Another Round on Morality

Michael Ruse has written another post about morality. Sadly, he hasn’t really clarified much of anything. Throughout this discussion his position has been that there are moral facts that we come to know through non-scientific means. I have been trying to understand how he justifies either part of that, but I’m afraid I still have no idea.

He writes:

First, the complaint that since I think morality is a product of evolution through natural selection, I must therefore be using science to justify my ethical claims. I too am committing the naturalistic fallacy. Not so. Distinguish between an explanation of the origin of something and its justification. Suppose David Barash starts writing columns claiming to be the Queen of the May. We discover that this is because a group of Christian fanatics captured him and, as in The Manchurian Candidate, brainwashed him. That is the explanation for why he now thinks the way he does. It is hardly a justification of the claim–delightful though it would be, were it true–that he is in fact the Queen of the May.


It is very confusing to say that “morality” is the product of evolution by natural selection. I can grant that our capacity for moral reasoning is the product of evolution, but that is a different claim. I can also grant that evolution might bequeath to us certain psychological dispositions which in turn lead to some of our common ideas about morality, but that too is different from the claim that morality itself is the product of evolution.

Ruse asks us to distinguish the origin of something from the justification of that something. But evolution only explains the origin of morality in the trivial sense that early in the evolutionary process there were no creatures that could comprehend the ideas of right and wrong and later in the process there were such creatures. The rightness or wrongness of particular actions certainly does not originate in the evolutionary process.

Moreover, the whole point of this discussion is the justification of moral claims. I am glad to hear that he is not justifying moral claims by reference to science, but then why is he bringing up evolution at all?

Skipping ahead we have this:

My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection to make us functioning social beings. It is in this sense that I claim that morality is not subjective. (Although it is a societal thing, I am a hard-line individual selectionist, so don’t try to get me on that one. Selfish genes do not necessarily mean selfish people.)

I grow frustrated. I simply have no idea what role evolution is playing in Ruse’s argument. If the basis for moral reasoning is “things which help to make us functioning social beings,” then just say that and leave evolution out of it. The only things evolution “lays on us” that are relevant to moral reasoning are certain intellectual capacities and certain psychological tendencies. Those capacities and tendencies are not subjective, but that is no help at all in resolving anything about morality.

I would reply further, but I sense it would be futile. As with his previous posts, there is simply nothing here to explain why he believes there are moral facts or how we come to know them through non-scientific means. His writing is far too vague and murky even to determine what he is trying to argue.

Comments

  1. #1 James Thompson
    December 30, 2011

    Does anyone else find Ruse’s writing difficult to follow? It sometimes seems like he reversed the advice given in Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.

    For example, this part was quite jarring when I first read it:

    First, the complaint that since I think morality is a product of evolution through natural selection, I must therefore be using science to justify my ethical claims. I too am committing the naturalistic fallacy. Not so.

    It’s slightly unclear where the complaint ends and the rejoinder by Ruse begins. It could be written more clearly as:

    There exists a complaint that the evolution of morality necessitates a scientific basis for ethical claims, and that by making this argument I am committing the naturalistic fallacy. Not so.

    If this style of writing is common in Ruse’s argument I can sympathize with Jason’s confusion.

  2. #2 coelsblog
    December 31, 2011

    Jason Rosenhouse:

    “It is very confusing to say that “morality” is the product of evolution by natural selection. I can grant that our capacity for moral reasoning is the product of evolution, but that is a different claim.”

    I don’t think that Ruse does a good job of explaining it in that post, but I do agree with him that morality is the product of evolution. The point is that our morals are not about “moral reasoning”, they are about “moral feeling” (any “reasoning” is a post-facto rationalisation about what we *feel*). And feelings are indeed programmed by evolution, just as feelings of anger or lust are. I’ve defended this view in my post science can answer morality questions.

  3. #3 Verbose Stoic
    December 31, 2011

    Jason,

    Let me take a stab at it, although summarizing any view is likely to be somewhat misleading:

    What justifies moral judgements and/or mechanisms is how they work to make us societal beings. That statement is not in any way true because it evolved or we evolved to be social beings or anything like that.

    In humans, we have evolved to be social beings and therefore have certain mechanisms that provide that functionality. Those are what we use to be moral and, I suppose, what make us moral.

    The key to getting an idea like this is noting that he claims to be following Hume (and thus, by implication, not Kant). He doesn’t want morality to be subjective, so it’s not individually determined, so we can argue that it’s determined at the species level, leading to the mechanisms of evolution.

    There are still some issues with my interpretation and I don’t agree with his view, and I think I’d disagree with his view no matter how he puts it. But this is my stab and making a more understandable interpretation of it.

  4. #4 Richard Wein
    December 31, 2011

    I share your conclusions, Jason. Ruse’s writing on morality is an equivocal mess, and I have in a mind a couple of his previous articles as well as this one. Perhaps he’s been clearer in more formal philosophical venues. But if he can’t do better than this in a popular presentation he would be better off not writing such an article at all. The current article is worse than useless.

    Ironically, I see a lot of similarity here with Sam Harris’s writing on the subject. Both of them equivocate over words like “morality”.

  5. #5 Tony61
    December 31, 2011

    Jason says, “Throughout this discussion his position has been that there are moral facts that we come to know through non-scientific means.”

    Ruse does not use the word “know” in his essay, except quoting Mill at the very end. I don’t want to put words in Ruse’s mouth, but he seems to be referring to Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, or what biologists call instinct. There are certain behaviors which are not susceptible to free will because they are overridden by what we instinctually “know” is moral, but Ruse– correctly– does not use the word “know.”

    We need to define “know” to go further in this discussion, and we also need to refrain from attributing this word to what Ruse is saying. To me, “know” refers to empirically derived facts, but would need to be refined for an indepth discussion.

  6. #6 Tony61
    December 31, 2011

    …but I’ll add, that Ruse’s style of prose is almost unreadable thus making his argument difficult to understand. My bet is that in a verbal conversation he makes more sense, which is why Ruse is genuinely flabbergasted at Coyne’s and Jason’s constant criticism.

  7. #7 informania
    December 31, 2011

    “And feelings are indeed programmed by evolution, just as feelings of anger or lust are.”

    The range of feelings is programmed, however the experience of feelings grows -individually- in every animal

  8. #8 informania
    December 31, 2011

    @1 Thanks for the link James! It’s of much help already..

  9. #9 NickMatzke
    December 31, 2011

    It’s not all that hard to get what Ruse is after, is it? Objective morals come from moral feelings common to essentially everyone. Everyone in the human species, except pathological cases, knows that it is moral to feed one’s children, other considerations aside, for example. It’s essentially instinct. We can’t not have that sentiment; an instinct is basically self-justifying. It would work the same, and have the same authority, if God, or aliens, or whatever had built us that way. Regardless of how we ended up built this way, it’s a raw observed fact that we are so built, and that we are all very similar.

    As it happens, we now have a scientific explanation of why we are built the way we are, and that is evolution. But that’s not the justification for being moral. The justification is those unavoidable moral instincts.

  10. #10 kereng
    December 31, 2011

    @informania, coelsblog
    E.g. the feeling that you shouldn’t eat your children is programmed by evolution. Those who don’t feel it have less offspring. In animals we call it instinct and in human beings moral.

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 31, 2011

    Nick —

    Everyone in the human species, except pathological cases, knows that it is moral to feed one’s children, other considerations aside, for example. It’s essentially instinct. We can’t not have that sentiment; an instinct is basically self-justifying.

    But we also have instincts that lead us to selfishness, tribalism, xenophobia and sexual promiscuity. So what? The fact that evolution gave us certain instincts (I said “psychological dispositions” in the post) is simply irrelevant to moral questions. Some of our instincts we think are good and should be embraced, and some we think are bad and should be fought against. But to say, “We know that X is morally right because evolution programmed us to feel deeply that it is right,“ just seems like the naturalistic fallacy in its purest form.

    Richard —

    I’m glad we’re on the same page this time!

  12. #12 cwfong
    December 31, 2011

    Morality is essentially strategic. Evolution is essentially strategic.

  13. #13 David Thomson
    December 31, 2011

    I can’t believe how many people have no clue what morality is. Morality is not our feelings. Morality is those actions and behaviors that lead to the good health and well-being of individuals and communities. Whether we are religious or atheist, or conservative or liberal, or any other dichotomy, morality is based upon health and well-being, period. If you can prove a specific action or behavior leads to good health and well-being, then it is a moral action or behavior. If an action or behavior leads to sickness and misery, then it is immoral behavior.

  14. #14 Richard Wein
    December 31, 2011

    Nick,

    It’s not all that hard to get what Ruse is after, is it? Objective morals come from moral feelings common to essentially everyone.

    Ruse avoids the word “objective” and calls himself a “moral non-realist”, which to most people is a denial of objective moral facts. But the sort of unqualified moral claims that Ruse has made sound like assertions of objective moral facts to me, as that term is usually understood. So let’s call them that. (Whether we call them “objective” or not, his claims make Ruse a moral realist as far as I’m concerned.)

    The statement that you attribute to him here is useless without an explanation of how objective moral facts can “come from” moral feelings. I have no idea what “come from” means in this context. (It’s as bad in this respect as the common claim of apologists that objective moral facts “come from” God’s nature.)

    Unless I’ve missed something, the rest of your comment doesn’t seem to correspond to anything in Ruse’s article, so I’ll treat it as an argument of your own.

    …an instinct is basically self-justifying.

    The only interpretation I can think of for this assertion is that an instinctual belief is automatically justified. But that’s such an outrageous claim that I’m not sure you mean it.

    Anyway, we were talking about facts, and you’ve switched to talking about justification of beliefs. So you haven’t told us how objective moral facts can “come from” moral instincts.

  15. #15 coelsblog
    December 31, 2011

    David Thomson:

    Morality is not our feelings. Morality is those actions and behaviors that lead to the good health and well-being of individuals and communities.

    First, “well-being” can only be determined with reference to human feelings, so those two sentences are inconsistent. Secondly, eating fruit/vegetables might benefit ones health, but would not come under what most people would regard as “morals”.

    “If you can prove a specific action or behavior leads to good health and well-being, then it is a moral action or behavior.”

    How did you determine that, other than by mere assertion on your part?

  16. #16 Richard Wein
    December 31, 2011

    @Nick. P.S. I suppose that

    (1) Objective morals come from moral feelings common to essentially everyone

    could mean

    (2) A moral claim is made objectively true by the fact that essentially everyone believes it

    But I hope this isn’t what you mean.

