Who wants a chew toy?

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://songe.me Alex Songe

    The fact is not everyone knows right from wrong. Psychopaths and sociopaths, as well as those without sufficient cognitive abilities lack the ability to know objective morality (however sociopaths and psychopaths can understand morality, they just don’t have that moral sense to reinforce it).

    Also, people want to believe they live in a just universe. Appealing to a wider magic reality that offers retribution seems attractive. There’s just no evidence that it’s true. Oddly enough, it’s not even true within Christianity, because if Casey Anthony accepts Jesus Christ into her heart, she will get away without punishment. You can’t appeal to an external/imposed morality (there can still be an objective morality without a god) when that explanation cannot even cover basic theodicy.

  • http://jontherevolution.blogspot.com Jon

    As usual I’ll take this piece by piece.

    “Casey Anthony is evidence for God.” A bold introduction! Though I’m not so sure that God, unless it’s perhaps Kali hindu goddess of death, is the first thing people think of when you mention C.A. Still, I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt. After all, to make such an extraordinary claim you must have some astounding evidence.

    “Why do I say this?” A very good question. “This case shows that everyone and their mother wants justice!” Uh, Casey Anthony is a mother, and she seems to be pretty OK with the way things played out. Besides, what does justice mean here? Let’s assume it means a guilty verdict. “My explanation – God created humans in his image (unique from the animals with ideas of rightness and wrongness/justice and injustice).” First of all, the idea of the anthropomorphic god dates back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Young Earth creationist. Then those nations kind of lose relevance. Furthermore, what proof is there that God has ideas of rightness and wrongness. Seems to me that he’s pretty vindictive. Whether he’s telling the Israelites to rape and pillage any number of rival tribes or advocating… ok ok. I’m maybe getting ahead of myself. Let’s see where you’re going with this…

    “Your explanation – natural means only.” Unless you’ve discovered the SoulOrgan, yes. “Abstract or objective ideas about wrong being wrong and right being right cannot arise from naturalism.” Prove it. Chimpanzees seem to be able to distinguish rather easily when they’ve been wronged. There’s an entire hour of Nova on it. I would recommend you check it out. Beyond that, one doesn’t need a supernatural being to say that one person having a hundred apples while a hundred of his neighbors are starving is wrong. Equity and fairness, and their sister, Justice, are hardwired into our neurology.

    “Evidence…” YES! Evidence! That’s what we’ve been waiting for.

  • Courtney

    I’d tear it apart, but it doesn’t make enough sense to attempt to apply reason to it. “Natural means only”? What does that even mean?

  • http://jontherevolution.blogspot.com Jon


    “…may point to group survival requiring appropriate social behavior (we see this in other species easy enough) – but the evidence does not explain objective ideas of rightness and wrongness.” And there’s the qualifier. Sorry folks. No evidence to see here. But the crux of the argument does show itself! You claim there are objective ideas of rightness and wrongness. Just how do you measure rightness? Do you have a unit for it? What about psychopaths? If it were objective there would be no disagreement over how good or how bad something is. But, you see, we do have disagreements. For example, that rage-filled God of the Old Testament advocated rape and slavery. Those ideas are abhorred today. Why? Maybe it has something to do with a naturalistic theory of human rights and gender equality. After all, your God has taken an unequivocal stance on the other side of the issue. Perhaps you mean to say “objective ideas of guilt and innocence.” But there we run into your bugbear: evidence. Evidence is needed to make claims about the world around us. Evidence, and perhaps the flawed presentation thereof, is why Casey Anthony was declared innocent. Evidence allows us to make decisions.

    Perhaps next time your god could just smite Casey Anthony and save us both the trouble from now until the hereafter.


  • Vlad

    JT, I’m skeptical about your natural morality, but Scott went full retard so here goes:

    To start, his first premise is entirely wrong because chimps will spontaneously show rudimentary altruism (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/311/5765/1301.abstract) and capuchins have a sense of fairness, or a rudimentary sense of justice (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v425/n6955/abs/nature01963.html). There’s no reason to think people are special when it comes to morality (other than the fact people can respond to reasons).

    Should I keep going? Because I mean the rest is really just unfounded assertions and circular arguments (morality isn’t natural because it’s impossible for morality to be natural? really?).

