Science and Morality – Conflict?

87


Discussion by: utopia
I’ve seen many arguments now where people are disagreeing about the nature or morality and right vs. wrong. Some say morality is:

  • subjective (depends on the person, purely a cultural thing, based on preference, etc.) 
  • objective (there is a measurably correct way and an incorrect way to behave in situations, right and wrong exist outside of just choice, etc.)

Dawkins himself has said on several occasions that science cannot study morality (in particular I remember it from his talk on Al Jazeera), and this is in direct opposition, for example, to the views and work of philosopher/neuroscientist Sam Harris (who is my hero, so be a little understanding of any bias I show).

What do the majority of people here think?
Can we tell others how to behave and what to value and be correct or incorrect in what we tell them?
Or is it all a matter of personal preference and we have no better basis for understanding morality than they do, morality is only what works best for the individual?

87 COMMENTS

  1. Morality is a relative term so Sam Harris has a different definition of morality than an Islamist or pretty much anyone else. Societies of people AND individuals define what is moral and immoral. I believe that Sam Harris views morality as actions taken to improve the human condition. Yet it is painfully obvious that many people view that as “socialism” while fully supporting Social Darwanism.

    I may be a socialist, but at least I’m not a Social Darwanist.

    • In reply to #1 by The Orderly Entropianist:

      Morality is a relative term so Sam Harris has a different definition of morality than an Islamist or pretty much anyone else. Societies of people AND individuals define what is moral and immoral. I believe that Sam Harris views morality as actions taken to improve the human condition. Yet it is painfully obvious that many people view that as “socialism” while fully supporting Social Darwanism.

      I may be a socialist, but at least I’m not a Social Darwanist.

      It’s more like he views morality as a quantifiable property with a scientific basis for measure and study. He’s biting back at the notion that science has absolutely nothing to say about morality. He uses examples of human joy and agony as one range in which to quantify what can be considered moral and immoral. He also argues that these measures are not relative, there must be a right and wrong answer that can be found scientifically. It’s a simple hypothesis really and it’s a mystery beyond all comprehension how it could be so reviled.

    • In reply to #1 by The Orderly Entropianist:

      Morality is a relative term so Sam Harris has a different definition of morality than an Islamist or pretty much anyone else. Societies of people AND individuals define what is moral and immoral. I believe that Sam Harris views morality as actions taken to improve the human condition. Yet it is painfully obvious that many people view that as “socialism” while fully supporting Social Darwanism.

      I may be a socialist, but at least I’m not a Social Darwanist.

      I’m unfortunately going to have to copy William Lane Craig in response. What you’re confusing is Moral Epistemology (how we come to know what is moral) with Moral Ontology (what is moral).

  2. Yes, morality is subjective goal setting, but science and knowledge provides the accuracy needed to achieve it. The latter proves that killing gays does not create a happy, peaceful society.

  3. I’m really not qualified to comment on the science, but if you are just looking for opinions: we may identify a link between the modern view of morality and evolution. Certainly there has to be some benefit to the individual that comes from a well-ordered family unit and society. Less danger, less unpredictability, more community–all of these contribute to greater survival rates, life expectancy, reproduction. I’m sure others more knowledgeable than myself will weigh in here.

  4. If morality is about well being of humans as long as they don’t harm others or take away their freedoms without any good reason and if it means assessing each situation by means of tools that situation demands then I’m thinking is it so that in some cases science works towards a better well informed society and in other cases can study and decide the outcome of our moral questions? So in both cases it contributes to the debate and we’re in our way on getting rid of the old 2 dimensional philosophical debates of either this- or- that and false dichotomies. I think Professor Dawkins seems shocked in some debates by the magnificent lack of knowledge of his opponents or interviewer ( like the journalist who believed Mohammed flied to the moon on a white horse and what not!) and this prevents him of explaining in details what he means and why. I mean if one guy’s only goal is to ask childish questions and ignore the answers there is little one can do.

  5. There have been many experiments conducted that show a universality in particular “moral” applications. I’m referring to the train track experiment in particular. There are several such experiments that seem to suggest that deep down we are all hard wired much the same way.

    The other expressions of morality are more culturally based and more often than not , seem to have a preoccupation with controlling female reproduction. These cultural morals suggest conformity to a set of precepts.

    When I was growing up, one’s manner of using eating utensils was almost a matter of moral significance. Thank god that day has passed! There were many other constraints on our behaviour that in hindsight, were based on little other than conforming to the values of the community. Ways of dress, selecting a life partner , and notions of respect for personal ownership, were all classed as having equal importance.

    At least in modern societies , we seem to have outgrown these narrow views, and can see beyond the merely cultural, to the fundamentally important moral values.

  6. I am of the view that morality is a completely subjective thing and science can’t say what is morally right or wrong, but I believe that there exists good philosophical arguments for supporting certain moral beliefs, and that science is helpful in finding ways to work towards these beliefs.

    If we for example take the fact that no life wants to suffer and all life wants to experience happiness, I think that provides a very logical and rational basis for all morality, and therefore, even if morality is subjective, it gives us very good reason to tell people who cause unnecessary harm that what they are doing is wrong.

    • In reply to #6 by The Unicorn Delusion:

      I am of the view that morality is a completely subjective thing and science can’t say what is morally right or wrong, but I believe that there exists good philosophical arguments for supporting certain moral beliefs, and that science is helpful in finding ways to work towards these beliefs.

      If we for example take the fact that no life wants to suffer and all life wants to experience happiness, I think that provides a very logical and rational basis for all morality, and therefore, even if morality is subjective, it gives us very good reason to tell people who cause unnecessary harm that what they are doing is wrong.

      Just saying “no life wants to suffer” doesn’t get you very far. To begin with I could give you some real life examples of a few friends of mine who in the right context enjoy suffering quite a bit. Its why sex shops have whips mixed in with the other sex toys.

      But even if we ignore that part of it inflicting suffering is an essential part of life. You can’t eat without killing animals unless you are a vegetarian. And you can’t have society without jails and armies.

      Or take a specific real world moral problem: Is abortion ever moral? If being moral is not ever inflicting un-necessary pain then isn’t it inflicting pain on a fetus (which is certainly alive) to terminate it? BTW, I’m not making an argument for abortion, I’m just pointing out that when you start looking at moral dilemmas (which is what you want a moral theory to do, give you answers to hard moral questions) just using the moral axiom of not inflicting suffering doesn’t get you very far.

      • In reply to #38 by Red Dog:

        Just saying “no life wants to suffer” doesn’t get you very far. To begin with I could give you some real life examples of a few friends of mine who in the right context enjoy suffering quite a bit. Its why sex shops have whips mixed in with the other sex toys.

        If it’s something you want and desire, then I don’t consider it genuine suffering. As I said in my previous definition, I considering suffering to be unwanted, negative experiences. If whips and chains excite you (thank you, Rihanna for that line), then I consider that a source of happiness

        But even if we ignore that part of it inflicting suffering is an essential part of life. You can’t eat without killing animals unless you are a vegetarian. And you can’t have society without jails and armies.

        I’m aware that it’s impossible to live without inflicting suffering, but that doesn’t really make it any more moral to do so for me. I mean, I consider myself an evil person, based on the fact that I likely partake in the exploitation of people and animals anytime I buy a product. As for jails and armies, I see their purpose as one that’s meant to prevent suffering. Jails are supposed to keep society safe by separating criminals from society, rehabilitating them and deterring crime. The loss of freedom a criminal gets when put in jail is outweighed by the benefit to society. I also feel the only good use of an army is one that prevents greater harm.

        I’m just pointing out that when you start looking at moral dilemmas (which is what you want a moral theory to do, give you answers to hard moral questions) just using the moral axiom of not inflicting suffering doesn’t get you very far.

        It certainly doesn’t, but I still think it serves as a good foundation. I haven’t been able to find any arguments for why unnecessary suffering should ever be justified

        In reply to #41 by Unbiased Bias:

        What if my happiness is a negative feeling?

        Well it certainly would be charitable of society to keep you miserable in that case :P I have to say personally, as someone who’s into blues music, I sometimes get upset about being happy. It’s like “damnit, how am I supposed to play the blues when I have nothing to be blue about?”

        • In reply to #45 by The Unicorn Delusion:

          Saying that the only ethical rule you need is to prevent needless suffering or to use armies to prevent greater harm is just hand waving. You haven’t actually provided an answer that can solve moral questions, you’ve just moved the question over to some other undefined terms. What constitutes unnecessary suffering? The US claimed that it was avoiding suffering by invading Iraq. Sam Harris believes that torturing people can sometimes lead to overall reduced suffering.

          Or get back to my original question that I didn’t see you answer: what does your theory of morality say about abortion? On the one hand there is no greater suffering you can argue than to deny someone the right to life so by your definition abortion is wrong. Or perhaps you don’t count a fetus as a person so then abortion is right? Either way just saying “avoid unnecessary suffering” doesn’t really provide an answer, you need to dig down and address other issues such as fairness, personhood, rights (do all animals have some basic rights or only born humans?). I’m not claiming that I have an answer or even that there is an obvious one at this point in our understanding of morality, I’m just saying that it seems pretty clear to me that “avoid unnecessary suffering” isn’t even close to a complete answer.

          • In reply to #46 by Red Dog:

            Or get back to my original question that I didn’t see you answer: what does your theory of morality say about abortion? On the one hand there is no greater suffering you can argue than to deny someone the right to life so by your definition abortion is wrong. Or perhaps you don’t count a fetus as a person so then abortion is right? Either way just saying “avoid unnecessary suffering” doesn’t really provide an answer, you need to dig down and address other issues such as fairness, personhood, rights (do all animals have some basic rights or only born humans?). I’m not claiming that I have an answer or even that there is an obvious one at this point in our understanding of morality, I’m just saying that it seems pretty clear to me that “avoid unnecessary suffering” isn’t even close to a complete answer.

            I never said that it was a complete answer, or the only moral rule you needed, but a nice basis to build a moral system from, and questions of when torture and war are justified, or if they ever are justified, are genuinely difficult questions to answer. As for the abortion question, I personally don’t consider a fetus to be alive since it can’t think or feel, and therefor, it also can’t be made to suffer. So I see nothing immoral about abortion.

            by unnecessary suffering, I mean any suffering where the pain caused outweighs any purpose or benefit. When exactly that is is hard to say, because there is no easy way to quantify either of these things, but there are some cases where I think it’s pretty clear-cut. There’s no reason to skin an animal while it is still alive, rather than after it’s dead, because you still get the skin, and you can still use it for whatever you intended, and it didn’t have to live through the pain of getting it’s skin cut off.

            Another example that is common in the real world is when people believe that criminals deserve to be treated inhumanly, not because they think there exists anything to gain from it, not because they think it deters or rehabilitates, but simply because the criminal “did a bad thing”. This is suffering that benefits no one, and could have been avoided with no cost to society, and that’s what I mean by unnecessary suffering.

  7. Philosophical discussion of morality clouds the obvious- The Golden Rule is Occam’s Razor in this case.
    Even Islamists would prefer not to be decapitated, whilst approving it for the kuffar

    • One could take a scientific approach to morality, since it is concerned with human actions and consequences. As our technology becomes ever more powerful, our long term survival on this planet may depend upon it.

      In this respect, morality is no more subjective than say, agriculture.

    • In reply to #7 by Nodhimmi:

      Philosophical discussion of morality clouds the obvious- The Golden Rule is Occam’s Razor in this case.
      Even Islamists would prefer not to be decapitated, whilst approving it for the kuffar

      The Golden Rule is no airtight framework. What if you’re a sado-masochist? Should you then go around hurting people because you want them to hurt you, as following the GR would have you do?

      • In reply to #22 by Zopdoz:

        In reply to #7 by Nodhimmi:

        Philosophical discussion of morality clouds the obvious- The Golden Rule is Occam’s Razor in this case.
        Even Islamists would prefer not to be decapitated, whilst approving it for the kuffar

        The Golden Rule is no airtight framework. What if you’re a sado-masochist? Should you then go around hurting people because you want them to hurt you, as following the GR would have you do?

        You would want people to let you do what you wanted to yourself, and in return you’d let them do what they wanted to themselves. This is a basic naivety of the golden rule you’ve fallen into, the same as suggesting a football fan expects other people to be interested in football. The point about the GR is its basis in reciprocity and mutual benefit to both parties. A SM slitting his arms isn’t getting the same thing as a non-SM who receives the same treatment. It’s the exchange of favours in general, be those favours symmetric or asymmetric, that is important, not making sure the details of the favours are identical in every particular.

        Also, the SM is a straw figure based on a philosophical fantasy. No real life sadomasochist enjoys the pain; they enjoy the buzz they get simultaneously and/or afterwards, and are more usually inclined to the sado than the masochist part. Pain by definition isn’t something you enjoy.

        • In reply to #23 by Zeuglodon:

          In reply to #22 by Zopdoz:

          In reply to #7 by Nodhimmi:

          Philosophical discussion of morality clouds the obvious- The Golden Rule is Occam’s Razor in this case.
          Even Islamists would prefer not to be decapitated, whilst approving it for the kuffar

          The Golden Rule is no airtight framework. What if you’re a sado-masochist? Should you then go around hurting people because you want them to hurt you, as following the GR would have you do?

          You would want people to let you do what you wanted to yourself, and in return you’d let them do what they wanted to themselves. This is a basic naivety of the golden rule you’ve fallen into, the same as suggesting a football fan expects other people to be interested in football. The point about the GR is its basis in reciprocity and mutual benefit to both parties. A SM slitting his arms isn’t getting the same thing as a non-SM who receives the same treatment. It’s the exchange of favours in general, be those favours symmetric or asymmetric, that is important, not making sure the details of the favours are identical in every particular.

          Also, the SM is a straw figure based on a philosophical fantasy. No real life sadomasochist enjoys the pain; they enjoy the buzz they get simultaneously and/or afterwards, and are more usually inclined to the sado than the masochist part. Pain by definition isn’t something you enjoy.

          If I can quickly wade in on this: just a simple denunciation of the golden rule:

          1) We don’t know ourselves better than others (and therefore what is best for ourselves is at least as unknown as what is best for others)

          But it’s even more than that!:

          2) In the 20th century it was roundly proven on all sides that we learn language socially, and that the meanings we have in our lives are socio-cultural or socio-political, and because they are not ‘ours’, we cannot move meaning first from our isolated selves (supposedly where reason invents meaning) to others (supposedly where reason infers meaning).

        • In reply to #23 by Zeuglodon:

          You would want people to let you do what you wanted to yourself, and in return you’d let them do what they wanted to themselves. This is a basic naivety of the golden rule you’ve fallen into, the same as suggesting a football fan expects other people to be interested in football. The point about the GR is its basis in reciprocity and mutual benefit to both parties. A SM slitting his arms isn’t getting the same thing as a non-SM who receives the same treatment. It’s the exchange of favours in general, be those favours symmetric or asymmetric, that is important, not making sure the details of the favours are identical in every particular.

          Also, the SM is a straw figure based on a philosophical fantasy. No real life sadomasochist enjoys the pain; they enjoy the buzz they get simultaneously and/or afterwards, and are more usually inclined to the sado than the masochist part. Pain by definition isn’t something you enjoy.

