the medical profession has attempted to use as convenient bright lines at different points in its history. Better to err on the side of providing care whenever a rational animal may be alive, rather than hastening to euthanize.

          • Niemand

            As medical knowledge advances, the definition of biological death becomes more of a gray area.

            Actually, no. Brain death has been the standard definition of medical death for at least several decades. The way brain death is determined and how much error is involved have changed, but the definition has not. No brain=no person. We simply haven’t figured out how to get nonfunctional neurons going again the way we can (sometimes) restart non-functional heart cells. Nice, simple organ the heart. The brain…

            To give a specific example, consider a baby born with anencephaly. This is a (fortunately rare) birth defect in which the brain simply does not form. These babies die and die very shortly after birth. They are considered candidates for organ donation, if that is the parents’ wish. So, why should this same baby be a person before it is born (if abortion under all circumstances is wrong) but no longer a living person after it is born?

            Note that being in a coma or a persistent vegetative state is quite different from brain death: in this circumstance, there is some brain activity, usually brainstem only, but no conscious thought or awareness. Care can be withdrawn from people in PVS if their family consents, as in the case of Tom DeLay’s father after a tragic accident leading to major brain injury, but it isn’t automatically considered death the way brain death is.

    • deiseach

      We then have to say why oppressing fewer people is better; if that relies on oppressed people are not happy, the fewer oppressed people in a society, the more happiness there is – what makes happiness a better measure of a ‘moral’ society than wealth or power or who has the most heads on sticks outside their hut?

      In other words, we are treating happiness as a measurable factor (presumably we measure it by those surveys which ask people ‘How happy do you feel today as compared to last year/five years ago? Do you expect to be as happy, happier, or less happy in five years’ time?’) and that it can be spread around like jam.

      How do we quantify the Gross National Happiness? Do we take an average of happiness, and how do we tell the difference between the score for a country where there is a small elite class of very happy people and a large majority of the population are poor and oppressed, and the identical average for a society which is more egalitarian? Can we say that Society A is worse than Society B, and that A ‘should’ do more to advantage its poor and oppressed? How do we do this, if we are measuring happiness, and A hits the target on ‘average gross domestic happiness’?

      • Niemand

        Happiness per se is probably not the right metric, since it is affected by a number of factors other than how moral the rules under which certain people live are. Oppression seems a good metric, but what does it mean, exactly? How do you know society A is less oppressive than society B? And why is it good to have a lower level of oppression? Is that an objective good?

        • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

          I’m confused. Aren’t you begging your own question? Are you trying to argue for objective morality or against because your questions would lead me to think you were arguing for objective morality. Without some ‘external’, objective measure, how would it be possible to even answer any of your questions?

          • Niemand

            Neither, really. I don’t have a good answer to the question of whether objective morality exists. But it does seem to me that one problem is that there doesn’t appear to be a standard definition of morality or even objective. What does an objectively moral act or opinion look like? How do you know it’s objectively moral?

          • Kristen inDallas

            What does an objectively moral act or opinion look like? How do you know it’s objectively moral?

            http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P5R.HTM

  • Ted Seeber

    Why does he except the Golden Rule from being objective? Near as I can tell, it’s as subjective as anything else human beings come up with: it varies from the Wiccan Rede to Christ’s Do Unto Others to the Libertarian “He who has the gold, makes the rules”.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    Leah is right that Bob’s argument works just the same for physical facts as moral facts. But she goes too far in this:

    But Bob is asserting something much stronger; he’s claiming that we can’t even ask if consensus is correlated with anything, since there’s nothing for the consensus to be true about.

    For his purposes, it’s not important whether a bunch of statements is correlated with what they refer too, they can be correlated to each other, as if all the little girls in the pre-school agreed that Optimus Prime can fly.

  • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

    Excellent post, Leah.

    I admit that while I comment over at Cross Examined from time to time, I haven’t commented on this Bob’s post in this case, for the following reason: I don’t believe he believes what he said. It’s not that I don’t believe his argument; I don’t believe he believes his argument.

    • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

      +1 for the identifying the inherent flaw in any argument for relative morality.

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

        -1 for assuming you know your opponent better than he knows himself.

        People do believe in relative morality. It’s a real thing. This sounds a lot like the argument that nobody actually doesn’t believe in God- they’re just all angry at him, want to sin without consequences, blinded by their sin, etc. etc. You do your side no favors in dismissing your opponent’s arguments by claiming that they don’t actually believe them.

        • R.C.

          Jake,

          I think it’s entirely demonstrably true that people do believe in relative morality.

          But I think that no zoologist has yet tagged, in the wild, a person who “believes” it in any other than a theoretical manner. I think they all express it in bold tones, only to complain bitterly when their personified stuffed tiger shoves them into the mud from behind.

          Now, anybody might get caught not living up to their moral code that way, of course. For example, a pacifist might, in a moment of weakness, punch said tiger in the nose. But I think the pacifist whose sentiments were well-formed in accord with his philosophy would experience a pang of regret thereafter, and, upon examining that feeling, would articulate its significance by acknowledging wrongdoing and moral failure.

          But I find it hard to imagine any moral relativist ever acknowledging his own failure-of-moral-relativism, his own lapse into moral objectivity. The temptation of re-shading his own chameleon code would be too great: I think that regardless of what had really motivated him at the time, he’d retcon his unseemly expressions of outrage or approval onto his moral code, assuming that doing so looked unlikely to cause him difficulty later on.

