The Basis for Morality

Michael Ruse has now written a second post on the subject of scientism. He gets down to business in the second paragraph:

My three examples of nonscientific truths were mathematics, morality, and answers to those kinds of philosophical meta-questions, like – “What is the truth status of claims that only scientific claims are knowledge claims?” I will leave the first and third categories for discussion at another time, although frankly I will say that if someone really thinks the Euler identity (my example) is a generalization from experience then they are in the right state of mind to accept the validity of the ontological argument.

Since Ruse’s opening paragraph contains a link to my post, I will assume that the crack about thinking Euler’s identity is a generalization from experience is directed at me. In that regard, I would like to point out that, actually, I said no such thing. Here’s what I said about how we come to know Euler’s identity:

We come to know Euler’s identity first by defining certain abstract objects based on our contemplation of the world, then by establishing certain useful conventions for how we shall manipulate those objects, and then by applying deductive reasoning to discover previously unsuspected relationships among these objects and conventions.

I really don’t see how I could have been more clear. I also don’t see how that can plausibly be misunderstood as the claim that Euler’s identity is a generalization from experience. My point was simply that “generalizing from experience” is a big part of what mathematicians do, not that it is everything that we do. I also argued that since mathematical modelling and deductive reasoning are a workaday part of the scientist’s toolkit, it is not unreasonable to treat mathematical knowledge as a subset of scientific knowledge.

There is much more to say about that, but I shall save it for a different post. In the present essay Ruse is more concerned to clarify his views on morality. He writes:

Let’s focus in on moral claims. My most doughty critic Jerry Coyne (really, I should pay him a retainer) says “while science can inform moral judgments, in the end statements about right or wrong (or, in Ruse’s case, whether one should feel ashamed of an action) are opinions, based on subjective value judgments.” And he goes on to say “I think that’s true.”

Let me say bluntly — and it really is nothing personal because if it were I would be including a lot of my fellow philosophers including some of my teachers — I think this is just plain wrong. I want to say that what Jerry Sandusky was reportedly doing to kids in the showers was morally wrong, and that this is not just an opinion or something “based on subjective value judgments.” The truth of its wrongness is as well taken as the truth of the heliocentric solar system. It’s just not an empirical claim.

That’s a good deal clearer than what he wrote in his original post. I am happy for the clarification, since it seems I misunderstood his intent in my reply to his first post. Alas, as we shall see, things get very murky again later in the essay. So let’s consider his argument.

In my day-to-day life I am an unabashed moral absolutist. Some things are just right and others are just wrong, and if you disagree with my judgments than I will unleash upon you a barrage of stern looks and disapprobation. I simply regard it as obvious that people have certain obligations to one another, and I really have no desire to debate the matter.

But if you absolutely force me to defend my beliefs in terms of something simpler, it seems to me that I would have to give you some sort of standard by which I assess moral claims. I would have to say something like, “X is wrong because…” followed by some statement, probably related in some way to the consequences of X, that justifies my negative opinion of it. And at the end of the day I don’t see how you can give an absolute justification of that standard. No matter what standard I provide, I don’t see how I can reply to someone who steadfastly insists that I’m doing it wrong.

(As an aside, I don’t see how it’s much help to bring God into this. If God exists, then was can say that there is a standard of morality that is independent of what any individual person thinks. But then we just have two new questions to answer: How do we know what God thinks about moral questions? And why should we follow God anyway? Since I don’t think theists have much to offer in the way of good answers to those questions, you’ll pardon me for not granting them a privileged position in debates of this topic.)

Now maybe it doesn’t matter that someone can challenge my premises forever. After all, science suffers from the same problem. In defending the heliocentric model of the universe I might point to its impressive predictive accuracy, but a hardened skeptic can retort that I shouldn’t care about that. I can think of replies, but the fact is that any field of inquiry is ultimately based on assumptions that cannot be defended in terms of something simpler. So if the ability to challenge premises forever means there are no moral facts, then it also means there are no scientific facts.

Somehow, though, the sense in which one can endlessly challenge scientific assumptions just seems different from the sense in which one can endlessly challenge moral assumptions. People really do adhere to wildly different ideas about the basis for moral reasoning. A defender of divine command theory, for example, is taking a fundamentally different view from someone taking the approach defended by Louise Antony in this New York Times essay. By contrast, the assumptions underlying the validity of scientific reasoning really do seem to be near-universally accepted.

It is an interesting fact that on many, perhaps most, moral questions, the various different approaches to morality really do seem to converge on the same conclusion. Child rape is not morally ambiguous. I am not aware of any moral system defended by any significant number of people that takes the opposite view. So maybe such widespread agreement from so many different starting points is enough to justify the idea that there are moral facts after all. I’m genuinely uncertain about that.

What I am certain of is that for any practical purpose it is irrelevant whether you think “Child rape is wrong” is a cold hard fact, or merely an opinion that any sensible person should hold under penalty of being exiled from all polite company. In practical terms all that matters is what you can get people to agree to. And in the many situations where genuine moral disagreements arise, it is no help at all to insist that your view of the matter is simply a fact.

Okay, back to Ruse. How does he say we should think about morality?

A subjective value judgment is something on which decent, thoughtful people can differ. I think Grace Kelly was the most beautiful film star we saw in the philosophy of film course this last semester. Some of my students thought that Catherine Deneuve was. Who is right? Who is wrong? And what about the chap who voted for Marilyn Monroe? Decent, thoughtful people do not differ on Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions.

I agree that decent, thoughtful people do not differ on Sandusky’s alleged actions, and I’d be willing to bet that Jerry Coyne, Ruse’s foil for this little exercise, also agrees. But since judgments about who is being decent and thoughtful are themselves a tad subjective, I don’t know if this observation entails that there are moral facts.

Ruse next quotes David Hume to the effect that you cannot derive from ought from is. Again, no disagreement from me. Empirical facts are certainly relevant to moral reasoning, but making the jump from is to ought requires bringing something extra, something nonempirical, to the table.

Which makes the conclusion of Ruse’s essay a bit odd:

So how do you justify moral claims? Some philosophers and theologians think you can do it by reference to so-called non-natural properties or perhaps the will of God. Others, and this includes me, think that perhaps morality has no objective justification in this sense. (Although there is a subset that includes me who think that part of our psychology is to think that there is such an objective justification.)

I will leave the so-called moral realists to make their own cases. How does a non-realist like me proceed? One could be some kind of social contract theorist and think that a group of wise old people sat down one day and made up the rules of morality. This seems to me to be unsatisfactory both as history and philosophy. I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not. (There are all sorts of good biological reasons why cooperation can be a much better strategy than just fighting all of the time.)

So what does this make of morality? Sure, it is something that is part of our psychology. Frankly, who would ever doubt that? If you like, the controversial part is that it is only part of our psychology. I think that is the world into which David Hume pushed us. But because it may be the case that we can do what we like, it doesn’t follow that we should do what we like. As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.

So that is why what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong – really and truly wrong. That is not a matter of opinion. It just isn’t a scientific statement.

I can’t follow this at all. Ruse just got through telling us that you cannot derive ought from is, but isn’t he doing precisely that in these final paragraphs? It looks to me like he is pointing in some way to the facts of human psychology and to the vagaries of our natural history as the justifications for our moral beliefs. He seems to be saying (and I need to be careful here since I have already been burned once by his murky writing), that Sandusky’s actions are really and truly wrong because natural selection has programmed us to believe they are wrong. Can someone explain to me what I’m missing? It sure looks like Ruse has contradicted himself here.

Moreover, natural selection has programmed a lot of things into us, and not all of them are admirable. We seem to have a penchant for xenophobia and tribalism, for example. They might well have been helpful survival strategies at one time, but today they seem distinctly harmful and frequently lead to immoral actions. We are capable of great altruism, but we also seem to have a natural tendency towards selfishness. Does Ruse’s approach help us distinguish the aspects of our psychology that lead to good moral impulses from the ones that do not?

Also, while I’m willing to accept that a capacity for moral reasoning is a basic part of our psychology, no doubt bequeathed to us by natural selection, our specific concepts of what is right and what is wrong really do show quite a lot of variability. Concepts of right and wrong differ among contemporary cultures. They also evolve over time. For example, today nearly everyone regards it as obvious that slavery is wrong, but just a few centuries ago most people held the opposite view. Can Ruse help us make sense of this? Can Ruse apply his methods to resolve any current area of moral controversy? Do appeals to psychology and natural selection help us resolve questions about abortion or homosexuality, say?

Ruse’s essay was meant to establish that there are moral facts that we come to know by non-empirical means. If anyone thinks he has been successful in that regard please tell me about it in the comments. To the extent that I understand what he is saying, and it is frustrating that he just doesn’t seem to value clear writing these days, he has established neither that there are moral facts nor that he has some reliable, nonscientific means of determining what they are.

Comments

  1. #1 Tulse
    December 19, 2011

    Child rape is not morally ambiguous. I am not aware of any moral system defended by any significant number of people that takes the opposite view.

    There are various cultures that historically approved of raping girls as spoils of war — for example, the Old Testament god explicitly permitted the taking of enemy girls as “wives”, which surely was not consensual. Likewise, there are plenty of cultures today that approve of forced marriages with prepubescent girls. I think it is hard to argue that these instances aren’t cases of approved rape.

  2. #2 AbnormalWrench
    December 19, 2011

    I would clarify #1′s point slightly, “rape” as we use the term today, doesn’t exist in a society where women are mere property. The OT condemned rape, not because you were violating a person, but because you were damaging property.

    Also, the question of what a “girl” is, depends heavily on the society. In (too) much of Islam, 9 y/o is considered acceptable, and from my understanding, some really orthodox/crazy versions of it allow for sex even earlier than that as long as there is no penetration. At least, I have seen the Imam’s preaching such. I HOPE that is a very uncommon belief.

  3. #3 qetzal
    December 19, 2011

    Ruse says:

    I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not.
    [snip]
    So that is why what Jerry Sandusky allegedly did was wrong – really and truly wrong. That is not a matter of opinion. It just isn’t a scientific statement.

    But of course it’s a scientific statement! You can’t get much more scientific than to claim that morality is based on naturally selected behaviors.

  4. #4 eric
    December 19, 2011

    [Ruse] A subjective value judgment is something on which decent, thoughtful people can differ.

    That seems perilously close to a No True Scotsman defense; any person who condones Sandusky’s actions is just going to get labeled indecent or unthoughtful or both, and voila, you’ve got a perfectly circular and impenetrable argument.

    Recognizing that with six billion contrary people on the planet you will likely find someone who believes just about any crazy thing imaginable, I’d still go with a much broader and looser definition of subjectivity and say subjective value judgements are judgements on which sane people can disagree. But then Ruse’s argument fails: most people will probably consider Sandusky sane, and he (and the many thousands of other child rapists) presumably disagree with the 99.99% rest us about the moral value of his actions.

    I’ll propose a different method of differentiating facts from opinions. Facts are things for which most sane people agree on an outside, independent source of verification. “Its 20 degrees” is a fact because most sane people will agree on how to measure temperature in an independent manner.

  5. #5 Nick (Mawetzke)
    December 19, 2011

    Ruse wrote at least one whole article specifically on moral philosophy, I think with E.O. Wilson, back in the 1980s, so it’s a little ambitious to expect a fully fledged proposal in an offhand blogpost. Ruse’s proposal for the basis of moral facts seems similar to the proposals of Darwin (in Descent of Man), Mary Midgley, and others, which point out that various mammal groups have expanded instinctual empathy from mother-child to family group to larger groups. Add in big brains, memory of the past and the ability to anticipate future events and you have the beginning of the possibility of moral regret/guilt and of moral rulemaking.

  6. #6 eric
    December 19, 2011

    [Ruse] A subjective value judgment is something on which decent, thoughtful people can differ.

    That seems perilously close to a No True Scotsman defense; any person who condones Sandusky’s actions is just going to get labeled indecent or unthoughtful or both, and voila, you’ve got a perfectly circular and impenetrable argument.

    Recognizing that with six billion contrary people on the planet you will likely find someone who believes just about any crazy thing imaginable, I still think that if Ruse wants to go this route, he’s going to have to pick a much broader and looser definition of subjectivity and say subjective value judgements are judgements on which sane people can disagree. But then Ruse’s argument fails: most people will probably consider Sandusky sane, and he (and the many thousands of other child rapists) presumably disagree with the 99.99% rest us about the moral value of his actions.

    So I’ll propose a different method of differentiating facts from opinions. Facts are things for which most sane people agree on an outside, independent source of verification. “Its 20 degrees” is a fact because most sane people will agree on how to measure temperature in an independent manner. “That woman is beautiful” is not because most sane people do not agree on how to measure beauty in an independent manner. Is it distance between eyes? Body fat index? Presence of scars?

    There is no outside, independent source most sane people use to verify moral statements. We vigorously disagree on what source to use, and in some cases, that leads to major disagreements on what is moral and what is not. Child rape may be the example Ruse wants to discuss because there are very few cultural disagreements about it. But what about disagreements over what actions warrant a death penalty? There are major, major cultural disagreements about what actions justify a lethal response. Saudi just executed a woman for basically being a con artist (claiming to do magic). If that isn’t a major morality disagreement, I don’t know what is.