          An SM is by definition someone who BOTH enjoys giving/receiving pain. So an SM would want to be able to both inflict pain to themselves AND to others to receive gratification. Ergo in respect to this, the GR falls (among other ways).

          Firstly, how do you know that no sadomasochist enjoys the pain? By definition, all that pain is, is a neural reaction to something perceived as a physical threat to the body. Now, if there are actually studies that appear to confirm this, I’d accept it, but if it’s just that you cannot see how one could enjoy it, that’s nothing but an argument from personal incredulity.

          • In reply to #32 by Zopdoz:

            Also, the SM is a straw figure based on a philosophical fantasy. No real life sadomasochist enjoys the pain; they enjoy the buzz they get simultaneously and/or afterwards, and are more usually inclined to the sado than the masochist part. Pain by definition isn’t something you enjoy.

            An SM is by definition someone who BOTH enjoys giving/receiving pain. So an SM would want to be able to both inflict pain to themselves AND to others to receive gratification.

            Firstly, how do you know that no sadomasochist enjoys the pain? By definition, all that pain is, is a neural reaction to something perceived as a physical threat to the body.

            >

            Now, if there are actually studies that appear to confirm this, I’d accept it, but if it’s just that you cannot see how one could enjoy it, that’s nothing but an argument from personal incredulity.

            The problem is that this definition is a shorthand way of summarizing the phenomenon, and necessarily comes with a few flaws.

            The first one is based on neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. Nociceptors are a collection of peripheral nerves designed to detect “noxious stimuli”. But what are “noxious stimuli”? They aren’t literally detecting trace amounts of pain in the environment. They’re detecting pressure, heat, unexpected kinetic movement (as would be caused by a puncture or laceration), and chemical reactions that are associated with cellular breakdown (such as exposure to acids). The nociceptors then carry this information along different pathways, such as the reflex pathways and the involuntary and voluntary neural pathways to places such as the amygdala and the associate cortices of the cerebrum, which is most likely where the actual pain responses are felt as pain. Bizarre as it sounds, the brain in a sense has to decide whether or not to feel pain. It doesn’t come free with the territory.

            However, the serotonin and dopamine pathways (largely implicated with feelings of pleasure) operate on largely independent circuits in the brain. Contrary to everyday intuition, pain and pleasure aren’t mutually exclusive, and people who go on a long and gruelling workout routine can appreciate the point. There’s the actual physical pain of over-stretching or overworking the muscles and joints, but it comes with a rush of euphoria brought about by the parasympathetic response. This is why some exercise aficionados can border on the masochistic. Among the pain they feel in doing the workout, they are reaching for the euphoric high that comes with overexertion. While I’m not entirely certain about sadomasochists, this mechanism probably underlies their masochistic tendencies, especially when the sexual gratification and fascination for the macabre is already operating on their brains.

            Nevertheless, I don’t think we need to go straight to neuroscience to cast doubt on the simple way the concept is framed. This brings me to my second point. Pain is, by definition, an unpleasant experience. To describe it as something to enjoy (i.e. that one finds pleasant) is a contradiction. The real-world phenomenon is what the term is referring to, and it cannot be reasonably doubted that pain itself is self-evidently unpleasant, because you will still find it unpleasant regardless of what your mouth says. Other experiences, such as pleasure, have qualities which we call pleasant, as contrasted with unpleasant ones like pain. If pain is defined as pleasant, then the word “pain” is detached from the real world phenomenon and the concept is merely verbal trickery. If pain is unpleasant, then describing someone enjoying it violates the rule of non-contradiction and leads to absurdities, which one might uncharitably observe in the bleatings of radical moral relativists and other confused minds. Either way, the notion is flawed from the start.

            It’s not a contradiction to postulate that two emotions are working simultaneously or are recursive just like thoughts (someone feels pain, then feels gleeful about feeling that pain, then feels puzzled about feeling gleeful about the pain, then feels irritated about feeling puzzled about etc.), or are even effected by a complex interplay of beliefs, thoughts, intuitions, the emotion itself, and other emotions that coexist in consciousness. Yet if you confuse “guy gets pleasure from cutting his arms or inserting pencils into his orifices” with “guy gets pleasure out of pain”, self-contradiction is the result.

            This is why I think the SM counterargument is based on a straw man. It takes a real world phenomenon, but then misrepresents it and acts like it’s legitimate in order to make a seemingly devastating point. Not only does this result in self-contradiction, which necessarily requires us to dismiss it, but the point could have been made more simply with a real counter, such as the one I offered with the football example above.

            By now, I think it should be clear that my dismissal isn’t based on personal incredulity over the existence of SMs, or over the argument’s intention or validity. It’s based on the fact that the notion of enjoying pain, being self-contradictory and detached from the real world facts of how pain and pleasure work, is unsound, and cannot be treated as though it were a sound rebuttal.

            Ergo in respect to this, the GR falls (among other ways).

            Lastly, let’s get our positions straight. I largely agree that the Golden Rule does not stand by itself as a foolproof principle, which I think was your original point, but you don’t need to invoke a sadomasochist to make the point. The general problem is the asymmetry of both parties; if one person likes football, but another doesn’t, then “one getting the other to a match as a favour” would not be giving or receiving like for like. One would enjoy the gift, the other wouldn’t. However, there is a sense in which a symmetry could be found between them: both like receiving favours that are tailored to things they individually like. If one person got the ticket for the season and the other got, say, a neat new PS3 game, then they could exchange these gifts and both be better off. Here, the Golden Rule could manage, but it has to come accompanied with the principle of symmetries on both sides, and it is no longer an absolute principle. Foolproof it isn’t, but dismissing it prematurely is not a good idea.

            In reply to #25 by Stardroid:

            If I can quickly wade in on this: just a simple denunciation of the golden rule:

            1) We don’t know ourselves better than others (and therefore what is best for ourselves is at least as unknown as what is best for others)

            This is really a non-point, akin to saying that, because science doesn’t know everything, therefore it’s impotent at explaining anything. It doesn’t take a genius to note that this is not a rebuttal but simply a debate stopper that rests on a premise very likely to be wrong, and on an illegitimate chain of reasoning.

            But it’s even more than that!:

            Seriously, mate? You sound like such a cheesy salesman.

            2) In the 20th century it was roundly proven on all sides that we learn language socially,

            We learn a specific language socially. Our capacity to learn language, coupled with some in-built instincts and the basic logical structures of languages, have nothing to do with the idiosyncrasies of any one culture.

            and that the meanings we have in our lives are socio-cultural or socio-political,

            Sokal would be proud. Culture is simply the outcome of individual thought processes and people’s natural social instincts pooled among hundreds, thousands, and millions of people. It isn’t a mystic force that endows people with “meaning” like a God.

            and because they are not ‘ours’, we cannot move meaning first from our isolated selves (supposedly where reason invents meaning) to others (supposedly where reason infers meaning).

            Meaning isn’t a property owned by anything, including culture. It’s simply a fact of our lives that we have to make sense of the world around us, reason is the only epistemic tool that works in this regard (honest philosophers acknowledge that much), and since we communicate freely among ourselves, we have to make sense both of individual humans and of the bigger picture of society and everybody in existence across the globe.

            I maintain that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and won’t engage with you further until you explain without obfuscating.

  8. This is one of those topics that makes me suspect people are falling for logical traps. I don’t pretend to have the final word on the subject, so I’ll present my thoughts of the moment on this, which I’ll try to order as carefully as I can:

    As far as rationality is concerned, most of ethics is pragmatic. It isn’t about what’s true and what’s not; it’s about how you’re going to use your knowledge of the world and your interests to behave and shape the world around you. Ethics is essentially a sub-branch of decision-making, which is the raison d’etre of the mechanical brain’s existence. What makes humans unusual is their ability to consciously deliberate on their actions and to discuss them with others.

    Those interests can’t be chosen by the agent acting them out, except with reference to another set of interests that the agent has. Any appeal to a “transcendent” level of morality is doomed as a result, because this “level” is just as much the product of the individual mind as the “lower” levels, and the closest it can get to the idea is as an override mechanism in the brain.

    This doesn’t mean that ethics as a whole is simply personal preference. One of the distinguishing characteristics of ethical doctrines is that they are universal. If someone believes murder is morally wrong, they don’t then add “to each his own” when they encounter a serial killer. If it’s wrong for one person, then it’s wrong for everybody. Virtually every study of ethics across cultures has shown that many ethical rules are consistently singled out over and over. Anyone trying to pass this off as “personal preference” is essentially invoking a coincidence, and we at the very least have evolutionary, neuroscientific, social, and psychological reasons for suspecting why it isn’t.

    The rules have to be agreed upon by the members of the society that created them, and the point about the rules is to negotiate conflict and ensure both parties are getting a benefit – or at least not making a loss – in any interaction. The point is to cut down the amount of exploitation and cheating that could impoverish or ruin somebody’s life, whether that involves legal protection, psychological rehabilitation, or judicial punishment. Even the weirder “moral” laws of religions boil down to proving one’s credentials when it comes to making promises and showing one’s loyalty, obedience, and cleanliness, all of which have evolutionary precursors and explanations.

    I don’t even think the subjective/objective division is that helpful, and suspect that it is based on an equivocation. Certainly, ethics depends on the existence of people who have experiences like pain and happiness (subjective experiences), but this is different from a fact that is distorted by parochial biases and deceptions (subjective views). These experiences make up some important information about the world at large, even if language and logic aren’t very good at capturing them. The fact that I feel pain, and the feeling of pain itself, form the self-evident bases for why I don’t try to harm myself without a seemingly sound and powerful reason, and since we reason that others have such experiences, the overlap suggests why it is self-evidently wrong to harm them.

    This is why empathy, sympathy, and at the very least a logical but distant understanding of experiences, feature so prominently in moral debates such as the ones over racism, sexism, and animal treatment. Even the fact that I like vanilla ice cream over chocolate can be traced to objective facts about my neurophysiology, and it is self-evident from my experiences with them why I would prefer one over the other. Neuroscience in general blurs the boundary between what’s objective and what’s subjective.

    Ethics is largely about striving towards some ideal world with its set of conditions, coupled with the conviction that everybody would be better off there. People have different ideas of what it is and how to get there, but that’s in the same vein as people having different ideas of how the world works and what is achieved if you do something as opposed to something else. In other words, it is susceptible to error.

    Failures to achieve the ideal conditions (or to visualize any of several correct ideals, or the correct ideal) can be attributed to a combination of getting the facts wrong and over-reliance on intuitive modes of thought and feelings, not to the notion that ethics is a pick ‘n’ mix with no correct answers, or to the notion that whatever answer you give is correct. Those two notions rely on acting like personal experiences aren’t there or don’t have any basis in the facts of reality, which is based on a misunderstanding, and they confuse a legitimate idea (that different circumstances may entail different moral actions) with a nonsensical one.

    When people say science cannot dictate morality, they’re using a misunderstanding of the is/ought problem. The problem only points out that normative statements don’t appear legitimately from the premises presented; it says nothing about the hidden “if… then…” premises and the self-evident experiences of the conscious entities involved, much less does it make any attempt to unpackage the notion of “should”, merely treating it as an irreducibly complex concept.

    They’re mostly saying that science hasn’t fully got to grips with the mechanics of subjective experience, and that science largely pretends people are devoid of interests as though this were an untouchable area, which is just a matter of “we’ll get around to it”. Not to mention people have an incredibly unflattering picture of science as “cold” and “detached”, which is one reason people go to the fuzzier and intuitively appealing alternatives of religious dictates.

    Overall, I suspect there is a sense that moral truths actually do map onto something in the real world, but in the same way that biological facts do (i.e. that it is contingent on certain premises being true), and that it is unusual among “factual” statements in that it relies on difficult-to-describe experiences. I also suspect that a lot of contrary ideas are based on conceptual confusions, unsound logic, and an unwarranted treatment of personal experiences as somehow invalidating the idea of moral truths. I think that secular humanism will one day simply merge with science and the amalgamation be found to form the base of ethics. I also think that a lot of what passes for “ethics” will simply become obsolete, and that it’s simply a matter of time.

    • It is convenient you don’t see the subjective/objective division as helpful, as this allows you to side-step the charge that your morality is made up.

      In reply to #8 by Zeuglodon:

      This is one of those topics that makes me suspect people are falling for logical traps. I don’t pretend to have the final word on the subject, so I’ll present my thoughts of the moment on this, which I’ll try to order as carefully as I can:

      As far as rationality is concerned, most of ethics is pragmatic. It isn’t about what’s true and what’s not; it’s about how you’re going to use your knowledge of the world and your interests to behave and shape the world around you. Ethics is essentially a sub-branch of decision-making, which is the raison d’etre of the mechanical brain’s existence. What makes humans unusual is their ability to consciously deliberate on their actions and to discuss them with others.

      Those interests can’t be chosen by the agent acting them out, except with reference to another set of interests that the agent has. Any appeal to a “transcendent” level of morality is doomed as a result, because this “level” is just as much the product of the individual mind as the “lower” levels, and the closest it can get to the idea is as an override mechanism in the brain.

      This doesn’t mean that ethics as a whole is simply personal preference. One of the distinguishing characteristics of ethical doctrines is that they are universal. If someone believes murder is morally wrong, they don’t then add “to each his own” when they encounter a serial killer. If it’s wrong for one person, then it’s wrong for everybody. Virtually every study of ethics across cultures has shown that many ethical rules are consistently singled out over and over. Anyone trying to pass this off as “personal preference” is essentially invoking a coincidence, and we at the very least have evolutionary, neuroscientific, social, and psychological reasons for suspecting why it isn’t.

      The rules have to be agreed upon by the members of the society that created them, and the point about the rules is to negotiate conflict and ensure both parties are getting a benefit – or at least not making a loss – in any interaction. The point is to cut down the amount of exploitation and cheating that could impoverish or ruin somebody’s life, whether that involves legal protection, psychological rehabilitation, or judicial punishment. Even the weirder “moral” laws of religions boil down to proving one’s credentials when it comes to making promises and showing one’s loyalty, obedience, and cleanliness, all of which have evolutionary precursors and explanations.

      I don’t even think the subjective/objective division is that helpful, and suspect that it is based on an equivocation. Certainly, ethics depends on the existence of people who have experiences like pain and happiness (subjective experiences), but this is different from a fact that is distorted by parochial biases and deceptions (subjective views). These experiences make up some important information about the world at large, even if language and logic aren’t very good at capturing them. The fact that I feel pain, and the feeling of pain itself, form the self-evident bases for why I don’t try to harm myself without a seemingly sound and powerful reason, and since we reason that others have such experiences, the overlap suggests why it is self-evidently wrong to harm them.

      This is why empathy, sympathy, and at the very least a logical but distant understanding of experiences, feature so prominently in moral debates such as the ones over racism, sexism, and animal treatment. Even the fact that I like vanilla ice cream over chocolate can be traced to objective facts about my neurophysiology, and it is self-evident from my experiences with them why I would prefer one over the other. Neuroscience in general blurs the boundary between what’s objective and what’s subjective.