          Now, what if doing so looked like it would cause him difficulty? Well, in that case, I suppose he’d mouth an apology for having violated his own moral relativism…but could he possibly mean it?

          It looks to me as if the issuance of an apology, with all of an apology’s standard requisite components (acknowledgment of wrongdoing, expression of regret, declaration of intent not to repeat the wrongdoing, request of forgiveness, act of restitution if possible, and really being sincere in all of the above) might be an intrinsically illogical act, for a moral relativist. He can’t do it without denying moral relativism.

          If so, then…wow: Adopting moral relativism means never having to say you’re sorry!

          Suddenly the moral relativism philosophy looks very appealing. :-)

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

            But I find it hard to imagine any moral relativist ever acknowledging his own failure-of-moral-relativism, his own lapse into moral objectivity

            That’s because moral relativism isn’t a normative claim. A (descriptive) moral relativist doesn’t feel bad for failing to be a moral relativist because she never said you should try to act like whatever it is you think a moral relativist would act like in the first place- she simply makes the observation (claim) that all morality is relative. Moral relativity is not the same as an imperative to maintain moral detachment- it’s just a description of reality. It does nothing by itself to affect your personal, subjective moral experience one way or the other.

            Moral relativity vs. objective morality is a lot more like reductionism vs. platonic forms than it is like Nihilism vs. Meaning. Moral relativism doesn’t rob a moral framework of all meaning, just as reductionism doesn’t rob the word “airplane” of all meaning- it just admits that a moral framework is not a fundamentally complicated thing. The complex interaction of intelligent, social creatures leads to some very specific behaviors that can be cogently phrased in moral verbiage- “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad”- but that in no way makes these behaviors objective.

            We can even claim these specific behaviors (distinct from the “you should act like a moral relativist” claim I argued against earlier) as normative for lots of reasons- they empirically lead to happier societies, they foster reciprocity, they have higher expected utilities than non-normative behaviors. In that sense we are appealing to a standard, but it’s an inherently subjective one- it’s whatever makes you and other people happy. If “what makes humans happy” were to change, then morality itself would change. That’s the fundamental argument that I, as a potential moral relativist, would make.

            (I use “happiness” here as a stand in for whatever word you prefer. Most relativists seem to choose “flourishing”, but that strikes me as a little too vague.)

          • deiseach

            Or the moral relativist could issue the kind of ‘apology’ that many organisations and persons nowadays seem to issue (usually after being forced to do so by bad PR from their original action or speech):

            “I’m sorry that you felt offended” – in other words, I’m not sorry for what I did or said, and you’re a thin-skinned idiot :-)

          • Mr. X

            ““I’m sorry that you felt offended” – in other words, I’m not sorry for what I did or said, and you’re a thin-skinned idiot”

            My own personal favourite is “I’m sorry if my words were misunderstood” (= “I regret that you’re all to stupid to understand me”).

  • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

    So the really short response is this:

    ‘”Right’ and ‘wrong’ come with an implied point of view” is a true statement. However, it is also a statement that’s compatible with an objective morality.

    (There is, of course, a longer response.)

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Ashley: “You are just begging the question – you assume that what is (in some universal sense) is good therefor existence is good. Why does the ‘universal choice for existence’ have to be a good choice? Why couldn’t there be a choice to exist that is neutral or even bad?”

    No, because this shows a lack of understanding of what ‘bad’ is. What is ‘bad’ is nothing in itself. It is always the distortion or destruction or absence of good. That something exists is in itself a ‘good’ and what distorts or destroys that thing that exists is, by definition, bad.

    • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

      @Fr. Dwight – you are begging the question that Ashley is asking. That question is exactly whether being and good are convertible. And to those who don’t hold to a classical or scholastic view of nature, it’s a reasonable question.

      I think the first step is to note that, without existence, there can be no possibility of good or evil at all. Being is a fundamental prerequisite to good.

      Next, I’d argue that the very fact of desire and repulsion would not exist if there were not some reality to “good” (i.e., desirable) and “evil” (i.e., repulsive).

      From there, one could ask why some things are desired and others avoided, and the common thread we find is that we desire being and avoid destruction, distortion, or just plain absence of being. Moreover, we see that being has, in some ways, degrees: I grow to be more myself when I grow from child to adult, and so on. This develops a basic teleology, which leads to the idea of fulfilling one’s nature or purpose. So “good” is defined as “fulfilling one’s nature, or existing as fully as possible.” This is the bridge between “being” and “good,” between “is” and “ought,” that forms the foundation of natural law.

      I don’t know if this answers Ashley’s question (it’s very shorthand), but this is where I would start.

      • Alan

        The problem with your answer is that I can show instances where ones desires destructive and are repulsed by things which are constructive so – even if we grant your assertion that desire and repulsion would not exist if there were not some reality to “good” and “evil” (which I don’t think is necessary in itself) – your ‘common thread’ is found by dismissing uncooperative pieces of evidence that would suggest what is desired and repulsed is more arbitrary than merely desiring being and avoiding destruction.

        • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

          Okay. Show me.