  7. #7 eric
    December 19, 2011

    Arg, I think we can all agree that double posting is a heinous crime. My apologies…

  8. #8 Physicalist
    December 19, 2011

    I’m a believer in objective morality, and I’m very much opposed to child rape, but as others have mentioned, it’s a mistake to suppose that these moral values are universally held.

    E.g., rape of boys is accepted and not uncommon in Afghanistan.

  9. #9 Physicalist
    December 19, 2011

    Ruse’s essay was meant to establish that there are moral facts that we come to know by non-empirical means. If anyone thinks he has been successful in that regard please tell me.

    No, you’re right. His argument just sort of fizzled out because he doesn’t actually offer a non-empirical philosophical defense of morality.

    If he were to just go Kantian, for example, then he could claim that morality is a principle of reason, discoverable by reason, that doesn’t rest on anything empirical. But he doesn’t.

  10. #10 HP
    December 19, 2011

    All social primates practice certain behaviors that allow them to maintain social cohesion. There are greeting behaviors, food-sharing behaviors, mating behaviors, dominance-and-submission behaviors, etc. When a social primate violates one of those behaviors (and they do — it’s not instinctive), the result is usually chaos and violence. (Or at least lots of screeching and poo-flinging.)

    Suppose, Planet-of-the-Apes-style, a group of non-human primates were endowed with semantic speech and abstract reasoning. A troupe of gorillas, for example, might find that by talking about the role of the silverback, the status of beta males, access to food sources, the role of sexually receptive females, etc., they could avoid a lot of the stressful violence and aggression that, let’s face it, no gorilla really wants. They might find peaceful ways to transfer power on the death of the silverback, or to divide the troupe into two smaller troupes. When violations occur, they might be able to resolve the problem without too much chest-beating and bellowing. And they would teach these lessons to the younger gorillas, so that each generation would learn from the generations that preceded it.

    What would distinguish from human morality?

  11. #11 Thanny
    December 19, 2011

    Hume was wrong. The notion that you can’t derive “ought” from “is” is just plain silly.

    You can see this from two different angles.

    First, arguing from first principles, the very concept of “ought” is one that exists only in a human brain. A human brain “is”. If you can’t derive “ought” from “is”, then “ought” doesn’t exist.

    Second, what Hume was actually referring to was “ought” in the absence of a goal. It was plainly obvious to him that if there’s a specific goal, you can definitely derive what you ought to do to achieve that goal from the status quo. The mistake is to assume that the term “ought” even makes sense in the absence of a goal. It does not. The goal may be entirely implicit, but it is always there.

    When you say, “You ought not murder someone.”, you are really saying, “You ought not murder someone, in order to .”

    If you’re religious, the reason might be “avoid going to a torturous afterlife”, or “please your favorite deity”. For a purely secular person, the reason might be “avoid going to prison”, or “foster a society in which you are less likely to be murdered yourself”.

    Figuring out which standards of behavior help us achieve our goals is certainly a scientific endeavor, in the broad sense of the term. Discovering what those goals are is also subject to scientific inquiry. If at any point it becomes impossible to utilize rational inquiry to reach a decision on a given matter, then there is no truth value to be found, so you can hardly say science couldn’t provide it.

  12. #12 Physicalist
    December 19, 2011

    Comment in moderation, but since I don’t want to have to go looking for the link again I’m going to try re-posting, without describing what happens to these boys in Afghanistan (since I guessing that the verb may have triggered the spam filter).

    Link.

  13. #13 Patrick
    December 19, 2011

    Ruse seems to have made the common mistake of eliding between the two following things:

    1. Objective moral facts, and
    2. Objective facts about how humans think about morality.

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 20, 2011

    Nick –

    Ruse wrote at least one whole article specifically on moral philosophy, I think with E.O. Wilson, back in the 1980s, so it’s a little ambitious to expect a fully fledged proposal in an offhand blogpost.

    I was not looking for a fully fledged proposal. I was looking for something coherent, which I don’t think this blog post is. Even taking everything Ruse said at face value I see neither a clear explanation for why he thinks there are moral facts, nor how he suggests we learn what those facts are.

    I’m pretty sure Ruse wrote more than one article with E. O. Wilson. One was published in the journal Philosophy in 1986, and bore the title — are you sitting down? — “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science.” It’s general argument was that moral philosophy needs a big assist from science if it is going to progress. Isn’t that precisely the sort of scientistic attitude you’ve been stamping your feet about? Anyway, that particular paper begins thusly:

    For much of this century, moral philosophy has been constrained by the supposed absolute gap between is and ought, and the consequent belief that the facts of life cannot of themselves yield an ethical blueprint for future action. For this reason, ethics has sustained an
    eerie existence largely apart from science.

    Later they write:

    It is thus entirely correct to say that ethical laws can be changed, at the deepest level, by genetic evolution. This is obviously quite inconsistent with the notion of morality as a set of objective, eternal verities.

    And later still:

    No major subject is more important or relatively more neglected at the present time than moral philosophy. If viewed as a pure instrument of the humanities, it seems heavily worked, culminating a long and distinguished history. But if viewed as an applied science in addition to being a branch of philosophy, it is no better than rudimentary. This estimation is not meant to be derogatory. On the contrary, moral reasoning offers an exciting potential for empirical research and a new under-
    standing of human behaviour, providing biologists and psychologists join in its development.

    I seem to recall them writing elsewhere that morality is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes, but I can’t seem to find the exact quote just now.

    Moving on:

    Ruse’s proposal for the basis of moral facts seems similar to the proposals of Darwin (in Descent of Man), Mary Midgley, and others, which point out that various mammal groups have expanded instinctual empathy from mother-child to family group to larger groups. Add in big brains, memory of the past and the ability to anticipate future events and you have the beginning of the possibility of moral regret/guilt and of moral rulemaking.

    Yes, that’s roughly what I took him to be saying, even though I think he expressed himself poorly. I’m certainly persuaded that natural selection has bequeathed to us certain impulses that underlie some of the moral codes people have developed over the centuries. I said as much in my post. But to go from that to the idea that there are moral facts is to breach the is/ought barrier Ruse is so keen to uphold here. As I pointed out in the post, there are many aspects of our nature –selfishness, xenophobia, tribalism — that are also bequeathed to us by natural selection, but the moral consensus is that we need to fight against those urges. So I don’t see how it aides clear thinking about specific moral questions to note that natural selection has given us certain proclivities.

  15. #15 Mark Sloan
    December 20, 2011

    Of course, Ruse’s essay fails to establish that there are moral facts that we come to know by non-empirical means.

    I find it strange he would even attempt such an argument because he understands morality is an evolutionary adaptation to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. Somehow Ruse got wrapped around the axle of the fact that, since morality is an evolutionary adaptation, then there is no external source of binding obligation to act ‘morally’ regardless of personal needs and preferences. This has apparently blinded him to the objective reality of what this evolutionary adaptation ‘is’.

    I am happy to defend the assertion that morality is a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups by a special means, acting altruistically. (Altruism is the means by which we distinguish morality from other evolutionary adaptations.) Morality is what has made us the incredibly successful social animals we are.

    It appears to be empirically true that virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms (no matter how diverse, contradictory, and bizarre) advocate altruistic behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. The diversity and contradictions of moral standards are mainly due to 1) differences in who is in the in-group and collects most of the benefits and who is in the out-groups who are exploited and 2) different ‘flags’ of membership in an in-group such as circumcision and not shaving beards.

  16. #16 Deepak Shetty
    December 20, 2011

    I want to say that what Jerry Sandusky was reportedly doing to kids in the showers was morally wrong, and that this is not just an opinion or something “based on subjective value judgments.”
    So when can we expect a critique of morally perfect prophets who marry 9/12 year olds.

  17. #17 Steven Carr
    December 20, 2011

    ‘I want to say that what Jerry Sandusky was reportedly doing to kids in the showers was morally wrong, and that this is not just an opinion or something “based on subjective value judgments.”’

    Not based on opinion or subjective value judgements?

    So is a coach who calls a running play in the first quarter, on 4th and 40 , backed up on his own 2 yard line, wrong to call that play?

    Everybody would agree he is. He should punt the ball.

    Is this based on opinion or ‘subjective value judgements’?

    But why are morality and football not subject to science?

    We might differ about what is the best play to call in a certain situation, but we can all agree what is the wrong play to call.

    The same applies to morality, surely.

    In theory, we could apply science to morality as easily as applying it to deciding what is the best football play or what is the best economic system or what is the most effective method of teaching philosophers about science.

  18. #18 Verbose Stoic
    December 20, 2011

    Jason,

    I do think that the problem with Ruse here is that by holding a non-realist view of morality and the specific non-realist view he has, he makes it hard to see how his view isn’t scientific. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that the non-scientific part is the underlying justification, not the details of his moral code. Why does he reject, say, the Social Contract view of morality, or moral realism itself? While he may come close to arguing that it is because we have those innate genetic tendencies, I don’t think that’s what he uses. He even says that he finds the social contract theory poor both historically and philosophically. So when it comes down to justifying WHY morality just is the result of our genes as per natural selection, it isn’t science that provides that justification and his defenses against both realists and social contract theorists. Descriptions of how things are — which is what science provides — can’t do that if we take Hume seriously. You can end up with a scientifically informed theory of morality, or a morality that insists that science can inform us as to the specific actions of morality, but we need something non-descriptive to settle the philosophical questions that say that that’s the theory to use. And if Hume is right, that won’t be science or anything else that is merely descriptive.

    But you’re right that he isn’t exactly clear about that.

  19. #19 Verbose Stoic
    December 20, 2011

    Thanny,

    First, arguing from first principles, the very concept of “ought” is one that exists only in a human brain. A human brain “is”. If you can’t derive “ought” from “is”, then “ought” doesn’t exist.

    I’m not sure what your argument here is supposed to be. Moral principles are not uncontroversially simply facts about a brain. If you could find that in someone’s brain, you’d only find what they THINK is moral, but that does not mean that that’s what it means to be moral. The whole point of the is/ought distinction is that you cannot determine what you ought to do by looking at what you ACTUALLY do. Looking at the brain is a “looking at what you ACTUALLY do” move.

    Second, what Hume was actually referring to was “ought” in the absence of a goal. It was plainly obvious to him that if there’s a specific goal, you can definitely derive what you ought to do to achieve that goal from the status quo. The mistake is to assume that the term “ought” even makes sense in the absence of a goal. It does not. The goal may be entirely implicit, but it is always there.

    When you say, “You ought not murder someone.”, you are really saying, “You ought not murder someone, in order to .”

    The problem here is that Hume was actually defining it in terms of VALUES, and moral precepts and principles are, in fact, already VALUES. You don’t need to appeal to another value to make moral claims values; moral claims are values by definition. So your goal analysis is just missing the point of the distinction.

    If at any point it becomes impossible to utilize rational inquiry to reach a decision on a given matter, then there is no truth value to be found, so you can hardly say science couldn’t provide it.

    Ah, the broadening definition again. Philosophy will do rational inquiry on it, but will deny that anything that could be called an EMPIRICAL science could do it, because any empirical justification will be descriptive, not normative. Is, not ought.

  20. #20 Verbose Stoic
    December 20, 2011

    Steven Carr,

    In theory, we could apply science to morality as easily as applying it to deciding what is the best football play or what is the best economic system or what is the most effective method of teaching philosophers about science.

    And how, then, do you see us applying science to those sorts of questions, and what definition of science are you using to claim that you’re applying science there?

  21. #21 Nick (Matzke)
    December 20, 2011

    Jason — I agree there is a contradiction between Ruse 1986 and what he is saying here and that his 1986 article looks like scientism. Probably this means his position changed, which undoubtedly means it’s complicated, which means we won’t get a full view in a short blogpost.

    I would just say that Ruse might have a way of both endorsing the is/ought distinction while also asserting that NS led to moral instincts which serve as the basis for morality. For example, one could say that a moral instinct is self-justifying, much like the instinct of hunger is self-justifying. No one goes around questioning the justification of the reason or motivation to eat, even though there is no “objective” “scientific” “external” fact of nature out there in the cosmos which write in the stars the commandment “thou shalt eat”. It’s true that if we don’t eat, we die, but that’s not the proximate reason we eat, the proximate reason is that we are hungry, hunger is self-justifying, and that’s that, and anyone who disagress is crazy or close to it (only the most extreme pathology or external circumstances can make someone not eat).

    Perhaps moral instincts work in a similar way, although (as Darwin says) they are weaker though very persistent.

    The issues you raise about which instincts to trust and which to deny are well-taken, but even this is not really fatal to the position. Midgley, for example, points out that the typical moral decision is not a matter of denying some instinctual desire and doing nothing else — it is always a matter of denying one instinctual desire (usually temporarily and partially) so that *another* equally valid instinctual and moral desire may be satisfied. For example, a warrior may be hungry, but perhaps he decides to temporarily wait to eat because he has sympathy for the starving children he sees. Saying that this is a decision to deny a powerful instinct (hunger) isn’t really correct — what is actually going on is that one instinct is being satisfied first (sympathy), and the other is being delayed and will be satisfied later (hunger). What is going on here is long-term thinking.

    Darwin’s distinction between different sorts of instincts (immediate and strong, but temporary, versus weaker but persistent) is extremely useful here.