      Ethics is largely about striving towards some ideal world with its set of conditions, coupled with the conviction that everybody would be better off there. People have different ideas of what it is and how to get there, but that’s in the same vein as people having different ideas of how the world works and what is achieved if you do something as opposed to something else. In other words, it is susceptible to error.

      Failures to achieve the ideal conditions (or to visualize any of several correct ideals, or the correct ideal) can be attributed to a combination of getting the facts wrong and over-reliance on intuitive modes of thought and feelings, not to the notion that ethics is a pick ‘n’ mix with no correct answers, or to the notion that whatever answer you give is correct. Those two notions rely on acting like personal experiences aren’t there or don’t have any basis in the facts of reality, which is based on a misunderstanding, and they confuse a legitimate idea (that different circumstances may entail different moral actions) with a nonsensical one.

      When people say science cannot dictate morality, they’re using a misunderstanding of the is/ought problem. The problem only points out that normative statements don’t appear legitimately from the premises presented; it says nothing about the hidden “if… then…” premises and the self-evident experiences of the conscious entities involved, much less does it make any attempt to unpackage the notion of “should”, merely treating it as an irreducibly complex concept.

      They’re mostly saying that science hasn’t fully got to grips with the mechanics of subjective experience, and that science largely pretends people are devoid of interests as though this were an untouchable area, which is just a matter of “we’ll get around to it”. Not to mention people have an incredibly unflattering picture of science as “cold” and “detached”, which is one reason people go to the fuzzier and intuitively appealing alternatives of religious dictates.

      Overall, I suspect there is a sense that moral truths actually do map onto something in the real world, but in the same way that biological facts do (i.e. that it is contingent on certain premises being true), and that it is unusual among “factual” statements in that it relies on difficult-to-describe experiences. I also suspect that a lot of contrary ideas are based on conceptual confusions, unsound logic, and an unwarranted treatment of personal experiences as somehow invalidating the idea of moral truths. I think that secular humanism will one day simply merge with science and the amalgamation be found to form the base of ethics. I also think that a lot of what passes for “ethics” will simply become obsolete, and that it’s simply a matter of time.

      • In reply to #63 by flipflop:

        It is convenient you don’t see the subjective/objective division as helpful, as this allows you to side-step the charge that your morality is made up.

        Considering how carefully Zeuglodon addressed the subject, nothing about it seems convenient or side-stepping. It would be useful if you addressed his points and explained where they are flawed.

        What do you mean about “made up morality”? That could mean anything. Is everyone’s morality made up or just Zeuglodon’s?

        • In reply to #64 by susanlatimer:

          In reply to #63 by flipflop:

          It is convenient you don’t see the subjective/objective division as helpful, as this allows you to side-step the charge that your morality is made up.

          Considering how carefully Zeuglodon addressed the subject, nothing about it seems convenient or side-stepping. It would be useful if you addressed his points and explained where they are flawed.

          What do you mean about “made up morality”? That could mean anything. Is everyone’s morality made up or just Zeuglodon’s?

          Sorry about passing over your comment, susanlatimer. I too would be interested in seeing some answers to the questions you raise, especially given that they are crucial to the points flipflop raises.

        • In reply to #64 by susanlatimer:

          What do you mean about “made up morality”? That could mean anything. Is everyone’s morality made up or just Zeuglodon’s?

          Yes, it was remiss of me not to respond earlier , but I was sidetracked by another quite lengthy post.

          Zueglodon’s morality is necessarily made up, as is yours and mine. I think he/she is advocating a kind or moral realism. It is based on a value judgement.

          I see a lot of intellectualising on here. I’d been warned about the site of course, and realise now that those warnings were to protect me. I am engaging with people, (or not engaging, as I have now been accused) who seem well versed in the skills of debate. I’m not, to be honest.

          I was struck by the amount of posts some people make, and the sheer volume of words. I imagine people on here are highly experienced debators, and know all about things like straw men and false dichotomies.
          It’s now been pointed out to me that I am probably either not intelligent enough, or I am not arguing by some set of “rules”, whatever they may be? That is, I am, or better still, “my case” is, one of a pseudo-intellectual. I suppose I did start by making an accusation, although I thought it was gentle and reasonable, but now apparently, I “hurl” them.

          So too, I’m told, I keep banging the same old drum, despite having posted just two very short posts on this thread, and being a new member to the forum.

          I imagine this post is already lining itself up to be disected line by line, and my weakness or cowardice or lack of intellect will be pronounced upon. So I will try to answer your question directly, but I think some context is important.

          I think without a moral authority which is fixed and understood as such, our morality is arbitrary. I think for all the words and clever turns of phrase that Zeuglodon uses, and for all the time he or she spends “wasting” on me and other people, he or she is a carbon based collection of molecules that constructs clever ideas which will sometimes be similar to, and other times be different from, other ideas and views and opinions and propositions constructed by other clever carbon based collections of molecules who also have a sharp IQ and the time to flex it. And I have no idea which of these clever people is right. They all seem to think they are, so I’m inclined towards confusion.

          I quite like postmodernism for that reason. Anything goes.

          • In reply to #76 by flipflop:

            I’m out of time right now and will respond tonight. I hope in the mean time, that others will respond and that you will feel welcome in the discussion.

            The rules of discussion are not about “intellectualizing”. They are there to protect us from fooling ourselves, using guesswork instead of thinking things through.

            It’s a bit of a crucible here. The hope is that we all might learn something. It’s not about winning points. It’s about making progress in our thinking on subjects, this subject being a very important one.

            I think without a moral authority which is fixed and understood as such, our morality is arbitrary.

            What do you mean by “arbitrary”? This is important.

            I imagine this post is already lining itself up to be disected line by line, and my weakness or cowardice or lack of intellect will be pronounced upon.

            Everyone’s posts are subjected to that. It’s the only way we can respond to points and keep the discussions organized. Again, it’s not about winning. It’s about progress. I don’t think you lack intellect, nor does it seem anyone else here does. This is about your methods. You can’t dismiss other’s ideas by saying you don’t understand them, and then say “I think it’s this.” If Zeuglodon’s post confuses you, he already offered to reword anything that you find unclear.

            Please feel free to stay in the discussion but make an effort to understand the ideas of others and to respond to those ideas. People will do the same for your ideas.

          • In reply to #77 by susanlatimer:

            In reply to #76 by flipflop:

            What do you mean by “arbitrary”? This is important.

            Subject to, or based on, the preferences or judgements of the individual.

            This is about your methods.

            I’ll try hard to work on those. (Thanks for cutting me some slack though, it is quite a daunting experience here at first).

          • In reply to #79 by flipflop:


            In reply to #76 by flipflop:

            What do you mean by “arbitrary”? This is important.

            Subject to, or based on, the preferences or judgements of the individual.

            But that means you’re handwaving away Zeuglodon’s post #8, the post to which you responded with:

            It is convenient you don’t see the subjective/objective division as helpful, as this allows you to side-step the charge that your morality is made up.

            An excerpt from post #8:

            This doesn’t mean that ethics as a whole is simply personal preference. One of the distinguishing characteristics of ethical doctrines is that they are universal. If someone believes murder is morally wrong, they don’t then add “to each his own” when they encounter a serial killer. If it’s wrong for one person, then it’s wrong for everybody. Virtually every study of ethics across cultures has shown that many ethical rules are consistently singled out over and over. Anyone trying to pass this off as “personal preference” is essentially invoking a coincidence, and we at the very least have evolutionary, neuroscientific, social, and psychological reasons for suspecting why it isn’t.

            He wasn’t exactly sidestepping. He made the case that the evidence does not suggest that morality is exactly “arbitrary”. There was nothing convenient about that for him. He’s gone to great pains to illuminate an issue that’s very difficult to begin with, and to point out how misled we can become by language that is prone to shapeshifting if we’re not very clear about what we mean by that language. Often, it’s better to drop terms completely if they just cloud the issue and choose clearer language so that we all know exactly what we’re talking about.

            To revert to the idea that our morality is “arbitrary” without addressing the very good case Zeuglodon has made that it isn’t would be side-stepping.

            I’ve read Zeuglodon’s contributions for a long time now and I think others who’ve done the same would agree that he does not obfuscate. His goal is always to illuminate and clarify and he does a remarkably good job of it, tackling issues that require a lot of thought. He’s always happy to reword things if someone is not clear about his points.

            It would be “convenient” and “side-stepping” to pretend that he hasn’t addressed the idea of “arbitrary” morality. I hope you re-read post #8, consider the ideas and respond to those ideas. If you’re unsure about any of the ideas, ask him questions about them.

            The case that morality must be “arbitrary” without a moral “authority” is not a clear one. You have yet to make it.

            This is about your methods.

            I’ll try hard to work on those.

            Good. I’m always trying too.

            (Thanks for cutting me some slack though, it is quite a daunting experience here at first).

            I’d hate to take the chance that things got off on the wrong foot because you’re new and unfamilar with the technical bits.

            Zeuglodon”s response was a fair one though. There is a drum that gets beat here often. We get a lot of drive-bys squealing through with fingers in their ears, lobbing cliches through the window as though they were valid points and as though they hadn’t been addressed a hundred times already. I sincerely hope you’re not another one of them and that you’ll stick around and respond.

            You can’t respond unless you make an effort to understand other arguments. If we don’t understand the arguments, we won’t learn anything. That’s always a little bit tragic.

          • Oh, and do I ever feel like a dummy.

            That formatting button I couldn’t put my finger on a few comments ago? It’s sitting right underneath the Preview box in clear blue letters. :-) “Help with formatting “click here”.

            That should provide all the help you need.

          • In reply to #80 by susanlatimer:

            .

            But that means you’re handwaving away Zeuglodon’s post #8,

            Agreed. I should have qualified what I meant, or explained why I said what I did, and engaged more directly with Zeuglodon’s argument. I have in fact stated I will work hard on this and modify my posting behaviour accordingly.

            To revert to the idea that our morality is “arbitrary” without addressing the very good case Zeuglodon has made that it isn’t would be side-stepping.

            I think I can accept that common values – perhaps in the form of intuition, for want of a better word – lurk deep inside the minds of sociable animals. Social animals will increase their odds of survival, and arguably lead happier and less stressful lives, if they co-operate with each other. So not murdering your neighbour, for example, could become a shared value within a group or community, and by extension, murder could perhaps be termed “immoral” on this basis. I wonder if this is what people mean when they say morality is “hardly arbitrary”? Am I understanding this correctly, that moral norms have good evolutionary explanation, and as such, are now “hard-wired “into our psyche?

            Forgive me for stopping at this point to ask for clarification before I continue.

            >

            Zeuglodon”s response was a fair one though.

            Was it? I do not know these other drive-bys to whom you refer, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for their actions. I have not been banging a drum. It was, as I said, my second short post on the thread as a new member. I don’t wish to dwell on this, but I must respectfully disagree with you here.

            A final word on this, and it is speculation on my part, but perhaps the drive-by’s would stick around if they weren’t immediately flamed for getting off on the wrong foot. I assure you that’s my last word on this issue.

            hope you’re not another one of them and that you’ll stick around and respond.

            I will stick around. I’ll try to contribute constructively.

          • In reply to #76 by flipflop:

            “Zueglodon’s morality is necessarily made up, as is yours and mine” because “it is based on a value judgement”, “without a moral authority which is fixed and understood as such, our morality is arbitrary”, and because you “have no idea which of these clever people is right”. Your first accusation, by these justifications, is therefore “gentle and reasonable”.

            I’m sorry, but I’m calling you out on all counts.

            1. Judgements of value are not divorced from real world facts. We don’t value any old thing willy nilly. We value things because of the properties, perceived or real, of the things being valued, coupled with our predictions of whether or not these things will convey real benefits or losses upon our sentient experiences, both in the present and in the future. Our very sentience has value judgements built into it, in the form of brain states, emotions, and all kinds of programs which respond to perceived objects in the world. However, these things were installed by a process of evolution as a means to another end – genetic propagation. Moreover, genes manipulate and exploit real world physics when building their host bodies, so the sentience that results is most likely a physical phenomenon. This is the same sentience that Descartes referred to with the now famous phrase as the one self-evident truth we couldn’t doubt (hence his phrase cogito ergo sum). And just as built-in assumptions about the world can be wrong, parochial, myopic, or limited, so too can judgements of value.

            2. An appeal to authority is only a provisional proof of something being true. For most purposes, there’s no reason to doubt that doctors know more about diseases and medicine than I do, even though I can’t conclusively prove that they do. On the other hand, we recognize that this is because we predict such things based on prior expectations and what we know so far about the profession, and that a doctor, when challenged, should still have his evidence and reasoning behind his assertions, and those are what will make or break his claims. Likewise, there’s no individual who is an authority on reason, but that doesn’t make the principles behind reason arbitrary. Your appeal to authority is a delaying tactic at best and a red herring at worst, because you have to provide the reasoning given by that authority when challenged by a skeptic.

            3. If you have no idea who is right, then do what scientists and philosophers do: test ideas, understand the arguments, and find out which side has the strongest case. If that’s too much, then you are free to bow out of the discussion, but don’t pretend to have knowledge you can’t justify. Your argument from personal confusion is not an argument because it’s not based on any propositions; it’s just you making convenient excuses not to attend to anyone’s logic.

            4. In the absence of a sound justification for it, your accusation is therefore not reasonable. As for being gentle, I concede I cannot conclusively tell the tone of a post solely from the words presented. But the cursory brusqueness, lack of engagement, lack of polite language to even ease the delivery, and transparent impugning of the intellectual standards of another poster, simply do not mesh well with the idea that it was intended to be gentle.

            I won’t treat the rest of your post as part of your argument, as it has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but I will respond to it for a moment.

            At the risk of sounding rude, I’m unsympathetic to your difficulties in engaging with “intellectualising” and “the lot of long posts”, and this is for two reasons. Firstly, I have made it clear that I will explain my reasoning if you don’t understand a particular point of mine. Secondly, your posting behaviour doesn’t exactly suggest you’re as innocent as you make yourself out to be.

            The reason I accuse you of “banging the same drum” is simple: you’re raising points I’ve heard so many times before, and with no sign you even understand what you’re saying, which are the two qualifications of “banging the drum”. Being a new member doesn’t excuse bad posts.

            Next, the set of “rules” I referred to are the basic rules anyone has to follow if they want a rational debate – for instance, logical fallacies are not counted as good arguments, the burden of proof has to be assigned to the one making an affirmative claim, etc. “Anything goes” is what happens when people can’t win by these rules, and will do anything to pretend they’re not losing.

            Dissecting “line by line” helps because it makes it easier to match particular responses to particular points in someone’s comment. If a particular point is unsound, I will expose the error directly beneath a quotation of it so that anyone seeing my post will know what I’m doing. If, for example, the poster is saying things that look like emotional manipulations or attacks on someone’s integrity, or is consistently making bad arguments, then sooner or later I have to conclude that they have ulterior motives. Under such circumstances, I think it would be more honest to indicate as such and point these cases out, if I can guess what the reasons for the behaviour are.