          In my own experience, desires that appear to be destructive or that seek non-being actually are seeking some kind of being – however distorted or misunderstood. For example, at one point in my life, I struggled with a desire for suicide. I thought it was better that I not exist than that I do. And yet I knew, like Hamlet, that the Everlasting has fix’d his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter, so I examined my desires more closely. What I really was after was an understanding of whether and how my existence had meaning, purpose. In other words, I was asking whether it was good that I existed, and I didn’t have an answer for a time. Not even religion was all that helpful: at one point, Jesus says of Judas Iscariot, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26.24; also Mark 14.21). It was actually philosophy, and coming to understand the relationship between good and being, that gave me the intellectual foundation to deal with my wayward emotions.

          No two stories are unique, but I’ve heard similar things from everyone I’ve talked to who desires destruction – whether their own or another’s: they all thought they wanted oblivion, but really wanted something more real. However, I’m open to counter-examples. So if you have any, please show me.

          • Alan

            I like seeing things go boom – highly destructive. Some people I know like burning ants with magnifying glasses (and they are decades passed childhood). I’m sure you know many people so repulsed by a variety of insects that they desire to squash them rather than let them occupy any of their living space.

            Come on, the list is obvious – without very getting into anything so weighty or presumptuous as to what drives thoughts of suicide. Is a fly swatter a mechanism of evil? Or is destruction not always bad?

          • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but an explosion is something, isn’t it? Fire and noise and flash and bang? It is a thing going boom. It has existence. To that degree, it is good.

            Your ant-burning friends: they like the fire, don’t they? They like the way watching the bug wriggle makes them feel, right? These are existing things that they are drawn to. They are not drawn to the utter lack of being; they are drawn to something that exists, to something good.

            Yet these desires for good things are twisted in some way: their priorities are disordered. It is beautiful to see a sunbeam catch something on fire, but it is cruel to harm an insect for the pleasure of it. This is because the insect is more important than the fire.

            How do we know the ant is more important than the fire? That’s a long argument, but it begins with recognizing that not all goods are equal. There are many kinds of good, many kinds of being, and none of them in this world is a complete or infinite good. Only God is infinitely good, and many do not think God exists. But the short answer is, the ant has more kinds of good, and more of those goods, than fire.

            And this leads back to your question, whether all destruction is evil. Yes, all destruction is evil in that it is the loss of some good; but no good in this world is permanent, and one good’s destruction is another good’s birth. Some of these we can control, and others we cannot. Indeed, not all ontological evil is moral evil; sometimes an ontological evil is a moral good: it is good to eat, though it is ontologically evil for the food.

            Hence my digression through prioritizing the importance of goods: we have to sort out which goods to pursue, which to let go, and which to transform into other goods. And we need principles to base those decisions on. Those principles are what we argue about in moral or ethical philosophy.

          • Alan

            In other words – because you say so.

            This all started because you assert “the common thread we find is that we desire being and avoid destruction”. Yet here we have people who desire destruction – maybe fire is being, but what they desire is the death of the ant or the falling of the building after the explosion.

            The only way you get around this is by mangling ‘existing’ to cover anything to the point where a dying bug is actually existence rather than destruction – it makes the terms meaningless.

            The whole point here is that while it is nice that you and your god have manufactured a hierarchy of ‘goods’ the real world just doesn’t conform the assumption that people desire being and avoid destruction when clearly some people desire destruction (and it could be argued avoid being but we don’t need to get into that).

          • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

            @Alan – I don’t see how it is “mangling ‘existing’” to say that “existence” includes anything and everything that actually exists. Moreover, I didn’t say that “a dying bug is actually existence rather than destruction”; I said that what ant-burners desire is something positive, something real: the pleasure of watching the ant burn. Ask them why they like to burn ants, and tell me what they reply.

            Nor am I making a startling or controversial argument when I say that, whatever one seeks, one seeks under the aspect of good. Nobody seeks evil because it is evil, but only if they are seeking something good.

            By the way, this approach to philosophy is not something the I or “my god” have “manufactured.” Look to the Greeks – Plato and Aristotle – for the articulation of a cosmic order of beings and goods. Christians (and Jews and Muslims, for that matter,) were rather late adopters of the idea.

    • Alan

      That’s odd father it seems you show a lack of understanding of what ‘good’ is. – ‘good’ is nothing in itself. It is always the distortion or destruction or absence of bad. That something exists is in itself a ‘bad’ and what distorts or destroys that thing that exists is, by definition, good.

  • jose

    There’s already a ton of literature on non-cognitivism, criticisms of non-cognitivism, responses to the criticisms, responses to the responses and so on.

    • Irenist

      If blog posts and comments weren’t able to engage topics on which there’s already plenty of other stuff written, there’d be little use for blogging. Nothing new under the sun.

      • jose

        It struck me as odd that nobody had mentioned the term, not in Seidensticker’s post either. Seemed appropiate to mention the literature. Leah’s critique for example was addressed by Stevenson here (search for “Rational Irresolvability” and “Moral Chaos”).

  • jose

    By the way, that comic is a critique of relativism, that’s something else.

  • Seth Evans

    ” But I generally don’t think it’s necessary to tell people I’d prefer they not steal my shoes, since I have a strong expectation that they know that rule already. It’s not just my law.”
    Yeah, you’re right, it’s not “just my law”–it’s also a “law” that’s shared by most other humans on the planet. And LIKE a law, it ONLY exists inasmuch as it is respected and enforced. And LIKE a law, GENERALLY these kinds of things (moral “laws,” or “norms,” or really whatever you want to call them, since how you refer to it makes no difference) are there because of a good, RATIONAL (logical connection between consequence valued and prescribed/proscribed action), pragmatic REASON (objective based), that serves subjective values (which, UNSURPRISINGLY, also have many commonalities despite the diversity of individuals forming them, because all of the subjects forming moral beliefs WE encounter, at least, are homo sapiens, and have, within a certain variable range, a common history and experience of existence).

