Pharyngula

Science and human rights

Guestblogger Sastra checking in:

A few years back the little Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in my area asked me to give a brief talk (!) on the topic of my choice. Seems they were looking for speakers, any speaker, and had noticed that I tend to talk a lot. So I considered the sorts of things that appeal to me, and the sorts of things that might appeal to them, and decided to try to see if I could put together an interesting speech on “Science and Human Rights,” based on the idea “that concepts such as human rights, democracy, and science are historically linked together through similar foundations and assumptions.” I studied and filled myself with great arguments and quotations by such luminaries as Jacob Bronowski and John Dewey, shook it all together, and ended up, as I recall, driving through a blizzard to pour my impassioned argument out on a polite and appreciative crowd of about 6 people (I think (hope) the blizzard was more of a factor there, than it being me.)

Since PZ graciously gave me permission to write on “whatever floats my boat” (unless it be kiddie porn), I’m going to drag out my old notes and give a quick condensed version of my basic theme. It’s ambitious, but I think it might be relevant to Pharyngula. One of the popular stances taken by some religious apologists recently is that the methods of science grew directly from the underlying theology of the Catholic church. You also frequently hear the popular claim that the very concept of people having rights “makes no sense” without a theistic, not to say Biblical, foundation.

I’ll try then to make the secular case: that the human-centered values and rights which we see today as universal, eternal, and even self-evident have actually grown out of our recent past – and were influenced by how we did science.

Is science natural to our species, appearing over and over again throughout history? Depends on what you mean by “science,” I think. Technology clearly is: building better spears, and testing them to see if they work. But the methods of modern science go beyond that, and are much more rigorous and disciplined, with particular goals and modes of explanation committed to being objective, and avoiding and checking error – particularly self-error.

Like philosophers and scientists such as Lewis Wolpert and Alan Cromer, I believe that scientific thinking is a relatively recent phenomena, and actually goes against the grain of human nature, by forcing us to see things as they really are and not as we believe or feel them to be. This undercuts a basic human predisposition – to use personhood as the structure of explanation, with ourselves and our concerns indivisibly connected to the powers and concerns of the cosmos.

As Alan Cromer put it in his book Uncommon Sense: the Heretical Nature of Science: “All nonscientific systems of thought accept intuition, or personal insight, as a valid source of ultimate knowledge. Indeed, the egocentric belief that we can have direct, intuitive knowledge of the external world is inherent in the human condition. Science, on the other hand, is the rejection of this belief, and its replacement with the idea that knowledge of the external world can only come from objective investigation – that is, by methods accessible to all.”

What Cromer calls the “nonscientific systems of thought” are the simple theories of knowledge common to most cultures, and usually expressed through mysticism or religion. The idea is that all real understanding of the true nature of things comes from above, and is based on accepting the unquestionable authority of a personal source, human or superhuman. Our thirst for certainty is only slaked when we transcend the human condition, and seek something Higher – and Other – than ourselves.

Science, however, is firmly linked to human limitations and to this world, so it can’t give us that kind of satisfying certainty. Its conclusions are provisional, tentative, and limited, so we have to be able to test and change them if need be. And far from this sort of approach being a natural part of human development, I believe it arose from unique, contingent historical factors. It’s a fluke. Science, real science, might never have developed at all. Like people themselves, societies can get along and got along just fine without it. There’s no universal self-evident existing value for rigorous objective thinking. On the contrary – it has to be invented and learned.

Its genesis wasn’t in the Mideast, but in ancient Greece. What truly set Greece apart from other cultures was the respect granted the debater. Argumentative and logical skills were put on the same footing as courage and bravery in battle, and this factor stood out among ancient societies. “A debate is a competition of minds, in which contestants must counter one another with arguments designed to persuade their peers. The key words are competition, argument, persuasion, peers – all aspects of what we mean by objectivity, and, ultimately, science.”(Cromer)

In science, as in debate, dissent must be met by beginning on common ground and carefully leading the critic step by step to a different conclusion – and being willing to do the same thing oneself. We’re not searching for a final higher Authority above humanity, but a provisional common Consensus among equals. As Daniel Dennet might say, we’re building cranes, not seeking skyhooks.

Rights and duties can be thought of in much the same way. Just as you might say there are two basic ways of grounding knowledge – through revelation and through science, from above and from below – there are the same two ways of grounding human rights: authority or common consent.

Under the theory of authority, rights are seen as privileges or benefits granted from a greater power to a lesser, and they’re secured by an ultimate promise of force. It begins with the given that it’s the right of the ruler to rule, and the duty of the inferior to obey. The creator possesses what it creates. The parent rightfully controls its child. A king may grant his knight the ‘right’ to cross a bridge which the king owns: anyone who seeks to prevent the knight will face the force of the king’s retribution.

People who see human rights as something “granted by God” are usually acting under this understanding of rights, as something that can be “given” by an unquestioned and unquestionable Owner Authority, working from the top down. Seen this way, there are no individual rights as such, only the duties of those in a community to honor and obey God by respecting what He values. It’s very hierarchal. You might say that humans don’t have ‘rights’ – they have ‘permissions.’

The second way to ground an understanding of human rights is to build it up from the bottom, from a rational analysis which engenders a broad negotiated consent. Again, use cranes – not skyhooks. And that was the great “paradigm shift” of the Enlightenment, when modern democracies were formed. Philosophers such as John Locke changed the way we thought, by reasoning from authority to agreement as the basis for law and obligation.

I think there’s a parallel between the processes. Science and democracy are interdependent, in that they both rely on many of the same assumptions about values and people – and thus entail the same kind of ethics. Although the scientific study of the world won’t directly give us what morals we ought to follow, the practice of scientific study itself requires a preexisting system of ethics.

First and foremost is the “habit of truth.” From this comes a commitment to avoid self-deception as much as possible, and a sensitivity to how very easy it is to fool ourselves. We need checks and balances; we cannot test what is true by consulting no one but ourselves, and nothing but our own personal experiences and interpretations. Thus, a society of assumed equals is formed, bound to each other by a mutual obligation – or social contract — to tell the truth. Peer review is not an afterthought of science, but indispensable.

As John Dewey once pointed out, science and democracy spring from the same soil. They both require open inquiry, diversity, respect for logic and evidence, and an awareness of the tentative nature of all knowledge. Both allow the empowerment and participation of ordinary people within a disciplined process; both test results by consequences, and allow for self-correction. Both rely on arguments capable of convincing their public. And both science and democracy assume a common ground of equality between their members.

Neither system can hold an authority or dogma as “sacred.” Therefore, they value originality – which is a departure from most of human history, where originality was not seen as growth or improvement, but a sign of decay, or disobedience from an original perfection. Progress is a relatively new ideal. So is tolerance. Above all, both science and democracy are social systems that respect – and require — dissent.

“Dissent is the mark of freedom, as originality is the mark of independence of mind. And as originality and independence are private needs for the existence of science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs.” (Jacob Bronowski)

Contrary to some of the modern apologists, then, it doesn’t seem to me that a real foundation for human rights can be firmly grounded in any belief system ultimately based on mysticism. Benevolence and fairness – certainly – love and kindness – sure – but a system that relies on hierarchal and elitist claims of connection to a sacred authority will end up being closed and divisive as soon as it meets with dissent. It can’t place and meet its critics on an even ground, because it’s modeled on higher and lower, Enlightened and Unenlightened, parent and child, king and subject, God and Man. And where there is the authority of certainty, there is no need for – or possibility of — debate.