            Of course I don’t like accusing people without basis, and I probably am not as careful or tactful about it as I should be, in which case I deserve to be called out as a hypocrite. I sincerely hope you do not find this distressing or problematic, I apologize if I sound painfully blunt and insensitive, and I do not want to do anything so dishonest as point out such things as part of an ad hominem attack. The way you conduct your side of the discussion, however, and the weaknesses of your case, will make me more or less suspicious of your intentions.

            Lastly, you also seem indecently eager to play the role of a poor little unsuspecting victim being bullied by the narrow-minded crowd at RD.net. For one thing, I do not represent every individual on this site, and for another, susanlatimer has been remarkably courteous in all her posts to you so far. For another, I’m not nearly as much of an ogre as you make me out to be. If you feel intimidated, then I’ll happily take things one point at a time instead of all at once, and you can pick which point to start with. I’m genuinely interested in what you have to say. If I really felt you lacked the ability to understand me, I wouldn’t go to so much trouble to explain my position to you and thereby assume you were taking the discussion seriously.

            However, you were suggesting my “words” and “clever turns of phrase” are smokescreens for lack of substance, outright implying by your “better debater” comments that I’m a slick-tongued obscurantist, insinuating that I’m insulting you for ulterior motives, and otherwise painting yourself as an unsuspecting innocent who didn’t e.g. post a possibly ungentle and badly justified accusation as a first post, (especially when the justification didn’t appear until after a response to your original post). These are not tactics that will endear you to many people, nor will they help your position in this discussion. Therefore, I recommend that you don’t use them in future posts.

            Hopefully, we can both put this unpleasantness aside and get back to the relevant topic of this thread. I don’t enjoy such digressions, and I assure you that if your case is soundly made, I would like very much to receive your logical bases and justifications for it.

      • In reply to #63 by flipflop:

        It is convenient you don’t see the subjective/objective division as helpful, as this allows you to side-step the charge that your morality is made up.

        Actually, the notion of moral realism can be entirely independent of the question of subjectivity/objectivity, depending on what you mean by those terms. My subjective experiences are just that – subjective in the sense that they are happening in my head and not out there – but that isn’t semantically equivalent to them being unreal.

        I certainly don’t think it sidesteps the charge that morality is “made up”, as though it were a set of arbitrary rules people try to force other people to follow. Moral realism is a scientific hypothesis that can be disproved – for instance, if it was shown that words like “good”, “bad”, and “should” did not map onto anything at all in the real world, whether absolutely or in a statistical sense. The rival hypothesis is the “arbitrary rules” hypothesis – that moral statements are simply random instructions with no rhyme or reason to them. It’s a claim only a pseudo-intellectual could make, on the mistaken belief that any contact with things like human emotions and experiences would contaminate scientific thinking.

        The trouble is that the “arbitrary rules” hypothesis is superficial, unconnected to any discovery in science, and based on a systematic and politically motivated (one is tempted to say misguided) bias. It confuses cultural mores – such as specific rituals and beliefs – with facts about universal human nature, and is routinely discredited by the discoveries of anthropologists like Donald E. Brown who find plenty of human universals. The hypothesis has its roots in cultural anthropology, whose findings were both anecdotal collections and pre-emptively biased to making foreign cultures look as exotic, innocent, and idyllic as possible. It also gained support with the rise of postmodernism – which can largely be summed up as muddled ivory-tower thinking and intellectually (and morally) pretentious scholarship – and as a counter to any sign of racism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of discrimination which relied on making one side “superior” to the other; after all – or so the argument goes – if no moral system is superior to any other, then there’s no pretext for discrimination. The weaknesses of this angle have been tackled in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, but for what it’s worth, it’s a strangely long-winded, contradictory, and self-defeating way of saying the banally obvious: that discrimination is bad.

        The “arbitrary rules” hypothesis also flies in the face of the fact that every culture on earth can appreciate the difference between good and bad, even if they don’t agree on how to achieve it, and there’s a common moral grammar as outlined by Shweder, Haidt, Fiske, and Pinker, with its own models, set of logic, and evolutionary basis. Even better, we can analyse the rationale behind each aspect of this moral grammar and determine if its logic is simply a tool installed by evolution for its pragmatic value, or if its logic does correspond to real world facts. Disgust-based morality, for example, is simply a clunky way of applying disease-avoidance and self-preserving ostracism to people, and has been superseded by the more precise methods of sex education, medicine and health awareness, and a police force and prison complex. Concern about harm and care, on the other hand, is self-evident to anyone who has sentience, who feels pain and emotional security, who can be exploited or helped, and who has some degree of understanding that other people feel the same things, which is why it was the basis for the progress of human rights during the 19th and 20th centuries.

        Even evolution, which is utterly empty of ethical concern, nevertheless has to follow certain rules when building ethical bases, akin to evolution being blind but still having to follow optics rules when building eyesight in certain organisms. Lacking these abilities doesn’t prove there’s an alternative morality or that morality is arbitrary, any more than lacking eyes or visual cortices would prove there’s an “alternative vision” or that vision is arbitrary. Also, the word morality can refer to all sorts of details, from specific cultural norms and taboos to the underlying principles that govern and structure the roots, with many preconditions required both for providing a base from which morality becomes relevant and could arise (e.g. the evolution of sentience) to setting up an organism capable of apprehending those bases (e.g. the evolution of self-aware creatures). Sure, ethics isn’t a simple subject, but acknowledging complexity is not the same as obscurantism. Anyone who takes the “arbitrary rules” hypothesis seriously is essentially saying that they deny or marginalize these things.

        To get back to the subjective/objective distinction: the main reason I find it problematic is not because I want an excuse to foist made-up rules on everyone, but because they are polysemic words and people bandying them around assume it’s obvious what they mean in any given context. The possibility of equivocation never seems to occur to them. Or, if one is going to point fingers, this possibility is what they’re secretly banking on.

        So if you’re really feeling paranoid, here’s a breakdown. I already mentioned “subjective” in the sense that experiences are happening in my head and not out there, and why this is different from them being real or not. There’s also “subjective” in the sense of being a worldview of one person that is marred by prejudice, emotional appeal, etc.. This one does challenge a truth claim in that it indicates there are some propositions or arguments being put forwards which are wrong, and points out that they are wrong because someone’s emotions biased their thinking. This is essentially wishful thinking, emotional appeal, appeal to consequences, and so on. The terms you can look up at fallacyfiles.org, but pay attention to their applicability. There are strict rules that apply to them.

        Next, there’s “subjective” in the sense of relating to the inherent nature of a thing or person. This isn’t a common usage, and of course one’s conception of the inherent nature of a thing or person could be right or wrong, but that’s probably not what people mean when they say morality is subjective. On the other hand, what’s the inherent nature of morality? It’s a real cost/benefit analysis in the sentient experiences of the brain, which is where distinctions of being better off and being worse off are actually appreciated as emotions, thoughts, understanding, worldviews and all kinds of sentient experience from birth unto death, even if some of these are mismatched or in conflict.

        If we could change the “essence”, would morality go away? In one sense, yes, but in another sense, no. Even if a wife was designed to enjoy being beaten as though it were nirvana, her pleasure would be incompatible with the actual benefits of her treatment (because she’s denied less risky means of fulfilment, runs the risk of disease and death, and is unable to detect the possible unpleasantness going on elsewhere), akin to an arachnophobe being frightened to death of harmless house spiders. Also, the nature of the experiences themselves remains unchanged, just like the atoms in a compound remain unchanged even if rearranged. It would still be an improvement of her sentient experiences if she was designed to lead a more fulfilling life – say, gaining nirvana by chanting with her husband, who experienced the same – in which she wasn’t taken advantage of, and that difference in their neurological states would be a real one, even if only in their sentient experiences.

        Also, there’s “subjective” in the sense of existing only as perceived and not as a thing in itself. This is probably what some people mean when they claim morality is subjective, but it comes with some problems. The first one is that it’s simply a fact of the brain that what it perceives does not always map onto the real world, so instances of discrepancy between the brain and the real world are fully compatible with moral realism so long as they don’t render the patterns weak or utterly random.

        The second is that it again gets mixed up by the polysemy of words. It’s true that formal structures of morality, like the bases of altruistic behaviour, depend in a game theoretic sense on everybody playing along, because if everybody was suddenly reprogrammed to be as myopically violent as possible, then these structures would vanish. However, the same could be said for abilities of perception – if everyone was struck blind, then vision itself would vanish – and this says nothing about the objectively true engineering principles of optics.

        The third problem is that this distinction of subjectivity usually involves people having an illusion “of” something. What is morality supposed to be an illusion “of”? Itself? How can this claim be anything other than gobbledegook?

        The fourth and last problem is that this claim goes some way towards putting itself beyond falsification, and therefore becomes intellectually useless. If any discovery about ethics is passed off as “all in the mind”, then the hypothesis simply becomes an excuse to be dismissive. Claiming that morality is “made up”, even if it were proved that morality followed lawful relations to relevant facts about the real world, raises the question of how you’re supposed to know if you have no way of proving it.

        Finally, there’s “subjective” in the sense of describing the thoughts and feelings of the mind as opposed to the thing being considered. This is interesting as a field of study in itself, but then people can distinguish moral thoughts and feelings from morality itself, so there’s no problem. This says nothing about whether morality is real or not.

        By comparison, “objective” can mean something exists independently of perception, is a material object as opposed to an abstraction, is undistorted by emotion or personal bias, or is an actual or external phenomenon as opposed to thoughts and feelings. Most of these are opposites to the various definitions of subjectivity above, but I won’t go through the whole list again.

        Now for the main meat. The trouble is that mind sciences like neuroscience and psychology make the distinction problematic. If a thought is based on the material neurons being arranged and activated in a particular way, then is it an external phenomenon distinct from thoughts or feelings? But if those arrangements in other people’s brains are thoughts and feelings, and those same structures exist in my head, then is it an external or an internal phenomenon? If I have thoughts and feelings about other thoughts and feelings, therefore, then which exists independently of perception and which doesn’t? If someone claims my morality is subjective, are they saying that my views on morality are prejudiced distortions of how the real world works, or are they saying that morality exists only because everybody believes in it, or are they pointing out the obvious (that morality is about the real and subjective experiences of people)?

        These problems can be traced to polysemy (words with more than one meaning). Polysemy has always been a bugbear in discussions on morality because nobody stops to explain what such words mean, which is just asking for confusion. This is why I think the subjectivity/objectivity distinction can be unhelpful in such discussions. I would therefore prefer that people drop the terms and simply say what they mean. If that’s evasive, then the word has certainly done a U-turn at some point.

        Finally, turnabout is fair play. It is convenient you do a hit ‘n’ run reply rather than explain your position, as this allows you to point fingers and sneer at others less “intelligent” or “intellectually principled” than yourself. Better still, you don’t have to waste time explaining yourself or subjecting your views to criticism, so you can carrying on believing your own preconceived ideas and dismiss others as not worth engaging with! How convenient is that?

        • In reply to #65 by Zeuglodon:

          I am in little doubt that I am one of those pseudo-intellectuals to whom you refer. I am trying to flex an intellect that I clearly do not possess, evidenced by the difficulty I am having in following much of your post. I am out of my depth, and I apologise for my earlier “hit-and-run”, as you call it.

          I suppose my intention was to keep it simple. My point was that it seemed convenient for you to distance yourself from the terms subjective and objective, but I do not think this is because they are polysemic words. If that were the case, we shouldn’t even bother to speak at all. I think it more likely that you appreciate that your position rests on shifting soil, and morality can be manipulated to suit the individual or cause. I imagine this is why you are so disparaging about postmodernism.

          This short response is not intended as another hit-and-run, but I am unable to penetrate your arguments. You speak of an alternative or rival hypothesis (which you call the “arbitrary rules hypothesis”), but I fail to recognise your defintion.

          I believe that we have a tendency to over-complicate things. If there is nothing supernatural in the universe, if we are born of stardust, if we are chemistry, if we are accidental matter in a material cosmos, then morality is illusory. It is grounded in subjectivity, and I am happy to bandy this word “subjective” about, because the uncertainty of what we mean by this word, of which you made great play, is in itself pertinent here, don’t you think.

          Anyway, I don’t belong here.

          • In reply to #68 by flipflop:

            In reply to #65 by Zeuglodon:

            I am in little doubt that I am one of those pseudo-intellectuals to whom you refer. I am trying to flex an intellect that I clearly do not possess,

            A pseudo-intellectual is to intellectual discussion what pseudo-science is to science. Pseudoscience looks superficially like a valid branch of science, but doesn’t operate by the same rules. By analogy, a pseudo-intellectual is someone who takes a position that seems to be based on things like reason and science (i.e. intellectual argumentation), but which doesn’t submit itself to the same rules and criteria. If your claim actually is based on intellectual argumentation, then I’ll rescind the charge, but until then, I think I’m justified in using the epithet “pseudo-intellectual” to describe your case.

            evidenced by the difficulty I am having in following much of your post. I am out of my depth, and I apologise for my earlier “hit-and-run”, as you call it.

            This short response is not intended as another hit-and-run, but I am unable to penetrate your arguments.

            I don’t bite, you know. If you don’t get a point, just say so, and I’ll try to explain it more clearly and concisely in a reply post. Incidentally, if you don’t understand my arguments, why do you then proceed to hurl accusations against my arguments which imply that you do understand them?

            I suppose my intention was to keep it simple.

            I like to keep things simple as much as possible, too, but first and foremost is getting the argument right. A one-sentence accusation isn’t made any better simply because it’s “simple”. Like I say, complexity isn’t automatically a sign of obscurantism.

            My point was that it seemed convenient for you to distance yourself from the terms subjective and objective,

            On the contrary, I prefer to tackle the terms head on – or at least their meanings – and as comprehensively as possible. Which you would know if you read the original post and my response post. I prefer to drop the terms, though, not because I want to distance myself from them, but because I want to get at what the person using them actually means, which is difficult if they seem to switch between two meanings when using one word. This isn’t about convenience; this is about being honest and not using language in a lazy or misleading way.

            but I do not think this is because they are polysemic words. If that were the case, we shouldn’t even bother to speak at all.

            This is simply silly talk. Polysemy is common in languages, and it can be a recurring problem in debates – get in a few debates about gods and supernatural phenomena, and you’ll see what I mean – and it pays to make sure any particular person’s use of a term is clear. I went to the trouble of tackling a series of definitions for the terms brought up in this debate, and now you’re ignoring those in favour of another accusation. If there’s something specifically wrong with any particular point, feel free to bring it to my attention. Show some sign that you’re not wasting my time.

            I think it more likely that you appreciate that your position rests on shifting soil,

            If you’re accusing me of equivocation after I’ve not only given all the relevant definitions and thereby put all my cards on the table, then I’m going to challenge your loose lips. Show me where I’m skipping from one definition to another in an attempt to deceive – indeed, how this is even possible when I’ve put all the definitions I know on display, complete with one-to-one rebuttals of each one. I’ve even outlined the bases of moral realism as well as I can. If you can’t apparently follow it, how are you so confident it’s misleading?

            and morality can be manipulated to suit the individual or cause. I imagine this is why you are so disparaging about postmodernism.