    If you DON’T think this is true, point me towards one characteristic that these supposedly “wholly objective” possess in common with REAL objective entities that we can, have, and do subject to empirical analysis in the REAL world.

  • Seth Evans

    “I can think of some objective truths that exist but aren’t reliably accessible. At one end of the scale is Russell’s teapot (there either is or is not a teapot in orbit around the Sun somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Mars). That truth might be hard for us to verify, but our uncertainty doesn’t shape reality. The teapot either really exists or really doesn’t.”
    Yes, and until we have any sufficient rational reason to think that such a teapot exists, or does not exist, orbiting the Sun somewhere out in space, we should not PRESUME to believe that it DOES, any more than we should presume that it does not.

    So I would again, say “what’s your evidence for believing that morality exists as a “real thing” independent moral agents?” Because everything about the way the world ACTUALLY works, seems to suggest the contrary. Now I’m not saying there’s NO such a “thing” as morality, we certainly have CONCEPTS of morality, but merely that we have the CONCEPT of morality that is meaningful to us and can govern our actions, doesn’t MEAN it necessarily must refer to an objective “matter-of-fact” about the ontological entities of the universe.

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

    There are only two things needed in order for morality to exist. 1) Human nature. 2) An objective goal for that nature to develop into. Ethics then become the rules for developing the nature towards the goal. More metaphorically: human nature is our origin, the human telos is our destiny, and morality is the guidebook or map to lead the way.
    Morality then becomes a question of anthropology and teleology. Anthropology is natural and social science, and teleology is partially science and partially metaphysics (this ignores the fact that metaphysics underlies natural science too). Set aside the science part (because that method is already widely accepted) and what you are really left with is whether there is any objective goal to human life. Answer that and you’ve got it. :)
    And the answer is the goal consists of the virtues, human excellence, and that’s doable whether you are Catholic or not (just ask Aristotle). Though it does seem to be easier if you are Catholic.

  • Doragoon

    This might have been answered before, but if someone could help me out.
    Why does he accept objective scientific truth but not objective moral truth? It seems to me that both of them rely to some extent on causality and the reproducibility of events. Does he simply believe as an axiom that scientific truths don’t change? Two events or people can agree but that doesn’t mean they are always right, or always going to be right. You can flip a coin a hundred times and always get heads, but that doesn’t prove you’ll never get tails. You have to first believe in a stable knowable universe. If you believe that’s possible for scientific truth, why not for moral truths?

    I think I remember someone saying that it’s bad form to push someone into nihilism, but he’s so close already it wouldn’t be a long fall.

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

      If I might hazard a guess- objective scientific truth is based on repeatable, stable, quantitative observation. We know the universe is stable and knowable because we’ve taken measurements over the last few thousand years and it turns out it’s stable and knowable.

      Moral truth does not fit this criteria. Morality has been expressed in many different ways in many different cultures- even today. Moreover, there’s no obvious way to test if your moral theory more closely matches this assumed objective morality like there is with a scientific theory. In science, we can go register predictions that theories makes, go perform experiments, and observe how well reality conforms to our theory’s prediction. You can do this in a very limited sense with moral theory, but the problem is that moral theories are all underspecified. Different moral theories can all look at the same results and claim to be right- no matter what those results happen to be.

      But there’s a more fundamental sense in which they’re different- morality is an abstract idea, and physical reality is not. It’s not clear that morality exists at all independently from a mind intelligent and social enough to perceive it. It’s very clear that physical reality exists independent of whether or not we recognize it. In short, the burden of proof of objectivity is on the area of investigation. Science passes every reasonable bar of proof. Morality passes (in a moral relativists estimation) very few.

      • Doragoon

        I read this as, “yes he assumes a stable and knowable universe.” Which is an irrational rejection of occationalism. Why do people reject the idea of occationalism without a reason?

        Also, why doesn’t the existence of people who disagree with scientific truths show science to be subjective? Why do people trust their observations to be objective? Also, even if you trust your own personal observations, you can never say that those observations would be observed by another person.
        If only personal observations are knowable, then why are scientific observations less subjective than moral ones?

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

          I read this as, “yes he assumes a stable and knowable universe.”

          well, that’s not what I said, nor what I meant, but I doubt I can come up with a more convincing explanation than the one I already gave.

          Why do people reject the idea of occationalism without a reason?

          For the same reason people reject the idea that all the political events in the world are controlled by a cabal of beaver overlords. You can’t make a fantastical claim that doesn’t fit with our observations about reality and then demand to know why people are rejecting it without a reason. The reason is that, while it may not be strictly disprovable, it is both highly unlikely and totally unsupported by any evidence (although in the case of occationalism, I have a hard time conceiving of evidence that even potentially could be proffered.)

          why doesn’t the existence of people who disagree with scientific truths show science to be subjective?

          Because in science, people’s opinion of the evidence and the evidence itself are very different things. Objective morality makes the prediction that morality is the same for all people in all places, and takes a pretty big hit when it turns out that people in different places think, act, and believe as if morality is not the same. It’s strongly suggestive that morality is not at all objective. Science (or rather, our current theory of gravity) would take an equally big hit if it turns out that people in different parts of the world experience gravity differently.

