Bob, can I interest you in Transhumanism?

Bob, can I interest you in Transhumanism? October 24, 2012

Bob Seidensticker has looked over my recent post on objective morality and hard to get at truths, and he’s got some more questions.  Let me pull out a couple quotes from Bob’s post:

I’ll agree that there’s nothing absolute for the consensus to be truth about. When we say, “Capital punishment is wrong,” there is no absolute truth (the yardstick) for us to compare our claim against. Is capital punishment wrong? We can wrestle with this issue the only way we ever have, by studying the issue and arguing with each other in various ways, but we have no way to resolve the question once and for all by appealing to an absolute standard.

…As for “arbitrary,” my morals may be arbitrary in an absolute sense, but of course they don’t feel arbitrary in a throwing-darts-at-a-list-of-possibilities sort of way. I consult my conscience with moral questions, and it gives me answers. No need for an external anything. (If you say, “Wait—where did that conscience come from? Didn’t that get put in there by an external agent?” then I point to evolution as the source.)

What I don’t understand is why Bob sees his conscience as worth listening to.  There’s a very boring possible answer to that question (“It’s uncomfortable when I don’t!  I dislike the queasy feelings that tend to result, so I’m conditioned to follow my conscience’s promptings!), that I hope he won’t give.   For one thing, that answer doesn’t give much of a reason to pass up wireheading or soma (typical error checks for hedonic philosophies).  But, if this is his answer, Bob should be prepared to recognize his conscience as his enemy, like Spike’s chip was on Buffy.

We’re getting closer to be able to tweak  brain chemistry through implants and magnetic stimulation.  It’s not too science fictional to imagine Mad Scientist!Me deciding to put some new constraints on Bob’s desires.  Can I make any wrong changes, such that Bob should want to pull out the implant?  Is there such a thing as brainhacking malpractice, if the patient is prepared to accept whatever sort of conscience seems to speak to him?

Let me give you another thought experiment.  Now, I’m not a Mad Brain Scientist, I’m a Mad Computer Scientist.  I’ve put together some kind of computer program and I present it to you as a black box — you don’t get to see how it works, but you can give it different inputs and see what it outputs.

“Hey, Bob,” I say.  “I’ve got a pretty nifty computer program here.  It can give you advice about what to do when you’re not sure about a moral problem.  In long-duration clinical trials conducted here in the present, people who did what the black box told them whenever they asked it a question were more likely to have children than people who ignored the black box’s advice, people who weren’t given a copy of my black box, and people who were just given a magic eight ball hidden in a black box.  (I had a devil of a time getting an IRB to approve all those control groups, but I wanted to be thorough).  Would you like a black box of your own?

I’m not sure why Bob should turn me down.  The box I’m offering him is optimized according to pretty similar criteria as the conscience he trusts because it was shaped by evolution.  In fact, my box is probably better optimized than his conscience, since it’s more closely tailored to the world where Bob actually lives, instead of the ancestral environment that shaped slow-moving evolution.  And go ahead and assume that I’m telling the truth, my studies are valid, and my box really does tend to improve the reproductive fitness of Bob-type people by a significant margin.

I’d say I didn’t have enough data to accept the offer.  There are a number of ways to be strong and fit, and some of them are awful.  And, looking back at his post, it looks like Bob knows that.  He writes:

There’s evidence that evolution built us to think that rape and slavery are okay, as long as you’re on the giving end. We see this attitude in the Old Testament, for example. However, modern society teaches us something different. This is the instinctive moral sense being overridden by the societal moral sense. Sam Harris writes about this in his The Moral Landscape. As I understand this, he argues for an objective morality of the second kind—one that we can hone with science and reason.

Here I agree with Leah that we aren’t stuck with our evolutionary programming. We can and do rise above our instincts.

“Rise above” presupposes some dimension of height.  “Hone” implies some form that we’re getting closer to by paring away extraneous material.  If you have a sense that more is possible, then you must have some expectation that an external standard exists, and that you have some kind of access to it (even if it’s as limited as our access to physical laws, which we have to painstakingly deduce).  But, if you’re looking for a guide, a conscience formed by evolution is no more trustworthy than my black box.

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  • Alex Knapp

    As I always respond to argument’s like Bob’s: if evolutionary fitness is the standard of morality, we should look to Genghis Khan, the most moral person in history, as a guide to how to behave.

    • anodognosic

      Hardly anyone ever argues that evolutionary fitness is a standard of morality, so I suppose we’re all in agreement there.

      • Ted Seeber

        Bob above argues that evolutionary fitness is indeed the standard for morality, filtered through the human conscience, which was created by evolutionary fitness, so I don’t understand your objection. If this is a straw man being shot down, we have in the original article an example of at least one person seriously arguing the straw man.

        • Alan

          No, he doesn’t. Evolution is the source of the development of conscience, he does not say it is the standard for morality. Evolution is the source of the development of taste, that doesn’t mean everything I enjoy eating today helps my evolutionary fitness.

          • Ted Seeber

            Evolution is the source of conscience, and he claims that conscience is the source of morality. Are you unable to follow a causal chain? Or is English your 2nd language?

          • anodognosic

            Total non sequitur. Purpose is not inherited down the causal chain. Example: I make a robot programmed to kill intruders in my home. The algorithm fails to recognize me as a non-intruder, and kills me. Does it follow that my true purpose was to kill myself? Clearly, no.

          • Alan

            Ah Ted, you indignation is adorable. As anodognosic said – total non sequitur.

          • John D

            As a side note: I think conscience is a lot more than a queasy feeling, involving a mixture of emotional and intellectual components (hence I’m a big fan of the doctrine of primacy of conscience…) It seems like some of the disagreement here involves differing definitions of the word conscience. That being said, for the life of me I can’t understand what it would mean to have your reason help you decide moral questions without believing morality has an objective basis of some sort.

          • Ted Seeber

            It doesn’t matter if PURPOSE is inherited down the causal chain or not. What counts is if TRUTH is inherited down the causal chain.

          • Alan

            What a cute if substance-less line. ‘Truth’ has nothing at all to do with the outcome of evolutionary design.

        • Irenist

          Ted, I think your naturalist interlocutors are arguing something like the following: evolutionary pressures toward things like altruism toward kith and kin (which may or may not involve selection at the group level, depending on how many fights with proponents and detractors of E.O. Wilson you feel like getting into today) have yielded the human conscience. Similarly, selective pressures to model and predict the ancestral environment accurately have yielded human reason. Although these capacities had no more function when evolved than to aid survival and reproduction, they open out onto abilities like ethical reasoning and mathematical science that are like S.J. Gould’s spandrels in that, while not selected for, inescapably cropped up along the way given the nature of altruism and reason. One of the nice spandrel-like surprises is that our inherited inclinations toward altruism and reasoning about our environment can be combined to allow us to hone our ethical systems through discursive communities like philosophy, politics, etc.
          Now, Ted, as a fellow Catholic, I think there’s more to the story than my attempt above to play Turing Test atheist captures. But I do think it’s a respectable argument, and I do think we owe it our respect.