            I don’t deny there are cynics who exploit moral motives for ulterior gains, but that says nothing about whether morality is a real thing or not. And of course I disparage postmodernism. It’s based on false and contradictory ideas about how humans work, it frames itself as some kind of saviour philosophy, and it uses sloppy and deliberately obscurantist language.

            You speak of an alternative or rival hypothesis (which you call the “arbitrary rules hypothesis”), but I fail to recognise your defintion.

            Well, the name isn’t official. I used the term to describe the idea of extreme moral relativism more scientifically. And if you think morality isn’t a real thing, then it follows that moral prescriptions are arbitrary rules.

            I believe that we have a tendency to over-complicate things.

            Point to something specific I’ve said, or stop making up excuses to avoid engaging with me.

            If there is nothing supernatural in the universe, if we are born of stardust, if we are chemistry, if we are accidental matter in a material cosmos, then morality is illusory.

            There are several problems with this bit of logic:

            1. You assume certain truth premises (that morality is supernatural or based on the supernatural). What’s the justification?
            2. Your argument is a non-sequitur. The existence of the supernatural and the truthfulness of moral realism are not linked.
            3. Chemistry, matter, and material worlds are not incompatible with moral realism until you prove there’s a link. You simply assume it’s self-evident. This is dishonest.
            4. I’ve already dealt with the “illusory” charge in post 65, in which I point out that one of the definitions of “subjective” is existing only as perceived and not as a thing in itself. See my rebuttals under that topic for further information.
            5. “Accidental matter” makes virtually no sense on its own. How can matter be accidental? Your phraseology does, however, sound not too different from the usual misunderstandings of scientific concepts by the religious, who frequently attack the material basis of science. It’s sufficient for now to point out that whether the universe was designed for a purpose or not is again irrelevant to addressing the question of moral realism.

            If you want to regurgitate nonsense I’ve heard umpteen times before, do me a favour and either impress me with a sound argument for it or post it somewhere else. Such sloppy argumentation will get called out if you post it on RD.net.

            It is grounded in subjectivity, and I am happy to bandy this word “subjective” about, because the uncertainty of what we mean by this word, of which you made great play, is in itself pertinent here, don’t you think.

            There isn’t uncertainty. I’ve already pointed out that the word actually contains specific meanings, each of which is perfectly intelligible, and I’ve gone to the trouble of explaining how they relate to moral realism, whether incompatible or compatible. I do think morality is based on subjective experience, but like I pointed out earlier, that does not prove moral realism is false. That’s tantamount to saying subjective experiences don’t exist, which is so wrong it’s idiotic. It seems to me that you are the one relying on shifting ground to prop up a counter, as you have avoided tackling any meaningful criticism under the excuse of “not getting my arguments”.

            Anyway, I don’t belong here.

            Your unsound arguments don’t. You, however, are perfectly welcome. If you decide to post again, though, I want you to actually show signs of engaging with the debate, and don’t serve up excuses to ignore my posts and to bang the same drum over and over.

          • In reply to #69 by Zeuglodon:

            I will respond. I wish to break your post down into smaller segments, in the same way you have framed your detailed response to my post. I am unsure how to do this, being new to internet forums, and for that matter, computers. How can I break down your text into specific points, so that my response is clear?

          • Hi flipflop,

            I’m not sure if this is the most efficient way to do it but it should work and you’ll come up with your own tricks from there.

            You can use the reply button to capture Zeuglodon’s (or anyone else’s) text as you have been doing.

            Place a “>” (without the quotes) directly in front of the text you’d like to respond to. At the end of that text, press the enter key to create a blank line between it and your response.

            Then, type your response.

            Any text that is irrelevant to your post can be deleted by left-clicking and running the cursor over it and then pressing your delete button. I only mentioned this part because you said you’re new to computers, not just to rd.net.

            Like this:

            In reply to #71 by flipflop:

            In reply to #69 by Zeuglodon:

            I will respond.

            I’m glad to hear it. This is an important discussion.

            I wish to break your post down into smaller segments, in the same way you have framed your detailed response to my post. I am unsure how to do this, being new to internet forums, and for that matter, computers. How can I break down your text into specific points, so that my response is clear?

            I hope my instructions above are clear enough. It takes a little getting used to, but give it a try and you’ll figure it out soon enough.

            I hope someone who can explain it better comes along soon if I haven’t helped.

          • Hi again flipflop,

            I forgot to mention that while you are doing all this, you can check the “preview” provided below your comment box to see if it’s working out properly. If you don’t like it, you can click Cancel and try again.

            Don’t be afraid to try a few test runs. Even if you submit and it’s not perfect, don’t worry about it. We all do that. It only takes a little trial and error before you know exactly what to do.

            The FAQ under the “About” link might be more helpful than I’ve been.

            Good luck. I look forward to reading your responses. I had a few more questions I wanted to ask but I’ll wait until you’re comfortable with the format.

            You can use the reply button to capture Zeuglodon’s (or anyone else’s) text as you have been doing.

            Place a “>” (without the quotes) directly in front of the text you’d like to respond to. At the end of that text, press the enter key to create a blank line between it and your response.

            Then, type your response.

            Any text that is irrelevant to your post can be deleted by left-clicking and running the cursor over it and then pressing your delete button. I only mentioned this part because you said you’re new to computers, not just to rd.net.

            Like this:

            In reply to #71 by flipflop:

            In reply to #69 by Zeuglodon:

            I will respond.

            I’m glad to hear it. This is an important discussion.

            I wish to break your post down into smaller segments, in the same way you have framed your detailed response to my post. I am unsure how to do this, being new to internet forums, and for that matter, computers. How can I break down your text into specific points, so that my response is clear?

            I hope my instructions above are clear enough. It takes a little getting used to, but give it a try and you’ll figure it out soon enough.

            I hope someone who can explain it better comes along soon if I haven’t helped.

  9. Lately I have been discussing with someone that thought incest is natural for dogs etc, not for us, and I said: well, for us and also for other primates….

    I remember to have seen (on a TV doc) a situation of sexual “infidelity” of a primate female (chimp), and one member of the group gave a sound alert to signal this “infidelity” of the female, a dominant female I would think, and what about dominant males murdering the offspring of other male ?

    As an evolutionary biologist (author of The selfish Gene), I think there cannot be doubt that we should never consider our morality without a natural approach, but to be aware of our own deep instinctive needs and justifications for our behaviour is not made so clear for ourselves, not that we should not have to consider morality from an objective perspective (scientifically).

    Our morality can be subject of scientific study of course, and I wouldn´t doubt that Professor Richard Dawkins would think otherwise, but we´d better have to ask him about the interpretation of what he said.

    • In reply to #11 by maria melo:

      As an evolutionary biologist (author of The selfish Gene), I think there cannot be doubt that we should never consider our morality without a natural approach, but to be aware of our own deep instinctive needs and justifications for our behaviour is not made so clear for ourselves, not that we should not have to consider morality from an objective perspective (scientifically). Our morality can be subject of scientific study of course, and I wouldn´t doubt that Professor Richard Dawkins would think otherwise, but we´d better have to ask him about the interpretation of what he said.

      IMO Dawkins has been pretty clear on this already. There are two different questions:

      1) Can science be used to understand morality?

      2) Can we understand morality simply by understanding evolution and biology?

      I think his answer to one is clearly yes and to two is clearly no. On page 2 of the Selfish Gene Dawkins says: “This brings me to the first important point about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave” Throughout the book Dawkins is clear that he does not see evolution as a guide post to morality.

  10. Most of the replies above just seem way to complex and ponderous to answer what is a simple question!

    First thing: Forget subjective/objective distinctions, they’re only for children.

    Second thing: Sam Harris ftw!

    Third thing: Negatively, read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Positively, try to think philosophically about ideas of ‘wonder’ and ‘the grandeur of the universe’, and other phrases people like Dawkins and Harris use for good reason. There is an ethics in scientific enquiry that has to be found, and it has not yet been unearthed. However it is being pointed to.

    Fourth thing: The problem of morality isn’t really a problem at all as morality is a blunt instrument and incapable of being other than what it is (take any extreme situation as a thought experiment and you’ll see morality is a forcing of some action as an absolute). You’re really trying to talk about the ethics of science and rather than fall into the traps of ponderousness other people have, try instead to imagine the best possible future and go from there.

  11. There are ethics enshrined in laws and regulations. Then there is socially acceptable behavior. Generally laws should be just if defined in a secular democratic way , so, following laws leads to ethical behavior. I prefer to be ethical rather than moral , morality can be preachy and pompous putting you at the mercy of the bullshitters and spoofers.

  12. ” subjective (depends on the person, purely a cultural thing, based on preference, etc.)
    objective (there is a measurably correct way and an incorrect way to behave in situations, right and wrong exist outside of just choice, etc.) “

    False dichotomy.

    There is an evolved and ultimate basis to morality that is variable against the immediate environment. No organism with a modicum of reasoning power, humans for instance, would want to have something bad happen to them at the hands of another human. For most humans this is enough to extend the favor of non harm to others

  13. “Or is it all a matter of personal preference and we have no better basis for understanding morality than they do, morality is only what works best for the individual?”

    I am no evolutionary biologist, but I suppose that “individual interest”(as asked), as let´s say, laying it´s own eggs in a colony of insects, can be a punished behaviour (the eggs will be destroyed), but I think we may have here someone who explains better what would fit better in a human society:

    “(…)The rules have to be agreed upon by the members of the society that created them, and the point about the rules is to negotiate conflict and ensure both parties are getting a benefit – or at least not making a loss – in any interaction. The point is to cut down the amount of exploitation and cheating that could impoverish or ruin somebody’s life, whether that involves legal protection, psychological rehabilitation, or judicial punishment. Even the weirder “moral” laws of religions boil down to proving one’s credentials when it comes to making promises and showing one’s loyalty, obedience, and cleanliness, all of which have evolutionary precursors and explanations.” Zeuglodon

    Take a look at this interesting study

    • In reply to #15 by maria melo:

      “Or is it all a matter of personal preference and we have no better basis for understanding morality than they do, morality is only what works best for the individual?”

      I am no evolutionary biologist, but I suppose that “individual interest”(as asked), as let´s say, laying it´s own eggs in a colony of insects, can be a punished behaviour (the eggs will be destroyed), but I think we may have here someone who explains better what would fit better in a human society:

      “(…)The rules have to be agreed upon by the members of the society that created them, and the point about the rules is to negotiate conflict and ensure both parties are getting a benefit – or at least not making a loss – in any interaction. The point is to cut down the amount of exploitation and cheating that could impoverish or ruin somebody’s life, whether that involves legal protection, psychological rehabilitation, or judicial punishment. Even the weirder “moral” laws of religions boil down to proving one’s credentials when it comes to making promises and showing one’s loyalty, obedience, and cleanliness, all of which have evolutionary precursors and explanations.” Zeuglodon

      Take a look at this interesting study

      That link is amazing, complicated enough to look extremely authoritative but the results are highly intuitive and coincide with a historical look at the evolution of different societies, definitely bookmarking that to see if I can get my head around some of it!

  14. I myself am not very sure on the nature of morality. Neither objective, subjective nor relative arguments have convinced me. However, Sam Harris’ argument for an objective morality that is based on morality being equated with well-being, opened me up more to an argument for objective morality outside of theistic arguments (which don’t work anyway), as well as softening me up to the idea that there could be a science of morality one day.

  15. I myself am not very sure on the nature of morality. Neither objective, subjective nor relative arguments have convinced me more than the others. However, Sam Harris’ argument for an objective morality that is based on morality being equated with well-being, opened me up more to an argument for objective morality outside of theistic arguments (which don’t work anyway), as well as softening me up to the idea that there could be a science of morality one day.

  16. People may disagree about what is moral. Moral objectivism implies someone is wrong, and possibly someone is right. Ad populum is a logical fallacy, so it does not matter how popular a moral assertion is, in determining its truth value. If everyone supports slavery and mutilation, everyone is wrong. Truth is not guaranteed, but is possible. Moral assertions have a true and false value.

    Dawkins has said science does not address morality, but he has also said that morality, philosophy, and meta-ethics are not his field. Sam Harris may be a scientist by his formal training, but he handles philosophy with great skill (I assumed he was a philosopher at first). Daniel Dennet also speaks of the potential to scientize morality, and while the articulation was not advanced in time for Hitchens to fully address there are elements of his work which suggest he would side with Dennet and Harris (‘name a moral act exclusive to theists’). I don’t want to speak for the Hitch, so I’ll point out he was labeled a moral nihilist in his time.

    • In reply to #19 by This Is Not A Meme:

      Ad populum is a logical fallacy, so it does not matter how popular a moral assertion is, in determining its truth value. If everyone supports slavery and mutilation, everyone is wrong.

      It is worth elaborating on this a little, especially since I made an argument in my first post here about this. An argumentum ad populum is indeed fallacious if it simply jumps from “everyone believes X” to “X is true”. But there are situations in which appealing to what most people believe would make sense:

      1. You want to indicate the universality of aspects of culture or of society. This has to be proven in order to validate the premises of moral universalism, for example, not because the argument proves it outright, but because the argument’s falsity would disprove it.

      2. You want to indicate that there’s something worth investigating. In this case, it would be the precursor to scientific investigation, not a standalone argument by itself.

      3. You’re discussing a process, not a truth. For instance, laws and ethical principles are decided by people coming together and, perhaps, taking a vote. This is a pragmatic process (albeit one based on premises), not a logical argument, so it would be a categorical mistake to say it is an ad populum. The results of the process are what matter.

      4. The ad populum is a form of appeal to legitimate authority. Note that the first criterion of an appeal to authority is that it has to be appropriate, and there’s no particular reason why many laypeople may not be a legitimate authority. In many cases, people easily hone in on what behaviour is considered moral and what isn’t. The first check is whether or not they have the following flaw:

      An appeal to authority may be inappropriate in a couple of ways:

      It is unnecessary. If a question can be answered by observation or calculation, an argument from authority is not needed. Since arguments from authority are weaker than more direct evidence, go look or figure it out for yourself.

      The renaissance rebellion against the authority of Aristotle and the Bible played an important role in the scientific revolution. Aristotle was so respected in the Middle Ages that his word was taken on empirical issues which were easily decidable by observation. The scientific revolution moved away from this over-reliance on authority towards the use of observation and experiment.

      Similarly, the Bible has been invoked as an authority on empirical or mathematical questions. A particularly amusing example is the claim that the value of pi can be determined to be 3 based on certain passages in the Old Testament. The value of pi, however, is a mathematical question which can be answered by calculation, and appeal to authority is irrelevant.

      It is impossible. About some issues there simply is no expert opinion, and an appeal to authority is bound to commit the next type of mistake. For example, many self-help books are written every year by self-proclaimed “experts” on matters for which there is no expertise.

      Of course none of this by itself supports a truth, but it is an indication that some views are more justifiable than others (see 2).