          The only way you can really claim objective morality is to say that humans have very, very little access to this objective standard. It would sort of be like me saying there is an objectively correct system of weights and measures- even though people all over the world have used different weights and measures throughout history. Except that we now have broad adoption of the metric system, so it’s actually easier to argue for objective weights and measure than it is for objective morality.

          Why do people trust their observations to be objective?

          In actual science, they don’t. This is why they use double blinded studies whenever possible, it’s why you need peer review and duplication of experiments by independent parties. In practical terms, not all of an individual’s life can be done using this methodology, so we use our own personal experiences as approximations of reality. But no scientist watches a card trick and then declares he’s discovered a new law of physics that allows the Jack of hearts of any standard 52 card deck to jump to the top of the deck when an observer flicks the cards.

          Also, even if you trust your own personal observations, you can never say that those observations would be observed by another person.

          Are you arguing for the Boltzman brain here? Yes, moral relativism has no real defense against that, nor against Laplace’s demon, nor against a myriad of other “but what if it’s all make believe?” theories- but neither does any other metaphysical system. I’m certainly prepared to take as an axiom “what I observe is a reflection of reality” (distinct from “what I observe is reality”. I’m claiming that my observations about the world are reliably correlated to the actual world). If we weren’t allowed to used observations, then we can only arrive at a priori truths, which in my estimation is very close to the empty set.

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

            meh…. formatting

          • Doragoon

            My impression was that Aquinas dealt with this, and maybe Descartes, by first assuming the existence of a benevolent God.

    • deiseach

      Possibly on the basis that you can point (right now) up into the morning sky and say “Look, that’s Venus” but you can’t point up and say “Look, that’s justice”.

      • Doragoon

        That’s where your personal observations are telling you Venus is on this one occasion.
        Not only is there no spoon, it might be a fork you’ve never seen before.

  • Mitchell Porter

    Let’s try a Nietzsche-like position. The world consists of numerous atoms of consciousness, all of which have the capacity to “will” and to experience pleasure and pain. Pleasure occurs when the world presents the will with what it wants, pain when the will is denied what it wants. The human organism, which is the host of an atom of consciousness with an exceptional degree of internal differentiation and potential self-knowledge, is so constituted as to have desires about what happens to others as well as to itself. Moral impulses are still just pleasure-pain impulses, and a moral code is still just a reasoned strategy for satisfying the will, but complicated by this concern for what happens to other individuals. There is no such thing as a completely observer-independent moral fact, moral judgments always involve the actual or counterfactual response of a specific will to a specific event, and moral objectivity can never really eliminate this element of situated subjectivity, it’s always a “view from somewhere”.

  • Joe

    Is valuing hypocrisy the highest “good” in a relativistic framework? When a relativist fights for gay or abortion rights or condemns the westboro baptist church does he/she say to themselves “My moral indignation is really just a bull-crap kabuki show that will help me maintain geek chic status. When someone lies about scientific facts I will pretend to get all pissed off like truth has some kind of force attached to it that obligates us to articulate it accurately, but thats bull-crap too.” It seems like thinking one way and acting another would make one crazy?

  • http://www.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

    I agree that there can still be a fact of the matter about hard to discover truths. Perhaps a better objection to the typical moral chaos arguments people make against relativism would be that these objective morals don’t solve the problem even if they do exist.

    Suppose that there are moral facts out there floating in some sort of Platonic aether, or grounded in the Nature of a Maximally Capitalised Being. Even allow that we can somehow know what some of them are. Now what? The knowledge that these things exist does not seem to be compelling in the way that the people who worry about moral relativism want it to be, since one typical argument here is the moral chaos one: “if there are no such facts, how can we convince Hobbes not to push Calvin in the mud/convince the Nazis not to kill the Jews?” But, since there are no universally compelling arguments, why suppose that Hobbes and the Nazis would be bothered by the idea that they are contravening some universal standard?

    Why even suppose that they make some kind of mistake by contravening it, as the person who is wrong about the teapot does? (Of course, they would make such a mistake if there were moral facts and they believed the facts were different from the true ones). Don Loeb’s Gastronomic Realism—A Cautionary Tale is fun reading (if you like philosophy papers which talk about haggis and Cheetos) for his extension of moral realism to gastronomic realism: perhaps we can use the arguments for moral realism to show that some foods are simply better than others, in an absolute sense? Loeb says he’s not attempting a reductio here, as the arguments for gastronomic realism are pretty good. Rather: “If gastronomic realism is correct, then it would of course be possible to make mistakes about which foods are good or about how good they are. But it is hard to see how a (suitably informed) person could be mistaken in preferring worse foods to better ones. That decision is still up to us, and not just in the political sense that we are free to make it for ourselves, but in the evaluative sense that such decisions are not ordinarily subject to rational criticism.

    The interesting thing is that the same is true in regards to moral value. Supposing for the moment that there are real moral oughts, one must still decide whether or not to govern one’s conduct in accordance with them. No doubt it would be immoral not to; we oughtM to do what morality requires. But there are likely to be conflicts between the oughts of morality and the oughts of prudence, law, or instrumental rationality, to name a few. Thus the fact that we oughtM to behave in a certain way tells us nothing about whether we ought all things considered to do so.” I’ll leave the truly awful pun at the end of the paper for the reader to discover.

    • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

      I find it interesting that he assumes there are fundamental differences between “oughts of morality and the oughts of prudence, law, or instrumental rationality”; this has been something that at least needs to be defended in its own right since Anscombe’s Modern Moral Philosophy — it’s a highly controversial claim. Certain moral realists can make a principled distinction, given other commitments; but not all moral realists do make it, and it’s implausible that those who can make it would confine themselves to making it in ways that would leave it open to the problem Loeb suggests. (To use Loeb’s own example, Kantians, who do draw such a distinction, draw it in a way that there is no problem here: on a Kantian view those things are moral that are categorically required to be rational, whereas those things that are merely prudential are rational only conditionally. One may doubt Kantian principles, but it’s absurd to feign perplexity at the fact that Kantians take a necessity-modality to trump a possibility-modality, or that they take doing what is necessary for rationality to be more rational than doing what merely can be rational if other conditions are met. The whole argument is just strange.)

  • Erick

    @ Robert King

    Yes, you’ve got me correctly. Thanks for the explanation to Alan.

    As far as the moral good versus ontological good. I’m not a philosopher so I don’t really know what this means. To me, the important part is establishing there are objectively good things or objectively bad things first.

    • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

      @Erick – “ontological” simply means “related to being”, so an ontological good is the good of existing itself. An apple tree grows, bears fruit, is healthy: that is good, ontologically speaking. If the tree is diseased, fails to bear fruit, dies, that is evil, ontologically speaking. But there is no morality in it: no justice or injustice, no malice or benevolence.

      Moral goods require intellect and will: the ability to understand things in the world, to compare and make judgments about good and better and best, the ability to desire the good, and the freedom to make responsible choices about one’s own actions.

      In other words, morality requires a person, a subject, one who acts. Ontological good only requires an object, something that has any kind of existence at all.

  • Erick

    @ Alan

    1. If you want to say that destroying existence is your definition of good, that’s fine. But that still means that to accomplish your good, there must be existence in the first place. You can’t destroy what does not exist.

    2. Since you cannot destroy what does not exist, you have to prefer existence in order to accomplish your good. Without existence, there is no such value or concept as “destroy”.

    3. If existence is preferred, then it is not neutral.

    4. Since existence does not oppose your good, it must not be evil. If it’s not evil and not neutral, it must be a good in itself.

    • Alan

      Erick – that doesn’t logically follow. It breaks down fatally in #4 (though #3 also need not be true) as existence can be in opposition to my good if my good is not merely the act of destruction but the trend towards less existence.

      Essentially you are saying the same as this:

      1 Punishing those who do evil is good.
      2 I cannot punish evil if there is none and thus without evil cannot do good therefor I have to prefer evil to accomplish my good
      3 If evil is preferred then it is not neutral
      4 Since evil does not oppose my good… or does it?

      • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

        @Alan – Your reverse argument breaks down in your first statement: “Punishing those who do evil is good.” But it is not the only good, nor is it the very definition of good. So your #2 does not follow.

        The logic of Erick’s argument is not fully drawn out, but he sketches the outline of it enough to make his point. You simply claim that it is illogical. Can you show the fallacy?

        Meanwhile, all your arguments seem simply to equate “evil” and “good” as concepts, or perhaps to reverse them. Can you tell us what your definition of “evil” is?

  • thomasc

    The thing that puzzles me when people claim they don’t believe that morality is “real” in some way, is that the same people almost always 1) do actually think moral questions matter, and 2) bother to engage in moral debate with people they disagree with, or at least engage in argument, or at very least engage in abuse.

    If talking about right and wrong answers to moral questions, or approaches to morality, or ways of becoming happy, is simply meaningless, then why do they care? It *can’t* matter whether the way they act or the way soemone else acts is coherent or incoherent. The coherence/incoherence of your moral outlook doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Someone who is in this sense a moral relativist would seem to be engaged in the same kind of useless activity if they campaign and argue for an end to racial discrimination as if they harangued people about why they shouldn’t wear green shirts with blue ties. I might not like honour killings. But I can’t, technically speaking, say that they are “wrong” or that there is any reason I should care about the fact that they go on. Yes, I might say “I campaign against honour killing because it makes me feel uncomfortable and so it makes sense for me to want to stop it”, but, (it seems to me) for a relativist, that answer is no more or less sensible than the answer “I use Pavlovian conditioning to train my mind not to be upset by honour killing because it makes me feel uncomfortable and I want to stop feeling uncomfortable”.

    But the reason I think this attitude is irrational as well as paralysing is this: it is a universal human activity to care about what we do and whether we and other people are doing the right thing. To say that this entire task is meaningless seems anti-rational in the same way that saying that trying to understand the natural world is meaningless (because of some radical-Humian attitude to epistomology, say). Trying to understand the world around us is one of the things we just do as humans. We can’t prove that that makes sense as a project. Similarly, trying to make sense of our actions and our lives is something we all try to do (unless we have taught ourselves not to).

    • thomasc

      Effectively, it seems to amount to the claim that moral questions aren’t susceptible to rational attack, and that seems just as much a form of intellectual self-mutilation as claiming that the development of species, or the movement of the planets, or the order of society, aren’t subjects we can think rationally about.

  • Erick

    @ Alan

    “Trend toward less existence” still requires there is existence. Therefore, existence is a benefit towards that “trending”. If there was no existence, there would be no desire to “trend”. If there was nothing, none of the concepts of good and evil we have would exist. Hence, to even have the concepts your POV is composed of, existence is a benefit. Existence is a good.