    So, on the above scheme, it is actually not that difficult to figure out what the basic moral facts, the atoms of moral reasoning, are — eating is good, other things being equal; love of family and tribe is good, other things being equal; sympathy and empathy are good, other things being equal. The difficulty comes when other things are not equal, and circumstances put these different moral facts into conflict with each other, either between people or (more often!) within one person.

    In animals, presumably what happens is that whatever instinct is strongest at the moment takes precedence. But humans have big brains and good memories and the ability to think long-term. We remember what happened the last time we satisfied our immediate desires without thinking of the other people involved, and probably we realize it is better in the long run to take into consideration the similar needs of others. To get everyone on the same page we make rules, eventually laws, about it. After thousands of years of such behavior we get to the present situation.

    I think the only place the fact/value boundary is crossed here is perhaps in the very basic statement that we have basic, genetically/biologically determined instincts, which provide our basic values and which are self-justifying. (BTW, the justification doesn’t rely on evolution at all, evolution is just the scientific explanation of why we have these instincts and not others. Even if God poofed us into existence, we would have the exact same predetermined instincts, and they would still be self-justifying.) Everything else in the history of moral philosophizing is negotiation between the claims made by these predetermined values, and in all of this, it is still true to say that the fact that one state of affairs exists in society currently is no justification that the way things are is the way things ought to be.

    So, maybe Ruse has something like the above in mind.

  22. #22 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    Mathematics is a non-scientific truth? Is he kidding? He lost me right there.

  23. #23 Blanie
    December 20, 2011

    Ruse of course is a Platonist. He has to be otherwise he wouldn’t think we discover moral truths rather than invent them. Humans impute value, we don’t discover value or read is out of a holy book. We make moral progress by reading history and seeing what doesn’t work. Saying that we discover truth is merely a rhetorical move to add force to one’s moral claim. Why are people so unwilling to just accept the fact that we are responsible for valuing things? We don’t need some rhetorical crutch to decide as a society that something is wrong. In spite of what the brain dead right says, our society is based on postive law now anyway. Ruse’s discussions on these topics are puerile and uninformed. I doubt that there is even more than a handful of legal theorists who even know who Ruse is.

  24. #24 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    I’m not sure what the argument here is. Ruse wrote something not very coherent or defensible, and you offered a response that wasn’t very coherent or defensible either.

    Your big mistake here, IMHO, is in sticking to that old “you can’t derive ought from is” thing. We can, and do, derive ought from is all the bloody time. Every time we see someone hurt, or helped, by the actions of another, we draw an “ought” conclusion from that observable “is.” Where else can we derive ought from, if not from is? Are we supposed to derive ought from nought?

    And the mere fact that our emotions play a role in such judgments does not invalidate them or make them less objective or useful. “I don’t want to be murdered, or see anyone I care about murdered” is an emotional statement; but it reflects a verifiable truth, understood at a basic instinctive level, about what is beneficial or harmful to me and other humans. Emotions aren’t always wrong, subjective, or even irrational; they’re part of how our still-evolving animal brains try to reason and understand our universe.

    Also, I’ve noticed that when someone tries to discount your “emotional” statements, he could be trying to reason objectively — or he could be trying to belittle and discount some perfectly legitimate interest of yours, to further some agenda of his own. Just because he sounds rational while pissing all over your “emotional” interests, doesn’t mean you have to consider yourself answerable to him.

    We seem to have a penchant for xenophobia and tribalism, for example. They might well have been helpful survival strategies at one time, but today they seem distinctly harmful and frequently lead to immoral actions.

    See what I mean? You observed that a certain behavior does more harm than good, and you derived an “ought” from your observations. There’s a difference between positive and normative statements, but the line between them is more like the US-Canada border than the Korean DMZ. The two realms interact all the time, and the interaction is mostly not hostile.

    And at the end of the day I don’t see how you can give an absolute justification of that standard. No matter what standard I provide, I don’t see how I can reply to someone who steadfastly insists that I’m doing it wrong.

    In that case, this “someone” is just being an asshole, and it’s probably time to walk away from that BS argument, and suspect a dishonest ulterior motive behind such persistent “skepticism.” Just as some empirical questions can be considered settled until significant new evidence appears, so can many moral questions be considered settled.

  25. #25 Sigmund
    December 20, 2011

    Ruse is making the fatal mistake for a faitheist of actually spelling out his argument (despite the fact that it’s still fairly unclear!)
    The Jerry Sandusky incident is a strange case to use as an example of something that we can all agree is wrong. We might agree about that now, in the modern age, but was this always the case in antiquity? The actions of Sandusky would not be seen as unusual in certain historical contexts (for instance in classical Greek society – the golden age of the philosophy!)

  26. #26 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 20, 2011

    Raging Bee –

    Your big mistake here, IMHO, is in sticking to that old “you can’t derive ought from is” thing. We can, and do, derive ought from is all the bloody time. Every time we see someone hurt, or helped, by the actions of another, we draw an “ought” conclusion from that observable “is.” Where else can we derive ought from, if not from is? Are we supposed to derive ought from nought?

    I would say that we derive “ought” from a combination of “is” and certain principles of moral reasoning that are not derived from “is.”

    In that case, this “someone” is just being an asshole, and it’s probably time to walk away from that BS argument, and suspect a dishonest ulterior motive behind such persistent “skepticism.” Just as some empirical questions can be considered settled until significant new evidence appears, so can many moral questions be considered settled.

    As I said in the post, I agree that many moral questions are settled. But that’s because people’s differing views of morality nonetheless often converge. The problem is that many other moral issues, like homosexuality and abortion, are not settled. And I know a fair number of people who aren’t assholes who, for some perverse reason, disagree with my position on those issues.

  27. #27 Wow
    December 20, 2011

    “And I know a fair number of people who aren’t assholes who, for some perverse reason, disagree with my position on those issues.”

    And I bet that you can’t get them to say why. They don’t know why, they just know it’s wrong.

    Because it isn’t morality they’re using to decide. It’s something much deeper, long before decisions are made in the brain. They can post-rationalise it to themselves, but they’re working both sides of the argument there.

  28. #28 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    The problem is that many other moral issues, like homosexuality and abortion, are not settled.

    That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as absolute or near-absolute morality; any more than a scientific controversy means you can’t ever find objective truth about the universe.

  29. #29 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 20, 2011

    Nick –

    I would just say that Ruse might have a way of both endorsing the is/ought distinction while also asserting that NS led to moral instincts which serve as the basis for morality.

    The 1986 paper actually has a lot to say about that. For example they write:

    The last barrier against naturalistic ethics may well be a lingering belief in the absolute distinction between is and ought. Note that we say ‘absolute’. There can be no question that is and ought differ in meaning, but this distinction in no way invalidates the evolutionary approach.
    We started with Hume’s own belief that morality rests ultimately on sentiments and feelings. But then we used the evolutionary argument to discount the possibility of an objective, external reference for morality. Moral codes are seen instead to be created by culture under the biasing influence of the epigenetic rules and legitimated by the illusion of objectivity. The more fully this process is understood, the sounder and more enduring can be the agreements.

    Thus the explanation of a phenomenon such as biased colour vision or altruistic feelings does not lead automatically to the prescription of
    the phenomenon as an ethical guide. But this explanation, the is statement, underlies the reasoning used to create moral codes. Whether a behaviour is deeply ingrained in the epigenetic rules, whether it is adaptive or non-adaptive in modern societies, whether it is linked to other forms of behaviour under the influence of separate developmental
    rules: all these qualities can enter the foundation of the moral codes. Of equal importance, the means by which the codes are created, entailing the estimation of consequences and the settling upon contractual arrangements, are cognitive processes and real events no less than the
    more elementary elements they examine.

    I don’t actually disagree with any of that, but it does seem to argue pretty clearly against the idea of moral facts. Assuming this is still roughly Ruse’s position, it seems an odd argument to make when you’re making a case against scientism.

    At any rate, it really does look like a contradiction to me to argue that there are moral facts that we learn about through non-empirical means on the one hand, and then on the other to locate the basis for morality entirely in our evolved psychology.

    I also don’t understand, for example, what he could mean by this: “As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.”

  30. #30 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    …certain principles of moral reasoning that are not derived from “is.”

    Such as…?

  31. #31 RickK
    December 20, 2011

    “As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.”

    This is just so childish and narrow-minded. The ONLY way that moral absolutists can cling to their beliefs is to avoid any contact with history.

    Slavery is acceptable and codified in the Bible. That some could treat others as property was a moral absolute. The same is true today in Fundamentalist Mormon towns where women are property to be handed from man to man, and where sex with what most of us call children is a mandate ordained by God.

    I personally operate with a moral code that says that the people who made “Human Centipede” should be locked away for life before they cause more harm to society. But I fully recognize that viewed from other angles, they are exercising their rights to freedom of expression.

    Mr. Ruse should read a history book or two and travel to places where people don’t think like he does. His worldview seems very very immature.

  32. #32 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    The ONLY way that moral absolutists can cling to their beliefs is to avoid any contact with history.

    Actually, history does not refute the idea of morality based on objective consideration of benefit and harm. It only shows that a) people had fewer options to choose from than we do now; and b) objective benefit-harm calculations were different due to different circumstances (i.e., treating women as property makes more sense when you’re living in a place wracked by tribal warfare and the women have nowhere else to go and no other way to support themselves).

    Slavery is acceptable and codified in the Bible.

    Back in Biblical times, even the freest people in general were poorer and much less free than we are now, and for many people, there was no alternative to some form of involuntary/indentured servitude. So the objective calculation of the benefit/harm of slavery vs. that of whatever alternatives existed at the time was quite diferent from what it is now. Morality was based in large part on objective facts back then — it’s just that the facts were very different from what they are now.

  33. #33 eric
    December 20, 2011

    Nick Matzke:

    For example, one could say that a moral instinct is self-justifying, much like the instinct of hunger is self-justifying. No one goes around questioning the justification of the reason or motivation to eat,

    Treating one’s family better than strangers is also biologically self-justifying. For a man, raping women can (sometimes) be biologically self-justifying. For a woman, infanticide can (sometimes) be biologically self-justifying. For any two people or groups competing over critical food, shelter, and/or water resources, eliminating the competition will be biologically self-justifying.

    I very much doubt that ‘self-justifying’ would be an acceptable foundation for morality, for anyone who thinks for even 30 seconds about all the biologically self-justifying behaviors humans do.

    I also very much doubt that, upon considering such cases, anyone would believe that biological self-justification is an objective foundation for morality, for the simple reason that two people in the same situation may come to different moral conclusions about how to act. One tribe may choose try and kill a rival tribe; another may try negotiation. Another may try migration. All of these (and more) are “self-justifying” solutions to the same situational need for adequate food, water, and shelter. How can three different outcomes all be the “objective” moral solution to the same problem?

  34. #34 g724
    December 20, 2011

    Seems to me that the variability in the hardware and software of human brains (neurophysiology and culture) is sufficient to generate the range of variability of moral systems. The convergence that occurs is a kind of averaging within and between societies.

    Relevant factors may include degree of empathy (ability to infer others’ emotions accurately by simulation within oneself), foresight (accurate forecasting of future events), hindsight (accurate memory), and so on. The areas of the brain that are engaged with “sense of meaning in relation to something larger than self” add in religion and group-meaning phenomena.

    That’s a lot of “is” from which comes a lot of “ought,” refined over evolutionary time.

    However there also appear to be some elements of morality that are necessary outcomes of a couple of very simple rules applied in conjunction with the observable characteristics of humans and other organisms in their environments. I’ve got to scoot for the day but will try to pick this up later.

  35. #35 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    I very much doubt that ‘self-justifying’ would be an acceptable foundation for morality…

    It is ONE acceptable foundation, and it’s valid when coupled with other foundations, such as longer-term calcualtions of benefit and harm.

    Treating one’s family better than strangers is also biologically self-justifying.

    True, but treating strangers decently can have reciprocal effects for one’s own family.

    For a man, raping women can (sometimes) be biologically self-justifying.

    In the longer term, getting a woman to get pregnant more voluntarily is more justifying, because it yields much better results, for a longer term, than rape ever could.

    For a woman, infanticide can (sometimes) be biologically self-justifying.

    Maybe, but avoiding infanticide, or keeping the child, or letting someone else adopt it, is probably more biologically self-justifying most of the time, if any such options are available.

    For any two people or groups competing over critical food, shelter, and/or water resources, eliminating the competition will be biologically self-justifying.

    Not if genocide would arouse too much resistance, or is logistically impossible.

  36. #36 RickK
    December 20, 2011

    Bee said: ” Morality was based in large part on objective facts back then — it’s just that the facts were very different from what they are now.”

    In other words, what humans find morally right and morally wrong changes to fit the environment and the time. Exactly.

    Facts are objective, morality is relative. It is not a free-for-all, where every moral choice has equal merit given the environment. Morality is influenced by conditions, by evolution, by the development of our brains, by examples from charismatic leaders, and so on. These all weave together to form the canvas and paints with which any given society renders its moral code. But there are no absolutes here. There is no objective truth in morality. And there is nothing about human morality that lends any credence to the idea that gods made men and not the other way around.

  37. #37 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    How can three different outcomes all be the “objective” moral solution to the same problem?