On a recent television show, Ben Stein infamously declared that “science leads you to killing people.” There is a more famous, and memorable, quote, taken from the PBS series The Ascent of Man. Mathematician-biologist Jacob Bronowski is standing among the ashes of Auschwitz, and he says:

“It is said that science will de-humanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

Comments

  1. #1 Steve LaBonne
    August 14, 2008

    I’m glad you ended with that famous Bronowski moment, which I have remembered vividly ever since first seeing it many years ago. It left a deep impression on me and turned me into a fallibilist for life.

  2. #2 Schmeer
    August 14, 2008

    So Sastra, when do we gain the privilage of reading your blog every day? (Assuming you don’t already have one of which I am ignorant.)

  3. #3 Charles Sane
    August 14, 2008

    I don’t often comment here, but just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this.

    Neither system can hold authority of dogma as ‘sacred’. This seems clear and well put.

    “both science and democracy are social systems that respect – and require — dissent.”

    I like and understand the reasoning you use to get to this conclusion, the sentences preceding it showing how it is true. But I’m not sure that it logically follows, and since it is so crucial to your argument I’d like to see its derivation worked out a little more.

    Anyway, PZ is great and all, but he can have another day of turtle chasing if you have any more of these gems to share… ; )

  4. #4 SC
    August 14, 2008

    Excellent post, Sastra.

    I’m going to take the opportunity to plug the exciting AAAS Science and Human Rights Program/Coalition:

    http://shr.aaas.org/Programs/program_engaging.htm

    Please spread the word.

  5. #5 nobi yuno
    August 14, 2008

    Very smart and well-written article. I would hedge on just one part, however. While I agree that any conception of human or democratic rights based on a mystical belief system would be inferior to one based objectively (as much as possible), it is not true that all religious hierarchies tolerate (or don’t tolerate) dissent in the same way.

    Some are highly tolerant of dissent, or more broadly put, some are much more flexible when it comes to accomodating or incorporating changes in values, beliefs, or scientific understandings of the broader culture.

    Universalists seem, for now, to do a much better job of accepting and incorporating scientific truth than do Baptists. To put it mildly.

    PZ Myers has done more to enhance and enrich my understanding of biology and the scientific process than any college professor I ever have, so I respect and appreciate him a great deal.

    His great blind spot, however, is the necessity in any polity of getting along, of the necessity for compromise. And so when he flies off the handle – as he recently did – and says that liberal, tolerant Universalists are at root no better than Fred Phelps, it just drives me nuts. The extent to which a religious system will abandon former truths as science and culture discover new ones is a measure of how much respect we should accord it, and how willing we should be to work with its adherents to common ends.

    As a scientist, he obviously is under no obligation to, himself, be any more tolerant or accomodating of someone who amends his religious beliefs in order to make room for scientific revelation. But in general, full members of a polity are smart to recognize the difference between 20% right and 80% right. Especially, if I were giving this speech to a Universalist congregation, I’d make some effort to acknowledge that not all religious doctrines or communities are equally hostile to dissent and change.

  6. #6 WCG
    August 14, 2008

    Superb post! I rarely comment here, but I had to express my appreciation this time.

  7. #7 Jeremy Kareken
    August 14, 2008

    First: great article and great speech. I don’t want my niggling points (call them peer review, if you would, from a non-theist) detracting from the feeling that it was well thought and executed.

    I feel atheists frequently create straw men in theists, and there are times you fall into that trap. Rights and choice are not “given” as “some” think in the story of Genesis, but taken. The idea that we are “endowed” (not given) basic rights by a Creator is an Enlightenment idea, one that was quite important. It was the rhetorical answer to the divine right of kings, and doesn’t really have any support in the Bible.

    But Genesis doesn’t show men (and his accomplice women), being given rights, but stealing them without His knowledge. And when it was stolen, He gave the consequences of choice to man (Adam, Hebrew for man). I don’t take any of this literally, only a ripping yarn written by a bunch of very smart people a long time ago, but we mustn’t confuse the book with the (more) flawed readers of today.

    I don’t particularly care how people arrive at the unique rights of the individual, through science or ignorance, as long as they arrive at those rights.

    Rights, of course, are as fictional as any God, but no less useful a fiction. Value, time, love, mind, God – these are all constructs that derive partially from our biology, partially from our culture, and partially from the discipline of re-imposing that culture every day, though science, meditation, concentration, prayer, or art.

  8. #8 Beowulff
    August 14, 2008

    Clearly, your appreciative crowd here already outnumbers the original crowd of six :)

  9. #9 Brandon Byrd
    August 14, 2008

    I must disagree with PZ and Bronowski. The horrors of the Nazis were not a byproduct of the certainty they attached to their beliefs. Instead it is properly viewed as a consequence of the mystical, non-rational ways in which the Nazis tried to validate their beliefs. They did not appeal to logically informed, empirically based arguments but instead offered evidence that could be found by listening to “the blood of the race” or “the spirit of the folk.” It is this abandonment of reason that ultimately lead to the horrors of Auschwitz, not certainty as such.
    Indeed, certainty in the rightness of a rational political ideal can lead, as it did with America’s founding fathers, to dramatically positive results. Notably, their certain belief in individual rights lead them to challenge the most powerful empire on the face of the globe… and win. Certainty as such isn’t bad; it is only certainty combined with irrational methodology that leads to disaster.

    Also, one correction. PZ wrote:
    “Philosophers such as John Locke changed the way we thought, by reasoning from authority to agreement as the basis for law and obligation.”

    I think you meant to write that Locke reasoned FROM agreement TO authority, since it is common consent that gives rise to political obligation in Locke (and thus it is consent that grounds the state’s authority to make claims on individual action).

    PZ is right to claim that this type of argument represents a significant advance over skyhook-style approaches. I’d like to pause for a minute to note, however, that what grounds these ideas in Locke is his belief that each man’s life is his own to live, and that consequently each individual must be left free to act in accordance with his own considered judgment. This point squares nicely with the theme of PZ’s talk. If individual rights exist to protect rational judgment, then there is an obvious connection between individual rights and science. That connection is: when individual rights are protected, scientific inquiry (which involves the exercise of individual rights through rational action) is free to proceed. And this is indeed seems to be the pattern evident throughout history. Whenever men have been left free, they have been left free to learn (and they have done so).

  10. #10 Brandon Byrd
    August 14, 2008

    Whoops! I overlooked who was writing the post. Apologies to Sastra!

    My above post holds mutatis mutandis with “Sastra” substituted for “PZ.”

  11. #11 MicroZealous
    August 14, 2008

    Nobi #5: Read Richard Dawkins on compromise. Sometimes one side just puts forth an unacceptable demand, and there is no middle way. If we’re talking about where to set the office thermostat, people can reach an acceptable solution. But when you are confronted with bullies who want your lunch money, is it tolerant and accomodating to give them half? No, it is not, and it does not resolve the situation, it just puts off dealing with it. We are all weak and fearful, and we wish that bullies did not exist, but there they are. We can internally generate our own courages, and it can resolve the situation without compromising our core. I felt the same cringe when PZ mounted his demonstration during ‘crackergate’. But, in the end, I appreciated his courage, support him totally, and was inspired to reflect on myself and gin up my own moral courage.

  12. #12 Boudicca
    August 14, 2008

    Beautiful post. I would love to read more.

  13. #13 CalGeorge
    August 14, 2008

    (FYI, John Locke was an asshole who supported slavery.)

  14. #14 Richard Harris
    August 14, 2008

    Jeremy Kareken, “Rights, of course, are as fictional as any God, but no less useful a fiction.”

    I beg to differ about the fictional aspect.