  17. #17 David Thomson
    December 31, 2011

    Well-being is not limited to human feelings. A properly functioning ecosystem has well-being. A community of satisfied citizens has well-being.

    Eating fruits and vegetables in moderation is moral behavior. Eating them to excess and to the point of causing illness is immoral behavior. This is true because our health relieves the burden of others who must care for us while our illness forces others to divert their time to our care.

    The issue of health care is a moral issue, as is any issue related to our health. You might not have thought of dietary choices as moral issues, but it has always been considered as such. The Bible and other ancient texts offer advice for a moral diet, and suggest foods and drinks to avoid in excess or altogether.

    However, I am in disagreement that the Bible and other ancient texts are always correct in their recommendations. Lists of moral behaviors should always be subject to questioning based upon sound scientific inquiry. No single authority has exclusive license to regulate morality simply because not all people necessarily experience the same effects from a specific behavior.

    As such, a substantial portion of moral choices must be made by individuals in order to preserve the well-being of society. Obviously, some choices, such as murder, are appropriately criminalized and carry penalties if acted out. Overall, our social system is adequately moral and properly functioning.

  18. #18 Mark Sloan
    December 31, 2011

    Jason, all I am sure of concerning Michael Ruse’s murky arguments is that I strongly disagree with his conclusions.

    But you may be underestimating the cultural utility of moral facts of the descriptive kind that science can reveal. Three likely candidates for such descriptive moral facts are: “The biology responsible for our emotions that motivate altruism, such as empathy and loyalty, exists because it increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors by increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups”. “Virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms (enforced moral standards), no matter how diverse, contradictory, and bizarre, advocate altruistic acts that increased whatever benefits of cooperation in groups people found attractive.” And “Most of our psychological experience of durable well-being (including a sense of belonging, the security that sense of belonging enables, and pleasure in the cooperative company of friends and family) evolved by increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups”.

    Suppose such candidate descriptive moral facts are empirically true. They lead to an instrumental ought based in science: “If you desire the experience of durable well-being, then, based on descriptive moral facts from science, you ought to advocate and accept the burdens of culturally enforced moral standards conforming to ‘Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral’”.

    Finally, the claim “Morality is an evolutionary adaptation” is a claim about not just biological but also cultural evolution. Further, it is a claim only about the morality of interactions between people. It leaves untouched other areas of ethics summarized by answers to the question “How should I live?” and “What is good?” that having nothing directly to do with cooperation in groups.

  19. #19 NickMatzke
    December 31, 2011

    But we also have instincts that lead us to selfishness, tribalism, xenophobia and sexual promiscuity. So what? The fact that evolution gave us certain instincts (I said “psychological dispositions” in the post) is simply irrelevant to moral questions. Some of our instincts we think are good and should be embraced, and some we think are bad and should be fought against. But to say, “We know that X is morally right because evolution programmed us to feel deeply that it is right,“ just seems like the naturalistic fallacy in its purest form.

    I don’t know exactly what Ruse would say on these points, but I think I know what Darwin would say and I bet Ruse would be close. It is good to take care of yourself (an expression of selfishness), it is good to take care of your family and tribe and defend it from enemies (an expression of tribalism / xenophobia), and it is good to fulfill one’s sex drive. And of course all of these drives are genetically-determined instincts, and (except in pathological cases I suppose) we can’t not want them or consider them good for us.

    However, words like selfishness, tribalism, promiscuity, etc., represent things we consider bad, not because taking care of yourself, your tribe, etc. is intrinsically bad, but because these words mean that you have taken one instinctually-specified good thing so far that you are now damaging other instinctually-specified goods, e.g. sympathy for the needs of others.

    This passage from a certain notable fellow might help clarify how this works…

    The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable- namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts,* the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways. But these feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association. Secondly, as soon as the mental faculties had become highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be incessantly passing through the brain of each individual: and that feeling of dissatisfaction, or even misery, which invariably results, as we shall hereafter see, from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression. It is clear that many instinctive desires, such as that of hunger, are in their nature of short duration; and after being satisfied, are not readily or vividly recalled. Thirdly, after the power of language had been acquired, and the wishes of the community could be expressed, the common opinion how each member ought to act for the public good, would naturally become in a paramount degree the guide to action.

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/charles_darwin/descent_of_man/chapter_04.html

  20. #20 NickMatzke
    December 31, 2011

    Ruse avoids the word “objective” and calls himself a “moral non-realist”, which to most people is a denial of objective moral facts. But the sort of unqualified moral claims that Ruse has made sound like assertions of objective moral facts to me, as that term is usually understood. So let’s call them that. (Whether we call them “objective” or not, his claims make Ruse a moral realist as far as I’m concerned.)

    I agree that he sounds like a moral realist in the sense you describe.

    In his latest post Ruse actually makes it much clearer than he did before what he means by “objective”, “subjective”, “non-realist”, etc. (whether or not we agree with his usage of the terms, we can understand what he was trying to say).

    He thinks morality is “not objective” and is “non-realist” in the sense that morality is not specified out there in the cosmos somewhere, unlike the speed of light or strength of gravity or whatever. He thinks morality is in our heads, and in that sense “subjective”.

    However, because morality is at root based on genetically determined instincts, it is basically the same in all our heads within our species, and thus in that sense it is “objective”.

  21. #21 NickMatzke
    December 31, 2011

    [Note – a previous post is in the spam filter due to a link]

    The only interpretation I can think of for this assertion is that an instinctual belief is automatically justified. But that’s such an outrageous claim that I’m not sure you mean it.

    Anyway, we were talking about facts, and you’ve switched to talking about justification of beliefs. So you haven’t told us how objective moral facts can “come from” moral instincts.

    Posted by: Richard Wein | December 31, 2011

    It depends what you mean by “beliefs.” Obviously, if you instinctively believes that the moon is made of green cheese, that doesn’t make it true. But if you instinctively believe that you should eat because you are hungry — well, that’s basically true, isn’t it? And if you ask for the *justification* of the belief that you should eat, I suppose you could make an argument on the basis of health or something, but whoever in their right mind would bother making such an argument? You’re hungry and that’s a good enough justification of eating right there, except in extremely rare circumstances where some greater concern is more important (there are lions on your tail or whatever).

    Similarly, if your instinct says you’re not hungry, you shouldn’t eat (assuming the instinct is working normally and there is no pathology going on).

  22. #22 NickMatzke
    December 31, 2011

    @Nick. P.S. I suppose that

    (1) Objective morals come from moral feelings common to essentially everyone

    could mean

    (2) A moral claim is made objectively true by the fact that essentially everyone believes it

    But I hope this isn’t what you mean.

    Posted by: Richard Wein

    You are correct, that’s not what I was trying to say.

    However, I think that if one observes that essentially everyone believes moral claim X is correct, particularly if X appears to be culture-independent, appears to emerge even when dictators or whatever try to suppress it in the population, etc., then this might be decent evidence that your are dealing with a hard-coded instinct.

  23. #23 Owlmirror
    December 31, 2011

    Similarly, if your instinct says you’re not hungry, you shouldn’t eat .

    Yet instincts can be manipulated, both chemically and (more weakly) socially.

    Propaganda works by claiming that some group of entities is the enemy. We have an instinct to defend against enemies. Is it moral to exterminate the group in the name of “defence”?

    (assuming the instinct is working normally and there is no pathology going on)

    How do you determine that an instinct is working “normally”? There may well be objective boundaries, I think, but how do you tell that you’ve crossed the boundary?

  24. #24 NickMatzke
    December 31, 2011

    Yet instincts can be manipulated, both chemically and (more weakly) socially.

    Propaganda works by claiming that some group of entities is the enemy. We have an instinct to defend against enemies. Is it moral to exterminate the group in the name of “defence”?

    Obviously no, but it certainly is revealing that dictators encourage genocide not by saying “hey, everyone, kill those people because they are just like your family and your children!” — instead, they say, “Hey, everyone, those aren’t people, they are [insert reference to dogs, diseases, cancer, yadda yadda].”

    The fact that even under massive indoctrination, even Nazi soldiers/guards experienced revulsion, sickness etc. at mass shootings etc. indicate that sympathy, guilt etc. are real and sometimes very powerful instincts that help to regulate the others.

    How do you determine that an instinct is working “normally”? There may well be objective boundaries, I think, but how do you tell that you’ve crossed the boundary?

    I’m not a psychologist, but I believe there are ways of diagnosing psychopaths and the like. It’s not quite as easy as identifying that someone missing a limb is abnormal compared to the human “universal” of having two arms and two legs, but it is a fundamentally similar process I think. (Of course there are continuums etc.)

  25. #25 coelsblog
    January 1, 2012

    David Thompson:

    Eating fruits and vegetables in moderation is moral behavior. … is true because our health relieves the burden of others who must care for us while our illness forces others to divert their time to our care.

    But that implies that morality is not “about” good health per se, as you originally asserted, but that it is about imposition on others.

  26. #26 Richard Wein
    January 1, 2012

    Nick,

    You haven’t addressed the main issue I raised, namely what do you mean by “come from” in the assertion you attributed to Ruse. I continue to maintain that without clarification of its meaning that assertion was useless.

    But if you instinctively believe that you should eat because you are hungry — well, that’s basically true, isn’t it?

    Sorry, but if we’re going to make any progress here you need to start thinking about what you mean, and expressing yourself more carefully.

    What role does the phrase “if you instinctively believe” play in this sentence? You’ve yet to give any comprehensible account of how you think the instinctive nature of some beliefs is relevant to their truth. So I’m going to ignore everything you say about instinctive beliefs until you make yourself clear on that point.
    [continued…]

  27. #27 Richard Wein
    January 1, 2012

    […continued…re-posting in still smaller chunks, as the last attempt was intercepted by the spam filter]

    For now I’ll address the following proposition:

    (3) You should eat because you are hungry.

    You’re making the common error of conflating non-moral propositions with moral ones. It’s true that if you’re hungry, then eating will probably be conducive to satisfying your desires. That’s a fact, but it’s not a moral fact. To avoid such mistakes it’s a good idea to always include the word “moral” in propositions which you are offering as moral facts. So let’s replace the proposition with this one:

    (4) Morally, you should eat because you are hungry.
    [continued…]

  28. #28 Richard Wein
    January 1, 2012

    […continued]

    Or more clearly:

    (5) You have a moral obligation to eat because you are hungry.

    I don’t accept that (4) and (5) are true.