          • Ted Seeber

            I understand the theory. The problem is, everything I see of human history says that altruism is not a survival trait; that generosity is more often punished than rewarded.

            In other words, the theory doesn’t fit the objective data, even leaving out the fact that modern atheism can be shown to be bigoted and distinctly NOT generous.

          • Irenist

            IIRC, in game-theory simulations, reciprocal strategies do better than either hawkish selfishness or dovish turning-the-other cheek. The hope and faith that the Cross can puncture the endless circle of tit-for-tat strategies to which nature alone seems to condemn us is one of the motors of my faith. Anyway, if reciprocal strategies succeed best, then we should expect altruism to evolve. That said, I would ask you to consider this: however awful atheism may be, many/most atheists are wonderful people, and are naturally going to take your critique of atheism as criticism of themselves as people. Given precisely the reciprocity which our evolutionary heritage predisposes us to, it is the frustrating reality if you once introduce such venom into a conversation, it will spiral into reciprocal attacks, rather than mutual edification. So argue against atheism with all your reason, but please don’t blanketly call it bigoted and ungenerous if you wish to persuade anyone at all ever.

          • avalon

            Ted Seeber says:
            “I understand the theory. The problem is, everything I see of human history says that altruism is not a survival trait; that generosity is more often punished than rewarded.
            In other words, the theory doesn’t fit the objective data, ”

            See the Price Equation, an objective mathematical theorem showing the evolution of altruism.

  • Katie

    But, Leah! You seemed perfectly fine appealing to a higher-order set of intuitions to correct some of the worse ones as an atheist, and I interpreted your conversion to mean that you had changed your mind about how that higher-order set got to be there, not whether it existed in the first place. I mean, evolution gave us many things, brute-force instincts being but one kind. And you know evolution doesn’t “optimize” for anything (or maybe you don’t, given the massive teleology infestation in your earlier atheist thinking); it’s just that some traits can become better represented than others in the next generation given certain facts about that particular environment at that particular historical moment. It’s messy and imperfect and makes nowhere near as much sense as virtually anyone writing about it wants to believe.

    • leahlibresco

      Katie, I think I must be misunderstanding you because I’m in total agreement with your comment, but it sounds like you’re correcting me.

  • anodognosic

    Just because my mind is formed by evolution doesn’t mean my own goals line up with those of evolution (with all the usual caveats about the personification of evolution being merely shorthand, please). I didn’t expect you to make that mistake, Leah.

    But more importantly, given that all of me was shaped by evolution, there is absolutely nothing to guide me that was not shaped by evolution (except perhaps mindhacking according to a totally random algorithm, and even then). Perhaps conscience by itself is not enough, but in any case I’d have to rely on my evolved reason, evolved senses or evolved intuition. It’s literally everything that I am, and I can’t get away from it without ceasing to be everything that I am.

    Still, even within this framework, “honing” and “rising above” can make perfect sense. If there are competing values, imperfect implementations and limited information, you can hone and rise above by better implementing your highest values according to better information. Nothing incoherent about that.

    • Ted Seeber

      “Just because my mind is formed by evolution doesn’t mean my own goals line up with those of evolution (with all the usual caveats about the personification of evolution being merely shorthand, please). ”

      How can evolution have any goals other than those selected for by survival of the fittest? Isn’t the very idea that your mind is the product of evolution *alone* proof that you are surviving, and thus the fittest (and that in fact, any other goals would not be fit)?

      • Alan

        Good thing you didn’t pay any attention to the parenthetical caveats – if you did you would have nothing to say.

        Besides your poor understanding of what he meant using the word ‘goal’ in regards to evolution, if in fact something being the product of evolution alone proof that it is surviving and thus the fittest in any sense other than the tautological observation that it exists today then change would never happen. What has survived as a result of evolution over the past generation may not be the fittest to survive into the next – so not, something being the product of evolution itself tells us very little about its future fitness.

        Of course, that is all a non-sequitur to the actual point that the goals my mind desires need have nothing to do with evolutionary fitness at all.

        • Ted Seeber

          OH, so in other words, you’re claiming that Bob (and other New Atheists) aren’t speaking English.

          I think that the difference in taste between shit and sugar is an excellent example of the senses of smell and taste being derived from evolutionary “goals”, and for you to not be able to understand that simple causal chain leads me to believe that like most New Atheists, you’re not very good at thinking.

          • anodognosic

            Human taste for nutritionally empty artificial sweeteners show that the connection between our goals and desires and evolutionary fitness is merely historical–we are implanted not with objectives and desire for fitness, but with objectives and desires (broadly speaking) that once, in another context, increased individual’s chances of survival. Also, insulting us because you can’t apprehend the distinction is not flattering to your complexion.

          • Alan

            Ted, I realize it is easier for you to attack our comprehension than face your own inadequacies but really, this is the best you can come up with? Sure shit tastes bad, and kids don’t like to eat their vegetables but love those sugary drinks – all the grand plan of evolution…

          • Ted Seeber

            Caloric density. We’ve only just recently began to defeat it.

            But my point is more that atheists don’t think so much as parrot.

          • Alan

            Uh, sure Ted – Atheists are the ones who parrot rather than think.

            I think the real point is that you so need to have your world view be the absolute truth that you need to dismiss all evidence to the contrary even if it makes you sound like a fool.

          • Irenist

            Ted, please pardon my impertinence, but since the Lord commands us to rebuke our brother when he sins, I offer you this unsolicited advice: Your remarks about atheists in this thread are uncharitable and uncivil. Rather than leading to honest conversation, mutual respect, and persuasion, it seems to have led to a tit-for-tat. As a fellow Catholic, I urge you to apologize.

          • Ted Seeber

            There can be no evidence contrary to a worldview that accepts more evidence than it rejects. That’s why reductionism is not rational.

            I’ll agree I’m being uncharitable though. And do apologize for that.

          • Alan

            Well good, there we have it. In Ted’s world his worldview can have no contrary evidence to it, cannot possibly be wrong or mistaken. Excellent, that should make it clear to all that conversation with you is pointless.

    • Irenist

      anodognosic, I thought your post above added some important nuance. However, it left me with a question: How do you determine which of your values are the “highest”?

      • anodognosic

        Your question is really two questions: what determines whether they are highest, and how do I determine what these are. Regarding the first one, my highest values are a fact about me. Higher-order values are a result of the tension between lower-order values, mediated by reason and experience. The lowest-order values are constitutional–they are simply a part of what I am, inseparable from, say, my capacity for empathy or for feeling pain. In that, they are objective–thinking doesn’t make them so, and thinking cannot change them.

        As for determining for myself which are highest, it involves reasoning, introspection, self-interrogation, thought-experiments, experience, insights from other people and other sources, among other things.