    Rights can only be bestowed by the powerful, upon whoever, or whatever, they think deserves them. Historically, the powerful have tended to favour their own kind in this regard, making concessions only as necessary.

    Human rights can only be bestowed by the powerful, which, in a democracy, are the electorate or their representatives. Only in democracies, therefore, would the powerful grant universal human rights. Thanks to Enlightenment values, this has come about, at least in some societies.

    Universal human rights arise from a contractual obligation, by those of us who are moral agents living in a democratic society, to treat others as they would themselves wish to be treated. For the proper functioning of democratic societies, the realization of this wish is the fundamental human right, which then allows for the implementation of subsidiary rights. Observing this fundamental right is the duty that we owe each other, to enable all to enjoy the benefits of democratic societies.

    For religionists, such as Christians, to suggest that the adoption of universal human rights depended upon their religion is disingenuous when sects of the same religion have sanctioned slavery, even since the time of Christian abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. I would think it much more likely that the values of Enlightenment thinking happened to influence the Christian abolitionists, in spite of their superstitious beliefs.

  15. #15 nobi yuno
    August 14, 2008

    I think I’m just more political than PZ. My point is that political and cultural change doesn’t come from flamboyant acts of dissent from small minorities, but from appeals to common ground and coalitions among groups with similar interests and views.

    And so to ostentatiously and offensively compare liberal and tolerant Universalists to Fred Phelps amounts to burning one’s bridges. It is totally counterproductive.

    Again, if this is how PZ feels, then he has every right to say so. But it’s counterproductive and, in my opinion, totally irrational to not see the differences. Look, it would be great if the whole country were full of secular humanists. But they’re not. Most profess a belief in God. Isn’t it preferable to get as many of them as possible to compromise their beliefs in deference to science and tolerance? Isn’t that a better outcome? If so, then why go out of your way to grievously insult those who are moving in your direction?

  16. #16 Reginald Selkirk
    August 14, 2008
  17. #17 Brandon Byrd
    August 14, 2008

    CalGeorge:
    Name-calling is for assholes. Also, trying to smear Locke as “supporting slavery” is dishonest for two reasons. Most importantly, the standard for criticism that you’re using to criticize him have Lockean ideas at their source. That is, Locke came up with the ideas by reference to which you seem to want to criticize him.

    Secondly, Locke only believed that one could legitimately enslave the conquered aggressors of an unjust war. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “[On Locke's view,] slavery is the state of being in the absolute or arbitrary power of another. On Locke’s definition of slavery there is only one rather remarkable way to become a legitimate slave. In order to do so one must be an unjust aggressor defeated in war. The just victor then has the option to either kill the aggressor or enslave them. Locke tells us that the state of slavery is the continuation of the state of war between a lawful conqueror and a captive, in which the conqueror delays to take the life of the captive, and instead makes use of him.”

    It helps to get one’s facts straight before one starts hurling accusations around.

  18. #18 Bronze Dog
    August 14, 2008

    Great post. That’s all I’ve got to say.

  19. #19 The Swede
    August 14, 2008

    it is not true that all religious hierarchies tolerate (or don’t tolerate) dissent in the same way.

    Yes, it is. The difference is a matter of degree. 20% right or 80% right is still wrong in the same way, only in different amounts. And they both have the very most basic thing, namely acceptance of reality over wishful thinking, wrong.

    The extent to which a religious system will abandon former truths as science and culture discover new ones is a measure of how much respect we should accord it, and how willing we should be to work with its adherents to common ends.

    Why? I see no reason to have a graded scale were some belief in a skyfairy is more acceptable than other.

  20. #20 patrickhenry
    August 14, 2008

    Good article! I’ve blogged numerous times on this theme, but rather than boring you with links to my own babblings I’ll give you Wikipedia links. Basically, although there were earlier beginnings, the scientific method, as well as the theories of politics and economics upon which the modern world is based, all got put on a solid philosophical basis in that unique explosion of rationality known as the Age of Enlightenment, and specifically influencing the American Revolution was the Scottish Enlightenment. Geology (among many other things) came out of the Scottish Enlightenment, and so did Darwin’s theory.

  21. #21 AgnosticOracle
    August 14, 2008

    re: CalGeorge

    FYI, John Locke was an asshole who supported slavery

    I think this make the case for human rights more like science even stronger. John Locke argued for the consent of the governed. We agree with that not because he is an authority but because his reasoning (and other which have added to the discussion as well) is still compelling and valid. We are likewise free to dismiss his position on slavery if we don’t find him compelling.

  22. #22 negentropyeater
    August 14, 2008

    Great post Sastra, and now you must be a happy person, you’re talking to a bit more than 6 people. Félicitations !

  23. #23 Keanus
    August 14, 2008

    After a long evening, last night, of combatting minds closed to evidence and tolerance, reading your post this morning was just the thing to start my day–along with my cup of coffee. Thank you.

  24. #24 MicroZealous
    August 14, 2008

    Nobi #15: No change from acts of dissent by minorities? Research the history of the civil rights movement, and conversely the success of the neocons. Whether an act is ‘flamboyant’ is strictly an opinion dependent on which side the observer is on. (Please, sir, may I exercise my rights? I won’t make a fuss.) Also research “Overton Window”.

    For an entertaining look at compromise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOlznuyPOeM. (Re Your brains).

  25. #25 Jams
    August 14, 2008

    Excellent Post. However, I’m not totally convinced that the common ground between science and democracy is greater than the ground between them. For example…

    The philosophy of science and democracy are a little different than the institutional realities of science and democracy. On a fundamental level, there is no such thing as a scientific representative. Consensus within scientific institutions is only formed between scientists, who are appointed, for the most part, by formerly appointed scientists. Conversely, consensus within democratic institutions is formed between representatives who are elected by unskilled/untested persons (even lobotomized persons) who may or may not have any expertise or any intention of consulting experts.

    I suppose, rather than the similarities, it’s the difference between science and democracy that I find worrying.

  26. #26 Ken
    August 14, 2008

    #7 states that men “took” rights. My problem with this is that concept that their rights resided somewhere else requiring the taking. Rights and authority always reside with us unless we give them up for some reason like coercion. Admittedly, a hierarchical system does supply some order but it requires that we surrender our rights to be passed out as some authority sees fit. However, those rights still began with us. I may decide to submit to a deity but the deity had no authority until I gave it to him/her/it. That goes for deities, ministers, police, presidents, mother-in-laws, etc.

  27. #27 Hypatia's Girl
    August 14, 2008

    Really interesting post, I am writing my MA thesis on ideas relating to this, looking at the modern (read 17th-ish Century) movement in philosophy and the development of the idea of the Subject.

    The question of Human Rights is a problematic one, and while I agree that one is more likely to find (what we consider to be) Human Rights in a system which is less hierarchical, one of the problems inherent in the idea of human rights is that they are only valid insofar as there is a system in place which will both recognize that an individual is fully human and therefore a beneficiary of rights, as well as be willing to enforce those rights, some sort of governmental power. (See Hannah Arendt, [i]The Origins of Totalitarianism[/i]) The Holocaust was able to be carried out, in part, by turning the victims of the camps into non-persons, into the Stateless. Denied recourse to judicial or governmental/political powers as a justification of their rights, the stateless also lost the appearance of having a moral justification for their rights. Being outside of the recognition of state-power is what allowed for the destruction of millions of people.
    Now this situation, being dependent on state-power for rights, is not peculiar to totalitarian or hierarchical regimes. Even in a democracy can people become stateless and so be set outside of the law, and outside of the recognition of rights (see Giorgio Agamben [i]Homo Sacer[/i]. I am thinking of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and the more subtle denials of rights such as whether or not, as an American woman, I have a genuinely recognized right to the integrity of my body to the same extent as an American man does.
    Science may help us to see that racial and sexual and national differences between people are negligible, expanding thinking of the “ingroup” which ought (in the moral ought) to have recourse to the same rights one would want for oneself, certainly clear rational thought precludes (in my happy happy world) denying that another person is in fact a person. However, and in specific contrast to Richard Harris above, if the notion of human rights as a universal is dependent on living in a power structure that recognizes and enforces them, they can hardly be truly universal, nor “natural” in a meaningful sense of the word.