    You’re not going to get anywhere just by insisting that some proposition is true. I will either point out that it’s not really a moral proposition or deny its truth. What I’m looking for (from you or Ruse) is an account of how there can be objective moral facts. If your next reply does not address that point, I will probably not respond to it.

  29. #29 Richard Wein
    January 1, 2012

    [P.S. It turned out the spam filter rejected my second part because I posted it too quickly after the first, not because it was too long.]

  30. #30 coelsblog
    January 1, 2012

    Richard Wein:

    “What I’m looking for (from you or Ruse) is an account of how there can be objective moral facts.”

    You are entirely right, Richard, there are no objective moral facts (and no-one makes sense on morality until they realise that).

    The idea of “objective” or absolute morals is the biggest false grail in philosophy. It is an idea programmed into us by evolution to give us the *illusion* that our morals have solid and absolute standing — because a moral sense under that illusion will be more effective. And because evolution is an effective programmer, people cling to that illusion.

  31. #31 Richard Wein
    January 1, 2012

    Nick,

    Happy New Year! Sorry if my recent comments sounded a bit testy. I was feeling rather frustated, as your replies all seemed to be missing the point. Perhaps I should review what the point is. You claimed:

    Objective morals come from moral feelings common to essentially everyone.

    It seems to me that this is an attempt to explain how there can be objective moral facts. But without clarification of its meaning it makes no genuine contribution to doing so. If it’s not an attempt to explain how there can be objective moral facts, then I fail to see what it is or how it’s relevant. Either way, I think you owe us some explanation of what you mean.

  32. #32 Anton Mates
    January 1, 2012

    Nick,

    We can’t not have that sentiment; an instinct is basically self-justifying.

    I would say that an instinct is self-motivating, but not every instinct is self-justifying. People regularly find their own instincts to be morally irrelevant or even immoral, and different cultures disagree on which instincts are morally significant. For example, it’s near-universal for humans to react to some behavior with disgust, but liberal Westerners are a lot less likely to infer from their disgust that that behavior is immoral. (See Jonathan Haidt for more on this.)

    An aside: it’s not particularly necessary for your position that the desire/emotion/whatever be an instinct, is it? Wouldn’t it be equally motivating or self-justifying if it was learned?

    However, because morality is at root based on genetically determined instincts, it is basically the same in all our heads within our species, and thus in that sense it is “objective”.

    I think that’s stretching the term, though. Almost every human on Earth finds sugar to taste pleasantly sweet, and denatonium to taste unpleasantly bitter. That doesn’t mean that taste isn’t a subjective experience–“a matter of taste,” in fact!

    The popularity of a belief or attitude doesn’t have much to do with its objectivity, as you observed re: heliocentrism.

    But if you instinctively believe that you should eat because you are hungry — well, that’s basically true, isn’t it?

    I don’t think so, and for that matter, I don’t think most of us do believe that, instinctively or otherwise. Hunger makes us want to eat, but it doesn’t particularly make eating morally desirable.

    And if you ask for the *justification* of the belief that you should eat, I suppose you could make an argument on the basis of health or something, but whoever in their right mind would bother making such an argument?

    Anyone who’s contemplating counterarguments, I would think. If you’re dieting, or you’re fasting for religious reasons, or you’re an ascetic, or you’re a vegetarian and all the current options are meat, or you’re waiting to have dinner with a friend and you don’t want to ruin your appetite…. There’s lots of cases where “I’m hungry” isn’t good enough reason to eat.

    You’re hungry and that’s a good enough justification of eating right there,

    But that’s only because, in the absence of arguments against, eating doesn’t need a justification. It’s morally neutral, not morally desirable….but it’s okay to do morally neutral things if you want to. As soon as eating becomes morally problematic in any way–see the examples I gave above–I think you’ll need something besides hunger to justify it.

  33. #33 Anton Mates
    January 1, 2012

    Nick, cont.,

    Obviously no, but it certainly is revealing that dictators encourage genocide not by saying “hey, everyone, kill those people because they are just like your family and your children!” — instead, they say, “Hey, everyone, those aren’t people, they are [insert reference to dogs, diseases, cancer, yadda yadda].”

    Isn’t that because modern dictators are trying to control modern humans? We tend not to believe that “real people” ought to be murdered out of hand, but as Pinker points out, this is a cultural thing. You see far fewer of these justifications for war/genocide/rape/slavery in ancient texts, because most people didn’t need them. They found it morally acceptable for people just like their family to be killed–it was only a problem if it actually was their family, friends, religious/ethnic kin, etc.

    I’m not a psychologist, but I believe there are ways of diagnosing psychopaths and the like.

    Certainly, but there are also ways of diagnosing supertasters, or people with eidetic memories, or for that matter people with an exceptionally high capacity for empathy. The tests just tell us whether a subject possesses mental traits that are unusual; they don’t tell us how to judge whether the unusualness is “good,” “bad” or “neutral.” I don’t see a non-subjective way to do that.

    On another note, sorry I appeared to vanish mid-conversation on another thread; my posts never made it through the filter. I’ll try to reconstitute the important bits over here!

  34. #34 NickMatzke
    January 1, 2012

    Nick,

    You haven’t addressed the main issue I raised, namely what do you mean by “come from” in the assertion you attributed to Ruse. I continue to maintain that without clarification of its meaning that assertion was useless.

    But if you instinctively believe that you should eat because you are hungry — well, that’s basically true, isn’t it?

    Sorry, but if we’re going to make any progress here you need to start thinking about what you mean, and expressing yourself more carefully.

    Hi Richard,

    I guess I’m not sure what you are looking for here. I have the feeling you are looking for a technical philosophical account of this transaction. I’m not a philosopher nor a specialist in this area, probably it wouldn’t be helpful for me to attempt such, I’d just make a mess of it, especially since I think much of what we are debating comes down to what the words “moral” and especially “fact” mean/should mean. So a complete positive account of what I am suggesting will take a greater philosopher than me.

    But I feel like I can accomplish a negative project, as follows. Mostly what I would like to convince people of is that the notion that there are just two categories — “facts” which are observed out there in nature and are objectively true, and everything else, which is basically subjective junk, or “illusions”, or “opinion”, or whatever, isn’t convincing.

    What role does the phrase “if you instinctively believe” play in this sentence? You’ve yet to give any comprehensible account of how you think the instinctive nature of some beliefs is relevant to their truth. So I’m going to ignore everything you say about instinctive beliefs until you make yourself clear on that point.

    I don’t think you’ve picked up on my distinction — my important, crucial, distinction — between beliefs about stuff out there in nature, and beliefs about what one should be doing. The former sorts of beliefs are justified if they are supported by observations of nature, whether or not instinct supports them. But what justifies the latter sorts of beliefs? It’s not observations out there in nature, but does that mean *nothing* justifes those sorts of beliefs? That would be a moral relativist position, which among other problems is self-refuting.

    I think the idea that instinctual desires have *nothing* to do with beliefs about what one should be doing is unsupportable on its face. Sex, for example, would literally not happen unless at least some people wanted to do it some of the time. Why do people want to? There are all sorts of complexities built on top of this, but at root it’s instinct, just like it is in all other animals.

    I will try to draw this out a little further in reply to additional comments.

  35. #35 NickMatzke
    January 1, 2012

    [a previous introductory post is in the spam filter]

    Richard writes,

    You’re making the common error of conflating non-moral propositions with moral ones. It’s true that if you’re hungry, then eating will probably be conducive to satisfying your desires. That’s a fact, but it’s not a moral fact. To avoid such mistakes it’s a good idea to always include the word “moral” in propositions which you are offering as moral facts. So let’s replace the proposition with this one:

    (4) Morally, you should eat because you are hungry.

    Or more clearly:

    (5) You have a moral obligation to eat because you are hungry.

    I don’t accept that (4) and (5) are true.

    You’re not going to get anywhere just by insisting that some proposition is true. I will either point out that it’s not really a moral proposition or deny its truth. What I’m looking for (from you or Ruse) is an account of how there can be objective moral facts. If your next reply does not address that point, I will probably not respond to it.

    Posted by: Richard Wein | January 1, 2012 5:21 AM

    And Anton writes,

    The popularity of a belief or attitude doesn’t have much to do with its objectivity, as you observed re: heliocentrism.

    But if you instinctively believe that you should eat because you are hungry — well, that’s basically true, isn’t it?

    I don’t think so, and for that matter, I don’t think most of us do believe that, instinctively or otherwise. Hunger makes us want to eat, but it doesn’t particularly make eating morally desirable.

    And if you ask for the *justification* of the belief that you should eat, I suppose you could make an argument on the basis of health or something, but whoever in their right mind would bother making such an argument?

    Anyone who’s contemplating counterarguments, I would think. If you’re dieting, or you’re fasting for religious reasons, or you’re an ascetic, or you’re a vegetarian and all the current options are meat, or you’re waiting to have dinner with a friend and you don’t want to ruin your appetite…. There’s lots of cases where “I’m hungry” isn’t good enough reason to eat.

    Both of these replies to the hunger argument rely on construing “you should eat because you are hungry” as some kind of always-true-in-all-situations commandment, rather like a Kantian categorical imperative or something. But of course that’s not what I was saying. What I was saying that, barring other more important considerations, you should eat because you are hungry.

    If one is going to disagree with this “should” statement, one has to then support some contradictory statement, like “you should eat because you are not hungry”, or “you should not eat because you are hungry”. You are welcome to endorse those positions if you like. :-)

    Note: Of course, I am choosing hunger here, and excluding the other considerations which sometimes (not that commonly) override hunger, because I am trying to show a very simple case where there is a connection between an instinctual need and a “should” statement. We could pick numerous other cases where we can link a simple instinctual need to an action that is a good thing in general — although of course this doesn’t mean that these good actions should be taken regardless of all other considerations. Among other things, the various “goods” sometimes conflict with each other, and we have to figure out how to get both things, or pick which is most important.

    The really difficult/interesting part of moral thinking is actually the part about what you do when your various interests conflict with each other, or with the interests of others. Sometimes these are easy problems to figure out, and sometimes they are hard. But people are so incredibly used to jumping to this higher level, they then sometimes get confused about what the basis of it all is, and then conclude it’s all relative or illusory and throw up their hands in despair. I’m just trying to show that at the bottom of all moral thinking there are final answers to the chain of “why?” questions, and they boil down to instinctually-specified needs.

    Now, I like to call actions that meet needs specificed by the genetically-determined instincts common to basically all humans “objective moral facts”, but if people really think the “objective fact” language should be reserved only for observed findings about the world outside our heads, I could deal with alternative language. But I don’t think that judging moral statements by the standard of “must be shown true by observation of the world outside of our heads”, finding them wanting, and then concluding “moral beliefs are just opinion/subjective/illusion” makes much sense.