    Using your example of punishing evil. If evil does not exist, then the concept of punishing evil does not exist either. So in order to get the good called “punishing evil”, yes there must be evil. So the existence of evil does not oppose “punishing”. What evil opposes is some other good, not the “punishing” one.

    • Alan

      Ok so what if it was “eliminate existence”? Anything that reduces existence down to and including no existence is good, anything that increases existence is evil. Thus the initial creation is evil.

      If this good and evil are objective reality they are true regardless of whether any moral agents came into existence – if there was nothing the objectively true nature of good and bad would still be.

      • Erick

        Let me get this straight. So the moral agent views eliminating existence as a good, therefore existence must be bad? Existence would still be a good thing to the moral agent on certain other levels though. One example: the moral agent must exist in order to effect an elimination – making existence a certain good thing.

        Your second paragraph no longer follows my argument, so I will not answer. My argument assumes there are moral agents, because it follows Bob of CrossExamined’s premise that morality is relative depending on a moral agent’s POV.

        • Alan

          No, the moral agent is irrelevant – what is good is an objective truth. Whether it is a good thing to the moral agent is irrelevant if we are talking about some objective standard of morality – in fact, it is entirely possible that the existence of moral agents itself violates this objective morality which is why we must strive to eliminate them.

          And no, your argument did not follow from the premise that morality is relative as your initial post offered existence as evidence of objective morality independent of us or our moral point of views.

          • Erick

            I’ll repeat the argument for you, since you insist on arguing a point I never made. As Obama said in his debate, read the transcript.

            = = =
            “The concept of “good” is a relative term”
            “For Bob, good is a concept that depends on POV. This is what I mean by it’s relative.”
            “There is no denying existence. There is a universe. Therefore, there is something instead of nothing. So, however you define “what is good”, existence must fit it, because there is existence.”
            “If existence is “good” regardless of how you define “what is good”, then existence is an objective good.”
            “As an aside, notice that, even if I allow for the evil argument brought by butterfly5906, there is still an objective morality – there is a concept that is objectively evil.”
            = = =

            I think it’s clear there, that my definition of objective is dependent on the existence of moral agents.

          • Alan

            Erick – you seem to have some challenges with ‘objective’ and ‘relative’.

            You say:
            “Evil is not, strictly speaking, a relative term. Evil is always defined as “what is not good”. You only think evil is relative, because good is relative.”

            Of course you just defined evil in relation to good, i.e. you defined it as a relative term, right after insisting it is not.

            Likewise, when you say:
            “There is existence. Independent of us”

            You can’t then insist that for existence to be objective it depends on the existence of moral agents – because, you know, you already said it was independent of us.

          • Erick

            That may be, but I have clearly defined what I mean by relative and objective, so you should not be confused by how the terms have been used. Disagree with the definitions, if you must, but then you should have said that in the beginning… and we could have discussed that argument instead.

            So let’s go at it again then…

            Existence may be independent of us, but that’s not the independence being discussed when we talk about objective morality, is it?

            We are discussing independence of moral judgments from the minds of subjective moral agents. If a moral judgment is universal for all minds, then that judgment must also be independent of those minds. And independence of the judgment from the subjectiveness of the moral agents creates objectivity.

            Are you asking then what about amoral agents? They’re minds too?

          • Alan

            But your assertion “If a moral judgment is universal for all minds, then that judgment must also be independent of those minds.” is just not true. If a moral judgment requires a mind to exist at all it would not be independent of those minds even if it is the same judgment across all minds. You have to assume the objective existence of the judgment outside of the moral agents’ minds to concluded that the independence of judgment from moral agents minds creates objectivity – in other words you are begging the question.

  • http://junglehope.wordpress.com Lana Hope

    Love Calvin and Hobbs.

  • Niemand

    132 posts mostly from people who don’t really disagree with each other all that much (for example, I don’t think any actual Taliban members have come to argue their viewpoint) and we can’t agree on any given thing as an absolute moral good or evil. Perhaps that is the case for there not being such a thing as “objective morality”.

    Even supposing there is something called “objective morality”, it may be better to assume that one’s particular morals are relative. Because a lot of people have done bad things based on an absolute belief in their own righteousness. The Catholic church burning St. Joan to death, the Taliban, the people who believed they were shocking others to death in the Milgram experiments: they all believed that they were right and that they must do something that was, perhaps, distasteful, but still for the “greater good.” So maybe a certain amount of doubt is useful–it helps one pay attention to the voice inside that says, “This feels wrong” even when everyone around is saying “this is right.”

    Hmm…Did I just claim that moral relativism was an objective good?

    • Erick

      This does remind me of the an abortion post Hallq posted recently, where a poster Yvain said something along the lines of… the reason people disagree over the correct moral judgement of abortion is that different people have different definitions of what is abortion is.

  • Mattiedef

    An interesting question to ask.

    I’m personally not a moral relativist, despite not having a real theological belief. I tend to rely on a yardstick is “What brings the most happiness to the most people?” It’s simple, perhaps even to the point of being mathematical, and considers both self and others. If I do something that pleases myself and pains no one else… why not do it? But a majority cannot suppress a minority because the pain it brings far outweighs the happiness brought by the feel of superiority. It also applies equally to all people and gives a value to charity, service, and other things. It also makes no claims to ‘stuff’ or a God, without disregarding either. Also allows for a sense of community, because a rapist or murderer might not harm you and would inconvenience you to help, the moral standard requires a commitment to others.