        • Irenist

          Thanks for a thoughtful and admiration-provoking answer. This is an odd question, perhaps, but what are your highest values now?

          • anodognosic

            Irenist, your question actually got me thinking, because I don’t normally think quite so abstractly about this, which I am beginning to suspect is a mistake, because while practical ethics can help me in the day-to-day, it doesn’t help me establish broad ethical goals for my life. But I did pick out a number of generalized strands.

            Excellence–being good at what I do, whether in leisure or work–is probably the most salient of them, because it was very much emphasized by my parents as I grew up. I was not particularly encouraged to seek compassion, so it’s something I’ve been exploring, sadly, only relatively recently, so I’m not even entirely sure how to translate that value into action, but I’m slowly moving in that direction. Fairness is extremely important; whenever I get angry, I try to imagine being in the other person’s shoes, which helps to reduce my natural bias and not think of myself as the exception. Which brings me to humility, a value that I’ve hit upon depressingly recently, and am really struggling with in just about every aspect of my life, not least in blog comment sections. One that’s been with me forever is curiosity, which has gotten me out of more holes than it’s gotten me into. And finally, joy, which has always been a puzzle to me–and the fact that I regard it as a puzzle might give you some idea of the kinds of difficulties that I have with it. This is certainly not exhaustive or final, but I think these represent most of the big ones.

          • Irenist

            anodognosic, your inventory of values is inspiring; thanks for sharing it. Despite our differences in worldview, I imagine there’s a great deal I can learn from you about how to foster all those values in myself. Since I need all the help I can get, I’ll look forward to your future posts!
            In my admiration of what you’ve shared, you remind me of my best friend, an atheist who strives admirably to be virtuous despite bearing many burdens in his life. Despite my Catholicism and his atheism, in the quest for virtue, we have gratefully found in each other what the Dhammapada calls “friends along the way.”

  • Ashley

    “The box I’m offering him is optimized according to pretty similar criteria as the conscience he trusts because it was shaped by evolution.” That seems like an extremely strange interpretation of Bob’s post. He offered evolution as a source of the conscience, not a reason to trust it. He might for instance trust his conscience because in his experience that leads to the types of outcomes he values for himself and others.

    • So you’re suggesting that conscience could be taken as a “truth-telling thing,” in the sense that Leah frequently quotes Chesteron (I haven’t read that particular Chesterton yet, so I can only refer to how Leah uses the phrase)? And that the way Bob might assess his conscience is whether its results accord with his values? This means that those values are the guarantors, right? Where do they come from? What guarantees them?
      I ask because I’d assume that values are quite possibly derived from conscience, which would make them poor guarantors of conscience. But even if they are not, it’s still important to figure out where they come from, and why they are trust-worthy.
      I guess what I’m saying is this: it seems to me that your final suggestion pushes the problem from conscience to values, but all that does is require the same questions of those values.

  • James

    I am always skeptical of my conscience , I don’t think we intuitively know what’s really good but I do think there is a yardstick to measure with but applying it is always subjective

    • Ted Seeber

      To me, morality in a Catholic sense (dogma, doctrine, discipline) is extremely objective and well thought out by better men than I. MY application may be subjective and fallible- but the actual dogma, doctrine, and discipline is based in observation, not in conscience.

    • deiseach

      Maybe we can get some light on the topic by considering the Catholic view of conscience, particularly the duty to inform one’s conscience. I’m not going to argue that you must or should accept this definition, but I want to put it forward to show that the notion of the conscience is more than just ‘a little voice in my head telling me what is right and what is wrong’.

      Treatment of the moral conscience from the Catechism. Very, very brief points: “Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act. … A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience.”

      Now, if you want to leave out the stuff about the “wisdom of the Creator” because you don’t believe in any such entity, that’s fine for the moment. The point is that, in the Catholic view, conscience is not just a matter of “Well, this is what I feel is right or wrong for me” but it is something that has to be formed and informed. You must follow the dictates of your conscience, but you have the duty to inform it first before you come to the decision that “My conscience tells me that it’s perfectly okay to cohabit before marriage/pay less than the minimum wage/demand the deportation of all non-citizens/blow up this animal-testing lab”.

      Is that really the informed voice of prudent judgement, or just the Zeitgeist filtered through your own preferences and convenience?

  • Ted Seeber

    One of my favorite science-fiction-soon-to-be-fact ideas came from the TV Show Babylon 5: The replacement of a physical death penalty with “Death of Personality”- induced amnesia by drugs and psy cop, followed by enrollment in special Catholic monasteries for the purpose of working at some menial labor to earn restitution to pay to victims (well, at least in one of the examples in the show).

    IF the only morality comes from individual conscience, then I’m afraid that isn’t sufficient control to form a civilization from. A bunch of individual hermits maybe, but not a civilization. Which arguably is the evolutionary role of religion- forming civilizations.

    It goes back to the whole “Good without God” lie- because without God, you can’t have an adequate definition of Good, and human conscience alone, without education and informing, has been proven time and time again to be insufficient to create a sense of good and evil.

    • JTC

      “It goes back to the whole “Good without God” lie- because without God, you can’t have an adequate definition of Good, and human conscience alone, without education and informing, has been proven time and time again to be insufficient to create a sense of good and evil.”

      Yes, but I would amend your point in that ultimately one cannot adequately explain the existence of morality without reference to God, but I do think it’s possible to define good and evil without appealing to divine knowledge. As in virtue-ethics, good/bad and right/wrong are grounded in the nature of things and discernible by natural reason. Certainly the conscience can be a useful tool in sensing right and wrong, but it must be properly directed by the intellect. Otherwise it’s blowing in the wind, and subject to whatever the will fancies.

      • Mr. X

        “Yes, but I would amend your point in that ultimately one cannot adequately explain the existence of morality without reference to God, but I do think it’s possible to define good and evil without appealing to divine knowledge. As in virtue-ethics, good/bad and right/wrong are grounded in the nature of things and discernible by natural reason.”

        Yes and no, I’d say. Yes in that much of morality can be ascertained just by studying human nature without direct reference to God; no in that the existence of God itself has moral implications, so one cannot be truly moral without facing up to these implications, and in that the existence of a lawgiver is required to make the natural law an actual law, as opposed to just a piece of advice regarding what’s likely to be best for you. (Unless I’ve misunderstood your post and that was what you were saying?)

    • “Good without God” is not a lie. It is a historical fact (at least as far as supporting civilization). The Chinese manage to be sufficiently good to not destroy themselves. Likewise the Japanese. Just because something doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean it can’t happen. As much as you seem to wish it, reality is not limited to what makes sense to you. I know plenty of atheists who are at least as moral as my Christian friends, and anyway the morality of my Christian friends is often as not simply a result of how they were raised apart from any consideration of where their morality comes from.

      • Ted Seeber

        ““Good without God” is not a lie. It is a historical fact (at least as far as supporting civilization). ”

        Then why do atheist civilizations always seem to end up dictatorships that eliminate minorities through murder?