  36. #36 NickMatzke
    January 1, 2012

    [Hmm, 2 long posts are in the spam filter and I have to go, we can pick this up whenevs]

    You’re hungry and that’s a good enough justification of eating right there,

    But that’s only because, in the absence of arguments against, eating doesn’t need a justification. It’s morally neutral, not morally desirable….but it’s okay to do morally neutral things if you want to. As soon as eating becomes morally problematic in any way–see the examples I gave above–I think you’ll need something besides hunger to justify it.

    Posted by: Anton Mates | January 1, 2012 7:45 AM

    I replied to the “morally problematic” possibility in a previous post in the spam filter. But I am interested in the statement of “in the absence of arguments against, eating doesn’t need a justification. It’s morally neutral, not morally desirable…”

    I think this statement can only be taken seriously when one is well-fed, has reliable food sources, and is not very hungry at the time.

    (As Darwin says in Descent, drives like hunger are hard to remember when the instinct is well-satisfied (unlike, says Darwin, sympathy).)

    If you were stuck in a prison and the guard had food and wasn’t giving it to you even though the guard was well-fed and no one else needed the food and your local neighborhood dictator hadn’t decided to specifically starve you as punishment, you would damn well make the argument to the guard, or your lawyer, or the dictator, that you should get the food because you were hungry. You wouldn’t consider it a morally neutral matter.

    (This leads directly to an argument that the strength of the “should” statement depends on the amount of need and thus the strength of the instinctual drive. If you’re not hungry, the “you should eat” statement is a weak one. If you’re starving, it’s a strong one.)

    (And, when you make such a statement, you are attempting to appeal to the sympathy of the guard, judge, or whatever. The idea that all of this is just opinion or illusion seems to me to be a poor way of describing what is going on.)

  37. #37 NickMatzke
    January 1, 2012

    [It appears that any post more than a few sentences is getting spam-blocked. I have 3 posts that were blocked & I have to go, I’ll wait for those to come through. I should say I am enjoying the discussion and appreciate the debate, this is one of those topics where I have an interest but definitely no decent training. Cheers! Nick]

  38. #38 Owlmirror
    January 1, 2012

    However, I think that if one observes that essentially everyone believes moral claim X is correct, particularly if X appears to be culture-independent, appears to emerge even when dictators or whatever try to suppress it in the population, etc., then this might be decent evidence that your are dealing with a hard-coded instinct.

    Hm.

    But how does it being an instinct make it a moral fact?

    Consider the famous train-track experiments: People do seem to have a general “instinct” that, if 5 people OR 1 person must inevitably die, they will “instinctively” choose for the 1 person to die rather than for the 5 people to die. But they will generally NOT choose to sacrifice 1 person to save 5 people if that 1 person is not already in inevitable danger and the sacrifice would entail actively and deliberately killing him.

    Of course, that’s presumably in a scenario where all the people are presumably of equal value, in general. But does that mean it’s a “moral fact” that choosing for 1 to die rather than 5 is always correct?

  39. #39 Owlmirror
    January 1, 2012

    It appears that any post more than a few sentences is getting spam-blocked

    Be prepared to backtrack, copy-and-paste to an external editor, and split up the original into smaller posts.

    There may be a keyword or other text content that is triggering moderation. Sometimes weirdness happens.

  40. #40 Collin Brendemuehl
    January 1, 2012

    Ruse is unclear because the whole of the issue is unclear. Justification is an epistemological question; so is morality.
    If evolution writes off objective morality then it also writes of any necessity for epistemic justification. (This applies equally to mathematics as it does to other fields.) And the PoMo wins, so it seems.
    But the world is not like the muddy waters of the postmodernist. The necessity for both justification and moral objectivity remains. If the Euler principles are important, in more places than Houston :-), then certainly morality maintains at least that level of due valuation. But more.

  41. #41 Anton Mates
    January 1, 2012

    So, harking back to the “What is Scientism?” thread:

    Nick, you criticized ethical subjectivism by saying,

    If it’s not objective, it’s subjective, i.e. a matter of personal opinion which is optional for others to accept or deny. If that’s the case, there’s not much point in telling others that one is right and others are wrong. It is mildly interesting to hear other peoples’ subjective opinions on matters, but if there is no fundamental objective reality underneath that might eventually be reached through discussion, it’s not any more important than a discussion of what the best movies of 2011 were.

    It seems to me that you’re making one or both of the following claims here:
    1) ethical subjectivists have no reason to want to resolve moral disagreements, and
    2) ethical subjectivists have no reason to think that they can resolve moral disagreements through discussion.

    1) is easily answered: subjectively, most of us clearly do want to resolve moral disagreements. People tend to be a lot more uncomfortable with moral disagreement than with disagreement over movie quality and the like. There are both rational justifications and evolutionary explanations for this discomfort, but I don’t think a person need be aware of them to be motivated by it. It’s self-justifying, as you’d say.

    2) is incorrect for two reasons, I think. First, as a factual matter, people tend to absorb moral norms from their fellows on a totally nonrational level. You may never hear a good reason why juggling’s evil, but if you grow up around people who all react to juggling with disgust and horror, you’ll probably feel kinda bad about juggling. So it’s worth forcefully asserting your (subjective) moral opinions to those who disagree, in the hope that they’ll instinctively revise their own (subjective) opinions to match you.

    Second, people do tend to share a lot of basic moral values, particularly if they’re from the same culture. So if you disagree over a moral issue, it may not be because of a clash of (subjective) values, but because of a disagreement on the relevant (objective) facts. (Consider all the empirical facts about biology, psychology and sociology that go into deciding whether abortion should be illegal, for instance). Or maybe you both agree on facts and values, but one of you is making a logical error when deducing your moral position from them. In that case, it’s worth bouncing your arguments off each other to see if you can agree that one person’s argument is flawed–even though the conclusions and some of the premises are subjective.

    —–

    On free will, you argued that it’s “baldfaced, straight-up incoherence” for a free will denier to act like opinions and decisions matter. Can you explain why? AFAIK, most free will deniers accept that opinions and decisions exist, and have causal effects on the world. The argument is over whether our decisions are, well, free–that is, unconstrained by various factors. (What those factors are depends on the variant of free will under discussion; sometimes it’s the laws of nature, sometimes it’s “external influences”, sometimes it’s the physical state of the brain.) But free or not, they still matter.

    By analogy, you accept that a boulder above you doesn’t have much choice about whether to roll down and crush you–it does whatever gravity and friction tell it. But knowing that doesn’t make you stop caring about what the boulder will do!

  42. #42 Anton Mates
    January 2, 2012

    And now that your responses are making it through the mod filter:

    But what justifies the latter sorts of beliefs? It’s not observations out there in nature, but does that mean *nothing* justifes those sorts of beliefs? That would be a moral relativist position, which among other problems is self-refuting.

    1) I wouldn’t say that nothing justifies those sorts of beliefs. I agree that they’re self-justifying, or justified by associated moral emotions. But these justifications are purely subjective; they have no force for another person who doesn’t already share those beliefs and emotions.

    2) If *nothing* justifies them, that’s moral nihilism, not moral relativism.

    3) Moral relativism is not in general self-refuting; plenty of philosophers have developed perfectly consistent moral relativist positions. Really, Nick, you’re supposed to have a higher opinion of philosophy than us scientismists do! ;)

    I think the idea that instinctual desires have *nothing* to do with beliefs about what one should be doing is unsupportable on its face. Sex, for example, would literally not happen unless at least some people wanted to do it some of the time.

    But sex is a perfect example of a desire which we often want to satisfy, and do satisfy, even though we don’t believe we should satisfy it! I mean, in what other sphere of human activity are people more like to say, “I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway”? That’s exactly what I was talking about when I drew a distinction between a self-motivating instinct/desire, and a self-justifying one.

    Both of these replies to the hunger argument rely on construing “you should eat because you are hungry” as some kind of always-true-in-all-situations commandment, rather like a Kantian categorical imperative or something.

    Nope, I’m well aware that you were making a limited and provisional claim.  But as I said in the next paragraph of my reply, I don’t believe that “you should eat because you are hungry” is ever true.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean I think that hunger is irrelevant to the morality of eating.  But it’s relevant only as a fact to which you can apply some (subjective) moral value or principle.  E.g., “you should eat because you are hungry, and it’s unpleasant to be hungry, and one should not suffer needless unpleasantness.” That last bit is crucial, and the experience of hunger alone doesn’t give it to you.

    If one is going to disagree with this “should” statement, one has to then support some contradictory statement, like “you should eat because you are not hungry”, or “you should not eat because you are hungry”.

    It sounds like you agree with T.H. White’s ants: “Everything not forbidden is compulsory!”  But I don’t agree with that.  One doesn’t have to support either a “should” or a “should not” statement; some actions are morally neutral.  If you’re going to wear a top hat to the supermarket tomorrow, fine.  If you’re not going to wear a top hat to the supermarket tomorrow, also fine.  “Should” doesn’t come into it.

    And even if an action is definitely moral or immoral, not every individual fact about it is sufficient to determine its morality.  So no, one doesn’t have to support statements like the ones you propose above.  One can support a statement like, “It’s not the case that you should, or should not, eat.”  Or, “You should eat, but not just because you’re hungry.”

    Note: Of course, I am choosing hunger here, and excluding the other considerations which sometimes (not that commonly) override hunger, because I am trying to show a very simple case where there is a connection between an instinctual need and a “should” statement.

    Which is a perfectly good strategy from a rhetorical viewpoint; it’s just that the simplicity of this case makes it apparent to me that there is no such connection. There are other instincts for which I would accept your argument, such as sympathy for others or an interest in fairness, but hunger isn’t one of them.

    The really difficult/interesting part of moral thinking is actually the part about what you do when your various interests conflict with each other, or with the interests of others. Sometimes these are easy problems to figure out, and sometimes they are hard. But people are so incredibly used to jumping to this higher level, they then sometimes get confused about what the basis of it all is, and then conclude it’s all relative or illusory and throw up their hands in despair.

    But, see, ethical subjectivists generally don’t think we should react with despair if it’s all relative or subjective. To the contrary, I find subjectivism very helpful in moral reasoning, because it reduces the main problem to a matter of empirical psychology. How should I behave so that my moral intuitions and drives will be most completely satisfied? What states of affairs lead to me experiencing positive moral emotions (pride, approval, etc.), rather than negative ones (guilt, indignation, disgust, etc.)?