      On the point about slavery and mutilation, there are reasons why people would be wrong. It’s not just that the victim’s point of view has to be considered, whether or not the treatment of certain people any differently from others is based on a relevant or real difference (or even whether the treatment is thereby justified), and whether or not a person of rational mind could agree to it. It’s that there would be improvements in many areas of society if the practices were abolished than if they continued, and also pointing out the flaws and lack of understanding in the worldviews of the perpetrators (for instance, by downplaying, rationalizing, or ignoring the victim’s suffering, carrying erroneous beliefs about the victims, causing demonstrable harm, or falling into the trap of thinking that they deserved it because the bad circumstances prove they’re bad people – the just world fallacy).

      There’s a pretty good case for ethical progressivism in The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which gives an excellent description of moral grammar in the chapter on “Better Angels”. He even suggests in the last chapter that the evidence could vindicate moral realism, because the trends towards fewer barbaric practices and a wider circle of moral consideration are too consistent to be dismissed as chance.

  17. “a moral nihilist in his time” (reference to C. Hitchens)

    And I am wondering actually what a moral nihilist might be, and regarding this assertion, I remind (in my mind) Alain de Botton quoting Nietzsche (although it seems Grayling and Alain de Botton, both atheist philosophers may have a disrupted relation). So Nietzsche (the “nihilist”) would have argued something like: good common sense is what will prevail over time (my book is translated into Portuguese and actually I don´t know the exact words in English to quote).

    It seems I would have to agree with some ideas of Nietzsche (if I got them right): it seems he did not like the envies of a platonic world of ideals-neither do I- and the clergy would be those who were better fit with such a world, despite not being in ancient world, it would be the popular platonic world at the time, and he would rather- probably- think of a more realistic world as a better ideal (an Aristotle sympathizer, I guess).

    C. Hitchens, as a good nihilist he might have been in the mind of some people, actually didn´t make of child abuse a relativist moral argument, although some people that argue that have a higher morality- that comes inherently from their status of believers in

    of god- did.

    • In reply to #21 by maria melo:

      “a moral nihilist in his time” (reference to C. Hitchens)

      And I am wondering actually what a moral nihilist might be, and regarding this assertion, I remind (in my mind) Alain de Botton quoting Nietzsche (although it seems Grayling and Alain de Botton, both atheist philosophers may have a disrupted relation). So Nietzsche (the “nihilist”) would have argued something like: good common sense is what will prevail over time (my book is translated into Portuguese and actually I don´t know the exact words in English to quote).

      It seems I would have to agree with some ideas of Nietzsche (if I got them right): it seems he did not like the envies of a platonic world of ideals-neither do I- and the clergy would be those who were better fit with such a world, despite not being in ancient world, it would be the popular platonic world at the time, and he would rather- probably- think of a more realistic world as a better ideal (an Aristotle sympathizer, I guess).

      C. Hitchens, as a good nihilist he might have been in the mind of some people, actually didn´t make of child abuse a relativist moral argument, although some people that argue that have a higher morality- that comes inherently from their status of believers in

      of god- did.

      Yay! Nietzsche. Not exactly the two best sources there though I’m afraid, Grayling and De Botton (shudders). N wasn’t a nihilist, he spent his life defining and arguing against the problem of nihilism, what he defined as ‘the will to nothingness’, observing that ‘man would rather will nothing, than not will’.

      I don’t recognise your quote about ‘good common sense’ but it looks taken out of context. In fact I can’t imagine him meaning this at all except as a criticism! N believed that Western culture has been taking a nose dive into nihilism (it had, and it is), and that this was not only something that would continue but something culturally, philosophically, artistically embedded in everything. Good common sense for N was precisely the enemy – just as true today.

      It’s also not a question of the Plato/Aristotle rivalry like almost everything else of Western Philosophy! He wanted to ‘invert Platonism’, taking it out by the root, which is not exactly what Aristotle wanted to do – Aristotle wanted to bludgeon it with common sense (but it would survive…).

      Being a ‘moral nihilist’ is fine intellectually, until you realise you need your intellect to interpose your will on this harsh world (that wants to kill you, you know). I’m sure that doesn’t mean ‘nihilist’ in the Nietzschean sense (although it does have something to do with the anglophone caricature of him that still exists apparently!), but N did call himself ‘the Antichrist’ and ‘immoral’, for what those words are worth.

      As for relativism, well, that’s always relative to something, and not an absolute argument (as we always assert, ending up with self-cancellation). What the moral expressions around child abuse are relative to then tends to lead to sociology rather than to more morality…

    • In reply to #21 by maria melo:

      “a moral nihilist in his time” (reference to C. Hitchens)

      And I am wondering actually what a moral nihilist might be, and regarding this assertion,[...]

      In a meta-ethical sense.

      While normative ethics addresses such questions as “What should one do?”, thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses questions such as “What is goodness?” and “How can we tell what is good from what is bad?”, seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

      In terms of the Hitch, he asserted that there needn’t be any metaphysical basis for morality, such as the supernatural. I might be technically wrong, but I don’t think moral-nihilism is necessarily relativistic and can accommodate objectivism. For instance, questions in math and chess are metaphysically nihilistic, but are certainly objective.

  18. “All science fiction writers know instinctively that the morals of an intelligent species are rooted in the biology of their bodies and brains and the quirks of their environment. So our mammalian oxytocin fueled niceness and the presumption of a specific parent child bond will yield irrelevant moral demands for a race of super parrot. Failing to eat your stillborn offspring or your deceased father in a highly food marginal environment, freeing resources for others, might be very bad form on Kepler 22b.

    Manufacturing tolerance of any animal, their brain chemistry and variability of context renders the idea of absolute morals…quaint.”

    So moral values are species and individual specific and can be studied in detail in a scientifically objective way. The moral values of a culture, however, are negotiated and make presumptions about an end result balancing issues of individual harms, collective happiness and imagined future others. Cultural moral values (both formal and informal) may be hijacked by a few (wise or foolish) or informed by the many (with both wisdom and folly blunted in its effect.) Cultural values may better co-opt reason than personal values, taking tough decisions about sacrificing a few for the many, allowing us as individuals the “niceness” of a fairly high empathy society of individuals, whilst ensuring an under-girding infrastructure of disinterested fairness. There is a division of moral labour here which can particularly exploit science to carry through disinterested fairness.

    We have but one task to perform that science, reason and evidence seems not able to help with though and that is….the purpose of our moral efforts.. We need to decide if maximising happiness and minimising harms are our collective goals. And is that just for us? Us and them? Us and our kids? Us our kids and their kids?

    Our moral progress has been always about widening the franchise of us, the poor, women, children, notional descendants, higher mammals, scousers… This broadening of care reflects the broadness of our ambitions on the planet and is simply a requirement for achieving a viable stability with the added complexity we face.

    But perhaps even here science and mathematical modelling could possibly tell us better what to do. Big societies have problems of cohesion with alienation and lack of trust between sections. Efficient,effective and visible justice is essential. Given the Rethuglican mindset. poisoned by the idea of punishment as the moral tool of choice (despite the proven superiority of positive over negative reinforcement) and the US consequently producing a full 25% of the world’s prisoners, when would a decent national education pay for itself?

  19. Morality should be objective, but for many people it is subjective.

    To the people that say that morality is completely subjective, or relative to a culture, I ask you this: can it ever be moral to torture and kill an innocent child? No set of moral beliefs could condone this and be considered moral by anyone who is not severely damaged. If a culture says it is okay to mutilate, subjugate, and generally treat women as chattel I think we can agree that is a culture that is not good.

    So how to approach morality objectively? First, you do have to make some assumptions. You need some basic axioms that everyone agrees with as a foundation of your morality. For example: it is bad to directly harm people. It is good to help people. Actions that do not affect others for good or bad are neutral. Everyone should be treated the same, no bigotry depending on sex, race, or other attributes that have no bearing on someone’s moral capabilities.

    Once you have your basic axioms (some might call them rights) you can then start objectively exploring what actions, laws, and traditions do the best job of making the most people thrive. This can be done objectively. We also want to take into account the type of animal that people are: social, mildly altruistic, generally reciprocate both good and bad deeds, etc…

    From this base we can then see that it obvious that murder is wrong, theft is wrong, assault is wrong, kidnapping is wrong, rape is wrong, etc… But we have to admit there are grey areas, it is not the same to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving child as it is to steal money to buy luxuries.

    Morality can be based on objective data and refined and improved by applying human intellect to the issues.

    • In reply to #30 by Unbiased Bias:

      The problem with this is my happiness could be someone elses suffering. What is suffering? What is happiness? One must define these terms before using them so recklessly. A large portion of the world knows two points on a graph creates a line. A connection. This connection provides a basis of right and wrong. Through all these witty comments you all present on this site what is the ultimate objective everyone hopes to achieve? Haha “can we tell others how to behave…” Who are we? First, is it even plausible to push morality on others if your an atheist? Someone who denies the mind? “Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

      —C.S. Lewis

      I think in order to discuss whether atheists can push morality on others they need to first find why they should push morality. If they think they need to push morality for the good of everyone then what is good? If what is good is happiness then I’ll shoot and kill you because that makes me happy regardless if you don’t like it. I am all I know to be in existence. My mind. Thus my morality is supreme. If this rings true for everyone if everyone exists then it comes down to a power struggle. Thus power is morality.

      Sam Harris effectively rules out arguments like this in his pitch for an objective morality that is discernable to science (look for my earlier post, since I don’t feel like re-typing that out. xD )

    • In reply to #30 by Unbiased Bias:

      The problem with this is my happiness could be someone elses suffering. What is suffering? What is happiness? One must define these terms before using them so recklessly. A large portion of the world knows two points on a graph creates a line. A connection. This connection provides a basis of right and wrong. Through all these witty comments you all present on this site what is the ultimate objective everyone hopes to achieve? Haha “can we tell others how to behave…” Who are we? First, is it even plausible to push morality on others if your an atheist? Someone who denies the mind? “Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

      —C.S. Lewis

      I think in order to discuss whether atheists can push morality on others they need to first find why they should push morality. If they think they need to push morality for the good of everyone then what is good? If what is good is happiness then I’ll shoot and kill you because that makes me happy regardless if you don’t like it. I am all I know to be in existence. My mind. Thus my morality is supreme. If this rings true for everyone if everyone exists then it comes down to a power struggle. Thus power is morality.

      When I talk about suffering, I’m talking about any emotion or experience that is perceived as being both unwanted and negative. Things like pain and anguish. Things which intuitively feel bad. By happiness I mean any experience that feels positive.

      I’m with you on that this creates some pretty big dilemmas. If someones happiness leads to someone else’s suffering, then how do you measure these things against each other?

      If we take the example you provided about shooting and killing someone: on the surface it’s pretty simple; if you kill someone who has friends and relatives who love them, then their grief FAR outweighs any personal joy you can get out of it. However, assuming this person was someone who was responsible for a great deal of suffering, that could be alleviated by his death. Then could others well-being be justified by his death? Can you trust your own judgement enough to even know whether his death really WOULD make things better for anyone at all?

      pain and pleasure don’t exist in some pure black and white dichotomy and that’s what makes morality such a difficult thing to begin with, but I do believe there are certain things which can lead to an overall happier existence, and there are ways to get an approximation of what exactly those things are.

      • In reply to #34 by The Unicorn Delusion:

        In reply to #30 by Unbiased Bias:

        The problem with this is my happiness could be someone elses suffering. What is suffering? What is happiness? One must define these terms before using them so recklessly. A large portion of the world knows two points on a graph creates a line. A connection. This connection provides a basis of right and wrong. Through all these witty comments you all present on this site what is the ultimate objective everyone hopes to achieve? Haha “can we tell others how to behave…” Who are we? First, is it even plausible to push morality on others if your an atheist? Someone who denies the mind? “Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

        —C.S. Lewis

        I think in order to discuss whether atheists can push morality on others they need to first find why they should push morality. If they think they need to push morality for the good of everyone then what is good? If what is good is happiness then I’ll shoot and kill you because that makes me happy regardless if you don’t like it. I am all I know to be in existence. My mind. Thus my morality is supreme. If this rings true for everyone if everyone exists then it comes down to a power struggle. Thus power is morality.

        When I talk about suffering, I’m talking about any emotion or experience that is perceived as being both unwanted and negative. Things like pain and anguish. Things which intuitively feel bad. By happiness I mean any experience that feels positive.

        I’m with you on that this creates some pretty big dilemmas. If someones happiness leads to someone else’s suffering, then how do you measure these things against each other?

        If we take the example you provided about shooting and killing someone: on the surface it’s pretty simple; if you kill someone who has friends and relatives who love them, then their grief FAR outweighs any personal joy you can get out of it. However, assuming this person was someone who was responsible for a great deal of suffering, that could be alleviated by his death. Then could others well-being be justified by his death? Can you trust your own judgement enough to even know whether his death really WOULD make things better for anyone at all?

        pain and pleasure don’t exist in some pure black and white dichotomy and that’s what makes morality such a difficult thing to begin with, but I do believe there are certain things which can lead to an overall happier existence, and there are ways to get an approximation of what exactly those things are.

        If I kill someone and their relatives are sad what are you using to measure their grief? I could very well be orgasmic about the entire situation lol. Why can’t morality be black and white? I see you brought in euthanasia. The concept of euthanasia in which the patient chooses death sounds good but abuses of this kind of system are inescapable. What if my happiness is a negative feeling? The way we are using these words we must be postulating some kind of absolute basis for morality lol.

    • In reply to #30 by Unbiased Bias:

      Thus power is morality.

      Our brains are pretty rubbish individually. Brains are not inherently logical in the mathematical sense but work by simple associations and coincidence. It is entirely through the possession of a rich culture that reason and logic could be mutually crafted and used as better thinking tools.

      Power is not morality but both flow from the same source. Power, the power to act and thrive, and morality, both flow from our very best trick as a species, collaboration and mutuality.

      Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

      C.S.Lewis never did get the hang of natural selection as the organising principle of life. Here he is trying to say evolved brains would be just random like spilt milk. A brain organised in a different way to ours (by different environmental pressures say) will have moral thoughts appropriate for its circumstances (and therefore different from ours). The forward flourishing of those brains and the thoughts they have will have been organised-in through natural selection. Selfish thoughts (or at least selfish behaviours) will die out from the majority leaving just the inevitable residuum of parasites and exploiters, the criminals, snake oil salesmen and shamans.

  20. In reply to #31 by susanlatimer:

    Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.

    Please explain.

    A kind of Cogito or a complete identity between thought and the reality itself, idealism ?

  21. To start with I don’t agree with the way you characterize Prof. Dawkins’ views on morality. I don’t recall him saying that “science cannot study morality”. Can you give a reference for that?

    Until recently morality was one of those areas that most people, including many scientists such as Stephen J. Gould, thought was off limits to science. That only religion, philosophy, or the humanities could provide insight there. But lately scientists are analyzing morality scientifically and making some interesting progress. I recommend the book Moral Minds by Marc Hauser for a good overview of some of this research as well of course as Sam Harris’s book.

    I think morality is going to be one of the last areas to give way to science. For one thing to understand morality we need to understand human cognition. How does the brain produce consciousness? Does it make sense to talk about free will as we understand the neurochemical workings of the brain more? Questions like that are really essential to answer before you can completely address questions of morality. But in the mean time I think its possible to say quite a bit about morality from a scientific perspective already and that book by Hauser documents some of the progress made so far.