    If I need to, this sentence “but the evidence does not explain objective ideas of rightness and wrongness.” makes no sense at all. Not only is it circular, and not only are there absolutely no universal moral rules held across everyone, but there’s no reason at all social norms–even granting that’s all they are (which they aren’t)–can still be expressed through a feeling of objective morality. Which is better for maintaining social rules? An objective feeling of absolute certainty or something a bit more lenient?

    Christians think homosexuality is objectively wrong — the greeks loved it. I’m not seeing the case here.

  • http://war-on-error.xanga.com/ Ben

    He’s packing his comments with his own philosophical presuppositions and intuitions and not justifying any of them. Did he win the mind/body debate? Can he prove computers can’t have abstract ideas (or won’t one day)? Did he demonstrate that immaterial entities actually exist as he likely conceives of them or that the concept is even coherent? What exactly does he mean by “objective.” Wouldn’t “appropriate social behaviors” be objective in the sense that no single person in our species determined what those behaviors would be even in naturalistic terms? Or does this have to be cranked up to an existential objective “11″ Spinal Tap style to sate the ironically subjective moral lusts of theists? I don’t have a problem if the golden rule is just an inherited mental constraint in our brains. Why does he? Didn’t he just assume all of his positions as the default position and claim that naturalism can’t account for the magic? In my opinion, it’s intellectually dishonest to present theistic arguments the way that he does (and as many theistic philosophers like him do). It confuses the issue and sheds no light on the disagreement between philosophers. A disagreement his camp can hardly be said to be winning in professional circles, btw. http://philpapers.org/surveys/metaresults.pl

  • http://onehourparkingshow.com Jeff van Booven

    The real problem as I read it is the idea that there is an objective morality, from God, nature, or otherwise. Yes, we can surmise how parts of morality can arise from what we might call, “best practice,” but there’s nothing concrete that says we ought to do things that way. Even if you goal is best for society, you’re still left with what is best for society. In many ways, justice is another culturally defined concept and, like culture itself, lacks concrete foundations. There is no universal form of justice. There’s ideas of eye for an eye, burn in hell for all eternity, incarceration, et al. What they all indicate is that justice and right/wrong are all subjective measures borne out of the cultures we are born in.

    Then there’s the slight problem of his assertion of what the Casey Anthony case shows. If it shows anything, it’s that a majority of the world doesn’t give a rats ass and that Greta Van Susteren is a pox on the American airwaves. But, his comments would indicate, once again, a universal reaction to the verdict, of which their wasn’t. The lack of universal response, and even defense of the verdict, would counteract his assertion as God would then have to have a plethora of images in which he made humans to account for the varied ideas of what is and is not justice, which then calls into the question of Genesis as anything more than metaphor–as well as meaning God has multiple personality disorder (which, when you think about it, could explain a whole lot). A better assumption given the evidence is that human senses of what constitutes justice and right and wrong are the product of the interplay between cultural and biological evolution.

    That leaves the biggest assumption of all. What karaoke song is he suggesting by that comment? Earl’s Gotta Die? And, can J.T. do the Dixie Chicks?

  • John Eberhard

    I don’t reckon this old boy is a farmer. If he were, he would know that if a chicken is sick or injured, the rest of the flock will peck it plumb to death. This very natural instinct to rid the tribe of the defective ones seems to be the “justice” to which he is referring in the Casey Anthony example.

  • Xovvo

    Oh! I have this man. I will eat this man alive. Just as soon as I get off work.

  • Xovvo

    Right, so, late–but here it is.