    It’s just the same sort of conflict-of-interest analysis you’re proposing, but with the added bonus that I don’t have to care whether my interests are objectively valid in any sense. It doesn’t even matter whether they are shared by most of humanity or not. They’re my interests, and from a subjectivist point of view that’s all that matters.

    (And no, this doesn’t mean I ignore the interests of others. Rather, I observe that I feel bad about making other folks miserable, so it is in my interest to satisfy their interests. Sometimes, anyway.)

  43. #43 Anton Mates
    January 2, 2012

    [one post sitting in the filter before this; I’m betting this will make it through first, because it’s shorter.]

    But I am interested in the statement of “in the absence of arguments against, eating doesn’t need a justification. It’s morally neutral, not morally desirable…”
    I think this statement can only be taken seriously when one is well-fed, has reliable food sources, and is not very hungry at the time.

    Well, I can’t say I’ve ever starved, but I’ve had other very urgent and unmet instinctive desires. E.g., there have been times when I was climbing a tree or a building or something, and I ended up in a position where it seemed like I was about to fall. I really, really didn’t want to fall–pretty sure that one’s instinctive–and I was very afraid, and I would have done almost anything to keep from falling.

    Did I feel, at that time, that I should avoid falling? Heck no. I couldn’t have cared less about whether saving myself was moral or immoral. You could have shown me a PowerPoint about how my survival would doom a hundred adorable orphans, and I would have said, “Yes, that’s a terrible thing,” and promptly hauled myself to safety. I’m sure I would have felt guilty, though…after I was safe.

    So I suspect that, for most of us, just about everything becomes morally neutral when we’re starving. We have higher priorities at that point.

    If you were stuck in a prison and the guard had food and wasn’t giving it to you even though the guard was well-fed and no one else needed the food and your local neighborhood dictator hadn’t decided to specifically starve you as punishment, you would damn well make the argument to the guard, or your lawyer, or the dictator, that you should get the food because you were hungry.

    No, you wouldn’t. You would argue that you should get the food because it’s not fair that everyone but you is well-fed, it’s not just to starve you when it’s not even part of your punishment, and it’s not compassionate to starve you because intense hunger is an awful form of suffering.

    The brute fact of your hunger would never constitute a moral argument. Even if the only thing you could think to do was moan a lot and say “Oh God, I’m so hungry,” you’d be implicitly relying on your captors’ moral position that the needy should be helped. (And if they don’t subscribe to such a position, you’re sunk.)

    (And, when you make such a statement, you are attempting to appeal to the sympathy of the guard, judge, or whatever. The idea that all of this is just opinion or illusion seems to me to be a poor way of describing what is going on.)

    Whereas I think it’s an excellent way of describing it. Because it reminds you that, if the guard/judge doesn’t share your opinions on fairness and justice and compassion, your argument will be meaningless. You can describe your hunger and all its empirical consequences in excruciating detail, but if they don’t think it’s bad for you to suffer in the first place, that’s not going to change their mind.

  44. #44 coelsblog
    January 2, 2012

    Nivk Matzke:

    “What I was saying that, barring other more important considerations, you should eat because you are hungry.”

    What do you gain by adding “should” to that sentence? Why not simply say “you *want* to eat because you are hungry” or “you pursue eating because you are hungry”?

    “If one is going to disagree with this “should” statement, one has to then support some contradictory statement, like “you should eat because you are not hungry”, or “you should not eat because you are hungry”. “

    Not so, one could disagree with all of those on the grounds that there is no such thing as an objective “should”, and that “should” sentences are only meaningful if they refer (at least implicitly) to some human having that (subjective) “should” opinion.

  45. #45 Richard Wein
    January 2, 2012

    Nick,

    You still haven’t said anything to explain or justify your original assertion that “Objective morals come from moral feelings common to essentially everyone.” That was the subject I wanted to discuss, not the other subjects that you’ve raised since.

    If you think that these other subjects do the job of explaining or justifying that assertion, you need to say how. Your approach seems to be just to make assertions that sound vaguely relevant, without carefully checking whether they support your point, let alone showing how they do so. Philosophy is difficult. Goodness knows, most philosophers get it wrong. It needs very careful attention to detail.

    (On the point about “You should eat because you are hungry”, you entirely mis-read my response.)

  46. #46 NickMatzke
    January 2, 2012

    Consider the famous train-track experiments: People do seem to have a general “instinct” that, if 5 people OR 1 person must inevitably die, they will “instinctively” choose for the 1 person to die rather than for the 5 people to die. But they will generally NOT choose to sacrifice 1 person to save 5 people if that 1 person is not already in inevitable danger and the sacrifice would entail actively and deliberately killing him.

    Of course, that’s presumably in a scenario where all the people are presumably of equal value, in general. But does that mean it’s a “moral fact” that choosing for 1 to die rather than 5 is always correct?

    That’s not an instinct, that’s an observed response to a very specific situation. “Instinct” is a concept widely used in ethology and biology for both humans and animals. It has long been used (e.g. Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Mary Midgley), my usage should be taken to have the biological meaning.

  47. #47 NickMaftzke
    January 2, 2012

    Anton writes,

    By analogy, you accept that a boulder above you doesn’t have much choice about whether to roll down and crush you–it does whatever gravity and friction tell it. But knowing that doesn’t make you stop caring about what the boulder will do!

    So even you acknowledge that there is a meaningful difference between humans and boulders. Boulders do not care and cannot make choices, they simply follow the laws of physics. Humans, on the other hand, do care and can make choices. But the free-will denialist language denies this (no one actually denies it, deep down) with their “it’s all just physics” language. The word “just” is the fatal part. One would think biologists, of all people, would get this, after decades of fighting off the insults of reductionist physicists and the problem of “physics envy”.

  48. #48 NickMatzke
    January 2, 2012

    Not so, one could disagree with all of those on the grounds that there is no such thing as an objective “should”, and that “should” sentences are only meaningful if they refer (at least implicitly) to some human having that (subjective) “should” opinion.

    Posted by: coelsblog | January 2, 2012

    If there is no such thing as an objective “should”, then there is no reason I “should” accept your assertion. Therefore I won’t. Your argument is eating itself. [/Stephen Colbert]

  49. #49 NickMatzke
    January 3, 2012

    No, you wouldn’t. You would argue that you should get the food because it’s not fair that everyone but you is well-fed, it’s not just to starve you when it’s not even part of your punishment, and it’s not compassionate to starve you because intense hunger is an awful form of suffering.

    But these are all just illusions, according to your later argument below. So what’s the point?

    The brute fact of your hunger would never constitute a moral argument.

    Your additional points about fairness, justice, etc. all implicitly rely on a taken-for-granted prior fact which is that all humans need food, and experience hunger, misery, etc. when they don’t get it — that not having food is objectively bad for the person and having food is objectively good for the person (in this situation). If that wasn’t there, none of the rest would make sense.

    Even if the only thing you could think to do was moan a lot and say “Oh God, I’m so hungry,” you’d be implicitly relying on your captors’ moral position that the needy should be helped. (And if they don’t subscribe to such a position, you’re sunk.)

    I agree, but fortunately in our scenario the captors were humans and thus share a common genome, common physical structure, common mental structure, and common moral structure.

    (And, when you make such a statement, you are attempting to appeal to the sympathy of the guard, judge, or whatever. The idea that all of this is just opinion or illusion seems to me to be a poor way of describing what is going on.)

    Whereas I think it’s an excellent way of describing it. Because it reminds you that, if the guard/judge doesn’t share your opinions on fairness and justice and compassion, your argument will be meaningless. You can describe your hunger and all its empirical consequences in excruciating detail, but if they don’t think it’s bad for you to suffer in the first place, that’s not going to change their mind.

    Posted by: Anton Mates | January 2, 2012

    Describing this as “illusion” is pointless and misleading, though. Illusions are supposed to be things that aren’t. But moral sentiments shared across the human species are real. There are innumerable cases where guards have shown sympathy to prisoners, even at great risk to themselves, even in the face of orders or indoctrination or extensive campaigns to dehumanize their victims. Is your position these things happened because of illusions? That Nelson Mandela’s guard on Robben Island, who became a huge supporter of Nelson Mandela and his agenda, was “tricked” by an “illusion”? (Tricking people is the only way an illusion can influence someone, if the word has anything like the normal meaning.)

  50. #50 David Thomson
    January 3, 2012

    >>Eating fruits and vegetables in moderation is moral behavior. … is true because our health relieves the burden of others who must care for us while our illness forces others to divert their time to our care.
    >But that implies that morality is not “about” good health per se, as you originally asserted, but that it is about imposition on others.

    No, the issue you are now bringing up is ethics. Morals are strictly the actions and behaviors that lead to good health and well-being of individuals and communities. One can debate the ethics of whether morality is a burden, or not, but that should be a different discussion.

    Part of the reason morality is weak in society is because people cannot step back long enough to inspect their own reasoning and knowledge. Instead of systematically defining morality and ethics and pursuing a rational discourse, words fly with as much aim as firecrackers on Chinese New Year.

    The other part is the lack of interest in it. Few people are willing to practice morality until the experience of illness and misery becomes overbearing. Nonetheless, the lack of personal interest in morality does not seem to dampen our criticisms of other people’s morality.

  51. #51 David Thomson
    January 3, 2012

    >Objective morals come from moral feelings common to essentially everyone.

    Morals are not feelings, they are behaviors. One can have a sexual feeling, for example, and that feeling is neither moral nor immoral. The feeling is irrelevant to the definition of morality. Just because one feels sexuality while performing a moral deed or committing an immoral one does not mean feelings are morals.

    Furthermore, both morals and feelings are subjective phenomena, not objective phenomena. There is a tendency for science minded people to fearfully avoid admitting the reality of subjective experience. There is nothing necessarily unreal about morality or feelings just because they are subjective.

  52. #52 Anton Mates
    January 3, 2012

    Nick,

    If there is no such thing as an objective “should”, then there is no reason I “should” accept your assertion. Therefore I won’t.

    Well…okay? That’s hardly a problem for our position, since it predicts that not all ethical (or meta-ethical) disagreements can be resolved.

    On the other hand, if there is such a thing as an objective “should,” what does it matter? It hasn’t made us feel that we should accept your position either!

    So even you acknowledge that there is a meaningful difference between humans and boulders.

    No one is claiming that humans are rocks, or behave identically to rocks. What free will deniers claim is that humans are like rocks–and like badgers and stars and tulips and oxygen molecules–in that their behavior is constrained by stuff like their physical state and/or the laws of nature.