        • Niemand

          “Atheist civilizations”? You mean like Scandinavia? You may have a point. I never did trust the Danes. Still, Christian Medieval Europe, pagan/Christian Nazi Germany, and even pagan Scandinavia back in the Viking days strike me as far more genocidal.

          • Ted Seeber

            Scandinavia is a great example- there’s a good reason why the Swedes hate the Fins and vice versa.

            But I was thinking more about exclusively atheist cultures like Mexico under President Calles, or the Soviet Union under Stalin- or for that matter, even marginally atheist cultures like England under Elizabeth I. It seems like the first instinct in any group rejecting authority, is to make authority so absolute as to deny any freedom of thought at all.

      • Ted Seeber

        The Chinese and Japanese are PANTHEISTS, not ATHEISTS. They have Gods.

        And I strongly suspect that most of your friends, I would not consider to be good people. I know I don’t consider YOU to be a good person.

        • leahlibresco

          Ted, I’m sure you don’t have enough data to judge Reluctant Liberal or zer friends. Take a breather. We don’t know the disposition of anyone’s souls, especially sampling from comboxes.

          To the broader question, there’s no reason for Christians to expect atheists not to be good, since they don’t believe they are without God. Everyone has access, through God’s grace, to the natural law written on the hearts of man. It’s like being able to catch a baseball without knowing how to calculate it’s arc.

          • Ted Seeber

            It may be my own autism hinders me here- I can’t catch a baseball at all, calculation or no calculation.

            And piety, like empathy, is something I completely lack; I’ve had to study my way into staying Catholic; Good without God to me is cutting out 3/4ths of the data needed to be Good.

            However, what I was specifically referring to is the support of the pro-abortion movement as a part of the sexual revolution that seems so common among these types; and that is simply something I cannot label as good (nor any human being espousing it, including me). It is the biggest thing I needed to repent of in my life; and the lack of repentance for it tells me that there is no Good in Goodville.

        • jenesaispas

          Not all Chinese and Japanese are Pantheists.

  • avalon

    The major difference here seems to be how one views intuition. Is intuition the “voice of God in our soul” (Peter Kreeft) or a natural part of brain function (Bob’s evolution claim)? Where does the evidence point?


  • JTC


    It seems to me that in order to really argue for (or explain) the existence of objective morality, the issue of Bob’s materialism must be addressed. That may be swatting a bee hive, or driving pretty far off course, however statements such as “there’s evidence that evolution built us to think…” are grounded in an ultimately incoherent foundation of ‘all that exists is matter’. Also that evolution, which describes the material develop of organisms rather well, is stretched beyond its rightful limits when applied to mind, something that in principle cannot be fully accounted for with matter. Only if one understands the compelling case to differentiate mind and brain, or immaterial and material, will they cease looking to the multitudinous ways evolution has been applied to explain everything.

    • Kristen inDallas

      yeah, to be honest he loses me even before that: “There’s evidence that…” as if there is some reason that I OUGHT to be compelled by evidence. If one can’t even make one objectively moral claim that truth is better than delusion, then what’s the point in arguing us out of our supposed “delusion?”

      • anodognosic

        I am compelled by the evidence without caring about whether I ought to be compelled. Am I wrong in this?

        Oughts are as subject to infinite regress as reasons. Why ought you care about evidence? Why ought you want not to feel pain? Why ought you follow God’s laws? Why ought you follow this thing you call objective morality? Why ought you not choose the other one? Why ought you care about goodness at all? Pushed far back enough, either you have no basis for your ought, or you reach a point where it’s self-evident. For me, it’s self-evident that pain, despair and helplessness are bad, and that delusion leads to these things. Hence, I ought to be compelled by evidence.

        • Kristen inDallas

          Oh I completely agree with you that delusion leads to bad things, and I too am compelled by evidence. I can understand why he is comelled by it. What I don’t understand is how he can expect others to be bound to it, if there is no objectively good reason to do so.

  • jose

    Some comments on the black box.

    – Selection pertains to individuals, but evolution is a population issue. The evolutionary case for morality, whose foundation was already set up by Darwin in the Descent of man, involves the differential success of one population over another due to their respective attitudes. Your offer to Bob doesn’t take into account the world in which Bob lives but only his individual success, and the world around us is what determines what kind of selective pressures will take place; in this case, what attitudes will benefit Bob and his group over other groups.
    – Bob is a member of a social group. Now, if you live in a group and your only concern is to have more children and you don’t care about the group, and the rest of your group is like you, it’s easy to see your group isn’t going to last long. This is the argument why it makes sense for evolution to develop empathy. Looking out for one another makes sense when your life is built around others. Darwin quote: It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.”

    This principle not only applies to humans. Here’s an example with bacteria.

    Lastly, we’re confusing here the mechanism that forms a psychological sense of morality and the sense of morality itself. I think this is easier to explain with hunger instead of morality. Individuals who are well fed are more likely to survive and leave offspring. Straightforward natural selection is the mechanism; hunger is the result. Neither people or animals care about the evolutionary advantages of eating. You wouldn’t sell people a meal by saying it makes them more likely to have children than people who ate something else or nothing at all. When you feel hunger, you simply feel a desire to eat (and something you like, if possible). Likewise, hominoids evolved empathy and other useful traits for their social lives (though some researchers argue that there’s a gradient of these traits across all mammals), and this empathy is now independent from the mechanism which originated it. That’s why if the box says something that goes against Bob’s sense of morality, he will reject it despite its evolutionary advantages. Given how evolution works, it makes sense for him to turn it down.

  • Steve


    “What I don’t understand is why Bob sees his conscience as worth listening to.” Couldn’t you pose the same question about any instinctual response? Were you to be playing poker and ‘felt’ that someone was bluffing, or maybe you were driving and had a feeling that a driver was about to cut you off. Your experience might make you trust and even rely on your inner voice to guide your decision making. I’m afraid I can’t speak for Bob, but perhaps throughout his life his conscience has served him well & reliably enough for him to deem it a suitable moral compass.

    “We’re getting closer to be able to tweak brain chemistry through implants and magnetic stimulation. It’s not too science fictional to imagine Mad Scientist!Me deciding to put some new constraints on Bob’s desires. Can I make any wrong changes, such that Bob should want to pull out the implant? Is there such a thing as brainhacking malpractice, if the patient is prepared to accept whatever sort of conscience seems to speak to him?” Making changes to someones mind will undoubtably alter things like behavior, mood, and moral compass. People who’ve had brain tumors or strokes will often exhibit drastic changes to their personality as a result of such things. I don’t see how this is different from the sort of deliberate brain re-wiring you discussed. Were you able to control his desires in such a manner, it might not be something he objected to personally (as ‘he’ is now a fundamentally different person), but an outside observer might have issue with it as this sort of puppet like control might conflict with their own subjective moral tastes.