    That can be decided based on the objective results of each solution. If negotiation, conquest, political unity, or migration get better results for all than simply trying (and possibly failing, with disastrous blowback) to exterminate all rivals, then ALL of those options are objective moral solutions, with some being more moral than others depending on specific circumstances. “Objective” does not have to mean “only one.”

    Also, eric, I notice that all of the examples you cited in #33 above are extreme and unusual actions, most likely arising from extreme conditions of privation, stress, isolation, etc. NONE of those actions are condoned by any society in general under normal conditions; and when people do them under very abnormal conditions, they almost never consider it “moral,” and only justify them by reference to the abnormal conditions. Using such examples to attack the idea of objective morality is just silly.

  38. #38 Patrick
    December 20, 2011

    Raging Bee- Actually, societies founded on rape are fairly common. Rape raids seem to have been a common practice. Every culture in which human beings were owned seems to also have accepted the idea that owning a woman granted the owner sexual rights to her. And non forcible rape by means of a societal effort to deny women the ability to meaningfully choose their sexual partners has existed in western culture up until only a few generations back. By modern standards of what is considered rape, historically, moral acceptance of rape has been the norm and not the exception.

  39. #39 David Thomson
    December 20, 2011

    The issue of morality is easily simplified by this definition, “Morality is the actions and behaviors that lead to good health and well-being of individuals and communities.”

    The reason why morality has importance is simply because we all seek good health and well-being. The actions and behaviors giving us good health and well-being are therefore the “right” and “good” ones.

    Religion does not have a monopoly on morality. Morality is inherent to the survival of individuals and communities. Every law passed by the government is a moral law. Every rule that brings fairness and order is a moral rule. Every regulation governing business operations is a moral regulation.

    The test of morality is therefore science, not belief. We can scientifically prove or disprove that a given behavior or action will lead to the good health and well-being of individuals and/or communities.

  40. #40 eric
    December 20, 2011

    David Thompson:

    The issue of morality is easily simplified by this definition, “Morality is the actions and behaviors that lead to good health and well-being of individuals and communities.”

    What happens when my well-being and yours conflicts?

    Another flaw: well-being is partially due to cultural responses to an act. Sex with my neighbor’s wife is not biologically unhealthy for me, her, or my neighbor. It may be ‘socially unhealthy’ in that it breaks a social taboo…but taboos are culturally-based. Thus, your definition does not remove the cultural subjectivity of morality.

  41. #41 Reginald Selkirk
    December 20, 2011

    A subjective value judgment is something on which decent, thoughtful people can differ.

    Well there’s one problem right there. Who are “people”? A common method of justifying poor treatment of others is to dehumanize them. At some time, slaves, women, the poor, and those of different races were not considered worthy of full consideration.

    I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place… As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.

    Do I understand correctly that Ruse admits our morality is contingent upon our evolutionary history, but still insists his moral values are objective? He must be using a rather bizarre definition of “objective.”

  42. #42 Reginald Selkirk
    December 20, 2011

    The truth of its wrongness is as well taken as the truth of the heliocentric solar system.

    If evolution had turned out differently, some other species might be having this discussion about “objective” moral values. Would a civilization of lion-men agree as to what are the objective moral truths? How about a race of mantid-men? I dare to say no. And yet neither could rightfully disagree about the truth of heliocentrism. Ruse is too anthropocentric.

  43. #43 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    What happens when my well-being and yours conflicts?

    Such conflicts do not make the empirical basis for moral reasoning invalid, nor do they make morality less “absolute” or “objective” than it was before the conflict arose. It only means things are more complex and there’s a dispute that has to be resolved.

    Another flaw: well-being is partially due to cultural responses to an act.

    And cultural responses, like morality, can be based on collective understanding (right or wrong) of what’s harmful or beneficial. IF you have sex with your neighbor’s wife, it could cause discord with your neighbors that could damage your ability to work with them later when a problem arises that requires trust and cooperation; and it could also damage that couple’s ability to work together on common goals like raising their kids and running a viable family business.

    By modern standards of what is considered rape…

    You’re judging ancient societies by modern standards? And using the word “rape” a lot more loosely than it should be? Neither of these are helpful in historical analysis.

    And non forcible rape by means of a societal effort to deny women the ability to meaningfully choose their sexual partners has existed in western culture up until only a few generations back.

    First, were such societies actually making EFFORTS to deny women meaningful choices that they would have had otherwise? Or were women’s choices constrained by circumstances anyway? (Even if the Taliban disappeared today, how much freer would Afghan women be, if their country was still a war-torn backwater?) Also, having a narrow range of choices is not quite the same thing as “rape;” and labelling a society where women didn’t always have the same choices women have today a “society founded on rape” is just lazy.

  44. #44 eric
    December 20, 2011

    Would a civilization of lion-men agree [with us] as to what are the objective moral truths?

    Indeed. It makes perfect moral sense to kill the young children of my new mate, so that she spends her resources caring for my future kids instead.

    The first episode of the “Brady Bunch” might have gone a bit differently, hmmm? ‘Till the one day when the lady met this fellow/And they knew it was much more than a hunch/That this group might somehow form a family/After they executed Marsha, Jan and Cindy before lunch.

  45. #45 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    Do I understand correctly that Ruse admits our morality is contingent upon our evolutionary history, but still insists his moral values are objective?

    Well, our ability to perceive and think rationally is contingent on our evolutionary history; but we can still insist that our rational thoughts are a good way to discern objective truth.

    If evolution had turned out differently, some other species might be having this discussion about “objective” moral values.

    That doesn’t mean the idea of objective moral values is invalid. Large-brained lions (or whoever) would be using the tools of rational inquiry to determine what’s beneficial or harmful to their species, and agreeing to rules of conduct that reflected their concensus. I’m guessing there’d be similarities to present-day human morality, but also some differences arising from different patterns of social interaction, food consumption, sexual/reproductive habits, etc.

  46. #46 eric
    December 20, 2011

    Raging Bee:

    IF you have sex with your neighbor’s wife, it could cause discord with your neighbors that could damage your ability to work with them later when a problem arises that requires trust and cooperation;

    This is my point exactly; David’s definition links the morality of the act to amount of social discord it causes. But ‘amount of social discord it causes’ is not an objective quantity. Its subjective and varies based on the society one is in as well as the particulars of an ndividual situation. Thus, the morality of such an act is not objectively good or bad; its subjectively good or bad.

    Unless you have a social discordometer you are hiding from us, Bee? Maybe its on the self next to your eviloscope.

  47. #47 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    How can the amount of discord caused by a certain act be “subjective?” If an act has consequences, it has consequences. The amount of discord it causes is an objective fact, whether or not it’s the same in all instances, and whether or not you or I can predict it reliably in advance. The mere fact that a certain act doesn’t have the same consequences all the time, doesn’t mean the morality of an act is “subjective;” it just means it’s a more complicated situation and you have to think and use your judgement. There’s still an objective basis for moral reasoning; it’s just that the facts that inform such reasoning change from place to place.

    I think you’re misusing the word “subjective.”

  48. #48 Reginald Selkirk
    December 20, 2011

    That doesn’t mean the idea of objective moral values is invalid.

    How about some examples, then? Or even just one example? What are these objective moral values? Is it moral to kill your partner after mating? (eric has already expanded on the lion-men reference.)

    Would species which mate by releasing their eggs and sperm into the open sea even have a concept of rape?

    Remember the standard of objectivity: It must be comparable to the truth of heliocentrism. I don’t see how lion-men, mantid-men or coral-men could disagree about that, presuming they had evolved to the point of investigating such a thing.

  49. #49 eric
    December 20, 2011

    Bee:

    How can the amount of discord caused by a certain act be “subjective?”

    Amount of discord is subjective because it varies based on how others perceive the act, rather than varying based on some intrinsic property of the act itself.

  50. #50 Nick (Matzke)
    December 20, 2011

    Treating one’s family better than strangers is also biologically self-justifying. For a man, raping women can (sometimes) be biologically self-justifying. For a woman, infanticide can (sometimes) be biologically self-justifying. For any two people or groups competing over critical food, shelter, and/or water resources, eliminating the competition will be biologically self-justifying.

    I very much doubt that ‘self-justifying’ would be an acceptable foundation for morality, for anyone who thinks for even 30 seconds about all the biologically self-justifying behaviors humans do.

    I also very much doubt that, upon considering such cases, anyone would believe that biological self-justification is an objective foundation for morality, for the simple reason that two people in the same situation may come to different moral conclusions about how to act. One tribe may choose try and kill a rival tribe; another may try negotiation. Another may try migration. All of these (and more) are “self-justifying” solutions to the same situational need for adequate food, water, and shelter. How can three different outcomes all be the “objective” moral solution to the same problem?

    Wow, you *really* aren’t getting what I said. Start by re-reading what I wrote and looking at the distinction between the idea that an action might be “biologically self-justifying” based on the result (the stuff you describe above), versus my statement, which is that certain behaviors are (other things being equal) self-justifying because they satisfy some pre-programmed instinct. Then think about what happens when two instincts conflict, then about what happens when the instincts conflict inside a creature with a large brain, long memory, a complex society, etc.

    Or read Midgley’s The Ethical Primate or Darwin’s chapter in Descent of Man on empathy to get a sense of what is being proposed.

  51. #51 Raging Bee
    December 20, 2011

    Bloody ‘ell, Reggie, I’ve been discussing examples ever since #24.

    Would species which mate by releasing their eggs and sperm into the open sea even have a concept of rape?

    Probably not, but that doesn’t mean such a concept is not objectively valid for our species.

    Is it moral to kill your partner after mating?

    For advanced social creatures like humans, no, because a) the partner has his/her own desire to live; b) there’s no need that is served by killing one’s partner; and c) it’s helpful to have a partner around to help with raising and socializing the offspring. But that doesn’t mean such a practice can’t be objectively moral for a different species and objectively immoral for us.

    Remember the standard of objectivity: It must be comparable to the truth of heliocentrism.

    Very few humans want to be murdered, or see others they care about murdered. That’s an objective fact comparable to heliocentrism; and that’s only the most obvious case. Satisfied?

  52. #52 Steersman
    December 20, 2011

    Eric said (#44),

    Indeed. It makes perfect moral sense to kill the young children of my new mate, so that she spends her resources caring for my future kids instead.

    Absolutely; seems like a perfect case of an axiomatic system – good solid science one might suggest.

    One might argue that the case is virtually the same as with the parallel postulate of Euclidean geometry which was not elsewhere provable from any of the other axioms and so had to be accepted on “faith”. Though one must emphasize that is not of the fundamentalist blind version as there seemed to be a great amount of evidence to suggest that that axiom was in fact a valid inductive conclusion.

    And as with the eventual “disproof” of the parallel postulate – at least as it applies to real space in general – the case for killing the children of a new mate seems to rest on some pragmatic, empirical tests – which presumably rest themselves on further premises such as the survival of the species and whether that is a “good thing” or not.

  53. #53 Patrick
    December 20, 2011

    Raging Bee: Your response to me is a non sequitor. And later in the thread you seem not to recognize the difference between objective and intersubjective.

  54. #54 NickMatzke
    December 20, 2011

    Re: the heliocentrism point and objective facts in morality. Someone noted some things on the comment thread of Coyne’s blog which are worth bringing up here:

    * not all cultures have accepted heliocentrism; in fact, it is a fairly recent discovery

    * even in cultures where heliocentrism is accepted, there are still individuals which deny it

    * it took hundreds of years for (almost) everyone to accept heliocentrism as fact

    Yet, we still feel comfortable saying that heliocentrism is an objective fact. Thus, it is no argument against the idea that there are moral objective facts to note that cultures vary (somewhat; there appear to be human universals or near-universals regardless) in what they consider moral, or that some people disagree with the societal consensus, or that moral facts may be in contention for generations before they are widely accepted.

    Maybe morality *is* more like science (narrow definition) in the following way: moral principals are discovered by individuals using partial information, reasoning, and investigation of the deep sentiments of themselves and others; they are then “tested” in the sense that they are tried out by groups in the culture, to see whether or not they “work” both for satisfying our deep sentiments and in meeting the practical needs of life; and they are eventually agreed upon by (almost) everyone to be reliable rules to live by. Thinking about it, probably every major step of moral progress has occurred in this fashion.

  55. #55 eric
    December 20, 2011

    Nick Matzke: Wow, you *really* aren’t getting what I said.

    I’ll admit it, I have hard time figuring out how you are connecting either ‘biologically self-justifying’ or ‘instinctually self-justifying’ or any other sort of survival-related justification to objective. Even your own comments (i.e., the one about instincts conflicting with human reason) seem to point to subjectivity.

    Of course, maybe I’ve lost the thread of your argument and the reason your posts appear to support subjectivity is because that’s what you’re arguing for. If so, just say so and I apologize.