    I don’t, by the way, consider myself a free will denier; the term “free will” covers too many different concepts for that.

    Boulders do not care and cannot make choices, they simply follow the laws of physics. Humans, on the other hand, do care and can make choices.

    This is a false dichotomy. Humans care and can make choices, and simply follow the laws of physics. Unless you consider choices and caring to be supernatural phenomena, anyway.

    No offense, but you might want to pop by Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and look at some common definitions of free will. It’s not just “the ability to make choices.” If it was, nobody would argue about it!

  53. #53 coelsblog
    January 3, 2012

    Nick Matzke:

    “If there is no such thing as an objective “should”, then there is no reason I “should” accept your assertion. Therefore I won’t. Your argument is eating itself.”

    I’m certainly not asserting that there is an objective moral imperative that you must accept my stance that there are no objective morals. However, subjective reasons are entirely sufficient to motivate humans!

    There is no inconsistency in the stance that subjective morals (ie. human feelings and opinions about morals) are all there is. That doesn’t stop them working and it doesn’t stop them mattering to us.

  54. #54 David Thomson
    January 3, 2012

    To develop this further, I take issue with philosophers who use the phrase, “free will.” The phrase is an oxymoron. If will exists, it cannot be anything but free. If it was not, it would not be “will” but “compulsion.”

    Also, will is not a rational mechanism, and yet it is nearly always attributed to rational beings. Will is not synonymous with choice, but with manifestation. To will is to manifest. Choices can be manifested, but so can being.

    Even a microbe has will. It is will that makes a physical being want to survive. It is will that gives rise to instinct. It is will that possesses the ability to feel feelings. Will is the drive behind rational thought in humans, and it is the drive behind instinct in animals. It is also the drive behind a plant’s inherent ability to adapt to change. No will is bound and all will is free.

    The limitations of a being arise from its physical form and abilities. A plant does not have a brain, and most beings with a brain do not have the ability to convert sunlight into energy. Thus the will of a plant is applied in different ways than the will of an animal. And different animals apply will according to the physical limitations of their species.

    Will is not an anthropomorphic specialty. We share the nature of will with all living things.

  55. #55 NickMatzke
    January 4, 2012

    No offense, but you might want to pop by Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and look at some common definitions of free will. It’s not just “the ability to make choices.” If it was, nobody would argue about it!

    I agree, you are correct about this. Apologies, I think had just read Jerry Coyne’s latest stuff on how free will is a crock on my mind…

    If there is no such thing as an objective “should”, then there is no reason I “should” accept your assertion. Therefore I won’t.

    Well…okay? That’s hardly a problem for our position, since it predicts that not all ethical (or meta-ethical) disagreements can be resolved.

    Well, to establish your position, you’d have to show that *all* moral disagreements are unresolvable, and that the whole thing is just subjective relativism (just like the postmodernists tried to do with science in the 1990s). I’m perfectly happy with the position that there might be objective moral facts on some moral topics, and only subjective opinions on other (more difficult) ones.

    On the other hand, if there is such a thing as an objective “should,” what does it matter? It hasn’t made us feel that we should accept your position either!

    Well, my position suggests the possibility that one of us is wrong, that there is a real truth to be found in moral discussions, and that with additional discussion, research, evidence, and thinking we might both eventually come to realize who that is, because we should try to make our views conform to the truth. Your position suggests there is no truth about moral questions, in which case there is no “should”, and you have no basis on which to criticize anyone for disagreeing with you.

  56. #56 NickMatzke
    January 4, 2012

    I’m certainly not asserting that there is an objective moral imperative that you must accept my stance that there are no objective morals. However, subjective reasons are entirely sufficient to motivate humans!

    There is no inconsistency in the stance that subjective morals (ie. human feelings and opinions about morals) are all there is. That doesn’t stop them working and it doesn’t stop them mattering to us.

    Posted by: coelsblog | January 3, 2012 6:50 AM

    …aaaaand you’ve just endorsed my position. You are just calling it something different because of the confusion about what “objective” and “subjective” mean in this discussion.

  57. #57 coelsblog
    January 4, 2012

    Nick Matzke:

    “You are just calling it something different because of the confusion about what “objective” and “subjective” mean in this discussion.”

    Can you illuminate what you think the confusion is? You seem to jump from the idea that there are no objective moral “should”s to the idea that there are no moral “should”s.

    If I assist a child in danger I do so because how *I* feel about the situation and how *I* feel that I should act. None of that is negated or changed by the fact that my “ought” feelings are not objective truths.

    “Your position suggests there is no truth about moral questions, in which case there is no “should”, and you have no basis on which to criticize anyone for disagreeing with you.”

    There’s a difference between factual claims (about which I assert that there is objectivity) and moral “ought” claims (which I regard as subjective, though no less real and important). Someone can consistently attack a factual claim as wrong while asserting moral subjectivity.

  58. #58 Anton Mates
    January 4, 2012

    Nick,

    But these are all just illusions, according to your later argument below. So what’s the point?

    No, fairness and justice and compassion aren’t illusions, any more than sweetness and redness and anger and pain are illusions. These things are subjective–they exist only in the minds of those who experience them. And they can give rise to illusions, if you misinterpret their implications for the external world. But they do, themselves, exist.

    Your additional points about fairness, justice, etc. all implicitly rely on a taken-for-granted prior fact which is that all humans need food, and experience hunger, misery, etc. when they don’t get it

    That’s partially true; the fairness argument probably does rely on that fact. On the other hand, the justice and compassion arguments don’t, because you can express your particular misery to your captors whether or not they understand that humans generally need food. After all, there are things that most humans don’t need, like insulin shots, but a diabetic prisoner could still make it clear that they’ll suffer terribly if they go without.

    But that’s just a quibble; I agree that the captor must have some objective knowledge about you, if not about all humans. However, this–

    — that not having food is objectively bad for the person and having food is objectively good for the person (in this situation).

    –is definitely unnecessary. The real condition for your argument to be successful is that your captors find it subjectively unpleasant to contribute to other humans’ misery.

    Your captors may have no beliefs whatsoever about what’s objectively good or bad, but as long they really don’t like you being miserable, they’ll give you food to alleviate your misery. Conversely, even if they believe it’s objectively evil to starve you, that won’t make them feed you unless they actually don’t like being evil. Their decision will always be grounded in their subjective experience.

    Hark back to the “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell” scene from Huckleberry Finn here. Huck decides that it’s objectively bad to help Jim escape slavery, decides that he nonetheless wants to be bad, and goes to help Jim. Subjective beats objective.

    I agree, but fortunately in our scenario the captors were humans and thus share a common genome, common physical structure, common mental structure, and common moral structure.

    Yep. And thanks to that, and thanks to the fact that they’re not sociopaths and grew up in a society that places a relatively high value on generalized compassion, they ended up with the right set of subjective values to help you.

    Describing this as “illusion” is pointless and misleading, though. Illusions are supposed to be things that aren’t. But moral sentiments shared across the human species are real.

    Oh! To be honest, I hadn’t actually noticed that you’d used the word “illusion” in your description again. Mea culpa. I did notice when you used it previously, which is why I took care not to endorse it; you’ll notice that I’ve said nothing about illusions in any of my posts. No, moral intuitions and feelings aren’t illusions.* They are relative and subjective, but that’s not the same thing.

    And yes, moral sentiments shared across the human species are real. But moral sentiments possessed by only a few humans, or one human, are real too. Sugar would still taste sweet to me even if the rest of the human race found it bitter.

    *I can’t speak for coelsblog, but I don’t think s/he claimed this either. S/he claimed that the belief in objective/absolute morality was an illusion. But that’s a metaethical position, not a moral sentiment.

    That Nelson Mandela’s guard on Robben Island, who became a huge supporter of Nelson Mandela and his agenda, was “tricked” by an “illusion”?

    No. I think Mandela’s guard discovered that he shared much more of his (subjective) value system with Mandela than he had previously believed. That discovery was no illusion.

    (Assuming you’re talking about the guard Christo Brand, and not James Gregory of Goodbye Bafana. Gregory’s account of his friendship with Mandela seems to have been largely illusion, if not outright lies!)

  59. #59 Anton Mates
    January 4, 2012

    Nick cont.,

    Apologies, I think had just read Jerry Coyne’s latest stuff on how free will is a crock on my mind…

    Yeah, it seems to me that Coyne tends to forgo rigorous definitions of his terms, on the grounds that “most people” conceive them exactly the same way he does. This doesn’t make him a terribly reliable reporter even of his allies’ positions, let alone his opponents’.

    Well, to establish your position, you’d have to show that *all* moral disagreements are unresolvable

    No, not at all. My position only implies that *some* moral disagreements are unresolvable: namely, those that stem from a clash of fundamental moral values. If I find it appalling to hurt people for no reason, and a sociopath finds it just dandy, we’re never going to reach common ground on that.

    But most subjective moral disagreements are not of this sort, and most of my post #41 is devoted to showing that these disagreements are often resolvable. They can be resolved through rational discussion of the relevant logical reasoning and empirical facts, or through non-rational “osmosis” of moral values from the people around you. If you don’t buy that, feel free to tell me why!

    You yourself gave, as an example of subjective opinion, “what the best movies of 2011 were.” Do you really think that all disagreements over this question are unresolvable? Don’t people often start out disagreeing on the quality of some movie, talk it out for a while, maybe re-watch it together and reach a consensus?

    Well, my position suggests the possibility that one of us is wrong, that there is a real truth to be found in moral discussions, and that with additional discussion, research, evidence, and thinking we might both eventually come to realize who that is, because we should try to make our views conform to the truth.

    And yet the possibility suggested by your position has not panned out. Ethical subjectivists and objectivists, moral realists and anti-realists, cognitivists and non-cognitivists, have been discussing and citing evidence and researching moral behavior for at least 2500 years, and we seem no closer to agreement than when we started. I’m not sure that the relative levels of support for each major metaethical camp have even shifted very much.

    Is that not, perhaps, a point against your position?

    Your position suggests there is no truth about moral questions, in which case there is no “should”, and you have no basis on which to criticize anyone for disagreeing with you.

    If you mean that I have no motivational basis to criticize anyone, that’s false. Subjectively, I want to criticize people who disagree with me, because their disagreeing with me bothers me for various reasons. It doesn’t matter if there’s an objective “should”; there’s a “should” in my head and I’m the one making the decision to criticize.