    Regarding the black box thought experiment. Someone’s ability to make a choice is at the core of who the individual is. Unlike a computers choices, which while complex, are simply the result of a predictable set of pre-programmed variables, people can make choices that are partially pre-programmed, but also make willful decisions to ignore and re-write their own programming to an extent. In addition, an individuals conscience isn’t entirely shaped by evolution, but also by experience and often a reasoned self-reflection (or as much as such a thing is possible). In other words, successful procreation isn’t the only driving force behind the formation of peoples ethical frameworks. It’s like if you had a machine that helped you win at gambling, while it’s undoubtedly nice to win, having a machine make your choices for you robs you of the nuance of the overall experience of gambling.

    ““Rise above” presupposes some dimension of height.” This seems like unnecessary wordplay. His use of ‘rise above’ refers to simply ignoring his instincts. I might say I rise above my fear of spiders by letting one crawl on my hand, but that doesn’t imply there is some sort of larger truth to the issue.

    “if you’re looking for a guide, a conscience formed by evolution is no more trustworthy than my black box.” Again, you’re assuming conscience is merely evolutionary (rather than also experiential) and that everyones conscience speaks to them at the same volume (so to speak).

  • John D

    Fair enough, the queasy feeling I get when I contemplate choosing certain actions has its source in various factors, including evolutionary pressures, and it doesn’t seem to be directed toward any obvious standard… I think the more interesting question is why Bob thinks following that feeling is a better idea than say, flipping a coin every time I need to make a decision (granted if there are more than 2 choices running a coin-flipping run-off could get time consuming, but why is wasting time bad?)

  • Darren

    Is this not what we have with Christianity, then? A black box of morality: this is Good, this is Evil, never you mind why except that God says? All the Natural Law gymnastics of the last two millennia has not managed to change this, just allowed some of us to squint our eyes _really_ tight and “…really see five fingers.”

    And is the God of Christianity not the wire-heading Mad Scientist in the sky? How many times have I heard, “God created us with a God-shaped hole in our soul, an emptiness that can only be filled by Him. We will never be happy until we have asked Christ into our hearts.”

    I still fail to see how anyone can really ascribe to a system such as Christianity, without _first_ answering the “Euthyphro dilemma”. Without that answer, then God as the foundation of morality is just another type of relativism – just pick the God whose morals you want to believe in.

    • The Euthyphro dilemma… so misunderstood.

      Euthyphro does not attack theistic morality, it attacks simplistic polytheistic morality. Socrates and Plato were not atheists. The point of the dilemma is that there is only one God and that GOD *IS* GOOD. They are the same thing. Use of “is” as an equal sign. God = Good. Not that good is separately judging the gods or that good is what the gods will, but that there is only one God and its nature is goodness. The True, The Good, The Beautiful, The Singular, One. This is basic Platonism. Read the Wikipedia article under False Dilemma

      You can then ask what Good is, but for that you should read Aristotle, not Plato. These problems have been solved for millennia.

      On natural law… Suffice it to say that the point of NL is that morality can be understood without divine revelation, objectively rationally understandable to all humans. Human rights discourse flowed directly from natural rights and natural law discourse. If you like human rights, you like natural law. If you don’t, then you don’t. Yet most of humanity (at least as ratified by the UN in 1948 and many times on many separate issues since then) does seem to get the idea, so there is something to it more than just Catholic blah-de-blah.

      • Ashley

        These problems have been rationalized for millenia, not solved. The assertion that God = Good is pure question-begging.

        • Darren

          I will have to agree with Ashley that the Euthyphro dilemma is still very much in play. Yes, to say that God = GOOD and GOOD = God is to either make them one in the same, (in which case we can just dispense with God and focus on answering the question of Objective Good, does it exhist?) or to venture into the realm of Question Begging or Invisible Unicorn pinkness mysticism.

          I think there is more than adequate evidence that the dilemma is still in play by the continued Christian apologetics involving those “difficult passages” of the bible. An easy one, slavery. While short of a full scale endorsement, the biblical account is clear that God and Jesus saw slavery as just another part of civil society; to be regulated and conducted honestly, nothing more. What I see are several responses; discounting the outright deniers, we are left with the “the bible was written by men, inspired by God, but with culturally biased errors.” But, the whole of Christianity rests on the bible being, if not infallible, at least pretty darn reliable, and this is a pretty comprehensive issue, spanning the old and new testaments. The most logical conclusion, assuming the bible is God’s message to us, is that God is OK with slavery, and our post-enlightenment Western morality is just so much squeamishness. So, if we say God = Good, and our conceptions of Good are out of line with God’s, as revealed by him to us, then we are morally obligated to change our conceptions.

          The fact that we do _not_ see African-American pastors telling their congregants that Lincoln got it all wrong, that they should report to the nearest plantation tells me which side of the dilemma Christians _really_ come down on…

      • Darren

        I wanted to clarify my thought about Euthyphro, as it was not clear in my last post.

        In the days of polytheism, you had to pick between Athena or Apollo or Artemis or Zeus. All different, all commanding different things, so it would make sense to ask if a particular god’s precepts were based upon some higher standard, and if so, which god most closely embodied that.

        Now, in a monotheism, you _could_ argue this is no longer the case. You could make that argument, and we could then debate whether Euthyphro was obsolete or not. But, are we in a monotheism?
        It is clear that we are not. Or rather, if we are in a monotheism, it is an open question _which_ monotheism we are in. Jehovah? Christ? Allah? Atman? Furthermore, assuming the Christian God, is it the Catholic God or the Anglican God? Even then, the Anglican God that doesn’t care for gay people, or the Anglican God that likes them just fine?

        I propose that most people, in so far as they chose their religions and moralities at all, operate as if there is an objective morality to begin with, then pick their God, and which of their God’s teachings to believe in and which to ignore, after the fact.

        Thus, Euthyphro is just a relevant now as it ever was.

    • Ted Seeber

      With some forms of Christianity yes. With Catholicism, the black box becomes a transparent, open source computer program with hundreds of thousands of lines of code. You can use it as a black box, or you can examine the code for yourself.

      • Ashley

        Actually, with Catholicism it becomes five million lines of spaghetti code that requires so much time to decipher that people fail to notice that the entire program does nothing but return zero.

  • keddaw

    Evolution/biology gives us some basic intuitions (fairness, disgust, empathy, retributive justice, etc.).
    These are then shaped/moulded/over-ridden by family/friends/society to whatever the local norms are.
    On top of all this we can apply the intellect to see how these intuitions/morals/ideas works in the real world, to see how they fit in with whatever one’s preferences, values, and goals are for themselves and society/humanity/nature and can change them or override/ignore them in order to form a more coherent personal ‘morality’ that appears to tend towards a world you’d more like to live in.

    So, for example, as a white male I should have no problem with misogyny or racism, yet these things that would help me in some ways clash with both my desire for fairness and equality, AND my fear that a society that allows different groups different rights could easily be one where I find myself in the oppressed group hence I do not desire such things to exist around me.