    • The feeling I get when I read other people’s arguments against objective morality based on science is that there is a great amount of confusion over what moral claims mean.

      When there is a moral claim made: “You ought to love your child and not beat them”, there are two possible ways of looking at it, as objective or as subjective. If morality is subjective, this is just someone’s opinion and it is a preference that they have chosen, just like they have their taste in music they have their taste in morality. If morality is objective, this claim is either correct or incorrect.

      In religious viewpoints the truth comes from god, essentially that whatever god’s preference on the matter is is the correct one. These people and people raised in that tradition say that since science claims that there is no god (or at least acts as though revelation and the supernatural don’t exist), there is no one who can tell us how to behave.

      The truth, as I see it, is this: science will ask “Why ought one behave like that? What reason is there to behave in this way over other ways?”. This means that the goal of the behavior is assessed. The goal here is obviously to teach children effectively, the claim is that this is the correct way to do this. Science will rephrase the statement to include intention: “To teach children effectively, you must love them and not beat them.” This is a claim that science can study in ways all other schools of thought can’t, it will check to see whether it is true to say of reality and compare it to other ways of behaving (corporal punishment, what kind of love works best, does love work at all, etc.).

      All ‘ought’ statements reduce to ‘is’ statements is this way, and that is why science is the best way to study morality.

      In reply to #37 by Red Dog:

      To start with I don’t agree with the way you characterize Prof. Dawkins’ views on morality. I don’t recall him saying that “science cannot study morality”. Can you give a reference for that?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqDA5pjDbqs
      At around 24:35, he says “I think there are other questions that science probably shouldn’t try to answer, like what is right and what is wrong, those are questions that are not the immediate concern of science”.

      • In reply to #42 by utopia:

        In reply to #37 by Red Dog:

        To start with I don’t agree with the way you characterize Prof. Dawkins’ views on morality. I don’t recall him saying that “science cannot study morality”. Can you give a reference for that?

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqDA5pjDbqs
        At around 24:35, he says “I think there are other questions that science probably shouldn’t try to answer, like what is right and what is wrong, those are questions that are not the immediate concern of science”.

        Thanks for the link. Here is a more complete version of the exchange:

        Moderator: What would you say to those people who would say there are some quite important questions, genuine questions, that science can not answer, why are we here?, what’s the meaning of life?, where does morality come from? And if religion wants to have a crack at those what’s sciences objection?

        Dawkins: I’m not sure I’ld accept that science can’t answer those particular questions. I think there are other questions that science probably shouldn’t try to answer like what is the nature of right and wrong? … If there are some questions like that that science can’t answer we should at least keep trying to answer them…

        Note, the very first sentence in his reply is that he does not accept that science can’t answer those questions. It seems to me the exchange is a bit ambiguous but my interpretation of what he means (which is also what I think) is that based on our current very primitive understanding of morality from a scientific standpoint it would be extreme hubris for any scientist to claim that science can provide definitive answers to “what is the nature of right and wrong?” Indeed it may be that as we understand the science of morality more we will realize that moral statements (what philosophers call ought statements) don’t have objective truth the way normal truths (IS statements) do. But I think its clear from the larger context that he is all for the work that people like Hauser and Harris are doing, to use science to help us clarify moral questions and perhaps one day we will know enough to provide definitive objective moral truth from a scientific standpoint or to say definitively that we can’t do that but either way we aren’t there yet so the honest thing from a scientific standpoint is to just admit that, its an area where a lot more research is needed.

  22. I consider morality to be both inherent and culturally determined. Some aspects of morality seem to vary little between cultures (murder, rape, stealing) and things like the Golden Rule (even chimp societies adhear to this). On the other hand things like the consumption of alchol or clothing or mariage vary between cultures.

  23. In reply to #47 by Guptanator:

    Who established collaboration and mutuality as good traits for our species? How do we even determine what our best tricks are?

    Natural selection did, as it did for bees and dogs etc. The particular selection pressure that gave us the most recent push may well have been the violent climate fluctuations of recent ice ages. Rapidly changing environments may well have favoured big brains with the added skill of cultural transmission. Being mammals we had the closeness of bonding with our offspring due to oxytocin and the mirror neurons in abundance to be able to accurately copy the skills of tool use etc. It is significant that we are unusual as a species in having very dependent children with protracted childhoods, facilitating training.

    Our best trick is a subjective call, but picking the factors that underwrite our rich culture is a pretty safe bet. Culture has delivered us language, logic, mathematics….etc, more generally an accumulating ability to problem solve, present in no other species. I’m open to other suggestions though…

    Guptanator, where did you go?

    • In reply to #47 by phil rimmer:

      In reply to #47 by Guptanator:

      Who established collaboration and mutuality as good traits for our species? How do we even determine what our best tricks are?

      Natural selection did, as it did for bees and dogs etc. The particular selection pressure that gave us the most recent push may well have been the violent climate fluctuations of recent ice ages. Rapidly changing environments may well have favoured big brains with the added skill of cultural transmission. Being mammals we had the closeness of bonding with our offspring due to oxytocin and the mirror neurons in abundance to be able to accurately copy the skills of tool use etc. It is significant that we are unusual as a species in having very dependent children with protracted childhoods, facilitating training.

      Not unless you side with E. O. Wilson and his very small minority of followers. Otherwise people like Dawkins scoff at the idea that traits which benefit the species as a whole (as opposed to one individual) can be passed down via natural selection. Bees and dogs are quite different. Bees and other insects are special cases that share a great deal of DNA across the entire hive. But for mammals it is still a mystery why any individual would behave in a way that would benefit the group at the expense of the individual.

      • In reply to #48 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #47 by phil rimmer

        But for mammals it is still a mystery why any individual would behave in a way that would benefit the group at the expense of the individual.

        Both mechanisms I have mentioned are immediately beneficial to an individuals genes. There is no group selection here and no need of EOW. An individual with enhanced copying skills is instantly and personally advantaged by it. A parent with a higher oxytocin level will be more nurturing of her genes-to-be.

        These contributing traits are critically, innately and immediately “selfish”. We may also sometimes wrongly imagine that mutuality depends on an immediate reciprocity (this is the libertarian mistake). The roots of delayed reciprocity are admittedly still a mystery, and may be a spandrel (possibly a misfiring of the now high oxytocin in philandering men covering their bets so to speak), but its effect is to build a behahioural substrate upon which a nascent culture may build. The functioning of mutuality is a little like the eye. The parts mostly work usefully separately.

        • In reply to #50 by phil rimmer:

          In reply to #48 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #47 by phil rimmer

          But for mammals it is still a mystery why any individual would behave in a way that would benefit the group at the expense of the individual.

          Both mechanisms I have mentioned are immediately beneficial to an individuals genes. There is no group selection here and no need of EOW. An individual with enhanced copying skills is instantly and personally advantaged by it. A parent with a higher oxytocin level will be more nurturing of her genes-to-be.

          These contributing traits are critically, innately and immediately “selfish”. We may also sometimes wrongly imagine that mutuality depends on an immediate reciprocity (this is the libertarian mistake). The roots of delayed reciprocity are admittedly still a mystery, and may be a spandrel (possibly a misfiring of the now high oxytocin in philandering men covering their bets so to speak), but its effect is to build a behahioural substrate upon which a nascent culture may build. The functioning of mutuality is a little like the eye. The parts mostly work usefully separately.

          I think we more or less agree. I just think the amount that isn’t explained yet is fairly large and just saying “its a spandrel” isn’t a very convincing argument. For example, there is no question that humans do things that don’t make sense from the standpoint of selfish genes. In war time soldiers really do throw themselves on grenades or otherwise sacrifice their lives for others who are no more kin to them then the people they are trying to kill.

          And even in the animal kingdom, there was an article here a few days ago about chimps that refused a treat from non-cooperating chimps. That also is hard to understand only in terms of selfish genes but would make sense in terms of group selection. Not that I’m arguing for group selection, just saying there are a lot of questions here that we don’t have good answers for yet.

          • In reply to #51 by Red Dog:

            I think we more or less agree. I just think the amount that isn’t explained yet is fairly large and just saying “its a spandrel” isn’t a very convincing argument.

            I personally think in-group delayed reciprocity is more than a spandrel or rather it is very little spandrel and much other stuff but I would need to get in to a lot of detail, much of which I’m still working on.

            The key idea is that mutuality is composed of at least ten or so behaviours the majority of which have simple “selfish” gene paybacks to the host. The second idea is that with this substantial skeleton of genetic attributes only comparatively slight, culturally-developed traits are needed to complete the picture and that these traits are readily transmissible but if lost are readily re-discovered. Thirdly these very primitive cultural inventions, re-inventions, are naturally group attributes by definition but still critically dependent on the completeness of each individuals genetic skeleton of related behaviours. Fourthly, there is a fascinating potential fallout from the varieties of individuals’ behaviours and attributes that are the natural result of very complex brains approximately made, whereby we can possibly view our mutuality as a kind of mixed self parasitising and symbiosis dependent upon the quids and the quos.

            The spandrels such as they exist in my theory (which is mine) are akin to the crudeness of aesthetic values as articulated by Ramachandran. The typical baby appearance, big eyes in a face, encourage the nurturing response in oxytocin soaked mammal minds. This most often spurious response (there are many more offspring than your own) in other mammals may need a further evolutionary fix (with scent say) to avoid wasting time on the wrong kids. In humans the collective child rearing is unique and uniquely needed with such helpless and demanding infants. Now the group benefit may be achieved by the suppression of a behaviour (does this child smell like mine) that is suppressing the more general nurturing response (look at her big brown eyes!). When your own child is ill and doesn’t smell right you might be less loving with the smell suppessor in place, but the smell suppressor still net benefits your genes in actively selfish environments. Your less than sparkling mothering when she is ill is more than compensated by not wasting your efforts elsewhere.. In the new hominim environment. though where it might be net neutral because of the new genetic attributes in my “skeleton” of behaviours, you get immediate personal gene benefit by being less smell sensitive. The same for all in the group. Etc.etc.

  24. There is an objective morality, but it isn’t defined by a given deity, rather specific instincts that we humans have. (Human morality is subjective in regards to species outside of ours. We may share some of these morals with other animals, but they aren’t universal.)

    You’ve probably seen some of going science on this already, notions such as reciprocity, defense of the weak and sick, loyalty to friends, obedience to authority, loyalty only to small groups, distrust of new culture, and so on.

    These ideas are prevalent through most holy scriptures worldwide, but we pick them up quickly anyway. But in historical eras cultures that keep to small clans tend to founder, or be conquered by those who can accept pluralism and develop a larger culture.

    In fact a number of these instincts can become a problem. We are lawful to a fault and hence tolerate odious regimes longer than we should. (Unquestioning obedience to authority is the backbone of organized religion). We start dividing ourselves when our communities get too big. We fall into moral panic when technology or culture advances beyond our understanding. And so on.

    (As one particular point, democracy works on the presumption that the commons continuously regard law and representatives critically, and eagerly change them as needed. Yet we tend to vote for the incumbent more, and we are often not smart or proactive enough to consider all the issues well, ergo, the greatest complaint about Obama in the US is that he’s a Muslim.)

  25. If we accept that science is the appropriate way to gather knowledge and understanding, then morality must become an accepted scientific discipline. The sooner, the better. Nothing that produces any effect on us is impossible to investigate with science. Morality is doing good, but good is a purely human concept, so there is nothing about ‘good’ that we can’t hope to discover by scientifically exploring the hardware that generates human concepts: brains.

    Morality, therefore, becomes the rational discipline of maximizing wellbeing, to the confusion of the sceptics, who demand proof that wellbeing is unambiguously the right thing to value. Not to value wellbeing, however, would be a contradiction. Happiness is just the condition of possessing things that you value, by definition. Wellbeing is existing in a situation that makes you feel good, and since good is only a feeling (has no existence outside minds), then wellbeing and good are identical. To say you don’t value wellbeing would be to assert: “I don’t want the things I want.”

    [Link to personal blog removed by moderator]

  26. Well it certainly would be charitable of society to keep you miserable in that case :P I have to say personally, as someone who’s into blues music, I sometimes get upset about being happy. It’s like “damnit, how am I supposed to play the blues when I have nothing to be blue about?”

    It really made me smile.

  27. Let me just add that have been in two conferences where Dr. Kim Bard participated and made presentations (the first time in 2003, about self-image in chimps and children), the second time in 2008 ?( about individuality), and Dr. Kim Bard said, of course, that for the sake of objectivity, emotions should be previously “described”, how could it be comparable otherwise if it was not comparing the same thing?

    • In reply to #58 by maria melo:

      Pain isn´t an emotion, is it ?

      It isn’t one of the six basic emotions outlined by most sources, and depending on the criteria used it may or may not count. If you really have problems with the term, “brain state” or “subjective experience” could be substituted and it wouldn’t overall hurt my argument, so long as you got the point.

      Only after a few time does the body feel muscle pain, not during the exercise I would think, so is not comparable with practising sports I suppose.

      Obviously, I don’t think any exercise leads to muscle pain, but this doesn’t need to be the case for my point to be valid. It’s enough that there are conditions in which it does happen, and that the phenomenon happens often enough such that it can’t be dismissed as chance, i.e. there’s a lawful relationship involved in the real world. Some people don’t have the ability to feel pain at all – so wouldn’t be affected by putting their hand up to a hot radiator – but that doesn’t change the point that pain occurs under certain conditions, and those conditions can depend on what other people do. Really, you’re nitpicking over these details.

  28. Olga Feliu, Director of Mona´s chimpanzee recue center in Girona, Spain, reported in a conference about the chirurgical intervention that a chimp that used to injure itself severely had been submitted to, reportedly exactly the same medical procedure as for humans), and the chimp recovered from this condition (although I cannot possibly know all the details about this condition I´ve heard of for the first time, not even if there can be any possible connection with Masochism).

    Reading a Leonel Tiger´s book, he wonders how women can make sense of men injuring each others in war (imagine body to body battles, those of middle ages are good to imagine), and yes, I guess not even elephants or horses recruited to those wars would make sense of it.
    Again, I don´t know if this has any possible relation, but I remember a student presenting his work in one of those conferences and it was about primate males that present more injuries than females, and the student asked the feminine audience, well, you must think males are more clumsy.

    • In reply to #60 by maria melo:

      I’m not sure what point you are trying to get across. Chimpanzees may have masochistic tendencies? Non-males might not always understand male motivations for causing harm? I don’t see the relevance to the current topic, I’m afraid, without further explanation.

  29. I don´t have more than these two points to clear actualy, as I warned.

    Only this perhaps:

    The condition of the chimp harming itself was an anatomical condition of it´s brain, recovering from it, the chimp stoped harming itself.

    Having listened to a beautiful charitable lecture about sexual selection by a Darwin´s doctorate that presented the audience with beautiful data about sexual selection, some females species never choose to mate with a male that looses a fight (I recall that clearly), so, I must have been wondering if this “strange” predisposition to battles, even in men,(from middle ages at least) and what seems “masochism” may have any connection both(?) with an anatomical condition of the brain, or with some evolutionary misused behaviour.
    Actually I was only podering and just wondering.