    If you mean that I have no way to make my criticisms persuasive to anyone else…well, again, see #41.

  60. #60 NickMatzke
    January 4, 2012

    Anton — OK, thanks for the clarification of the illusion point, I thought you and coelsblog were on the same side.

    Oh! To be honest, I hadn’t actually noticed that you’d used the word “illusion” in your description again. Mea culpa. I did notice when you used it previously, which is why I took care not to endorse it; you’ll notice that I’ve said nothing about illusions in any of my posts. No, moral intuitions and feelings aren’t illusions.* They are relative and subjective, but that’s not the same thing.

    And yes, moral sentiments shared across the human species are real. But moral sentiments possessed by only a few humans, or one human, are real too. Sugar would still taste sweet to me even if the rest of the human race found it bitter.

    But by such arguments we can argue that science is “subjective” in this sense as well. Flat Earthers exist, after all. Some people think they have observed ghosts.

    I am arguing objectivity on the basis of the overwhelmingly dominant pattern in the humans species. You are arguing for subjectivity based merely on the rare pathological exception.

    And yet the possibility suggested by your position has not panned out. Ethical subjectivists and objectivists, moral realists and anti-realists, cognitivists and non-cognitivists, have been discussing and citing evidence and researching moral behavior for at least 2500 years, and we seem no closer to agreement than when we started. I’m not sure that the relative levels of support for each major metaethical camp have even shifted very much.

    Is that not, perhaps, a point against your position?

    Nah, this is a point against philosophy and hair-splitting. It’s pretty clear (I would say objective fact) that there has been moral progress in certain societies over the last 2500 years, particularly over the last 400 years. Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, etc. Much as in science, the initial revolutionaries for the new view experienced much opposition, but eventually the better-supported arguments — in the case of morality, those that sat better with the consciences of the population over the long-term — won out.

  61. #61 coelsblog
    January 4, 2012

    Nick Matzke:

    “Anton — OK, thanks for the clarification of the illusion point, I thought you and coelsblog were on the same side.”

    Well we are as far as I can tell, I agree with the above posts by Anton Mates and Richard Wein.

    “But by such arguments we can argue that science is “subjective” in this sense as well.”

    There is a huge difference between (1) whether issues of fact are subjective, and (2) whether human feelings and opinions, about the morality of an action or about the taste of ice cream, are subjective. There is no inconsistency in asserting no and yes in the two cases.

    “It’s pretty clear (I would say objective fact) that there has been moral progress in certain societies over the last 2500 years”

    You mean that in *our* opinion it is progress. You could also assert that, as a result of moral changes, there has been objective progress in human quality-of-life (as humans subjectively assess it!). (In other words one could assert an objective fact that subjective contentment has increased.) But I don’t see that either makes the moral ideas “objective”.

  62. #62 Deepak Shetty
    January 5, 2012

    @Anton
    Yeah, it seems to me that Coyne tends to forgo rigorous definitions of his terms, on the grounds that “most people” conceive them exactly the same way he does.
    Who according to you has given a rigorous definition of “choice” that can
    a. be understood by the layman
    b. be used to describe choice as “most people” think of it ?

  63. #63 Anton Mates
    January 5, 2012

    Nick,

    OK, thanks for the clarification of the illusion point, I thought you and coelsblog were on the same side.

    I think we still are, and you’re misjudging the object of coelsblog’s “illusion” comment. But s/he can defend hirself on that point.

    But by such arguments we can argue that science is “subjective” in this sense as well.

    I don’t think this sense can even apply to science, though. Science isn’t a set of beliefs and sentiments; it’s an activity which (among other things) produces beliefs. It’s “objective” in a couple of different senses, but neither of those senses depends on its findings being universally accepted by humanity, or even all that popular.

    Flat Earthers exist, after all. Some people think they have observed ghosts.

    Certainly. Flat-Earthism is real, but the earth is not flat; the belief in ghosts is real, but ghosts are not real.

    It’s one thing to ask whether a subjective belief/feeling/perception/desire is real, and I would reply that it’s real if there’s at least one mind that experiences it. It’s another thing to ask whether the object of a belief is real.

    I am arguing objectivity on the basis of the overwhelmingly dominant pattern in the humans species. You are arguing for subjectivity based merely on the rare pathological exception.

    Not at all; I’m arguing that the subjectivity/objectivity distinction doesn’tdepend on which pattern is dominant. It’s purely a question of whether a proposition has a mind-independent truth value or not.

    Now, if you want to define “objective” as “overwhelmingly popular among humans,” or something of the sort, feel free; just be aware that this isn’t what it usually means in ethics discussions. In fact, as I understand your position, it would probably be classed as moral subjectivism by most philosophers! (It might also be classed as moral relativism–not cultural relativism, but relativism at the species level.)

    Nah, this is a point against philosophy and hair-splitting. It’s pretty clear (I would say objective fact) that there has been moral progress in certain societies over the last 2500 years, particularly over the last 400 years. Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, etc.

    There’s certainly been objective moral change in those societies, but I think the “progress” part is entirely subjective. It feels like progress to us, because we’re here at the end of it. Most people who were born 2500 years ago would probably view it as moral decay.

    Regardless, I don’t think there’s been an accompanying change in the metaethics of society–except perhaps that moral relativism and non-cognitivism have become a little more popular in the last century or two. But that’s probably not what you would consider progress!

    Much as in science, the initial revolutionaries for the new view experienced much opposition, but eventually the better-supported arguments — in the case of morality, those that sat better with the consciences of the population over the long-term — won out.

    That’s probably partly true, but it’s also the case that the consciences of the population have changed significantly. As our societies have become more globalized and egalitarian, we’ve tended to universalize the virtues of compassion and fairness. And as our societies have become more multicultural and politically liberal, we’ve tended to de-emphasize the virtues of purity and respect for authority and tradition.

    We feel differently than an ancient Roman or Viking or Hebrew did; we have very different gut reactions to the sight of violence, suffering, slavery, children disobeying their parents, and people having freaky sex. As a result, we can be convinced by moral arguments that our ancestors would find preposterous and poorly supported.

  64. #64 Anton Mates
    January 5, 2012

    Deepak,

    Who according to you has given a rigorous definition of “choice” that can
    a. be understood by the layman

    One candidate might be Descartes, “the ability to do or not do something,” with the requirement that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained”.

    Or Hume, “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will,” with the exact opposite requirement that the outcome must “proceed…from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them.”

    Or Ach, as paraphrased by Francis Irwin: “The acceptance and carrying out of a conscious resolve or intention.” I think that’s pretty clear, although it isn’t quite clear whether “carrying out” implies causation or simply correlation.

    b. be used to describe choice as “most people” think of it ?

    That’s the problem–I don’t think any of them can. It doesn’t seem like there is a single concept of “choice” agreed upon by most people, let alone a coherent one; there’s just a bundle of doctrines and intuitions, some of them mutually contradictory, and with different elements being more or less important to different people.

    For instance, Coyne thinks that, for “most people,” free will and choices are necessarily indeterminist. Is that true? Well, some studies have found that when you ask college students what free will means to them and to “most people,” they choose an indeterminist answer. But in other studies, students report that free will would still exist even if the universe and human behavior were completely deterministic.

    Furthermore, the strength of the free will-determinism connection seems to depend on the kind of choice being considered. Students tend to say that if you do something good in a deterministic world, that wasn’t a free choice, but if you do something evil.

    This suggests to me that writing down a single definition of choice, that would accurately capture “most people’s” thoughts about it, is probably impossible.

  65. #65 Anton Mates
    January 5, 2012

    Students tend to say that if you do something good in a deterministic world, that wasn’t a free choice, but if you do something evil.

    Lost the end of that sentence. It should be, “but if you do something evil, it was a free choice.”

  66. #66 Deepak Shetty
    January 6, 2012

    @Anton
    I find definitions of choice that rely on “will” to be not rigorous – because will itself is another of those loosely defined concepts (or more likely I haven’t read enough Hume/Descartes)
    The Ach one has some problems for me too – but I need to think about that – we’ll see that on the next free will thread :).

  67. #67 Anton Mates
    January 6, 2012

    [Well, it’s been a couple days and my last reply to Nick doesn’t seem to be making it through the filter, so let’s see what two-parting it does.]

    OK, thanks for the clarification of the illusion point, I thought you and coelsblog were on the same side.

    I think we still are, but I’m sure coelsblog can clarify hirself on that point if it’s necessary.

    But by such arguments we can argue that science is “subjective” in this sense as well.

    I don’t think this sense can even apply to science, though. Science isn’t a set of beliefs and sentiments; it’s an activity. It’s “objective” in a couple of different senses, neither of which depends on its findings being universally accepted, or even all that popular.

    Flat Earthers exist, after all. Some people think they have observed ghosts.

    Certainly. Flat-Earthism is real, but the earth is not flat; the belief in ghosts is real, but ghosts are not real. It’s one thing to ask whether a subjective belief/feeling/perception/desire is real, and I would reply that it’s real if there’s at least one mind that experiences it. It’s another thing to ask whether the object of a belief is real.

    I am arguing objectivity on the basis of the overwhelmingly dominant pattern in the humans species. You are arguing for subjectivity based merely on the rare pathological exception.

    Not at all; I’m arguing that the subjectivity/objectivity distinction doesn’t depend on which pattern is dominant. It’s purely a question of whether a proposition has a mind-independent truth value or not.

    Now, if you want to define “objective” as “overwhelmingly popular among humans,” feel free; just be aware that that’s not what it usually means in ethics discussions. In fact, as I understand your position, it would probably be classed as moral subjectivism by most philosophers! (It might also be classed as moral relativism–not cultural relativism, but relativism at the species level.)

  68. #68 Anton Mates
    January 6, 2012

    [Part 2!]

    Nah, this is a point against philosophy and hair-splitting. It’s pretty clear (I would say objective fact) that there has been moral progress in certain societies over the last 2500 years, particularly over the last 400 years. Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, etc.

    There’s certainly been objective moral change in those societies, but I think the “progress” part is entirely subjective. It feels like progress to us, because we’re here at the end of it. Most people who were born 2500 years ago would probably view it as moral decay.

    Regardless, I don’t think there’s been an accompanying change in the metaethics of society–except perhaps that moral relativism and non-cognitivism have become a little more popular in the last century or two. But that’s probably not what you would consider progress!

    Much as in science, the initial revolutionaries for the new view experienced much opposition, but eventually the better-supported arguments — in the case of morality, those that sat better with the consciences of the population over the long-term — won out.