    • Ted Seeber

      “Evolution/biology gives us some basic intuitions (fairness, disgust, empathy, retributive justice, etc.).”

      I know of no proof for this. All of those examples are subjective.

      • jose

        You may benefit from reading a very thoroughly documented book called “The expression of emotions in man and animals”. Consider its content in the context of the rest of the author’s bibliography.

        • Acn

          Well played jose 🙂

        • Ted Seeber

          One man’s study isn’t proof- and his study was limited to the effects of emotion on physiology, not the intuitive link between cause and emotion that the list (“fairness, disgust, empathy, retributive justice”) indicates.

          For instance, due to my own diagnosed insanity- I get disgusted at an entirely different set of things than neurotypical human beings do (few neurotypical human beings are disgusted by the texture of gummy candy, for instance). Empathy, I have none, I simulate compassion by being consciously generous. Retributive justice, I fail to see the point.

          If these things are derived from evolution, then I’m a mutant who is missing them all.

      • keddaw

        “I know of no proof for this.”

        Evolution? Or the basic biological functions that virtually all social mammals have?
        In no particular order (and google/wikipedia is your friend here): mirror neurons; Evolution of empathy; Evolution of empathy; fairness in dogs; Concept of justice.

        To quote Tim Minchin:
        “Does the idea that there might be truth
        Frighten you?
        Does the idea that one afternoon
        On Wiki-fucking-pedia might enlighten you
        Frighten you?”

        • Ted Seeber

          No proof that intuition is evolutionary. Emotion certainly is, but intuition?

          • keddaw

            So the spider reasons about the best place and the best way to build its web?
            The newborn magically learns to hold its breath underwater and how to swim?
            Babies start to fear heights at around 6 months … heck, read this for yourself:

          • Ted Seeber

            A spider isn’t human, and instinct is NOT intuition.

            Fear is not the same as disgust- and in fact, there are human beings who are born without fear.

  • jose

    Hadn’t read the last part before. “If you have a sense that more is possible, then you must have some expectation that an external standard exists.” Not really. People create their standard. That’s why you have vegetarians and meat eaters, or big government versus small government. There’s a myriad of everyday examples. Different people give different levels of importance to different things. The point is it’s people that give things importance. Works like in politics or like in music much more than like in science. I think the laws of physics are a bad model for this. It doesn’t match how morality takes place in real life, how these matters are settled.

    With respect to wirehead and soma. From the links, it’s not that different from getting high all the time, be it with ecstasy, weed or whatever. That would be a problem if people held personal pleasure as their highest moral value, but they don’t. Evolution doesn’t encourage that kind of thing, either, because just feeling good all the time doesn’t give you any evolutionary edge (in fact it might go against the survival of your group and therefore of yourself, as explained in the last comment). Empathy does.

  • john

    I don’t get why this is so hard to understand. The only evidence I’ve seen provided for externally objective morality is that we have a moral sense. The *point* is that while this moral sense could be explained by an external designer who has set goals for us, it appears to be explainable by known facts (evolution and brain chemistry).

    Asking whether you’d desire to exchange your own desires for a different set of desires, is a irrelevant question bordering on nonsense. The only way to respond to the point is to either add in some strong new evidence that an external designer explains better, or explain what the external designer adds to the mix that the natural process doesn’t.

    • Ben

      The other things being – if there is an objective morality, what does that have to do with the Christian story in any way? Wasn’t learning good and evil a big part of the original sin story? As far as I can tell, if there is an objective morality nobody is out there trying to get us to see it. You compare moral law to physical law – when you do that, I see impersonal, semi-arbitrary rules that regulate but have no special reason to be intuitive or easy to discover, and completely dissociated from purpose.

  • kenneth

    “But, if you’re looking for a guide, a conscience formed by evolution is no more trustworthy than my black box.”

    That’s a curious admonition, given that the strongest streams of contemporary political Christianity in this country are THE biggest believers in Social Darwinism extant. Their moral compass is built according to the specifications of Ayn Rand (and curiously, by extension, Anton LaVey).

    • I’m curious about the connection you’re making with LaVey; I get the sense you’re trying to be shocking, but I’m genuinely curious about the connection (maybe because I want this to be a wittier joke than just “Christians are like Satanists!”). I can see how LaVey’s lifestyle/ethics is similar to Rand’s economics, but there are points of divergence. Is there an intellectual-genealogical connection between them that I’m not aware of?

      • kenneth

        Rand is an acknowledged influence in LaVey’s development of Satanism and the Satanic Bible. She was not the only one, to be sure. He also drew heavily from figures like Nietzche.

        • Huh. So Tea Party economics and LaVey’s Satanism are ideological siblings? Not only are both based on self-interest, but both are also interested in supporting traditional/essentialist gender roles, though I’m not sure if we can trace that back to Rand…

  • > I’m not sure why Bob should turn me down. The box I’m offering him is optimized according to pretty similar criteria as the conscience he trusts because it was shaped by evolution.

    This sounds like you think Bob has decided that “whatever leads to me having more children is right”. But this isn’t what he means. You’re supposed to know this stuff, though maybe you’re forgetting as you get further into Catholicism: .

    • leahlibresco

      I mean that the box was optimized through a similar process as the conscience he trusts. If goal of that optimization process isn’t what makes it trustworthy (and I don’t think it is), I want to know what quality actually leads Bob to follow it.

      • john

        Asking Bob to measure his conscience against an external yardstick he has no reason to believe exists, is just missing the point. His point is that our moral sense is not evidence of an external yardstick, because it has a reasonable natural explanation. We can’t argue that there is an external yardstick that says we should do X, just because we intuitively think we should do X. It’s up to you to justify that there *is* an external yardstick, if you think there is. I haven’t seen it; have I missed it?

        Your arguments so far seem to be an attempt to demonstrate a *need* for an external yardstick. I could be convinced of that, but even if I was, it tells me absolutely nothing about whether one exists. So let’s talk about that instead of talking past each other 🙂

      • But Bob does not trust his conscience because he reflects on it and thinks “well, evolution produced it, so it must be good”. His description of how his conscience got there is a causal history of it, not his justification for following it. Bob values the particular things that (he says, and I’ll stipulate for the sake of argument) evolution has produced in him, even if those things are spandrels or are no longer adaptive. So I don’t see why he should take your offer. Why would Gandhi take the murder pill?

        I think that, as John says, you’re still looking for a yardstick that every conceivable mind find motivating . But there are no universally compelling arguments.

        • I see Leah as simply pointing out that, given Bob’s views, ‘following his conscience’ doesn’t mean all that much. What guidance to morality his conscience grants is morally arbitrary. His decision of whether or not to follow his conscience is morally arbitrary. When Bob talks about ‘wrestling with issues (like capital punishment) to determine whether they’re right or wrong’, it’s not as if progress can be made in the sense of discovering ‘Oh, this act is more morally correct than that act’. Maybe if you redefine moral to mean ‘doing what I like’.