    To mangle Vonnegut, a little less love and little more common human decency. To quote Arendt, we must think what we are doing.

    sorry for the length

  28. #28 philandsci
    August 14, 2008

    “Just as you might say there are two basic ways of grounding knowledge – through revelation and through science, from above and from below – there are the same two ways of grounding human rights: authority or common consent.”

    I wonder whether this is a false dichotomy. First, we need to make sure and recognize the distinction between legal rights and, what I think Sastra is talking about here, natural rights. I think most of us here agree that natural rights are not grounded on the authority of some god. So, according to this dichotomy, the other option is that natural rights are grounded on common consent. Suppose, then, that at some time in the future, there is a general common consent that all humans with blond hair and who are between 5’5 and 5’8 will be slaves for the government. Suppose that everyone believes this, even those who are to be slaves. Does the common consent mean that everyone else has the right (keep in mind, natural right and not legal right) to not be a slave except for that small population? It seems to me that, if such a situation should arise, then the common consent is wrong. People would just be mistaken about what natural rights people have.

    I’m thinking here of the Euthyphro criticism of divine command theory of natural rights: is it right because god says it’s right, or does god say its right because it’s right? If the former, then god could declare murder to be right, and it would be, but this seems wrong. Even if god existed and declared murder to be a good thing, god would be wrong. And if the latter, then the good or right exists independently of god, and god isn’t needed. A similar situation seems to arise here: it doesn’t matter what the consensus is at any given time. There are objective moral standards that exist independently of human beings, and we can be wrong about what those standards are. Of course, I know I’m going to get blasted for saying this, since this is “metaphysical nonsense”, but it seems to me that there must be objective moral standards that exist independently of human beings in order to make sense of our moral judgments. If it’s just the consensus, then those who disagree with the consensus at a given time are wrong, and that doesn’t make sense to me (think about all of the people through history who have disagreed with the prevailing consensus at the time, who we now think were correct in their moral judgments and therefore consider them to be heros).

    I look forward to getting yelled at on the intarwebs!

  29. #29 Glen Davidson
    August 14, 2008

    Our current belief in “rights” does relate to Xianity, certainly, which is unsurprising given how influential that religion is.

    Much more important than that to modern concepts of human and civil rights is the rise of the bourgeoisie, who wanted the rights that their “betters,” the aristocracy, had. So they began to demand “universal rights” for themselves, in exchange for support of the system. In addition, common law has a long tradition of balancing the demands of kings, commoners, and the aristocracy, all trading off rights and privileges in a struggle for power.

    Neither science nor religion have a lot to do with the rise of the concept of “human rights,” although science typically benefits from openness (it’s more a consequence of liberalization, than cause). Rights come out of economics and power struggles, primarily.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  30. #30 mothra
    August 14, 2008

    Excellent post Sastra.

    Jeremy said: “Rights, of course, are as fictional as any God, but no less useful a fiction.”

    A god is not a useful fiction in the arena of human rights for reasons aptly pointed out by Sastra. A personal god may be useful as a coping mechanism for people who have no other way to deal with adversity, grief, tragedy, i.e. certain aspects of reality.

  31. #31 The Swede
    August 14, 2008

    philandsci,

    It is clear you wish there were objective moral standards, and apparently that those conform to your moral standards, but since when does wishing it was so make it so?

    Unless you can provide an objective moral standard for examination, your premise about their existence will have to be discarded as nothing but wishful thinking.

  32. #32 GirBoBytons
    August 14, 2008

    Well written!

  33. #33 SteveM
    August 14, 2008

    IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
    The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
    … That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

    To me, this line is the key concept of the enlightenement. That governments only protect the rights of the people, it does not grant them. Even though from a pragmatic view the result may be the same it is an important distinction that government is actually the subject of the people, a tool designed to protect their rights, that the people are not the subjects of the government. So, even though you could say that it is still the “powerful granting rights” and the only difference is that the power is now the people instead of a king, I think that oversimplifies and misses the point completely. Rights become the object of debate and consensus rather than the whim of an authority.

  34. #34 Maria
    August 14, 2008

    Excellent post, and great food for thought.

    I agree that science and democracy share a basic respect for individual autonomy, and thus have a common mindset – which for lack of a better word (I’m not a philosopher) we could call individualistic.

    But I wouldn’t overplay the importance of that link. I think politics and science are fundamentally different. While science is about finding some sort of truth, however temporary, politics is about making compromises. There isn’t one policy that is “right”, or that is more correct than others. There are people with opposing interests who need to come to an agreement.

    To summarize, I think what you’re really praising is an individualistic worldview that makes each person a legitimate participant in world affairs. Human rights, in this view, are about allowing individuals to not be instruments of others; democracy (ideally) gives them a say in political decisions; science means sets rules and every individual can contribute to our understanding of the world as long as these rules are followed.

  35. #35 SC
    August 14, 2008

    Hypatia’s Girl @ #27,

    If you haven’t already, you should definitely read Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights: A History (her thesis about the role of novel-reading is a stretch, and she gives short shrift to the role of social movements, but it’s an interesting read). WRT the issue of human rights in practice and political power, if you could get me your email address somehow (maybe through Sastra?) I could send you the lit review section of my dissertation, which deals with this question in some depth.

  36. #36 Sastra
    August 14, 2008

    nobi yuno #5 wrote:

    While I agree that any conception of human or democratic rights based on a mystical belief system would be inferior to one based objectively (as much as possible), it is not true that all religious hierarchies tolerate (or don’t tolerate) dissent in the same way.

    Oh, I agree. There are clear differences between how “authoritarian” different religions are. Many sects have, as Richard Harris says in #14, been strongly influenced by the values of the Enlightenment. There are also religions which promote tolerance as a fundamental value.

    My point was that there is a small but sometimes significant difference between a view which reasons from agreement to authority (thanks for the correction Brandon Byrd #9; my sentence was sloppy) and one which says that we ought to have a democracy and respect human rights because this is what God orders (or this is what God’s nature is.)

    I’m not sure where you found PZ saying that “liberal, tolerant Universalists are at root no better than Fred Phelps,” but I think you misunderstand what he meant, because taken at face value that is, of course, just stupid. My guess is that he was pointing out that the method of deriving your morals and values from God is a poor one, and unpredictable. The person who claims that God wants us to respect human rights is just as “correct” as the person who claims that God wants us to slaughter the infidel. By appealing to mysticism and supernaturalism instead of reason and the secular world, there’s no appeal — no way we can all check with God and see who got it right.

    A brief note on the UU’s, by the way. I’ve attended their fellowship many times, and really admire and enjoy the people, and their humanistic form of spirituality. But their relationship to ‘dissent’ is a bit dicey. As humanists, they value rational analysis and criticism of all ideas, including religion. But as open and tolerant members of the spiritual community, they are committed to accepting all positive forms of spirituality as valid, without judgment or criticism. This clashes.