    That’s probably partly true, but it’s also the case that the consciences of the population have changed significantly. As our societies have become more globalized and egalitarian, we’ve tended to universalize the virtues of compassion and fairness. And as our societies have become more multicultural and politically liberal, we’ve tended to de-emphasize the virtues of purity and respect for authority and tradition.

    We feel differently than an ancient Roman or Viking or Hebrew did; we have very different gut reactions to the sight of violence, suffering, slavery, filial disobedience and people having freaky sex. As a result, we can be convinced by moral arguments with premises they would find preposterous.

  69. #69 coelsblog
    January 6, 2012

    Anton Mates:

    “I think we still are, but I’m sure coelsblog can clarify hirself on that point if it’s necessary.”

    I don’t think that morals are illusory, I regard them as very real but subjective. What I described as illusory is our feeling that our morals are objective and absolute.

    Evolution has programmed us with moral feelings, and (in order to enhance the effectiveness of our moral senses) evolution has also programmed us with the feeling that our morals have objectively validity. That latter is illusory.

  70. #70 Anton Mates
    January 6, 2012

    I don’t think that morals are illusory, I regard them as very real but subjective. What I described as illusory is our feeling that our morals are objective and absolute.

    Which is exactly Ruse’s position on that particular question, as far as I can tell. (I differ only in that I don’t think all of us actually have that feeling; I’m not even sure how common it is cross-culturally.)

  71. #71 Kevin
    January 11, 2012

    Just scanning your blog, the following three quotes stand out in my mind as indicating why, with reference to your blog’s subtitle, there may be an endless opposition between you and traditional Catholics (at least):

    1) “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.”

    2) “I would be very much surprised, though, if any of the folks typically accused of scientism actually reject historical scholarship as a legitimate route to knowledge.”

    3) “The really important thing, as I see it, is that religion be denied any status as a legitimate way of knowing.”

    Traditional Catholics would not say that “religion” is a legitimate way of knowing, and would agree that historical scholarship is a legitimate route to knowledge. From the latter, Catholics have concluded that an epiphany (lit. a manifestation of the deity) occurred in first century Palestine. And having acquired that historical knowledge, Catholics become moral absolutists relative to the Ten Commandments out of a desire to conform their will to God’s. And they would not defer to your value judgments any more than you wish to defer to theirs.

    I do not see a dispute here – just endless, logical, opposition on both sides.

  72. #72 Owlmirror
    January 11, 2012

    Traditional Catholics would not say that “religion” is a legitimate way of knowing,

    It’s been pointed out that the catechism of the Catholic Church does indeed mention “knowing” God.

    Just in the table of contents:

    – The life of man – to know and love God

    – Ways of Coming to Know God
    – The Knowledge of God According to the Church

    – “I Know Whom I Have Believed”

    From the latter, Catholics have concluded that an epiphany (lit. a manifestation of the deity) occurred in first century Palestine. And having acquired that historical knowledge

    How is this alleged historical “knowledge” different from religion?

  73. #73 Owlmirror
    January 11, 2012

    Traditional Catholics would not say that “religion” is a legitimate way of knowing,

    And, I might add, there is the famous point that the Catholic Church has declared that when the pope makes an official proclamation on a matter of faith or morals, he cannot possibly be wrong.

    Setting aside the sheer insanity of that sort of assertion, is that not equivalent to the pope basically claiming to have knowledge — perfect knowledge — of what he’s proclaiming, via his religion?

  74. #74 Wow
    January 12, 2012

    > Traditional Catholics would not say that “religion” is a legitimate way of knowing,

    However, they will insist that the bible is a legitimate way of knowing.

    In other words, THEIR religion is a legitimate way of knowing.

  75. #75 Kevin
    January 12, 2012

    The life of Jesus Christ is an event in history, so there can be historical knowledge about that.

    Christ Himself, as a human being, was capable of providing testimony. The knowledge of God is based on assessing the credibility of this testimony, and papal infallibilty is a claim based on already having accepted that it is credible. No one would be expected to accept the word of the Pope outside of that context.

    Similarly, no traditional Catholic would expect someone to accept the (interpreted) word of the Bible outside the context of the historical events in first century Palestine.

    A distinction must be made between evidence and persuasion. The fact that people may differ as to the persuasiveness of evidence does not mean that those who are persuaded are obliged to act as if they are not.

  76. #76 Owlmirror
    January 12, 2012

    [take 2, pt1]

    The life of Jesus Christ is an event in history, so there can be historical knowledge about that.

    If the alleged “life of Jesus Christ” is “an event” in history, then so is the life of Hercules, or the direct intervention of the Greek Gods in the Trojan war.

    How, exactly, are you distinguishing between confabulated stories and fact?

    Christ Himself, as a human being, was capable of providing testimony.

    But we have no testimony from this alleged human being. We have third or fourth hand narratives, rife with contradictions and inconsistencies, and completely unsupported by empirical evidence. Can it be determined that the authors of these narratives were not making up most, or even all, of what they wrote?

    The knowledge of God is based on assessing the credibility of this testimony

    Since it is not testimony, what exactly is it that you are being credulous about, to claim that you can have knowledge of God?

  77. #77 Owlmirror
    January 12, 2012

    [take 2, pt2]

    and papal infallibilty is a claim based on already having accepted that it is credible.

    That’s completely ludicrous. There are devout Christians who are credulous about the narratives of Christ, but are not credulous about the claim that the pope cannot possibly be wrong about faith or morals.

    The one does not follow from the other at all.

    A distinction must be made between evidence and persuasion. The fact that people may differ as to the persuasiveness of evidence does not mean that those who are persuaded are obliged to act as if they are not.

    As I understand it, Catholics are not “persuaded” by any evidence at all, but are rather indoctrinated with the claim that certain narratives — the canon — are, or refer to, “historical events”, and that the Catholic Church is the sole legitimate arbiter of the interpretation of these alleged events.

  78. #78 Verbose Stoic
    January 12, 2012

    Owlmirror,

    And, I might add, there is the famous point that the Catholic Church has declared that when the pope makes an official proclamation on a matter of faith or morals, he cannot possibly be wrong.

    Which has been invoked, what, once in the entire history of the Catholic Church, and has conditions that for the most part mean that it only applies to what the Pope says about the position of the Church itself, and not a matter of fact?

  79. #79 Owlmirror
    January 12, 2012

    Which has been invoked, what, once in the entire history of the Catholic Church, and has conditions that for the most part mean that it only applies to what the Pope says about the position of the Church itself, and not a matter of fact?

    Technically, what was ruled on was indeed a matter of fact: That a woman, who putatively lived about 2000 years ago, rose into the air like a balloon and disappeared forever from the face of the Earth.

  80. #80 Anton Mates
    January 12, 2012

    Kevin,

    Traditional Catholics would not say that “religion” is a legitimate way of knowing,

    What do you mean? According to Catholic teaching, sacred tradition, personal revelation and infallible decrees from both the pope and ecumenical councils are all legitimate ways of knowing. In fact, according to the First Vatican Council, divine revelation (in the general sense) is an indispensable way of knowing, since it communicates truths that cannot be “understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles.”

    Perhaps you wouldn’t say that these things fall under “religion”, but the rest of us certainly would.

    and would agree that historical scholarship is a legitimate route to knowledge.

    I don’t think anyone claimed that Catholics don’t believe in historical scholarship. That said, the Church explicitly asserts divine authority to condemn any historical or scientific claims which conflict with its articles of faith, and it has vigorously attacked many results of historical scholarship. Look at the attacks on the “Modernists” in the Lamentabili Sane and the Pascendi Dominic Gregis, for instance.

    (Of course, the “Modernists” were themselves Catholics; there are plenty of Catholic scholars who accept the primacy of secular ways of knowing in matters of science and history.)

    A distinction must be made between evidence and persuasion. The fact that people may differ as to the persuasiveness of evidence does not mean that those who are persuaded are obliged to act as if they are not.

    Sure, but the relevant question here is whether people differ on their interpretation of the evidence because they’re using different ways of knowing. Catholic doctrine is that historical claims can, and must, be rejected if they conflict with doctrines of faith–regardless of whether you find the evidence for them to be persuasive. They have only the “deceptive appearance of truth.”

    It may be that your personal understanding of Jesus’ life was developed using only the standard historical method, and just happened to end up precisely mirroring Catholic dogma. But the Church is quite clear that if you skip the history and begin with the dogma, that’s fine too. And so far as I know, most Catholics agree with this position–although, again, there’s certainly a substantial number that don’t.

  81. #81 Anton Mates
    January 12, 2012

    Verbose Stoic,

    Which has been invoked, what, once in the entire history of the Catholic Church

    Closer to twenty times, although the earlier cases are retroactive and often controversial. That’s because magisterial infallibility wasn’t consistently accepted until the late Middle Ages or so, and it wasn’t formally defined until the 19th century.

    Currently, it’s pretty much up to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to explain which teachings of the Pope or of ecumenical councils are infallible. According to that body, the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, the restriction of the priesthood to men, transubstantiation, Biblical inerrancy, the illicitness of euthanasia, prostitution and fornication, and the legitimacy of various canonizations and Papal elections have all been conveyed infallibly. (That’s not an exhaustive list.)

    and has conditions that for the most part mean that it only applies to what the Pope says about the position of the Church itself, and not a matter of fact?

    Er, the position of the Church is that these are matters of fact. The Catholic is expected to believe them because, among other things, they’re true.

    If you mean that they’re generally not matters of empirical fact, well, that’s mostly true. However, as Owlmirror says, some of them have empirical elements: the Assumption would be one example, and early apostolic succession would be another. (Either Jesus did or did not physically speak to Peter and tell him he’d be head of the church, and so forth.) The general idea is that infallibility is mostly restricted to the sphere of “faith and morals,” but can also cover empirical issues which are logically or historically connected to this sphere.

  82. #82 Owlmirror
    January 12, 2012

    Catholic doctrine is that historical claims can, and must, be rejected if they conflict with doctrines of faith–regardless of whether you find the evidence for them to be persuasive. They have only the “deceptive appearance of truth.”

    I once offered a scenario to heddle: Posit that a time viewer is invented. Anyone can see any event that occurred in the past, and it is, so far as anyone can tell, 100% reliable.

    If it showed that in the first century, Jesus’ resurrection was not genuine, for whatever reason; that Christianity arose as a misinterpretation of something, or as a confabulation — would that falsify Christianity?

    At that time, heddle agreed that it would. But I sometimes wonder if there would be Christians for whom even seeing the past firsthand would lead to them rejecting what they see as being valid.

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