          So his suggestion that there’s no silver bullet way to resolve the question once and for all, misses the point. The issue isn’t that, under Bob’s view, what is and isn’t moral is difficult to figure out. It’s that the very question of what’s ‘moral’ doesn’t work out on his worldview. Go ahead, follow your conscience. Or the black box. Flip a coin whenever you need to make a moral decision. You can’t be wrong, because there’s nothing to be wrong about.

          So all the talk about wrestling with the moral implications of issues or fretting over ‘societal moral sense’ is, morally speaking, nothing but air. As Leah said, ‘rise above’ and ‘hone’ implies an external standard being worked towards, but that simply doesn’t exist on Bob’s view.

          • leahlibresco

            ^yes this.

          • Ray

            “What guidance to morality his conscience grants is morally arbitrary. ”

            What on earth is morally arbitrary supposed to mean here? The decision to trust the moral sense or the box is certainly not arbitrary according to Bob’s idea of what morality means, and it probably isn’t arbitrary according to anyone else’s definition of morality either. (Since society doesn’t judge morals based on evolutionary fitness any more than Bob does.) If basically everyone uses the term in such a way that trusting Bob’s conscience is better than trusting the box, then the only way that decision can be morally arbitrary is if you’re using the word “moral” differently from every other speaker of the English language, at which point you’re probably better off just making up your own word.

          • What on earth is morally arbitrary supposed to mean here?

            Subject to change on a whim, incapable of objectively being correct or incorrect where moral values are concerned, where no moral choice is truly right or wrong except by an ultimately arbitrary standard. ‘My conscience says eating meat is wrong!’ ‘Wait, no, it’s okay – because it’s Tuesday!’ ‘Is today Saturday? Eating meat is wrong today if I, uh… if this quarter comes up heads.’ Congratulations – those are all right/potentially right answers. Have fun with it.

            The decision to trust the moral sense or the box is certainly not arbitrary according to Bob’s idea of what morality means, and it probably isn’t arbitrary according to anyone else’s definition of morality either.

            Bob’s idea of what morality means is apparently ‘doing what his conscience says’, with his conscience being the product of what he considers to be an ultimately blind, purposeless process that certainly wasn’t formed with ‘being closer to an objective, true, external moral standard’ in mind. Partly because there exists no such thing.

            (Since society doesn’t judge morals based on evolutionary fitness any more than Bob does.)

            It doesn’t have to. Evolution and undirected processes gave Bob – and everyone else’s – consciences their content, under Bob’s view. Even a conscience formed by some intentional method (some mad scientist) would ‘ultimately’ be the same way.

            That’s why it makes no sense to talk about ‘rising above’ our instincts. Why, because our instincts are immoral? Only insofar as Bob, at the moment, doesn’t like them. If his conscience said are instincts are moral, then they would be. In fact, Bob could switch back and forth every other day between ‘murder is wrong!’ and ‘murder is right!’ and he wouldn’t be wrong. We couldn’t even say his conscience was objectively broken with regards to selecting morals, because again, there’s no objective standard to speak of.

            at which point you’re probably better off just making up your own word.

            I have a better idea. Given that, for an extremely long time up to the modern day, ‘morally good’ and ‘morally evil’ were ideas tied to a belief in an external, objective, ultimate standard of morality – such that even following one’s conscience was only considered laudable insofar as one’s conscience was assumed to in large part, if the agent was sincerely trying, tuned to an external, objective, ultimate standard of morality – that Bob and company can come up with a new word for the ‘doing what they like, and also there’s no objective moral standard anyway and mass-murder could be moral tomorrow if enough whims took place or the conscience decided it was for any reason’ version of morality.

            Wait, I got one. How about ‘moral nihilism’?

            I’ve also got a question. Let’s say person X – let’s call him Xavier – knows that he sure would enjoy being a serial killer, but his conscience is in the way. He decides to defy his conscience. After 5, 6 successful killings, however, his conscience changes to accommodate his habits – now, murdering people doesn’t bother his conscience. NOT murdering people, however, would go against his conscience.

            Did serial killing start off as immoral but become totally moral for Xavier, given the standards being discussed here? Was it always immoral? Always moral?

          • > What guidance to morality his conscience grants is morally arbitrary

            I think I want “arbitrary” here to mean more than “could have been different under different circumstances”. I also guess that you’re defining “morally” in relation to an external absolute standard, and then claiming any other view is not “moral”, which is question begging.

            As a matter of fact, Bob cannot and does not change what he considers moral on a whim. It’s also clear that Bob does not define morality as “doing what I like”. These are straw men, not attempts to understand where he’s coming from.

            > As Leah said, ‘rise above’ and ‘hone’ implies an external standard being worked towards, but that simply doesn’t exist on Bob’s view.

            I think that when he talks of “rising above”, he’s talking about how he has some desires (which he attributes to evolution) which are in conflict with what he calls his conscience (which I suspect was formed by more than simply evolution, as it happens, though I don’t thing godddidit). I don’t see any reason to suppose that Bob is appealing to a higher standard, he’s simply saying that some desires aren’t the promptings of his conscience. I suspect what taught him to differentiate different desires this way was actually his upbringing and culture and language. Talk of “wrestling” seems to me to be talk about complexity of value: we all have lots of desires and we can’t list them introspection, we have to think about cases and maybe reach some sort of reflective equilibirum.

            I’ll add that appealing to an external standard won’t actually help you persuade Xavier not to kill people, because Xavier has to decide whether he cares about the external standard (see my previous comment, which enlarges on this). OTOH if you’re looking for me to say that Xavier is wrong to murder people, we both agree that he is, regardless of what he thinks about it.

          • John

            I get it. You both miss Bob’s point, though, and are pointing out something he’s already said as if it’s novel: that there is no objective *external* morality. You say “you have to have an external standard of morality, otherwise no one will ever agree on moral values.” Even if you were right, so what? It doesn’t tell us one whit about *whether there is an external standard of morality.*

            That said, you’re wrong. This doom and gloom is not warranted. So what if there is no externally objective yardstick for morality? We still have meaningful dialog about morality, both because we have a lot in common, and because we are capable of empathizing (hypothetically taking on others’ points of view). This whole “oh no, there is no external morality” is a canard, a red herring. It’s neither true nor necessary.

          • I think I want “arbitrary” here to mean more than “could have been different under different circumstances”.

            Why? Especially when those ‘different circumstances’ are extremely broad, including ‘he had a different mental makeup’.

            I think if you sit down and spell out exactly what ‘circumstances’ would result in radically different moral rights and wrongs, “arbitrary” falls out as the best way to describe it.

            As a matter of fact, Bob cannot and does not change what he considers moral on a whim. It’s also clear that Bob does not define morality as “doing what I like”.