  56. #56 Steersman
    December 20, 2011

    Nick Matzke said (#54),

    Maybe morality *is* more like science (narrow definition) in the following way: moral principals are discovered by individuals using partial information, reasoning, and investigation of the deep sentiments of themselves and others;

    I would generally agree with that and suggest that it is more or less directly analogous to the process of induction by which the axioms – the hypotheses, the principles – of various systems of logic and mathematics are formulated. I think P.B. Medawar had some relevant comments and observations on that process which appears applicable in the spheres of both morality and science itself:

    As the very least we expect of a hypothesis is that it should account for the phenomena already before us; its ‘extra-mural’ implications, its predictions about what is not yet known to be the case, are of special and perhaps crucial importance. [The Art of the Soluble; pg 147]

    The three essential stages in the process which he continued with deliberate vagueness to call ‘induction’ were in his [Jevons] own words,
    (a) Framing some hypothesis as to the character of the general law;
    (b) Deducing consequences from that law;
    (c) Observing whether the consequences agree with the particular facts under consideration.
    [ibid; pgs 149-150]

    In real life the imaginative and critical acts that unite to form the hypothetico-deductive method alternate so rapidly, at least in the earlier stages of constructing a theory, that they are not spelled out in thought. The ‘process of invention, trial, and acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis goes on so rapidly’, said Whewell, ‘that we cannot trace it in its successive steps.’ [ibid; pgs 150]

  57. #57 NickMatzke
    December 20, 2011

    Hi eric,

    the one about instincts conflicting with human reason

    I didn’t say they conflict with reason, I said they can conflict with each other. E.g. imagine you are a mother living in the Stone Age during a period of near-starvation. And you are hungry, but you also love your ten-year-old child you have raised since birth. Both of these are natural instincts, it would be good to fulfill both, but at the moment you only have enough food for one person (the situation might change tomorrow). What do you do?

    I would assert that it is an objective moral fact that it would be good for you to eat, and good for you to feed your child. I suppose one could say that these are “subjective feelings”, but that really doesn’t capture what is going on very well. These are feelings, it is true, but they are feelings that essentially everyone in our species would have. And not only that, everyone would know that everyone else in the same situation would have the same feelings. This common human nature — we all have basically the same programming — is what makes morality objective. Just because moral facts aren’t written out there in the stars somewhere or in the mind of God doesn’t mean they aren’t objective — they are written into the programming of the human species. Conveniently enough, dealing with other humans is the primary thing that we need objective morality for in the first place.

    (As Darwin, E.O. Wilson, and others have noted, a differently-constructed species might well have different moral facts. E.g. a race of super-intelligent termites might rightly consider it an objective moral fact that eating feces and sacrificing one’s reproduction for the Queen are great ideas. But this speculation is neither here nor there when it comes to the present situation of humans, since we’re the only super-intelligent critters around at the moment. When we meet the aliens, then it will be time to sound the emergency alarms in the philosophy departments.)

    (Come to think of it, it may be that, much like sharks and dolphins evolved the same shape due the the common physics of swimming in water, any race of social, language-enabled, highly-intelligent organisms will convergent evolve the same basic moral structure. That’s total speculation I guess, but there’s a Ph.D. project for somebody.)

  58. #58 Owlmirror
    December 20, 2011

    Yet, we still feel comfortable saying that heliocentrism is an objective fact. Thus, it is no argument against the idea that there are moral objective facts to note that cultures vary (somewhat; there appear to be human universals or near-universals regardless) in what they consider moral, or that some people disagree with the societal consensus, or that moral facts may be in contention for generations before they are widely accepted.

    This is a false equivalence, though. Heliocentrism is not accepted because of either religious dogma, or genuine ignorance of the evidence in support of it.

    You could, at least, demonstrate the observations and math that shows that the sun is much larger than earth, the equations and evidence of universal gravitation, and the rotation (over the course of a day) of a free-hanging pendulum, and argue that given those facts, the earth rotates on its axis and orbits the sun.

    What facts or evidence can be shown to someone who argues that homosexuality is inherently and essentially evil, and that those who perform homosexual acts — even consensually — should be hung by the neck until dead (as in Iran), or killed with stones flung at them (as in the bible)?

  59. #59 eric
    December 20, 2011

    Nick Matzke:

    I would assert that it is an objective moral fact that it would be good for you to eat, and good for you to feed your child.

    Why? If I am Hitler, or Charles Manson, is it still an objective moral fact that it is morally good for me to eat? I think most of us would rather old Charlie had starved himself sometime between 1950 and about 1967.

    If it is an objective moral fact that it is good for me to eat, it must be an objective moral fact that it is bad for me to starve. But it is also an objective moral fact that it is bad for you to starve. If there is one meal and we both need it to live, then regardless of who takes it the same act (eating the meal) becomes objectively morally bad, and objectively morally good.

    Well. This means that your objective universe contains contradictory objective facts. Maybe that is okay with you, but it seems decidedly odd to me. If I got “reality contains contradictory objective facts” as a result of my set of premises, I would seriously question my premises. Starting with my definition of objective moral fact. Now, I could be wrong in questioning that result – maybe objective reality really does contain contradictory facts – but it certainly seems like it shouldn’t.

  60. #60 aspidoscelis
    December 21, 2011

    For novelty, if nothing else, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as mathematical knowledge. At least not in the sense that I think Ruse & Rosenhouse mean.

    The relationship of math to knowledge is about the same as for any other language. It provides a medium in which knowledge can exist and be expressed. “Mathematical knowledge” might be of two kinds: knowledge expressed in the language of mathematics, and knowledge of how the language of mathematics works.

    In that light:

    “I also argued that since mathematical modelling and deductive reasoning are a workaday part of the scientist’s toolkit, it is not unreasonable to treat mathematical knowledge as a subset of scientific knowledge.”

    English (and various other natural languages) is an even more fundamental part of a scientist’s toolkit. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to treat English knowledge as a subset of scientific knowledge.

    Now what does that mean, exactly?

  61. #61 Raging Bee
    December 21, 2011

    Why? If I am Hitler, or Charles Manson, is it still an objective moral fact that it is morally good for me to eat?

    Yes; it’s just a fact you refuse to accept. Just like the Earth is still round even if a few idiots continue to insist it’s flat.

  62. #62 Wow
    December 21, 2011

    “I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as mathematical knowledge”

    So what is mathematical knowledge if it’s the sort you say is nonexistent in itself?

    “English (and various other natural languages) is an even more fundamental part of a scientist’s toolkit”

    Since the language used can vary, I posit that this shows it isn’t a fundamental part of a scientists’ toolkit, but rather part of the method of enabling the science to take place.

    Open University had long sections of a lab experiment where there was no voice whatsoever, just the silent activity of the experiment.

  63. #63 Wow
    December 21, 2011

    “Is it moral to kill your partner after mating?”

    Many spiders do so.

    If it is said “No it is not moral” to do so, then what is the imperative that makes it so?

    The only option viable is “The right of another to their life”. However, the bible often abrogates that for no reason whatsoever (other than “God says so”).

    Yet there is no need to import God to say that someone else has an equal right to life. Even godless atheists admit that there are others alive on this planet.

    So why does morality require a god?

  64. #64 Raging Bee
    December 21, 2011

    And later in the thread you seem not to recognize the difference between objective and intersubjective.

    First, none of the people to whom I was responding ever used the word “intersubjective.” So your accusation here is a lame dodge.

    Second, I use the word “objective” because I’m talking about morality based on objective and observable facts about what is beneficial and what is harmful to people. The word “subjective” means something entirely different from that, and sticking a prefix onto it (without defining the meaning of this new word, I must add) does not take away the basic meaning of the original word, or the baggage I want to do without.

    If something is true for a whole tribe, species, or other group, it is OBJECTIVE, at least for that group, not “subjective;” and sentient beings outside that group can observe it just like insiders, even if it doesn’t apply to them. “Subjective” means “true or meaningful only in the mind of one individual.” And “intersubjective” means…well, I haven’t seen a definition of that word, so I’m not using it. There’s a very important difference between “objective” and “subjective,” and muddying the distinction with prefixes and qualifications does no one any good.

  65. #65 Reginald Selkirk
    December 21, 2011

    If something is true for a whole tribe, species, or other group,it is OBJECTIVE, at least for that group

    And yet, heliocentrism is true whether you believe in it or not. I still don’t see the comparison.

  66. #66 Reginald Selkirk
    December 21, 2011

    NickMatzke: (As Darwin, E.O. Wilson, and others have noted, a differently-constructed species might well have different moral facts. E.g. a race of super-intelligent termites might rightly consider it an objective moral fact that eating feces and sacrificing one’s reproduction for the Queen are great ideas. But this speculation is neither here nor there when it comes to the present situation of humans, since we’re the only super-intelligent critters around at the moment. When we meet the aliens, then it will be time to sound the emergency alarms in the philosophy departments.)

    This appears to be an admission that “moral facts” do not rise to the level of “objective truth” exemplified by heliocentrism, as specified by Ruse. And yet somehow it fails to admit that it is an admission of failure.

  67. #67 Raging Bee
    December 21, 2011

    And yet, heliocentrism is true whether you believe in it or not.

    Yes, and facts about human nature and needs, and the benefits or harms done by certain actions, are also true “whether you believe in it or not.” They’re also true whether or not the creature observing is itself human, or shares any part of that observable nature. If you can’t see the connectin here, it’s probably because you’re making a conscious effort not to see it.

  68. #68 Patrick
    December 21, 2011

    Raging Bee at 64:

    Look up intersubjective.

    You’ll find that it means something which is subjective, but shared by a group of individuals who hold the same subjective position.

    So when you write, “If something is true for a whole tribe, species, or other group, it is OBJECTIVE, at least for that group, not “subjective;””

    You are doing exactly what I said. You are discussing intersubjectivity. But you are calling it objectivity.

    It is true that no one else in the thread has used the term intersubjective. But you have used the concept. You just continue to call it objectivity.

  69. #69 Raging Bee
    December 21, 2011

    Yes, I’m calling it objectivity because that’s the word that applies. There’s no need to make up a new word, when the old one is perfectly applicable and already understood by the English-speaking readers.

  70. #70 Raging Bee
    December 21, 2011

    This appears to be an admission that “moral facts” do not rise to the level of “objective truth” exemplified by heliocentrism, as specified by Ruse.

    No, Reginald, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s just an admission that a certain hypothetical situation is hypothetical.

  71. #71 Patrick
    December 21, 2011

    Raging Bee:

    And yet you’re having a long philosophical argument about the definition of “objective,” when philosophers already have a word for describing your position on the nature of morality. That word is “intersubjective.”

  72. #72 eric
    December 21, 2011

    Forget the ‘inter’ part and just look up the definiton of ‘subjective’ Bee. What you keep describing are subjective judgements.

    Any time a judgement depends on people’s beliefs about an action, rather than an intrinsic property of the action itself, that is subjective. If a whole tribe agrees that eating food with the left hand is immoral, that is a subjective judgement. It doesn’t matter if they all agree about it. It dosen’t matter if outsiders can observe that the tribe punishes left-hand-eaters in a highly consistent manner. It doesn’t even matter if some other tribal practice leads to the correlation that eating with the left hand increases the risk of disease. Unless you can show that some intrinsic property of picking up food with your left hand is bad -bad in way which does not vary by tribe or by cultural practice – its a subjective judgement.

  73. #73 Owlmirror
    December 21, 2011

    Yes, I’m calling it objectivity because that’s the word that applies. There’s no need to make up a new word, when the old one is perfectly applicable and already understood by the English-speaking readers.

    It’s rather ironic that you should phrase it that way, given that language itself is a perfect example of something that is intersubjective.

    I mean, yes, it’s an objective fact that those that use a language use the vocabulary and grammar of that language, but it’s also an objective fact that someone who hates onions, hates onions — but is indeed making a subjective judgement.

    The use of that particular vocabulary and grammar (and writing system, for written language) is, to a certain extent, arbitrary and basically the contingent result of a society inheriting them (and modifying them over time), and using them as a community.

    And something that is actually objective is something that would not be dependent on the group of people that agree to it. So contra your final clause, it is not the case that “objective” is the perfectly applicable term. Indeed, your interpretation terribly weakens and confuses what “objective” actually means.

    Hence, “intrasubjective” better serves to describe both language, and morality.

  74. #74 NickMatzke
    December 21, 2011

    This appears to be an admission that “moral facts” do not rise to the level of “objective truth” exemplified by heliocentrism, as specified by Ruse. And yet somehow it fails to admit that it is an admission of failure.

    Posted by: Reginald Selkirk

    Raging Bee said well what I would say in reply to this…

  75. #75 Composer99
    December 21, 2011

    On the basis for morality, what about other philosophical greats such as Zach Weiner?

    /slightly off-topic joke

  76. #76 Owlmirror
    December 21, 2011

    Hence, “intrasubjective” “intersubjective” better serves to describe both language, and morality.

    Bleh, fixed.

  77. #77 Owlmirror
    December 21, 2011

    Raging Bee said well what I would say in reply to this…

    Raging Bee did not in fact reply to the paragraph you quote.

  78. #78 NickMatzke
    December 21, 2011

    This is a false equivalence, though. Heliocentrism is not accepted because of either religious dogma, or genuine ignorance of the evidence in support of it.

    You could, at least, demonstrate the observations and math that shows that the sun is much larger than earth, the equations and evidence of universal gravitation, and the rotation (over the course of a day) of a free-hanging pendulum, and argue that given those facts, the earth rotates on its axis and orbits the sun.

    What facts or evidence can be shown to someone who argues that homosexuality is inherently and essentially evil, and that those who perform homosexual acts — even consensually — should be hung by the neck until dead (as in Iran), or killed with stones flung at them (as in the bible)?