    If they have a speaker on, say, the science of reiki healing, they don’t know what to do when someone raises their hand at the end and argues that no, it’s pseudoscience. They value honest dissent: they promote respect for (ie not challenging) anyone’s beliefs. They’re sort of at a standstill. Usually, they try to find some way to say that BOTH sides are equally right, in their own way. At least, in my experience.

  37. #37 DiscoveredJoys
    August 14, 2008

    I, for one, would like to see science (the methodology) used to far greater extent in the support of democracy (the methodology).

    How many laws have been passed without subsequent scientific benefit analysis? How many voting systems have been proven to accurately reflect the wishes of the voters?

    So, for instance, is the “War on Drugs” based on good science, with proper benefit analysis in place? I don’t think so. I’m sure you can think of many other examples.

    While science and democracy may spring from the same source, politics (how we do democracy) is the art of compromise – and science isn’t.

  38. #38 wÒÓ†
    August 14, 2008
  39. #39 Felix The Cat
    August 14, 2008

    ‘Since PZ graciously gave me permission to write on “whatever floats my boat” (unless it be kiddie porn)..’

    What about Kitty Porn?

  40. #40 H.H.
    August 14, 2008

    As Daniel Dennet might say, we’re building cranes, not seeking skyhooks.

    I thought the cranes and skyhooks analogy was Dawkins? At least, I first remember reading it in The God Delusion. But I’ve never read Dennet, so perhaps he is the originator.

    But superbly argued, Sastra. These are the sorts of posts theists avoid. It neuters their arguments and forces them to confront the flimsiness of their beliefs. They hate that. They prefer to think of us as petty, angry and unenlightened.

  41. #41 evilbunnytoo
    August 14, 2008

    This is really interesting, particularly since a research group I am involved with has been charting the rise of a global culture post-1945 which uses science and rationality as it’s standard. To paraphrase from a chapter I am writing –

    “In particular we argue that that (1) global civil society is fragment and bound together only via a common culture, (2) this common culture is based in the perceived universal authority of science and rationality which elevates the individual above the collectivity and endows them with a set of inalienable rights, and (3) this common culture has been spread via linkages that include, supra-national organizations, treaties, and most importantly international organizations.”

    We argue that the emphasis on science and rationality has actually led to the notion of Human Rights and, our theory implies that(1) currently our notions of human rights or any rights aren’t based in religion but rather in notion of science and rationality and (2) that religion is not the basis of modern morality –

    “In this modern world society, “authority based on scientific knowledge plays a central role” (Drori et al. 2003). Science has penetrated all areas of social and cultural life, and appeals to scientific principles and methods as approaches to these areas predominate in the modern world (ibid). In the ideological and cultural realm, this “scientization” has led to an increasing appeal to legal-rational forms of authority based in science.
    Under globalization not only are traditional sources of authority undercut, but the authority of the nation-state is undercut as well, because people have been transformed from citizens into individuals. Previously, rights and privileges at the international level were derived solely from citizenship in a sovereign nation-state. In the new global civil society, individuals no longer receive rights and privileges because they are citizens of a nation-state. Rather, they are considered to have a core set of inalienable rights due to their status as members of the human race (Frank and Meyer 2002). Individual human beings are conceived of as having a core set of capabilities and as bounded actors who behave in rational ways and rely on scientific authority in their decision-making processes (Drori et al. 2003). In the new global civil society the conception of the individual as being rational and having a core set of right is a purely ideological construction that enjoys a priori status.
    The scientization of authority and construction of the individual as the locus of rights and privileges has de-legitimated traditional sources of authority such as the family and religion. As rational entities, individuals are subject to their own “personal tastes and preferences…” and “traditional control systems, such as religion, [are recast] in terms of individual choices and needs” (Frank and Meyer 2002). Religion and other identities become ideological choices that exist outside of the individual.

  42. #42 Sastra
    August 14, 2008

    philandsci #28 wrote:

    I think most of us here agree that natural rights are not grounded on the authority of some god. So, according to this dichotomy, the other option is that natural rights are grounded on common consent.

    As I understand it, the basic Enlightenment stance was that natural rights are grounded in Nature, in that we are created (or evolved) as basically equal in the essentials. You don’t have some men born with spurs, and others with saddles. This truth can be discerned through reason, and then instituted by common consent among reasonable people of good will.

    My post here is a shortened version of a short talk, and it’s all highly simplified — undoubtably too simplified. A lot of people here are filling in the gaps, or correcting some errors. As someone said, peer review :)

  43. #43 philandsci
    August 14, 2008

    Hi Swede,

    Thanks for the response. It’s not that I “wish there were objective moral standard” and that those conform to my moral standards. I want my moral standards to conform to the objective moral standards, and if they don’t, then I’m wrong. And I admit that I can’t provide one for empirical examination via the senses. But I also can’t provide a mathematical truth, such as 2+2=4, for empircal examination via the senses. Nevertheless, 2+2=4 is an objective mathematical truth; it is true regardless of what anyone thinks about it. If everyone suddenly got sick and thought that 2+2=5, then they would all be wrong. And we are often wrong about mathematical facts. But I want to suggest that we discover ethical truths (truths about objective moral standards) in a similar fashion as the way we discover mathematical truths, i.e., via rational investigation.

    And keep in mind that if you’re right, then, for example, those who are trying to have ID taught as science in our high schools aren’t doing anything wrong. And if they develop a large enough consensus and then have ID taught as science in high school, those who go against the consensus will be wrong to try to stop them.

    All right, hit me again.

  44. #44 Moses
    August 14, 2008

    Much better post than your tortured analogy post. Well written, to the point, and fundamentally solid.

  45. #45 philandsci
    August 14, 2008

    “This truth can be discerned through reason, and then instituted by common consent among reasonable people of good will.”

    Hi Sastra,

    Thanks for clearing that up; I now think we agree more than disagree. I think that the “truth that can be discerned through reason” that you mention is the truth about objective moral standards, and the institution of those standards are the legal rights I mentioned previously, which can be correct or incorrect implementations of the objective moral standards.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Cheers.

  46. #46 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 14, 2008

    I like the article. And there is certainly merit [sic] in comparing the meritocracy of science (as in ideas and expertise) with the meritocracy of democracy (as in useful regulation and chosen politicians).

    But this is arguable:

    Although the scientific study of the world won’t directly give us what morals we ought to follow, the practice of scientific study itself requires a preexisting system of ethics.

    First and foremost is the “habit of truth.”

    In practice science flourishes in democracies. But as a method it works everywhere, in dictatorships as well as religious societies.

    The participating individuals doesn’t even need to believe in what they find out as long as they accept the consequences for practical reasons. (See for example theists such as Ken Miller that is privately junk tested evolution theory for an untested agent idea combined with the suggestion that ‘human equivalent intelligence’, whatever that is, was a certain state. But he can’t act as if it is true when he does science.)

    Btw, I thought ethics was the effort to systematize observed morals by, if possible, find systems to base them on and perhaps suggest, if not improvements, so the here applauded diversity? A “habit of truth” sounds like morals to me.