    So this lovely individual posits the rather common claim that morality and our desire for justice must come from God, because there simply can’t be a natural cause for morality–or at least an “absolute” morality. This person’s idea of an “absolute” morality seems to be a rather arbitrary set of rules handed down by a (potentially non-existent) Supreme Being (or suitable mouthpiece). Essentially, a deontological system of ethics with an especially mystical base. Which is rather leotarded when one considers the purpose of morality: to guide one’s actions (especially in everyday life); it is the science of living properly. The science of morality only applies to things in which we have a choice–its job is to determine which of the choices is “good”, which choice is of value to us. Generally, discussions of morality and ethics center around which code of values should be followed–when in that case and in this present case, the far more useful question is “Do we need a code of values–and if so, why?”.
    Let’s break this down further–because we are still starting far too high up the conceptual chain–we need to ask questions that will get us to the base.
    Is the concept of value, of “good or evil” an arbitrary human invention, unrelated to, underived from and unsupported by any facts of reality—or is it based on a metaphysical fact, on an unalterable condition of our existence? (I use the word “metaphysical” to mean: that which pertains to reality, to the nature of things, to existence–rather than to mean: beyond the physical, supernatural) Does an arbitrary human convention, a mere custom, decree that man must guide his actions by a set of principles—or is there a fact of reality that demands it? Is ethics the province of whims: of personal emotions, social edicts and mystical revelations—or is it the province of reason? Is ethics a subjective luxury—or an objective necessity?
    I will make the claim here that ethics it is a necessity, and that it is demanded by reality; that “good”, “evil” and “value” all have a basis in reality. After giving the base for my stance, I will have what I need to sweep away his.
    In ethics, one must begin by asking: What are values? Why do we need them?

    “Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.
    In order to understand the source of values and thus morality, let’s look at life and the problem of survival. Life is completely optional; it is a very special arrangement of normally inanimate matter such that it sets up and perpetuates a self-generated and self-replicating system. This system has only to real options: to function, or not to function; It can live, or it can die. In order to survive, the organism must take certain courses of action in order to ensure its continued survival–else it dies.
    Now, an organism’s life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from its physical background, and the action of its own body–the action of using that fuel properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism’s life–or rather, that which is required for the organism’s survival.

    No choice is open to an organism in this issue: that which is required for its survival is determined by its nature, by the kind of entity it is. Many variations, many forms of adaptation to its background are possible to an organism, including the possibility of existing for a while in a crippled, disabled or diseased condition, but the fundamental alternative of its existence remains the same: if an organism fails in the basic functions required by its nature—if an amoeba’s protoplasm stops assimilating food, or if a man’s heart stops beating—the organism dies. In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life. Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.

    Plants have no choice in how they seek to preserve themselves–they are entirely dependent of their physical background having everything they need in order to survive. If their environment does not have everything (say, a drought happens), the plant dies. An animal is also largely dependent on its physical environment to survive–although it does have the option to move to a different environ if the current one is lacking that which it needs to survive; however, if it cannot find a hospitable environment quickly enough, it dies. Both plants and animals have no choice but to try to survive–they cannot conceive of doing otherwise, and they cannot conceive of survival methods outside whatever in-born instincts they have evolved.
    Man, however, in evolving his faculty of Reason (which is actually a far more expansive faculty than that posited in the Enlightenment and commonly lampooned since), is not entirely dependent on his physical background to survive–he can shape it to his needs (farming, irrigation, domesticating livestock, domestication in general, the building of shelters, air-conditioning, cooking, medicine, et cetera). However, Man has no instincts to guide him–he has only Reason; he must figure out how to survive, he must determine which course of action he should take in order to further his life, rather than acting as his own destroyer. This, is where morality–the science of living properly–enters. At this stage, the sciences and the branches of Philosophy are rather undifferentiated; Morality is easy, he needs to discover–by trial and error–what will lead to his survival and what will not. Once he has discovered certain effective methods, the moral action is to keep practicing those methods. This assumes, however, that the man is alone and is able to easily discover those methods–that he is a genius on a desert island. Out of their own self-interest (that very much NOT immoral thing in which you are interested in achieving your values–a good thing to have if you value your life) human beings often work together to achieve a common goal (in this case, to survive). Here is where the meat of morality is. You see, morality is the science of living properly–or in more explicit terms, the science of living among other reasoning beings; Reasoning beings need four things in order to live: the right to their own lives, their own property, and their ability to choose how best to achieve their goals.

    A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.
    Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.

    The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.
    Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.

    If men (or more generally, reasoning beings) wish to live and work together, these rights must be respected and never, ever violated. This means that they must act morally–in their own rational self-interest over the course of their whole lives, and doing so without violating the rights of others (which would impede their ability to act in their own self-interest over the course of their lives). It is important to note that this applies only to dealings with reasoning beings. A hungry lion does not care about your right to life. It is hungry and must eat to live–and you are an easy meal.
    Because morality allows human/reasoning beings to coexist, every culture has instituted some sort of ethics, and some sort of system to enforce it. This is from whence come governments–they are institutions that safeguard individual rights by outlawing the initiation of force in interactions (the only mechanism–aside from fraud, which is also outlawed under a proper government–by which one’s rights may be violated), and holding a monopoly on the *retaliatory* use of force (obviously, one may still defend one’s self–but one may not go about seeking revenge and whatnot)–police to protect us from criminals within, the military to protect us from aggression without, and courts of law to mediate disputes.