    Posted by: Owlmirror | December 20, 2011 8:36 PM

    I think the answer to this is pretty obvious actually:

    (a) Have the antigay person look at what happens when e.g. gay marriage is allowed. What happens to society? Does it collapse? Does everyone become gay? As it turns out, not much changes at all, except that some problems facing gays (e.g. visitation rights in hospitals) are alleviated. This is, in effect, an empirical test of this policy (and probably this result is a significant reason why support for gay marriage has been increasing).

    (b) Get to know some gay people. Once someone does this, they inevitably find that they aren’t much different from everyone else, they aren’t evil, they aren’t child-abusers, etc.

    These kinds of “observations” (though I wouldn’t call them scientific observations) are precisely the way by which new moral proposals are evaluated and eventually become the societal consensus, I think.

  79. #79 Raging Bee
    December 21, 2011

    Any time a judgement depends on people’s beliefs about an action, rather than an intrinsic property of the action itself, that is subjective.

    I’m not talking about judgements based on beliefs, I’m talking about judgements and moral codes based on observable behaviors and consequences. That’s why I use the word “objective.” I thought I was pretty clear on that, from my comment #24 onward. I may not be the clearest writer on Earth, but I really can’t believe you could miss this point without being deliberately dishonest.

  80. #80 Owlmirror
    December 21, 2011

    Have the antigay person look at what happens when e.g. gay marriage is allowed. What happens to society? Does it collapse? Does everyone become gay?

    But the hypothetical individual thinks that homosexuality is essentially evil in and of itself. Gay marriage is itself seen as a sign that society is collapsing. No further collapse need actually happen. No additional people need become gay.

    Get to know some gay people. Once someone does this, they inevitably find that they aren’t much different from everyone else, they aren’t evil, they aren’t child-abusers, etc.

    But since being gay is seen as essentially evil, their putative normalcy in all other areas is irrelevant. They are gay, therefore they are (seen as) evil. Why should the gay-hater get to know an person who is (seen as) evil?

    I think you need more work here.

    These kinds of “observations” (though I wouldn’t call them scientific observations) are precisely the way by which new moral proposals are evaluated and eventually become the societal consensus, I think.

    I think that figuring out how societal consensus changes over time is what is to be determined.

  81. #81 Owlmirror
    December 21, 2011

    I’m not talking about judgements based on beliefs, I’m talking about judgements and moral codes based on observable behaviors and consequences. That’s why I use the word “objective.”

    While there may be objective aspects to morality, based on “observable behaviors and consequences”, and objective limits on what might be considered moral, I don’t think that within those limits, there is or can be a single consensus on what is moral. Otherwise, there would be no moral dilemmas.

  82. #82 eric
    December 21, 2011

    I’m not talking about judgements based on beliefs, I’m talking about judgements and moral codes based on observable behaviors and consequences.

    Consequences decided upon by the tribe, based on how they perceive the act. Committing adultery doesn’t result in stones suddenly and flying through the air at you. THAT would be objective, because the result ‘stoning’ wouldn’t depend on how people perceive adultery. What happens is, people decide they don’t like adultery, and of the many possible responses, people choose to throw stones at you as a result. When some people disagree that stoning is the wrong response, the subjectivity becomes obvious – but the claim that adultery is wrong is still subjective even when everyone in the tribe throws stones. Because they are choosing to throw stones based on how they perceive the morality of the act of adultery; getting stoned is not an intrinsic property of committing adultery.

  83. #83 Reginald Selkirk
    December 21, 2011

    NickMatzke #57: (Come to think of it, it may be that, much like sharks and dolphins evolved the same shape due the the common physics of swimming in water, any race of social, language-enabled, highly-intelligent organisms will convergent evolve the same basic moral structure. That’s total speculation I guess, but there’s a Ph.D. project for somebody.)

    An interesting speculation, but my guess is they would not. The examples mentioned already (lions, mantids, coral) differ in their biology in ways not particularly concerned with language or sentience. Curious, isn’t it, that so much of morality seems to be concerned with sex.

  84. #84 Owlmirror
    December 21, 2011

    getting stoned is not an intrinsic property of committing adultery.

    The Marijuana and Free Love Social Group might beg to differ here, of course.

  85. #85 Raging Bee
    December 21, 2011

    Consequences decided upon by the tribe, based on how they perceive the act.

    So a murder victim isn’t dead until the tribe decides he’s dead? And a guy who’s been robbed doesn’t really suffer any loss unless the tribe perceives he’s suffered a loss? Are you fucking kidding me? If that’s what you’re getting at with this “intersubjective” crap, then it’s a useless word describing a bogus concept. I don’t know your motives, eric, but I do know that if you’re going to be this obtuse — or this dishonest, as the case may be — then I think this argument can be considered over.

    …getting stoned is not an intrinsic property of committing adultery.

    Where did I say it was? Do you have any idea what anyone here is talking about?

  86. #86 Owlmirror
    December 21, 2011

    So a murder victim isn’t dead until the tribe decides he’s dead? And a guy who’s been robbed doesn’t really suffer any loss unless the tribe perceives he’s suffered a loss? Are you fucking kidding me? If that’s what you’re getting at with this “intersubjective” crap, then it’s a useless word describing a bogus concept.

    Obviously not, since you’re completely misunderstanding what “perceived” is intending here — not the event itself, but the way the social group describes the motivations of the ones involved in it.

    Calling the putative killing in your first sentence a “murder” begs the question of how the group perceives the killing. Was the killing an actual attack by one person on another with no motivation besides spite, or was it self-defence, or was it an accident, or was it a case of mistaken identity, or neglect, or was it for some reason that the tribe would consider justified, or might consider justified in some situations, or what?

    Where did I say it was?

    I think he’s trying to emphasize — hyperbolically — that it’s an implication of insisting that “objective” is the only proper way to describe morality and moral issues.

  87. #87 NickMatzke
    December 21, 2011

    But since being gay is seen as essentially evil, their putative normalcy in all other areas is irrelevant. They are gay, therefore they are (seen as) evil. Why should the gay-hater get to know an person who is (seen as) evil?

    I think you need more work here.

    Undoubtedly it needs more work, but I’ve just been summarizing the arguments I read in Darwin, Midgley, and others.

    Re: your scenario — well, first, some people are unreachable about scientific facts also, that doesn’t mean that science is subjective.

    Second, there are a million-and-one cases where somebody knows a gay person without realizing it, has them as friends or family or whatever, and when they learn the truth, the re-examine their prejudices, precisely because their prejudice doesn’t match up with their firsthand experience with the person they know.

    While there may be objective aspects to morality, based on “observable behaviors and consequences”, and objective limits on what might be considered moral, I don’t think that within those limits, there is or can be a single consensus on what is moral. Otherwise, there would be no moral dilemmas.

    Posted by: Owlmirror | December 21, 2011 4:23 PM

    But the existence of moral dilemmas is not an argument against the objectivity of morality, either. There are numerous unresolved scientific quandaries but this is not considered an argument against the objectivity of scientific facts. Some questions are easy to answer, some questions are hard, that’s life, it happens in all spheres of human activity…

  88. #88 Owlmirror
    December 22, 2011

    Re: your scenario — well, first, some people are unreachable about scientific facts also, that doesn’t mean that science is subjective.

    But I can make the case that there are definite objective empirically demonstrable facts that they are perversely ignoring, with regard to heliocentrism, or whatever.

    But “homosexuality is intrinsically evil” is an opinion, not a fact.

    So too is “homosexuality is not intrinsically evil” an opinion.

    What facts can be presented to get someone to change one opinion to another?

    Second, there are a million-and-one cases where somebody knows a gay person without realizing it, has them as friends or family or whatever, and when they learn the truth, the re-examine their prejudices, precisely because their prejudice doesn’t match up with their firsthand experience with the person they know.

    Perhaps, in some cases. But there are others where the person is their own child, whom they have known their whole life — and finding out that the child is homosexual causes them to reject the child.

    I am not sure which is more prevalent.

    But the existence of moral dilemmas is not an argument against the objectivity of morality, either.

    I think it is. A dilemma is a case where two strongly-held personal opinions come into conflict.

    For example, the two opinions “children should be loved and protected” and “homosexuals are instrinsically evil and should be rejected” come into conflict if the child comes out as gay, or is outed.

    There are numerous unresolved scientific quandaries but this is not considered an argument against the objectivity of scientific facts.

    Some of those unresolved quandaries are not objective — I am thinking here of matters of nomenclature and classification. One can know an enormous number of objective facts about a particular body in orbit around the sun, but figuring out whether it should be called a planet is, to some extent, subjective, or intersubjective. Another example is that there are many different species concepts. There may be known objective facts about some population of organisms, but whether it is a new species, sub-species, or variant population of a known species is, to some extent, dependent on how “species” is defined.

  89. #89 eric
    December 22, 2011

    Raging Bee @85:

    So a murder victim isn’t dead until the tribe decides he’s dead?

    Read Owlmirror’s response. Humans do not judge and punish all killings the same. If you were right and the dead body made the act objectively immoral, then our societies would make no distinction between 1st degree murder, 2nd degree murder, manslaughter, accident, self-defense, killing during war, etc., etc., etc., because they all leave the same dead body.

    There are wide cultural and situational differences in how we judge killing, and those are part of what makes “when Alice killed Bob, it was immoral” a subjective claim.

    I can’t believe you’re not getting this.

    Have you and Nick really thought through some of the consequences of your claim, which in bare bones is essentially that immoral is equal to ’causes unhealthy consequence?’ Maybe you should dwell on it while having a liver-damaging alcoholic beverage.

  90. #90 Patrick
    December 22, 2011

    “But the existence of moral dilemmas is not an argument against the objectivity of morality, either. There are numerous unresolved scientific quandaries but this is not considered an argument against the objectivity of scientific facts. Some questions are easy to answer, some questions are hard, that’s life, it happens in all spheres of human activity…”

    Jane shoots John and claims self defense. Jane and John were ex lovers, and during their relationship, Jane had been beaten by John twice when he was drunk. On the evening of the shooting, John had threatened to kill Jane during a telephone argument. He then went to her house. Jane observed John approaching through the window, and observed that he was carrying a small black object in his hand. Jane knew that John owned a small black gun. John then knocked loudly on Jane’s door, at which point Jane fired her own gun through the door, killing John. When Jane fired, she genuinely believed that John was carrying a gun, and that John intended to kill her with said gun. Her intention in shooting John was to protect her own life.

    Imagine that every single fact listed here is beyond dispute, up to and including facts about Jane’s internal mental states.

    EVEN THEN, there’s no way to objectively resolve the question of whether Jane’s killing of John was justified.

    Reasonable people might disagree about any of the following, all of which they might believe to be morally relevant:

    Was Jane’s belief that the small black object was a gun a reasonable belief?

    Was Jane’s decision to fire through the door without getting a better look a reasonable one?

    Was Jane’s decision not to retreat from the situation and call the police a reasonable one?

    Was Jane’s decision to fire at the time she did, rather than waiting for John to make his intentions more clear, a reasonable one?

    You get the idea. These aren’t questions like “what’s the atomic weight of carbon.”

  91. #91 NickMatzke
    December 22, 2011

    You get the idea. These aren’t questions like “what’s the atomic weight of carbon.”

    Posted by: Patrick | December 22, 2011 11:36 AM

    No, they are more like some complex scientific question, like “why are there more species in the tropics than in temperate zones”? That question has a right answer, but no one knows what it is for sure, and it might be any of 20 different causes or some combination of many of these causes.

    But even if you don’t like that analogy, we can find numerous undisputed, objectively true moral facts. John shouldn’t have hit Jane in the first place. The killing of John should have been avoided if it was possible without bringing further trauma to Jane. The killing was more justified if Jane thought John had a gun, than if she thought he didn’t, etc.

    I would be happy with a position that stated that some things are objective moral facts and some other things are matters of moral opinion. This doesn’t undermine the idea that there are such things as objective moral truths that we can at least sometimes identify.

    (Fun discussion BTW folks, thanks…)

  92. #92 eric
    December 22, 2011

    But even if you don’t like that analogy, we can find numerous undisputed, objectively true moral facts. John shouldn’t have hit Jane in the first place.

    I dispute it. Why is that an objecitve moral fact? Is it because – to use one of your earlier examples – like not-eating, being hit is unhealthy for Jane?

    See my comment to Bee above. Perhaps you should reconsider equating ‘immoral’ with any sort of physical damage or unhealthiness over a draught of liver-damaging beer.

  93. #93 NickMatzke
    December 22, 2011

    I dispute it. Why is that an objecitve moral fact? Is it because – to use one of your earlier examples – like not-eating, being hit is unhealthy for Jane?

    See my comment to Bee above. Perhaps you should reconsider equating ‘immoral’ with any sort of physical damage or unhealthiness over a draught of liver-damaging beer.

    You’ve lost track of the previous distinction we established between good-because-of-effects vs. good-because-instincts-define-it-as-good. These are easy to confuse because a great many instincts lead directly to good effects or avoiding harm, e.g. hunger — natural selection set it up that way of course.