    • Ted Seeber

      The problem is, what brings the most happiness to the most people is usually the utter destruction of all minority opinion.

  • Kristen inDallas

    On a sidenote… think it’s funny that many of the comments make the distinction between the objectivity of morals (if they believe that) with the subjectivity of music and art. However, the musicians I know that are the most trained, will tell me that there is an objective standard by which to evaluate music. The “taste” part comes in only when we judge between 2 objectively good choices (ie a strong cadence or a catchy one) just like when we debate morality it’s usually in those places when two different virtues seem to conflict, or our human capacity doesn’t allow both. But they would argue that just because we make subjective seeming choices, that the objective standard is still there. While there could be some discussion of whether Requiem or Friday is the better song, when you start looking a individual choices within those pieces, most people with a healthy knowledge of how music works will have no doubt that Requiem makes a lot of good choices.

  • AJ

    According to Thomas Hobbes, thour lives in the state of nature are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a state in which self-interest and the absence of rights and contracts prevented the ‘social’, or society. Life was without leadership or order. People in the state of nature were anot political or social. This state of nature causes the creation of social contracts.
    The social contract happens when individuals come together and ceded some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs (e.g. person A gives up his/her right to kill person B if person B does the same). This resulted in the establishment of lawful order. Human life was thus no longer “a war of all against all”.

    But the state system, which grew out of the social contract, was without a leader. Just as the individuals in the state of nature had been self lead and thus guided by self-interest and the absence of rights, so states now acted in the self intrest of thier leader.

    Our blogger here wishes the Catholic church to be that leader because of her personal preference for that type of social order. She wants to be subjugated by the Catholic hierarchy so she is no longer responsibile for thinking about the “truth” that she dose things for her self intrest(which she aligns self with Catholicism). Thus her conscious is now free to feel good because any bad by products of the leader are not her responsibility to deal with while she will probably own all of the good things. Example: She will not feel responsible for the Priest sex abuse scandal but will feel a part of the feeding the poor.

    Just evolution at work.

  • runitoid

    What I admire about many atheist is both the great faith in and love for the genius of Evolution, how (He, She, It) “chooses” such wondrous and as well practical things as “fitness to the environment.” Brilliant! I agree. And how, working backwards from observation to theory, the atheist discovers to their glee that Evolution is perfect, not only in its design of all life and its many facets but also in Evolution graciously making accessible to their minds its perfection; a totally knowable god that can be both seen and measured. Truth is merely getting rid of all the excess baggage that does not place full reliance on both the largesse and intelligence of Evolution. Neat package.

    • Darren

      A common misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution is not perfect. Evolution does not pick. Evolution is an idiot watchmaker. The only things it has on its side are a hideous amount of time in which to stumble upon its solutions and ruthless method of eliminating sub-optimal solutions (death).

      In fact, it is by the very imperfection of evolution that most materialists feel it is a better answer than such ‘alternatives’ as Intelligent Design. You buy a new car from Honda, and it is brand new. Every part fits with every other part. There are no ‘extra’ parts that serve no purpose, and every part that is present was clearly built especially to function as it does. You by a car from Evolution and it is a Frankenstien’s monster of kluged together parts, most of which have clearly been salvaged from some great and vast junkyard, many of the parts do not particularly work well, and there are numerous ‘extra’ parts. It is more like Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” car, wherein a worker at a Cadillac factory steals an entire car, one part at a time, from numerous models, and over the course of several decades.

      • ACN

        It’s got another thing, the muon flux!

        They are believed to be one of the principle mechanisms for random mutation. Time doesn’t give you a lot without a source of mutation :)

  • AJ

    Evolution is a mesey process that causes many mistakes and death. What we have now is what manged to make it though it all, that which is “naturally selected”.

    “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something- The Dread Pirate Roberts

  • Darren

    A tree falls in a forest, but no one is there. Does it make a sound?

    A tree falls in a forest and crushes a baby deer, but not one is there. Is it sad?

    1 + 1 = 2 even with no humans to comprehend it. It is true even with no sapients of any kind, ever, anywhere.
    Gravity is a thing that exists. It has existed before humans, or any other agent, and will exist after.

    Both mathematics and Gravity are Objectively True. Can there be such a thing as Objectively True morality?

    I contend that there cannot be. Everything that is Objectively True, gravity, mathematics, the speed of light, pi, each of these Objective truths is amoral and devoid of meaning. Is Objective Morality to be the one exception? Both Objectively True and yet also possessing meaning? We certainly have no precedent for such a thing, in the manner of extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

    The search for Objective meaning strikes me as all too similar to the First Cause argument. Everything that is Objective is devoid of meaning, except for Objective Morality, which has meaning = Everything that exists must have a cause, except for God, who exists but does not required a cause.

    Camels with Hammers (sorry, still have not figured out how to insert hypertext in Patheos comments) has done an admirable job attempting to show how Objective Morality can exist, but I think it falls short. What he establishes is that there are, possibly, Moral Laws that sapient agents would most likely follow. The arguments are worth reading, he is a far better reasoner than I, but the Moral Laws could just as easily be described as Game Theory stratagems. Any rational agent will likely answer the Prisoner’s Dilemma in the same manner, just as any organism that evolved in a world with mobile predators/prey and plentiful visible light will most likely develop eyes.

    Game Theory is a long way from Objective Morality, but it appears to be the best we have.


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