    Here is a perfect time to talk about justice!

    In order to define and better under stand “justice”, let’s start with a few questions.

    What fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that one must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around one’s self, id est, must judge and evaluate them. Is one’s judgment automatically right? No. What causes one’s judgment to be wrong? The lack of sufficient evidence, or one’s evasion of the evidence, or one’s inclusion of considerations other than the facts of the case. How, then, is one to arrive at the right judgment? By basing it exclusively on the factual evidence and by considering all the relevant evidence available. But isn’t this a description of “objectivity”? Yes, “objective judgment” is one of the wider categories to which the concept “justice” belongs. What distinguishes “justice” from other instances of objective judgment? When one evaluates the nature or actions of inanimate objects, the criterion of judgment is determined by the particular purpose for which one evaluates them. But how does one determine a criterion for evaluating the character and actions of men, in view of the fact that men possess the faculty of volition? What science can provide an objective criterion of evaluation in regard to volitional matters? Ethics. Now, do I need a concept to designate the act of judging a man’s character and/or actions exclusively on the basis of all the factual evidence available, and of evaluating it by means of an objective moral criterion? Yes. That concept is “justice.”

    tl;dr: Justice is determining that which one deserves, and acting accordingly.

    Now, why do we seek out morality? Why do we love justice? Since to love is to value–or rather, love is a response to that which is or embodies that which we value, it becomes obvious that it is because we value morality and justice. Why do we ascribe so much value to them? Because those two things make living possible. Because of those two concepts, we need not fear other people–we do not expect any given person to attempt to kill or rob us. We need not fear others as we fear wolves. Are there those who would rob, kill, or rape? Indeed–but they are the exception, not the rule. So long as people respect each others rights, a society may be built, people can work together–because there can be trust and a basis for voluntary trade by mutual consent to mutual benefit. If these rights are not respected by all, then this base disappears, and society cannot form, and if formed already, will dissolve. Since societies that respect rights are in our own self-interest, we strive to treat others justly (and therefore morally) and deal justice to those who violate those rights.

    Now, this man here believes that an unobservable being who–by testimony of its own written word–regularly commits genocide against an entire group of people for the transgressions of a few members within that group, punishes innocent people for the sins of a single, unrelated person, and regularly murders/condones the enslavement of the children of those who offend him/sin (as evidence, the whole of the Bible). This being also has 613 incredibly arbitrary rules that clearly serve to ensure that one tribe (of Levi) never has to worry about food or money by guilting the other tribes into giving them sacrifices to atone for their sins because that tribe is ordained by the supreme unobservable being to be the only ones able to do so, and getting this guilt via the aforementioned 613 laws that declare to be immoral many things that are not. I will not get into that bit. That is way, way too much wrong to correct here. He believes that morality must come from tis being, when this is not so. Not even his particular code of ethics comes from this being, but rather from those seeking to take advantage of others by claiming to be the supreme unobservable being’s mouthpiece.
    In short, this man is confusing his discredited subtly immoral code of arbitrary deontological rules with the whole of morality.

    A note on the Casey Anthony trial: our legal system explicitly operates upon the presumption of innocence: one is innocent until proven guilty. The prosecution had failed to convince a jury of 12 people beyond reasonable doubt that she was guilty of murdering her child. You, having no knowledge of the entire body of evidence presented by both sides in the case, are in no position to make any rational judgement. Unsatisfying as it may be to have not have the killer facing justice, that is no excuse for this mob-justice reaction. Many innocent lives were ruined because they were accused of murder, found not guilty, and then treated as if they were indeed guilty. Such behavior undermines the purpose of the Courts. Should new, stronger evidence come along, then let whoever is the killer face justice. Until then, Casey Anthony has been tried and has been determined not to be guilty. Unless she is subsequently proved otherwise, she is innocent of the crime.

    This has been my long and rambling rant in which I lost interest half-way through due to Civ 2. This *should* still make sense.