            In principle? Sure he can. You can even get into another transhumanist scenario if you like – say, a chemical or pill that could change your conscience. (In fact, Leah’s got a post today about something approaching this.)

            And sure, what Bob defines his morality as is “doing what his conscience tells him”. But note, for Bob, his conscience is the results of an utterly unguided, purposeless process – “the creation of an idiot-god” I believe someone you linked may call it. Following his conscience has nothing to do with pursuing some objective moral ‘right’ or avoiding a moral ‘wrong’. It’s the standard itself. And in that case, following one’s conscience becomes a matter of simply doing what one would like to do – following whatever preferences they have, for whatever reason, at that moment.

            These aren’t strawmen. Now, they may be putting Bob’s position in an unflattering light. It may be a presentation of his view without a nice spin or gloss. But strawmen, they are not.

            I don’t see any reason to suppose that Bob is appealing to a higher standard, he’s simply saying that some desires aren’t the promptings of his conscience.

            First off, Bob views both his desires and his conscience as formed by evolution. I suppose you could add ‘evolution, plus ultimately random/unguided/purposeless processes’. Maybe his conscience was formed in part from a material quirk at his birth or later. Either way, it makes it harder to say that he views ‘rising above’ as ‘doing something other than what evolution programmed him to do’ when both his instincts and his conscience were largely shaped by evolution (again, a particular metaphysical spin on evolution, such that there is no purpose, guidance, direction, etc.)

            So what’s this ‘rising above’? It’s certainly not meant in an external sense. Is it because one particular result of a blind, purposeless physical process outdid, for the moment, another? Or that one of those results is capable of judging, and for the moment judges such-and-such result to be more/less optimal? Once you actually parse what’s being said, the whole thing sounds empty.

            I’ll add that appealing to an external standard won’t actually help you persuade Xavier not to kill people

            I didn’t mention persuasion at all. It was a question of whether Xavier was behaving morally or immorally. He wasn’t following his conscience to start, but at the end he was. So I suppose Bob would say that Xavier grew more moral, and the same act shifted from moral to immoral over time.

            Now, you gave a reply I expected here…

            OTOH if you’re looking for me to say that Xavier is wrong to murder people, we both agree that he is, regardless of what he thinks about it.

            But not regardless of what you think about it. Your conscience can, in principle, change every bit as much as Xavier’s did – due to diligence on your part (which may well result from whims), some physical change, or hey… maybe transcranial magnetic stimulation. What happened with Xavier was that murder became moral and immoral based on his shifting conscience. But the same applies to yourself as much as Xavier.

            You can come up with another sci-fi example: a geographical location where some kind of magnetic force (natural or artificial) radically affects people’s consciences. Let’s say it happens in Detroit. The average human walking around in that location experiences a change of conscience – specifically, they think assault and murder is acceptable. So then, murder is immoral – except in Detroit.

            That actually seems like an important thing to point out about moral systems that are based on the conscience and conscience alone. All moral judgments then come with an unspoken qualification: “X is wrong, right now, in my eyes. It may not have been wrong in the past. It may not be wrong in the future. It may well shift between being wrong and being right repeatedly and rapidly.”

  • Tarn

    How is this transhumanism?

    • leahlibresco

      Dissatisfaction with the products of evolution (here, naive conscience) and the desire to take them apart, see how they work and make some improvements.

      • keddaw

        So you’ve improved his conscience (assuming the goal is to have more offspring) but at the cost of his autonomy. Seems like a high price to me. It’s not like he is improved, he just follows something else’s orders and once this has been ceded there doesn’t seem to be any check Bob can do to ensure the box is working correctly. At least his conscience has many feedback loops and learning circuitry to go with it to, hopefully, improve over time.

        • Anonymous

          Suppose Bob has spent his whole life up to this point following the instructions of the black box. Sometimes, he’s nervous about doing something before he does it. He occasionally considers not following it and wonders what that would be like. Sometimes, after doing something, he regrets it or thinks a different path would have been better. Sometimes, future instructions reflect his regret of previous actions…. sometimes, they don’t. At this stage, what is your best argument for why Bob should eschew further instructions from the black box and instead pursue his autonomy?

          Write this argument down now… before you read any further.

          …now what if that black box was his conscience shaped by random biological/sociological factors all along? Does your argument still hold? What does it point toward?

          In a related question, why do you assume there are no feedback loops in Leah’s black box? Given the description, it’s surely a very well-tuned combination of feedforward and feedback control. He’s really just taking control from one poorly-understood black box and giving it to another poorly-understood black box (albeit one that we think comes with guarantees).

  • Cam

    “Everyone has access, through God’s grace, to the natural law written on the hearts of man.”

    Hi, first time poster, apologies if I break any commenting norms.

    I’m interested in the “everyone has access” element. It seems to me that if I want to accept that everyone has access to a natural law, I have to have first accepted some form of mind/body dualism? Under my current materialistic view, moral decisions are a product of a vulnerable brain which can be altered or damaged. But it seems to follow from this that some people may not be able to access the alleged natural law.

    So granting dualism just to see where it goes, here are some problems i’m exploring. Suppose a person suffered a brain injury, and as external observers we see evidence that they no longer have the ability to make a moral decision about violence where once they could. If it is their ‘soul’ (replace charitably with dualistic notion of your choice) that handles morality, the evidence in the scenario suggests that either the soul is now handling morality differently, or has lost control of the ‘body’. If the soul is handling morality differently to how it did before, we therefore have a situation where a brain injury can potentially remove a person’s access to the natural law. If the body is now failing to act according to the morals of the soul, then what is controlling the morality of the body? Does God judge the soul, or the body (which may now be on a killing spree for all the soul can do about it)? How could we tell if someone, or ourselves, no longer has their soul in charge of the detectable manifestations of their morality, and does it matter?

    I think I recall once reading some catholics claiming that people with mental illness have reduced moral culpability, like children- why is the universe set up to allow reduced moral culpability, if moral culpability is something which God allegedly considers pretty damn important? Is a head injury a free pass to heaven?

    If this is not how dualism works, can the scenario be charitably reconstructed in a better conception of dualism? Is the scenario a false dichotomy? If it is argued that this scenario never has occured in reality and never could, is there a justification for this refutation that doesn’t require me already accepting 90% of Catholicism?

  • Catherine

    If were Bob I would turn you down because I don’t care which box I have, so long as I have roughly the *same* box as my fellow humans, and so long as the box we humans have is more similar to the box that more-similar animals do (so our box should be more like a chimpanzee’s box than a lizard’s box). If you told me that everyone was already operating with such a box but I had somehow missed out, and that I would be more likely to have children (who would, of course, get a box of their own) if I accepted your offer than that I didn’t, then I would accept the box. I trust the box in this case because it operates by symmetry. I appeal here not to higher moral authority, but to the principle of “stability” – a society with such a box is stable. Stability is no better or worse than instability, but, tautologically, it is more stable. I’m curious what your thoughts are on this everyone-has-a-box scenario.