  47. #47 uncle frogy
    August 14, 2008

    I have a great emotional reaction when I hear again about Jacob Bronowski I can hear his voice if I set still and listen to my memory.
    I do not see that the basic internal search for meaning that I see as one of the basic sources of religion by itself lead to see rights as given by the powerful to the less powerful. Just as it is not really in Islam to treat women as extreme as is advocated as the Taliban, at least that is what I have been lead to believe.
    Religion has been adapted and modified by the powerful to justify their being powerful priest-kings, the divine right of kings, the Pope, jerry Falwell.
    There is nothing I can see that is intrinsic to “the religious experience” that by itself leads to a worship of the powerful. If you look at the simpler cultures, hunter gatherers, you do not see authority as it is in say egypt under the pharaohs. You do see more authority in agricultural societies and not a strong democratic society.
    the hunter needs to be very flexible in thinking and follow the evidence regardless of authority to get the food. the farmer must do things in order according to the calender and the pattern to get to his harvest. it is a longer term gamble than what the hunter makes who must hunt continuously. A bigger harvest needs bigger fields which needs more farmers who need organization which fosters a leader.
    Is this true? how have the existing powers influenced the expression of and the practice of “religion”?
    I do not have any figures I can point to but that is how it looks to me.

  48. #48 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 14, 2008

    @ Jeremy Kareken, #7:

    Rights, of course, are as fictional as any God, but no less useful a fiction.

    How can you try to claim that after Sastra gave a practical, observable, example of a right?

    Perhaps you meant to say that rights are societal constructions? But even as such they are demonstrably more useful than fiction (when they work well).

  49. #49 The Swede
    August 14, 2008

    Hi philandsci,

    Nevertheless, 2+2=4 is an objective mathematical truth; it is true regardless of what anyone thinks about it.

    While this is correct, it is immaterial to the point at hand. That 2+2=4 is a tautology which reduces to basic mathematical axioms, not an objective thing.

    But I want to suggest that we discover ethical truths (truths about objective moral standards) in a similar fashion as the way we discover mathematical truths, i.e., via rational investigation.

    In that case you are suggesting that we discover ethics by building on unsupportable and unprovable axioms. I would tend to agree with this. There is no objective basis to build ethics and morals from, they are purely intersubjective and based on axioms we have simply decided upon.

    And keep in mind that if you’re right, then, for example, those who are trying to have ID taught as science in our high schools aren’t doing anything wrong. And if they develop a large enough consensus and then have ID taught as science in high school, those who go against the consensus will be wrong to try to stop them.

    Yes, they are. That morals are not objective does not mean all morals are equal.

    Do not confuse lack of absolute, objective morals with the notion that all morals have equal merit. Those are two separate notions and one does not lead to the other.

    Morals exist to promote society and the individuals in society. Morals which accomplish this better are better, no matter whether there are objective morals which can be discovered. And until you can show us an objective moral, they exist only in your imagination.

  50. #50 H.H.
    August 14, 2008

    philandsci, since you can provide no objective method for discovering or testing “moral truths,” then their existence becomes an article of faith on your part. And it seems you require their existence because you dislike the consequences of not having them (blond people might become slaves if everyone felt that way). But your uncomfortableness is not a valid reason to presume their existence. Many theists aren’t comfortable with the idea that have no soul and no part of them will live on after they die. But that doesn’t mean souls exist.

    Morals are mutable, clearly, though this mutability is limited an extent. Evolution has given us all a basic and universal moral language, but there is wide latitude in how it is expressed. I think you really should try to make your peace with that and not rely on baseless metaphysics. I would recommend the book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser as
    good primer, based on actual empirical evidence and science.

    And yes, the conclusion is that if we evolved differently (for instance, if we weren’t social creatures), then we would have different a moral language. Sorry, but that’s the conclusion the evidence points to, however uncomfortable that makes you feel.

  51. #51 Moses
    August 14, 2008

    Posted by: Richard Harris | August 14, 2008 10:04 AM

    I would think it much more likely that the values of Enlightenment thinking happened to influence the Christian abolitionists, in spite of their superstitious beliefs.

    So being anti-slavery, for example, was not a Christian belief by Christianity at large. In fact, it was quite excused and, to a great extent, endorsed by the Catholics and other mainstream religions well into and past the Enlightenment.

    Abolitionism’s religious roots came from the Mennonites (and other radical reformers) at the birth of the Protestant Reformation though, in America, it was popularized more by the Quakers as the Mennonites had already suffered hundreds of years of persecution because of their anti-slavery beliefs (among others) and had become withdrawn from society at large by the time of the rise of Abolishment movement.

    I think it is clear the historical record indicts the vast majority of Christian faiths in this immoral, inhuman practice. Clearly, religious practice by the majority of Christians, through their doctrinal practices and beliefs, illustrates the falsity of their “morality comes from religion” position.

    Slavery is, and always was, immoral. Mennonites, among the first of the Protestants to break away, were persecuted, in part, because of their beliefs that slavery was wrong at all times in all places. (There were other issues, but slavery was one for which they were persecuted. Mennonites also were among the first adopters of Church State separation as early as 1525. This lead to additional persecution due to the entanglements of Church and State in those days.)

    The Enlightenment wasn’t until hundreds of years later.

    And, for the record, the Catholics were the worst of the immoral lot. So suck it cracker boys!

  52. #52 Marcel
    August 14, 2008

    This was really one of the most insightful things I’ve read on the internet.

    Though I’d still say the modern concept of “rights” does still rely, to some extent, on “permissions”. When you look deeper into the states of Europe that pioneered the modern theory of human rights, you see several political revolutions where the people from the old power structure were butchered and murdered by revolutionaries.

    I’d suggest that the old power holders’ acceptance of the new bottom-up theory of human rights came as a result of living through this butchery, and realizing that their old “permissions” structure, based on power, didn’t do anything for them once they lost power. So, they had to agree to the idea that all humans have innate rights – because only then could they count on their subjects continuing to recognize their rights after they lost power.

  53. #53 Richard Harris
    August 14, 2008

    Hypatia’s Girl, @ # 27, “…they can hardly be truly universal, nor “natural” in a meaningful sense of the word.”

    That’s right, Jeremy Bentham, (1748-1832), famously described ‘natural and imprescriptible rights’ as, “nonsense upon stilts”.

    Only in a democracy can we begin to approach universality in human rights. Where there are contentious issues, such as abortion, the views of the majority should prevail. Sometimes our representatives do not act upon their knowledge of prevailing public opinion, thinking that they know better. Their responsibilities in formulating legislation perhaps makes them focus their minds more than the general public does.

    We are obliged to make human rights up as we go.

  54. #54 Ed
    August 14, 2008

    “phenomenon”

  55. #55 Pat McComb
    August 14, 2008

    Excellent and helpful!

    I think you have a very compelling case on parallels between science and human rights. Especially to the extent that both traditions are maturing. Both have a growing repertoire of concepts and refinements. And Dennett’s concept of cranes (as opposed to skyhooks) is perfectly apt.

    My view on rights is a little different. They are human constructs which are practiced by communities and populations. I wouldn’t call them fictional. In a way, rights are analogous to monetary currency. They are community agreements which accord value.

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking post.

  56. #56 DavidWaldock
    August 14, 2008

    Please don’t refer to child sexual abuse images as “porn”! I don’t know what porn floats your boat, but typically it involves images of consenting adults.

    Child sexual abuse images are simply a record of a child being abused; let’s not reduce the stigma associated with paedophilia by equating it to something perfectly legal.

    (PS – The rest of the post was great!)

  57. #57 Blake Stacey
    August 14, 2008

    uncle frogy (#47):

    Just as it is not really in Islam to treat women as extreme as is advocated as the Taliban, at least that is what I have been lead to believe.

    “Islam” is what people who self-identify as “Muslim” do. Absent any empirical evidence on the will of Allah, we lack a secular way to tell which faction is “the true Islam”. Just think of all we don’t know:

    We don’t know (a) what Mohammed really said and did (Caliph Uthman burned all variations of the Koran he didn’t like); (b) which of the inconsistent Mohammedan sayings should be accepted, and which should be “abrogated”; (c) how to derive lessons for modern times from descriptions of ancient ones.