  30. Forget the FAQ. I checked it out and it doesn’t apply to what you’re looking for as far as I can tell.

    There is format info available somewhere. I’ve found it when I needed it but I can’t remember where.

    With any luck, the Mods will see your inquiry and direct you there.

    Sorry about that.

    • Thank you susanlatimer for your help, and I hope to have a response in due course.

      In reply to #74 by susanlatimer:

      Forget the FAQ. I checked it out and it doesn’t apply to what you’re looking for as far as I can tell.

      There is format info available somewhere. I’ve found it when I needed it but I can’t remember where.

      With any luck, the Mods will see your inquiry and direct you there.

      Sorry about that.

  31. In reply to #81 by susanlatimer:

    Oh, and do I ever feel like a dummy.

    That formatting button I couldn’t put my finger on a few comments ago? It’s sitting right underneath the Preview box in clear blue letters. :-) “Help with formatting “click here”.

    That should provide all the help you need.

    and thanks, of course, for this….

  32. In reply to #82 by flipflop:

    I think I can accept that common values – perhaps in the form of intuition, for want of a better word – lurk deep inside the minds of sociable animals… I wonder if this is what people mean when they say morality is “hardly arbitrary”? Am I understanding this correctly, that moral norms have good evolutionary explanation, and as such, are now “hard-wired “into our psyche?

    Forgive me for stopping at this point to ask for clarification before I continue.

    Is that directed at me or at susanlatimer, or are you putting that out for anybody to take up?

    If the latter, then my point is simple. Yes, moral norms have a good evolutionary explanation. So does violence, swimming ability, optics, and virtually any trait about living things that is a candidate for adaptation. There is at least one lawful basis for how morality arose, and others for how it was structured in the mind. So the interesting question is how did evolution select for creatures capable of understanding morality? What real world facts about morality would evolution have had to pay attention to?

    I outlined this as early as post 65:

    Even evolution, which is utterly empty of ethical concern, nevertheless has to follow certain rules when building ethical bases, akin to evolution being blind but still having to follow optics rules when building eyesight in certain organisms.

    So, if anything, pointing out that morality is an evolved adaptation is a good argument for moral realism, because genes building bodies have to use real world facts to build bodies.

    Please read my previous comments. I have no interest in repeating points I already made.

    Zeuglodon”s response was a fair one though.

    Was it? I do not know these other drive-bys to whom you refer, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for their actions. I have not been banging a drum.

    You’ve joined the queue of commenters who assert the same things about morality with the flimsiest of arguments (when they provide any at all), and judging from your comments so far, you’re fitting the mold very neatly. I might have had more sympathy for you if you hadn’t posted such a dismissive and unpromising first post.

    It was, as I said, my second short post on the thread as a new member. I don’t wish to dwell on this, but I must respectfully disagree with you here.

    It was your third, actually. I went and had a look. Many of the other ones of yours were short and sharp comments, too, not unlike your first post on this thread.

    A final word on this, and it is speculation on my part, but perhaps the drive-by’s would stick around if they weren’t immediately flamed for getting off on the wrong foot. I assure you that’s my last word on this issue.

    I don’t mind telling you that you sound defensively whiny here. I don’t deny I called you a pseudo-intellectual, but I also explained as carefully as I could what my position was and why I disagreed with yours. If my reply to you was “flaming”, then a) maybe you’re too emotionally connected to your views such that a critique would be construed as personal abuse, and b) what word is left over for the far more abusive, preachy, and braindead posts you see virtually anywhere else on the net?

    Please desist from this sort of commenting. It’s infantile behaviour, and boring to watch.

    Now, if you’d be so kind as to address posts 65, 69, and 78, please? I’d rather get back to the meat of this discussion.

    I will stick around. I’ll try to contribute constructively.

    I’m happy that you are willing to stick around and contribute. I hope you feel welcome, and I hope that you will learn a lot here (I know I did!)

    • In reply to #84 by Zeuglodon:

      In reply to #82 by flipflop:

      It was, as I said, my second short post on the thread as a new member. I don’t wish to dwell on this, but I must respectfully disagree with you here.

      It was your third, actually. I went and had a look

      It was my second.

      Many of the other ones of yours were short and sharp comments, too, not unlike your first post on this thread.

      I made it clear I would modify my posting behaviour. I feel I have done so.

      a) maybe you’re too emotionally connected to your views such that a critique would be construed as personal abuse

      I was trying to move on. I feel I am now engaged in cordial conversation with people here, and I am learning. I would however, like to continue on this forum without enaging in debate with yourself, a feeling confirmed earlier today when I saw you suggest to another poster that they were “emotionally unstable”. I really would be grateful if you could just overlook my presence here.

      • In reply to #85 by flipflop:

        In reply to #84 by Zeuglodon:

        I am venturing off-topic here and expect that this will annoy the Mods, but I’ll try to keep it short.

        You came off as very brusque when you first commented here and I had the same reaction that Zeuglodon did. When you pointed out that you were new to rd.net and to computers, I took that at face value and gave you the benefit of the doubt.

        Goodness knows I still stick my foot in it when I comment here sometimes, and I’m fairly certain I did it frequently when I first arrived as I floundered around trying to figure out how the place works.

        Zeuglodon has shown considerable restraint. This is a discussion forum. You don’t get to mark off your corner of the room. It’s quite astonishing that you think it’s appropriate to try.

        I (and I’m certain many, many other members) have tremendous respect for Zeuglodon’s contributions. I think you’ll find that respect is well deserved if you take the time to read what he has written. You have no business talking to him like that again. The first few times I was willing to imagine that it could have been unintentional, though I was apprehensive. This was no accident, which makes me think it’s very, very likely that the other comments weren’t either. .

        This is rd.net, not a bar.

        The Terms and Conditions (bottom of the page) dictate the rules of discourse here.

        I’ve possibly just violated them and there’s a good chance this comment will be struck by the Mods for that reason, but I hate it when the benefit of the doubt bites me in the nose, although I know that’s the chance I take.

        Apologies, Zeuglodon.

        • In reply to #86 by susanlatimer:

          In reply to #85 by flipflop:

          Terms and Conditions (bottom of the page) dictate the rules of discourse here.

          I was trying to move on and yet faced further accusations (“infantile, whinny, boring”) with simple facts being misrepresented, such as the number of posts I had made on this thread. I must confess I am truly at a loss.

          There is another thread I had been reading, on which you were active, by a poster who was attempting to defend the homily recently delivered by the new Pope. I notice he was told he was a troll, and would be ignored. I further notice that nobody seemed to take issue with how he was spoken to.

          I think I’m beginning to see how things operate here.You say it isn’t a bar? The irony has not been lost on me, I can assure you.

          I do not stand by my first response to Zeuglodon. It was wrong of me, and you will note I have said as much. I do, however, stand by my last post, and I hope it remains on record. I do not call people “emotionally unstable”, and I do not condone it either.

          You can have the last words of course and your friend can “call me out” once more if he should wish to. I won’t be around to read it, but I would ask the mods to leave this post on the record, and not airbrush this out of existence.

          • In reply to #87 by flipflop:

            In reply to #85 by flipflop:

            I was trying to move on and yet faced further accusations (“infantile, whinny, boring”)

            But Zeuglodon went on to explain why he made those accusations. He supported those accusations. You’ve ignored the rest of the paragraph when you could have responded. Your choice. The rules are applied to all of us. See the Terms and Conditions at the bottom of the page.

            with simple facts being misrepresented, such as the number of posts I had made on this thread. I must confess I am truly at a loss.

            I’m going to guess that Zeuglodon was referring to #76 as well, but it’s just a guess. You could have asked Zeuglodon what the third post was to which he referred. That’s the nature of discussion. I could be wrong but my guess is that #76 was as loaded as both of the (I assume obvious to all of us) comments that we probably agree on.

            There is another thread I had been reading, on which you were active, by a poster who was attempting to defend the homily recently delivered by the new Pope. I notice he was told he was a troll, and would be ignored. I further notice that nobody seemed to take issue with how he was spoken to.

            Did you notice that he demanded different standards of cordiality from others (and while we’re at it, standards of evidence) than he did from himself? He was called out as a troll when he accused the person who started the discussion of having …” a very large chip on very small shoulders but whilst venting your supposedly informed opinion as a keyboard warrior possibly in a dark room somewhere may give you a modicum of satisfaction…” Not only unevidenced, but a classic case of ad hominem. Either you or I or both of us could be having this exchange living under a bridge right now and it would have nothing to do with how valid or strong our points are. So, yes. It was trollish and it was perfectly legitimate to call it out as such.

            Did you notice how politely that person was treated? I took great pains to make sure we were not attacking a strawman. Not just I, but I can only speak for myself. Did you happen to notice that the catholic who originally accused the OP writer of not bothering to “understand the context” and did so without politeness (fine) but also without supporting his own argument (gets your ideas shredded in the arena of reason) managed to convert a sentence that meant torture and execution for uncountable numbers of humans over the centuries (and non-humans, check your history) and has continued to mean suffering, exploitation and death for many others up until the present day was interpreted as “irony” by that poster? He was treated politely and he cheerily said he’d be back. Then, he disappeared. He hasn’t been back yet. Maybe he will be but the trouble is that they usually aren’t once you get close to the point. They stop responding. Not because of rudeness.

            Read that whole thread over (we are HUGELY off-this-particular-topic here) and try to imagine that you don’t have a stake in the game. I asked him to do the same and he hasn’t been back. I hope he will be but I’m not counting on it. He would have to answer for his “faith” if he did and that’s not something that happens very often. Pretty much never. It always comes down to “faith”. “Faith” doesn’t like to be disturbed. It’s used to being confirmed. It gravitates towards confirmation and reverts to taking imaginary defense when it’s challenged.

            think I’m beginning to see how things operate here.

            I don’t think you are. Read the terms and conditions. The Mods are bound by them and I’m pretty sure are pulling their hair out half the time to give us all leeway, including you. Demand the same standards from yourself that you demand from others. Simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. You seem to be suggesting that there is favouritism involved but you haven’t made that case and I’ve made every effort to look for a case where you’ve been held to a different standard than the rest of us have. I don’t see it. You are free to make a case that you have.

            I do, however, stand by my last post, and I hope it remains on record.

            So do I but we are dangerously off-topic on this thread. If this disappears, it would be because the Mods (after much hair-pulling) had to make a call. If you stuck around, you’d see how hard they work to keep the referees out of the game, and sometimes we whine about their calls but they do a better job of it than you or I ever would. That’s why they are the referees and they’ve shown themselves to be very good and fair ones, no matter how much the players occasionally take issue with it. You are bound by the same rules all of us are bound by.

            You can have the last words of course

            My last words are directly to you. I am not talking behind your back because you’ve decided to leave. I hope you’ll acknowledge the fact that the invitation to join the discussion was friendly and fair (from me, as well as from Zeuglodon) and the whole idea here is that none of us has the right to not be offended but that each of us has the responsibility to be held accountable to reason and evidence. If we want to play by different rules than that, we will be called on it. And we will especially be called on it if we hold ourselves to lower standards than we hold others to.

            I’m done too but only because between us, we’ve managed to derail a perfectly good discussion and it’s time to let it get back to business, if we haven’t derailed it completely.

            You are always welcome but the rules are the same. The rules are the same for everyone. It’s simple.

      • In reply to #85 by flipflop:

        It was my second.

        Your fifth comment (76) claimed:

        So too, I’m told, I keep banging the same old drum, despite having posted just two very short posts on this thread, and being a new member to the forum.

        63, 68, 71, and 75 were your posts prior to this point, and all four of them were short. Even if you did what I did and discounted 75, since it was simply you thanking a fellow member, that makes three responses to my posts. Of course, you may want to discount 71 too on the grounds that it was simply a promise to reply rather than an actual reply, in which case that’s fair enough, but there’s my working.

        I made it clear I would modify my posting behaviour. I feel I have done so.

        Then I’ll quite happily let bygones be bygones and start afresh. In return, if it distresses you so, I’ll keep things strictly to the intellectual side of the discussion.

        Now, if you care to continue, may we have an actual discussion, please? Posts 65, 69, and 78 are still full of points I would like to see you address (not to mention the questions susanlatimer asked you in post 64), and I have waited eagerly for some on-topic responses from you.

        a feeling confirmed earlier today when I saw you suggest to another poster that they were “emotionally unstable”.

        If someone’s incredulity is bursting through the screen with opening sentences like “Seriously? If the words “Jehovah is LORD” were found repeated throughout our DNA, that would not impress a scientist?” then it does look like they’re getting their knickers in a twist. In any case, I said it made them look emotionally unstable, not that they were emotionally unstable. And I think it was clear from context that the guy was getting a little excitable.

        I would however, like to continue on this forum without engaging in debate with yourself… I really would be grateful if you could just overlook my presence here.

        If you post something, I am at complete liberty to post a response if I want to. No one’s forcing you to reply to my comments. And you are perfectly free to bow out of a discussion if you don’t want to continue it. However, you can’t boss other users around just because you don’t like them. The mods have authority here in any case, and will only step in if either one of us starts breaching the terms of use.

        On my part, I am sorry to hear that your first impression of me is so distasteful, but I might point out that I have tried to explain why I have said those things about you. I certainly would not start “flaming” anybody, if by that you imply hurling abuse at them and letting my emotions get the better of me, because I don’t think such behaviour is warranted. I’ve even indicated my recommendations after some of these comments of mine on how you could improve your responses in future, such as in post 78:

        However, you were suggesting my “words” and “clever turns of phrase” are smokescreens for lack of substance, outright implying by your “better debater” comments that I’m a slick-tongued obscurantist, insinuating that I’m insulting you for ulterior motives, and otherwise painting yourself as an unsuspecting innocent who didn’t e.g. post a possibly ungentle and badly justified accusation as a first post, (especially when the justification didn’t appear until after a response to your original post). These are not tactics that will endear you to many people, nor will they help your position in this discussion. Therefore, I recommend that you don’t use them in future posts.

        I might add that you have persisted in responding to me nonetheless. From that, I got and continue to get the impression that you want a discussion too.

        Lastly, I repeat my request from post 84:

        Now, if you’d be so kind as to address posts 65, 69, and 78, please? I’d rather get back to the meat of this discussion.

  33. My definition works on all planets and all lifeforms. Anything benificial to one’s species is GOOD. It’s as simple as that at it’s core. All life must have some sense of morality once they develop any kind of language. Why? Because, all life must evolve to be able to experience pain, or else they will not have motivations, which means they will die simply from starving (as simplistic example). Example, you don’t hunt and eat unless you feel hunger “pain”… so this means there needs to be a linguistic tag for ‘pain’ in any civilization, and my rule is this: Morality will be anything that reduces pain, or otherwise helps the survival of your species, where there will be GOOD (things benificial to surivival or removal of pain), and BAD, meaningn things that are contrary to the survival of your species or causes pain. All morality reduces down to this basic fact I think. As far as a supernatural GOOD/EVIL, i don’t believe that exists.

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