    In the situation you raise, having a beer, the benefit is moderate — slaking your thirst (thus satisfying an instinct-determined desire) with a tasty beverage, and the cost is nonexistent or tiny (perhaps taking a tiny step to liver disease, which causes immense pain and suffering, which violates numerous instincts). So I don’t think it is hard to say that it’s perfectly fine to have a beer and that this is objectively true. Of course the evaluation would change if we were talking about nightly binge drinking, or drinking a glass of tasty poison, or whatever.

    So I don’t see any reason that we have to be crudely literal-minded and equate the possible tiny harm of a single beer with the immediate and obvious major harm of beating someone.

  94. #94 eric
    December 22, 2011

    Nick’s earlier example:

    But even if you don’t like that analogy, we can find numerous undisputed, objectively true moral facts. John shouldn’t have hit Jane in the first place.

    And the follow-up explanation:

    You’ve lost track of the previous distinction we established between good-because-of-effects vs. good-because-instincts-define-it-as-good.

    Surely, Nick, you are not claiming that no human violence is instinctual? Or that non-violence is the human instinct, are you???

    You’re setting yourself up for any instinctual violent act being defined as good. I doubt very much I need to look up u-tube videos of chimpanzee raids for you of all people! Or the numerous incidents of various apes reinforcing social status ranks via physical means.

    Frankly, instinctual=good is probably even more problematic than healthy=good. Crimes of passion are good! Social competition is good! Resisting that urge to sneak out with my neighbors wife? Baaaad.

  95. #95 seslieses
    December 23, 2011

    Child rape is not morally ambiguous. I am not aware of any moral system defended by any significant number of people that takes the opposite view…

  96. #96 Patrick
    December 23, 2011

    Matzke- What about questions like “what degree of risk is Jane morally obliged to accept before resorting to lethal violence to avoid it?” Good luck turning that into a solvable question with a single answer.

  97. #97 mnbnmb
    December 23, 2011

    Morality is only necessary when one is interacting with people. If a person lives in isolation, morality becomes irrelevant, because this person will not be effecting anyone and no one will be effecting them.
    You kind of become moral by default.

  98. #98 Raging Bee
    December 23, 2011

    There are wide cultural and situational differences in how we judge killing…

    There are also wide cultural differences in how people see the origin of life oh Earth. None of that means we can’t, or shouldn’t, use our best tools of rational inquiry to reach an objective understanding of both physical and moral truth.

    I really can’t believe you’re missing this obvious point — especially since trying to ascertain right and wrong based on observation, reason and experience is something everyone does practically every day, albeit with varying degrees of competence and sincerity. Seriously, how else are we supposed to ascertain how best to treat each other?

  99. #99 eric
    December 24, 2011

    I really can’t believe you’re missing this obvious point — especially since trying to ascertain right and wrong based on observation, reason and experience is something everyone does practically every day, albeit with varying degrees of competence and sincerity.

    I get it, you don’t. You’re saying that because I use my eyes and ears and evidence from the world to assess morality, its objective.

    This is baloney – I also use my eyes and ears and evidence from the world to assess the musical quality of a song and the beauty of a painting. But those things are quintessentially subjective – aesthetic taste is the primary, classic example and exemplar of subjectivity.

    Subjectivity/objectivity is not about empirical/not empirical. Its about whether the quantity that you’re trying to assess (“morality”) exists independently of the assessor. Electrical charge exists in an object regardless of what I think. Mass exists in an object regardless of what I think. Photons have a wavelenth that exists regardless of what I think. But an act of killing does not have a unit of morality ‘regardless’ of what you and I think. What you and I and other people think about the act is the only thing that gives it this quality. Thus, its subjective.

  100. #100 Anthony McCarthy
    December 26, 2011

    Morality is refraining from seeing and acting as if other people and living beings are merely objets to be used or harmed by oneself, that their being alive gives them rights. The rest of it is just cultural baggage. The difference between professing that other living beings have the right for their lives to be considered important and acting that way is the difference between acting morally and acting immorally.

    And the only way to believe that’s the case is to believe it. Like every single other part of our thought it depends on belief, not on some tortured, ultimately flawed stream of attempted pure ratiocination. Like it or not you can’t get to a logically pure foundation of morality that is independent of the act of the decision to believe anymore than you can the foundations of mathematics. Only the attempts to work around that fact are a lot more bizarre than Whitehead and Russell. As can be seen whenever new atheists try to do that.

  101. #101 Anthony McCarthy
    December 26, 2011

    As to child rape and what Ruse and others say about it being wrong due to some quirk of natural selection. If that was the case how come it wasn’t considered immoral for men to have sex with young boys in classical Greece and Rome where it was customary, the only restriction being on a man penetrating an aristocratic boy who had the potential to become an adult male citizen. It would seem that Greek and Roman Paganism didn’t see pedophilia as being immoral when it was practiced against slave boys, lower class males of any age could be raped by aristocratic men, not to mention females. In the case of heterosexual pedophilia, there was nothing unusual about men having sex with girls at ages it would be illegal for them to have sex with them now. And it was hardly restricted to those two cultures. How come these alleged selective forces seem to have been suspended for quite a long time in known human history? Where was the (imaginary) genetic basis for them during that period?

    The morality that is being discussed here is largely the product of the Hebrew religious tradition, which is, of course, ironic in context.

  102. #102 Owlmirror
    December 26, 2011

    The morality that is being discussed here is largely the product of the Hebrew religious tradition,

    Not really.

    The Hebrew religious tradition, as described in the bible, does not prohibit heterosexual pedophilia, and implicitly condones it by granting a raped unbetrothed virgin as a permanent bride to her rapist, after the rapist pays a fine to her father.

    And while the bible does prohibit homosexual activity, given that the punishment for any homosexual activity at all is death to both parties, a male child victim of a male rapist would have to choose between speaking up and eventually being smashed to death by rocks, and living silently as a rape victim. He would have no recourse to bring a legal case that would not fall just as heavily on himself as on his rapist.

    Neither situation applies to modern morality. Clearly, something has changed in the past 2500 years or so.

  103. #103 Anton Mates
    December 26, 2011

    Anthony,

    I agree that Ruse is wrong about a universal disapproval of child rape, but:

    It would seem that Greek and Roman Paganism didn’t see pedophilia as being immoral when it was practiced against slave boys, lower class males of any age could be raped by aristocratic men, not to mention females.

    This is not accurate. Slave children had no legal or customary protection against rape, yes, but freeborn children did, regardless of whether they were upper- or lower-class. In fact, rape of freeborn women and children was one of the few capital crimes under post-republic Roman law. (Of course, slave children generally had no legal protection against rape in the antebellum US either.)

    In both Athens and Rome, pederasty with freeborn boys was expected to be consensual, and was only acceptable if the boys were at least 12-14ish, the same age when girls were considered ready to marry. Oh, and the Greeks generally didn’t approve of actual penetration, though the Romans didn’t mind.

    The morality that is being discussed here is largely the product of the Hebrew religious tradition

    Oh, hardly. The Hebrew tradition offered no more protection to slave children than the Greek and Roman ones did, and substantially less protection to freeborn children.
    Western sexual morality is predominantly Roman in origin, although of course it’s changed significantly in the last few centuries. The only things the Hebrew tradition really contributed were a loathing of male-male anal sex, and a weaker prejudice against all forms of non-procreative sex.

  104. #104 Anton Mates
    December 26, 2011

    Anthony,

    I agree that Ruse is wrong about a universal disapproval of child rape, but:

    It would seem that Greek and Roman Paganism didn’t see pedophilia as being immoral when it was practiced against slave boys, lower class males of any age could be raped by aristocratic men, not to mention females.

    This is not accurate. Slave children had no legal or customary protection against rape, yes, but freeborn children did, regardless of whether they were upper- or lower-class. In fact, rape of freeborn women and children was one of the few capital crimes under post-republic Roman law. (Of course, slave children generally had no legal protection against rape in the antebellum US either.)

    In both Athens and Rome, pederasty with freeborn boys was expected to be consensual, and was only acceptable if the boys were at least 12-14ish, the same age when girls were considered ready to marry. Oh, and the Greeks generally didn’t approve of actual penetration, though the Romans didn’t mind.

    The morality that is being discussed here is largely the product of the Hebrew religious tradition

    Oh, hardly. The Hebrew tradition offered no more protection to slave children than the Greek and Roman ones did, and substantially less protection to freeborn children.
    Western sexual morality is predominantly Roman in origin, although of course it’s changed significantly in the last few centuries. The only things the Hebrew tradition really contributed were a loathing of male-male anal sex, and a weaker prejudice against all forms of non-procreative sex.

  105. #105 Anthony McCarthy
    December 27, 2011

    Owlmirror, the Hebrew religious tradition certainly developed the prohibitions against pedophile rape of boys that was not prohibited by the Pagan cultures of Greece and Rome. Like all human cultures, the practices it had over an extended history were not uniform and were certainly not always in line with its stated morality but the modern prohibitions against pedophilia are certainly derived from that tradition through later Christian tradition.

    In terms of heterosexual abuse of children, you are also talking about a tradition that developed over time. I will note that as early as Genesis there was the idea that the consent of the woman had to be given to marriage. Of course when you’re talking about the Hebrew tradition you’re talking about cultures in which girls at ages we would consider too young to give meaningful consent were commonly married. Of course these days children even younger than that are presented as sex objects in advertising and entertainment, opening them to having sex at the same ages without whatever legal protection that marriage contracts might possibly have.

    Anton Mates, I’d like to know on what you base your statement that “the Hebrew tradition offered no more protection to slave children than the Greek and Roman ones did”.

    “Loathing of male-male anal sex” was not limited to the Hebrew tradition, it was also the norm in the Greek tradition, a male who was penetrated could lose their ability to become a citizen with voting rights, for example. That was, of course, not a question for women or slaves who don’t seem to have been protected from being penetrated anally. Generally the Biblical texts that deal with male to male sex are certainly ambiguous in terms of context end meaning and, like everything written by people, those are human interpretations derived from experience. They were not the last word, no more than anything we think is.

    Your idea that Western sexual morality is predominantly Roman in origin is another idea I’d think would be a huge surprise to the Jews who brought Christianity to Europe. The differences between the sexual morality that they taught and that practiced by Roman pagans were notable. You might want to look at “In Search of Paul” by Crossan and Reed instead of something published by Prometheus.

    Our sense of sexual morality is a development of the Jewish tradition, most strongly the expansion of its tradition of justice these days. The alternative today has more in common with the sexual morality of the Roman empire as described by its own writers.

  106. #106 Anton Mates
    December 27, 2011

    Anthony,

    Anton Mates, I’d like to know on what you base your statement that “the Hebrew tradition offered no more protection to slave children than the Greek and Roman ones did”.

    Both the Torah and the Babylonian Talmud hold a man culpable for raping a virgin freewoman, or a virgin slave woman who is owned by or promised to another man (no messing with his property.) Conspicuously absent from the Torah is any law against raping virgin slave girls who aren’t promised to other men, or non-virgins, and the Talmud (tractate Ketubot) is explicit that men who do this aren’t legally culpable.

    Slave boys received even less protection, since there was no concept of a “male virginity” which would be valuable to their owners. If they were raped anally the rapist would be punished with death, but of course the victim would be as well. Almost anything else done to them (e.g. oral and intercrural sex) was legit; the Torah says nothing about it. Various Talmudic sages do argue that someone who focuses on “sporting with children” is immoral, primarily because they’re not devoting their sexual activity toward producing children of their own, but they also agree that this does not merit legal punishment.

    Other relevant things: the Talmud authorizes “marriage by coition” (if you have sex with them, you’re automatically betrothed to them) for girls down to the age of three, and for boys down to the age of nine. Neither of these is apparently a problem as long as their father approves. For children below this age, there are actually fewer restrictions on sex with them, because this is treated as not affecting their virginity as adults, nor the virginity of their partners. (For instance, you apparently can have anal sex with a boy under nine.)

    “Loathing of male-male anal sex” was not limited to the Hebrew tradition, it was also the norm in the Greek tradition, a male who was penetrated could lose their ability to become a citizen with voting rights, for example.

    Correct, as I said above. But the Hebrew disapproval of male-male anal sex was far more severe than the Greek, since in Hebrew society both participants were held culpable as long as they were over the age of nine, and the punishment was death. The Romans, for their part, generally didn’t punish either participant at all. (Adult Roman men who took the passive role were sometimes mocked by their fellows, but unless they actually became professional prostitutes the law took no interest.)

    It’s pretty clear that the Christian tradition of treating “sodomy” as a capital crime was inherited from the Hebrews; no other culture in the ancient Mediterranean region found it anywhere near as problematic.

    Your idea that Western sexual morality is predominantly Roman in origin is another idea I’d think would be a huge surprise to the Jews who brought Christianity to Europe.

    I doubt it. Much of the Gospels is devoted to drawing the distinction between Jesus’ sexual morality and that of other Jewish rabbis, and Paul is clearly no orthodox Pharisee. Beyond that, Christianity was dominated by gentiles rather than Jews within a century or two of its formation; it’s hardly surprising if its post-Constantine “orthodox” form was shaped more by Romans than by Jews.

    Mind you, I’m not saying traditional Christian sexual morality didn’t include some unique and original elements. I’m simply saying that, among those elements which are not original, more were inherited from the Romans than from any other culture.