    Sastra:

    Like philosophers and scientists such as Lewis Wolpert and Alan Cromer, I believe that scientific thinking is a relatively recent phenomena, and actually goes against the grain of human nature, by forcing us to see things as they really are and not as we believe or feel them to be.

    I tend to side with Sagan over Cromer on this point; in The Demon-Haunted World, he makes the case that even some hunter-gatherer practices should legitimately be called “science”. However, there’s still a major “phase transition” in ancient Greece, when scientific thinking was first applied to everything under and beyond the Sun.

  58. #58 llewelly
    August 14, 2008

    OT:
    There is an msnbc article which appears to be misreporting Michael Newdow’s suit against ‘under god':

    msnbc :

    An atheist who has spent four years trying to ban the Pledge of Allegiance from being recited in public schools …

    Wikipedia :

    Newdow is best known for the lawsuit filed on behalf of his daughter against inclusion of the words “under God” in public schools’ recitals of the United States’ Pledge of Allegiance. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the phrase constitutes an endorsement of religion, and therefore violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

    Seeking to remove the words ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance is very different from seeking to ban the pledge entirely. If Newdow’s suit is as described by wikipedia, msnbc is guilty (again) of distortion that makes atheists appear anti-patriotic. Furthermore, there is an attached poll to crash.

    I originally saw this on friendlyatheist, and tried to post a similar comment, but after several ‘This Account Has Exceeded Its CPU Quota’ and ‘Sorry cowboy … you have 4 more tries remaining’ errors I gave up.

  59. #59 GK4
    August 14, 2008

    Sastra,
    Your comparison of hierarchy versus egalitarianism and revelation versus negotiation reminds me of another essay I read some time ago. A UU named Doug Muder compared two models of family interaction, the “Inherited Obligation” model and the “Negotiated Commitment” model. I think his ideas fit well with yours in this essay.

    “Red Family, Blue Family: Making Sense of the Values Issue”:
    http://www.gurus.org/dougdeb/politics/209.html

  60. #60 philandsci
    August 14, 2008

    “The speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s”

    Is this statement true? If it is, what makes it true? A fact about the world; one we investigate through empirical science. At this point in time, based on the research that’s been conducted, it seems that it is true that the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s. But, as is often noted on this blog, science is messy. We may have made a mistake, and we may discover this mistake at some time in the future and revise our finding and our belief.

    “Morals which accomplish this better are better.”

    Is this statement true? If so, what makes it true? A fact about the world which we investigate through philosophical analysis and reasoning. At this point in time, The Swede believes this proposition to be true, and I believe it to be false. One of us is wrong. And one of us may, in the future, discover the mistake we have made in reasoning and why we are wrong and revise our finding and our belief.

    That’s what I mean by “objective moral standard” (“OMS”): OMSs are what make moral statements and beliefs true or false, and they are indispensable in explaining what makes those statements and beliefs true or false. Though there are OMSs, any given person may be mistaken about what they are, just as one might be mistaken about the speed of light or some other empirical claim.

  61. #61 Brandon Byrd
    August 14, 2008

    I’d just like to add to the discussion about moral truths.

    In contemporary philosophical practice, a great deal of ethicists adopt a naturalistic conception of the physical universe, including an evolutionary understanding of man and his psychological capacities. These viewpoints don’t lead most moral philosophers to claim that there are no objective truths in ethics. Atheists who reject morality when they reject religion throw the baby out with the bathwater (and to this extent they deserve the condemnation that atheists standardly get from evangelicals). In a slogan: giving up God doesn’t mean giving up the good.

    Some people are just haters.

  62. #62 pradeep
    August 14, 2008

    Sastra, thank you for the excellent exposition on this topic. Do you have your own blog that we can visit? Or, would you consider posting your original talk to the Unitarians in its entirety?

  63. #63 H.H.
    August 14, 2008

    Brandon Byrd, as The Swede said in #49, “That morals are not objective does not mean all morals are equal. Do not confuse lack of absolute, objective morals with the notion that all morals have equal merit. Those are two separate notions and one does not lead to the other.”

    Saying that morals are subjective is not the same as “rejecting morality.”

    philandsci, you keep arguing by analogy, saying that if objective moral standards (OMS) were an empirical fact like the speed of light, then OMS would be empirically discoverable. But you haven’t provided any evidence that this is so, you merely keep asserting it. That isn’t an argument. Far from being “indispensable in explaining what makes [moral] statements and beliefs true or false, Occam’s razor cuts out your metaphysical musings as unnecessary. The fact that you wouldn’t like it if morals were subjective is not an argument that they aren’t.

  64. #64 erick g
    August 14, 2008

    Well written post. Thank you!

  65. #65 Anthropeleres
    August 14, 2008

    Great post! While I agree that human rights are founded in rational thought and egalitarian discourse, I do have to disagree that science, and scientific thought, is a modern invention.
    Societies which were not subject to totalitarian agriculture and it’s attendant religious fervor express a very scientific outlook – they just don’t call it that. At basics, science is the detailed observation of the world/universe around us, the formation of hypotheses based on those observations, and the testing of those hypotheses through repeated experiments. Hunter-gatherer societies have been doing this quite probably for hundreds of thousands of years. Their continued survival relied on their ability to observe, then accurately predict patterns of herd behaviour, weather, plant growth, and many other facets of their existence. While they didn’t practice scientific thought for it’s own sake, they still employed it, and their societies were largely egalitarian, with no question that humans have rights, just as every living creature did. They may have ascribed mystical explanations to some phenomena, but then, so did the Greeks on occasion.

    In essence, I support your argument, Sastra, with the exception of timeline. I argue that science was not a modern invention overcoming the religious intolerance of the past, but rather a very old way of thinking, suppressed by religious dogma and making a comeback. Perhaps it’s an unimportant distinction, but one I felt was necessary to bring up.

  66. #66 sphex
    August 14, 2008

    continuing the OT #58 llewelly:
    The poll “Should the motto “In God We Trust” be removed from U.S. currency? ” (at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10103521/)

    Currently stands at:
    10% “Yes. It’s a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.”
    90% “No. The motto has historical and patriotic significance and does nothing to establish a state religion.”

    Perhaps one of the Pharyngula Minions can elevate this poll to the status of a post, where it is more likely to get all of our spittle-flecked selves to go vote? (Those numbers are with 115651 votes, so I’m not terribly optimistic we can completely change it, but every little bit helps.)

    /OT

    Sastra, great post. I always appreciate reading your thoughts, and this was no exception. Let me add my voice to those saying that if you had a blog, I’d be a regular. (Usually a lurker, as I am here, but a regular nonetheless!)

  67. #67 Sastra
    August 14, 2008

    Thanks to all who asked if I have my own blog: no. It’s been nervewracking enough coming up with stuff this week for someone else’s blog. I’m very lazy.

    As for what I left out of my talk, some of it involved the contingencies behind the gradual development of modern science (Cromer’s book is a great resource — since he is a physicist I sent a copy to a friend with degrees in that area of history(Richard Carrier)to vet it for me):

    Why (was science developed in Western Europe), and not elsewhere? A large variety of specific cultural factors all had to work together. First was the debate assembly, where men learned how to persuade and counter each other; then we had a sea-based trading system and large empire with a common language which helped to prevent isolation and parochialism; fourth was an independent merchant class which could afford education and support scholars; next was a literary tradition which promoted liberal, rational thinking; sixth was a flexible religion without a politically powerful priesthood – and last was the persistence of these factors for 1,000 years. All of this was probably necessary.