    The differences between the sexual morality that they taught and that practiced by Roman pagans were notable. You might want to look at “In Search of Paul” by Crossan and Reed instead of something published by Prometheus.

    I’ve never read a Prometheus-published work on this topic, I’m afraid.

    Haven’t read “In Search of Paul” either, but I note that Crossan himself describes one of its points as being how strongly opposed Paul is to traditional Judaism. “Paul is fighting to obtain and hold on to his God-worshippers and fiercely but unfairly–is polemics ever fair?–attacking the quite normal Judaism of his opponents.”

    Our sense of sexual morality is a development of the Jewish tradition, most strongly the expansion of its tradition of justice these days.

    Can you elaborate, or at least paraphrase Crossan’s argument on this point? I don’t see the Jewish concept of justice as being substantially different from the Greco-Roman concept…with the exception that restitution was much more often made directly to God/the temple, rather than to the secular authority or the individual who had been wronged.

  107. #107 Anton Mates
    December 27, 2011

    Anton Mates, I’d like to know on what you base your statement that “the Hebrew tradition offered no more protection to slave children than the Greek and Roman ones did”.

    And I’ve tried to respond, but we’ll see if it makes it through the mod filter.

  108. #108 Owlmirror
    December 27, 2011

    the Hebrew religious tradition certainly developed the prohibitions against pedophile rape of boys

    Except that the law, in essence, says that raped boys should be killed.

    You can argue that the death penalty for the rapist disincentivizes rape, but the death penalty for the victim disincentivizes the victim accusing the rapist, should the rapist rape anyway.

    but the modern prohibitions against pedophilia are certainly derived from that tradition through later Christian tradition.

    Nonsense. The tradition did not prohibit pedophilia in and of itself, so modern prohibitions cannot derive from it.

    I will note that as early as Genesis there was the idea that the consent of the woman had to be given to marriage.

    Where, exactly? Most of the marriages discussed in that book are arranged by the groom asking the girl’s/woman’s male relative(s) for permission.

  109. #109 Lenoxus
    December 29, 2011

    I say this having not read all the comments… but a search on this page returned no results for “ontological”, and I felt the need to respond to Ruse’s claim that:

    I will say that if someone really thinks the Euler identity (my example) is a generalization from experience then they are in the right state of mind to accept the validity of the ontological argument.

    The ontological argument for God concludes that God exists as more than an abstraction, and theism generally assumes there is a profound difference between “the idea of God” and “God himself” – although the “vanilla” ontological argument also relies on a conflation of those two things. (Without that conflation, we are left with merely describing/deducing the attributes of a still-potentially-fictional entity.)

    Meanwhile, few mathematicians would say there’s some sort of crucial difference between “the idea of Euler’s identity” and “Euler’s identity itself”. Even fewer people would argue, as atheists do with regard to God, that Euler’s identity unquestionably does exist as an idea but that mathematicians are somehow deluded in thinking it exists “for real”, or for thinking that their version of it is more valid than other people’s. There is that whole Platonist-versus-constructionist thing, but it’s really not comparable to theism-versus-atheism.

  110. #110 NickMatzke
    January 5, 2012

    Ruse has a guest post on Blackford’s blog, I think he explains more clearly the various senses of the words “subjective” and “objective” that play a role in this discussion than I did:

    A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy
    http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4054
    ============
    Now one more important empirical claim. Obviously in some sense I think that ethics is a bunch of emotions, if you like, and in the sense of not having external warrant is subjective. However, I think that phenomenologically, as one might say, ethical beliefs differ from other emotions in having a character of value and obligation. They are not simple emotions like “I like spinach.” They come across with moral fervor. “Murder is wrong. One ought not murder.” In other words, and I guess I am getting into philosophy here, I am not a non-cognitivist. I think ethical claims are perfectly meaningful. “Murder is wrong” means murder is wrong. It doesn’t mean “I don’t like murder, boo hoo, don’t you do or like it either.” I believe also – and I am pretty certain I got this from John Mackie way back when – that ethical claims have the appearance and meaning of being objective claims, in the sense of not just subjective emotions but about external standards.

    Scientifically, I would say that there is good reason for this. If we thought it was all a matter of liking and disliking, ethics would break down rapidly. Why would I bother to risk my life for you if I knew that there was really no reason for it? But if I genuinely think that there is an objective moral norm demanding such risk-taking, I might well go along with it. Philosophically, and obviously we are starting to get into metaethics here, I think that the belief about objectivity is erroneous – so if this makes me what is known as an “error theorist,” I am that. I am on record as saying that ethics (meaning substantive ethics) is an illusion put in place by our genes to make us social cooperators. But notice I am not saying that ethics as such is an illusion – I very much don’t think this – rather I am saying that the belief that ethics is objective is an illusion. We “objectify” – and I think that rather ugly word did come from Mackie.

    I should say, and I am not trying to weasel out of my position or qualify it to nothingness, I really don’t much like talking about “error” at this point. I don’t think “murder is wrong” is erroneous, nor do I think it subjective in every sense of the word. It is subjective in the sense that it doesn’t have an external referent – I am a moral non-realist – but it is not subjective in the sense of “I don’t like spinach.” There is an equivocation on the word “subjective.” In the collection of emotions that make up human nature, “I like spinach” is subjective, but “Murder is wrong” is absolute or objective or binding or whatever. It is not a matter of choice. I would say that we believe this because of our biology; but the point is that, as we think and act, morality is laid on us not decided by us. Of course, we may or may not decide to act morally, but that is another matter. Morality as such is not up for grabs or discussion. Only French existentialists at their most nutty have ever thought otherwise, and they didn’t really.
    ============

    I know many people have had big issues with Ruse over various topics — his fights with the Gnus are well known, and I never liked his habit for agreeing to show at virtually any ID event where they paid him — but overall I think we’re lucky to have him around.

  111. #111 Owlmirror
    January 5, 2012

    They come across with moral fervor.

    Fervor is an emotion as well, yes?

    “Murder is wrong. One ought not murder.”

    But calling it “murder” begs the question of whether it is wrong, if “murder” is defined as “deliberate wrongful killing”.

    Yet “killing is wrong” does not appear to be a universal moral principle (else there would be no wars; no possibility of claiming self-defence in the case of a killing; no possibility of claiming extenuating circumstances). So there’s something to discuss in what makes a particular killing wrong in the first place!

    I believe also – and I am pretty certain I got this from John Mackie way back when – that ethical claims have the appearance and meaning of being objective claims, in the sense of not just subjective emotions but about external standards.

    Isn’t this why the term “intersubjective” was coined? The “external standards” are those of the other human beings in your society.

    There is an equivocation on the word “subjective.”

    Indeed. And who is committing this equivocation?

    In the collection of emotions that make up human nature, “I like spinach” is subjective, but “Murder is wrong” is absolute or objective or binding or whatever.

    Sigh. He keeps trying to insist that there’s a distinction, but it keeps coming out like he’s saying “I really, really want to use these terms like absolute or objective or binding, with regard to certain moral principles.” A strongly emotional appeal to emotion.

    Ah, well.

  112. #112 Anton Mates
    January 5, 2012

    Nick,

    From this post it seems that Ruse is defending a blend of error theory and ethical subjectivism. (A full-fledged error theorist would agree that moral claims have no objective meaning, but would deny that they have any subjective meaning either. I think.) For the most part his is a perfectly consistent position–and I don’t just say that because it’s close to my own–but I think he makes a couple of missteps.

    They are not simple emotions like “I like spinach.” They come across with moral fervor. “Murder is wrong. One ought not murder.”

    I don’t think this tells us much more than that different emotions feel different. Which they do, of course. I don’t like murder, and I don’t like being severely burned, and I don’t like swimming in sewage, and I don’t like being eaten by sharks, but the subjective quality of each of those dislikes is very different.

    It’s also a bit silly to talk about “fervor” here. Yes, our feelings about murder tend to be more fervid than our feelings about spinach, but that’s because we don’t care about spinach very much. If you think of scenarios where people are likely to do something they believe is wrong–

    “I shouldn’t commit adultery. But I love banging my neighbor’s spouse.”

    or

    “I shouldn’t embezzle. But I love owning twenty million dollars.”

    –then it’s pretty obvious that there can be just as much fervor in the non-moral emotions as in the moral ones.

    In the collection of emotions that make up human nature, “I like spinach” is subjective, but “Murder is wrong” is absolute or objective or binding or whatever. It is not a matter of choice.

    I really don’t get this. For one thing, as Owlmirror says, “murder” is defined as wrong, but people argue over whether killing is wrong all the time. Offhand I can’t really think of an obviously “wrong” act that hasn’t been passionately defended by some people. Of course morality is up for discussion; we’ve been discussing it for all of human history!

    For another, who says liking spinach is a matter of choice? I certainly don’t have a choice in the matter; it tastes like it tastes. I could probably change my attitude toward it indirectly, through the right choice of diet…but then I could probably change my attitude toward killing people if I became a mercenary or something.

  113. #113 Anton Mates
    January 5, 2012

    Owlmirror,

    Isn’t this why the term “intersubjective” was coined? The “external standards” are those of the other human beings in your society.

    Well, the “external standards” Ruse is talking about here are those by which people think they’re measuring morality, not those by which they actually are. Yes, societal norms are a huge factor in shaping your morality. But when people say “Murder is wrong,” they usually don’t mean “My society disapproves of murder.” They mean something like “Murder is objectively wrong regardless of what anybody thinks about it.”

    Or, at least, that’s what they think they mean. According to error theory, they literally don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Sigh. He keeps trying to insist that there’s a distinction, but it keeps coming out like he’s saying “I really, really want to use these terms like absolute or objective or binding, with regard to certain moral principles.”

    I suppose accepting error theory doesn’t immunize you against the error’s attraction….

  114. #114 NickMatzke
    January 6, 2012
    In the collection of emotions that make up human nature, “I like spinach” is subjective, but “Murder is wrong” is absolute or objective or binding or whatever. It is not a matter of choice.

    I really don’t get this. For one thing, as Owlmirror says, “murder” is defined as wrong, but people argue over whether killing is wrong all the time. Offhand I can’t really think of an obviously “wrong” act that hasn’t been passionately defended by some people. Of course morality is up for discussion; we’ve been discussing it for all of human history!

    We’ve been discussing facts about the universe for all of human history as well, but that doesn’t mean everything’s up for grabs.

    Maybe we need a definition of “objective fact” in morality similar to that which Stephen Jay Gould proposed for “fact” in science:

    “In science, fact can only mean confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”

    The source of “confirmation” in moral judgments is not observations of external reality, but extended examination of our collective conscience, observation of the consequences that occur when different moral judgments have been made in the past, prediction of the consequences of what will happen if we make a particular moral judgment, etc.

    Similarly, the opinions of “experts” — those who have carefully studied and thought about the issues, heard arguments form various sides, studied all the things we’ve already agreed to, and examined the possible sources of confirmation — will be worth more than the instant intuitions of the uninformed. This is again like science, except that the experts may be e.g. legal scholars and judges.

    It will always be possible to find some nutjob that disagrees with what most of us think is the moral truth of the matter — and it will always be possible for the philosophically minded to contrive hypothetical counterfactuals that problematize the “this works most of the time, at least” generalizations that our legal structure has agreed to. This, though, again, is just like science.

  115. #115 Anton Mates
    January 6, 2012

    Nick.

    We’ve been discussing facts about the universe for all of human history as well, but that doesn’t mean everything’s up for grabs.

    But it does mean everything’s up for discussion, which is what Ruse denies re: morality. It’s quite possible to believe that the earth is flat, and tons of people have done so. But according to him, it is not possible to believe that murder is not wrong. “Our biology” requires us to believe this, it is “laid on us,” and anyone who claims not to believe it (like “nutty existentialists”) is lying.

    Maybe we need a definition of “objective fact” in morality similar to that which Stephen Jay Gould proposed for “fact” in science:

    “In science, fact can only mean confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”

    Can’t see that being too useful in ethics. If people are having a serious moral disagreement, they’re definitely not going to agree on who’s being “perverse!” (I’m also not sure Gould would agree with repurposing a scientific definition of “fact” for ethics use; that’s hardly in keeping with NOMA, is it?)

    The source of “confirmation” in moral judgments is not observations of external reality, but extended examination of our collective conscience, observation of the consequences that occur when different moral judgments have been made in the past, prediction of the consequences of what will happen if we make a particular moral judgment, etc.

    Similarly, the opinions of “experts” — those who have carefully studied and thought about the issues, heard arguments form various sides, studied all the things we’ve already agreed to, and examined the possible sources of confirmation — will be worth more than the instant intuitions of the uninformed.

    I don’t think any of that can be the source of confirmation as far as Ruse is concerned. He denies that morality has any “external warrant.” Assuming he’s using that term as other philosophers do, he means that nothing outside your own head–and that includes stuff inside other people’s heads–can provide confirmation for moral judgments. So observation of consequences, and expert opinion, and examination of anyone else’s conscience besides your own, are off the table.

    The only thing that confirms moral judgments for Ruse, so far as I can see, is that you yourself feel them to be true. (And I would agree with this, myself.)

    It will always be possible to find some nutjob that disagrees with what most of us think is the moral truth of the matter

    Again, not according to Ruse. Even the nutjobs don’t really disagree, they just claim to.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!