    I don’t think the rigorous methods of science are “a very old way of thinking, suppressed by religious dogma and making a comeback.” I think that’s a bit romanticized, the “beautiful people” myth. The observation, prediction, and testing done by pre-modern societies were more along the lines of useful technologies, not connected underlying explanations.

  68. #68 Sastra
    August 14, 2008

    Sphex #66 wrote:

    Perhaps one of the Pharyngula Minions can elevate this poll to the status of a post, where it is more likely to get all of our spittle-flecked selves to go vote?

    Hi, sphex.
    No: look at the date. That poll’s from a story dated November 18, 2005.

  69. #69 Pierce R. Butler
    August 14, 2008

    Half a hundred comments already, and not one troll proclaiming that secularism is kiddie porn?

    Fr. J.? Pete Rooke? Anyone?

  70. #70 Pierce R. Butler
    August 14, 2008

    Brandon Byrd @ # 9: …their certain belief in individual rights lead them to challenge the most powerful empire on the face of the globe… and win.

    Point of historical accuracy: in 1776 the most powerful “empires” were probably the Ottoman Sultanate and the Kingdom of France – and, certainty or not, Geo. Washington & Co. would have been promptly stomped without major aid and intervention from the latter (which in turn would have been just as happy to support GW in setting up his own sultanate).

  71. #71 QueenoftheHarpies
    August 14, 2008

    Shastra, excellent points. I look forward to reading more from you.

  72. #72 Xister Xenia
    August 14, 2008

    Secularism leads to kiddy porn.

  73. #73 Jeremy Kareken
    August 14, 2008

    “For religionists, such as Christians, to suggest that the adoption of universal human rights depended upon their religion…”

    I think you’ve got it backwards, actually. Their religious views led them to believe that universal human rights was a necessity for all, not the other way around. Adoption of a religion is not required for someone to be free. And for many, the adoption of their religion depended on universal human rights.

    And you claim:
    Human rights can only be bestowed by the powerful, which, in a democracy, are the electorate or their representatives.

    Power is another fiction and another contractual obligation that requires the tacit consent of the disempowered. My boss has power over me only that which I give him.

    The second empowered in your claim is of course in a Republic, and the first a Democracy. Fortunately we live in neither. We live in a constitutionally delimited Republic. Republics can do all sorts of nasty things to people if unbounded by certain codes of law that defend the rights of the individual. I feel very indebted to religionists who’ve gone before this non-religionist.

  74. #74 eddie
    August 14, 2008

    It’s all very well to point to the mennonite belief that slavery is always wrong, but where was the rational basis for that belief?
    If you believe that the sky is blue because authority tells you?…

    Brandon @17 took calGeorge to task for allegedly misrepresenting Locke. I think his trying to justify slavery in some circumstances qualifies [Locke] for assholedom.
    A modern application of Locke’s attitude would justify amercans being enslaved by iraqis.

  75. #75 poke
    August 14, 2008

    Although I like Cromer and recommend his book, I think the attempt to link democracy and human rights to science is misguided and wrong. I don’t think freedom from dogma has much to do with science at all (although this is a story we atheists like to tell) and I don’t think a “habit of truth” has much to do with democracy at all (quite the opposite; democracy is an embrace of subjectivism). It’s difficult to know where to begin a critique because the motivation for tying the two things together isn’t clear to me, beyond wanting to give democracy the good name of science (or vice versa, depending on who your audience is). Human rights and science are likewise problematic; human rights are essentialist in nature. Science doesn’t dehumanize people; but it doesn’t have much to do with liberal politics either.

  76. #76 Rolan le Gargéac
    August 14, 2008

    Being outside of the recognition of state-power is what allowed for the destruction of millions of people.

    Crap. State power is that which allows a framework of “dehumanisation”, untermensching if you will, to permit “inhuman” action to take place. It is happening again, right now, over the stupdity in Ossetia.

  77. #77 Rolan le Gargéac
    August 14, 2008

    Aargh, sorry I meant Hypatia’s Girl |#27

    up above, front, to put. (comment 76)

  78. #78 Brandon Byrd
    August 14, 2008

    Eddie @ 74:
    Impressive argument. Way to judge Locke objectively, taking his context into account. Surely Locke was an asshole.

    Alright, that’s all the slumming I’m capable of.

  79. #79 Rolan le Gargéac
    August 14, 2008

    Glen Davidson |#29

    Our current belief in “rights” does relate to Xianity, certainly, which is unsurprising given how influential that religion is…. some bollocks

    Don’t you read, research, explore, find out, look shit up yo .. Gilgamesh & Enkiddu, the Hairy Man, why did they fight.
    Because the Hairy Man knew that some things were not right. Even, a woman,gasp, p’tui, p’tui…

  80. #80 Sastra
    August 14, 2008

    poke #75 wrote:

    It’s difficult to know where to begin a critique because the motivation for tying the two things together isn’t clear to me, beyond wanting to give democracy the good name of science (or vice versa, depending on who your audience is).

    I suppose the motivation is to try to explain an observation: first in ancient Greece, and then during the Western Enlightenment, we note the appearance and gradual development of two systems: science, and democracy (with its emphasis on human rights.) Interesting. Is there a relationship? Are science and democracy, taken as methods or approaches, “historically linked together through similar foundations and assumptions?”

  81. #81 Rolan le Gargéac
    August 14, 2008

    Dear Glen Son of Davids,

    I must alopogise, I got transported, awa, awa, I fear I am much pioused..

    But it is a damn fine wine sir !

    I’m going to have some, some, Morrre.

  82. #82 Katkinkate
    August 14, 2008

    Wonderful, Sastra.

    Reality Rulz. Yeah!

  83. #83 Norman Doering
    August 14, 2008

    Sastra wrote:

    One of the popular stances taken by some religious apologists recently is that the methods of science grew directly from the underlying theology of the Catholic church.

    Yea, I tracked one of the Catholic poster’s words on this site back to a Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer. Now, I’ll be able to link your post to that article.

    I do think the Catholic church contributed a few things to science, for example, by putting Galileo on trial and then having Galileo turn out to be right they undermined their own authority on science in a way Islam and Buddhism never did.

    Western success and dominance in science may indeed be due to having a really easily to see how wrong it is Bible.

    … the popular claim that the very concept of people having rights “makes no sense” without a theistic, not to say Biblical, foundation.

    And that’s another link to a post on my blog: “Did Bill Donohue answer Christopher Hitchens’ Atheist Challenge?”

    I did not go this far:

    … the secular case: that the human-centered values and rights which we see today as universal, eternal, and even self-evident have actually grown out of our recent past – and were influenced by how we did science.

    That will need a bit more support than you’ve given it.

    … scientific thinking is a relatively recent phenomena, and actually goes against the grain of human nature, by forcing us to see things as they really are and not as we believe or feel them to be. This undercuts a basic human predisposition – to use personhood as the structure of explanation, with ourselves and our concerns indivisibly connected to the powers and concerns of the cosmos.

    In other words: We not only created God in our own image, we originally created the whole cosmos in our image.

    As John Dewey once pointed out, science and democracy spring from the same soil. They both require open inquiry, diversity, respect for logic and evidence, and an awareness of the tentative nature of all knowledge.

    But doesn’t communism also spring from that same soil?

    Both allow the empowerment and participation of ordinary people within a disciplined process; both test results by consequences, and allow for self-correction. Both rely on arguments capable of convincing their public. And both science and democracy assume a common ground of equality between their members.

    Which of those factors deviate from communism as Marx envisioned it?

    … originality was not seen as growth or improvement, but a sign of decay, or disobedience from an original perfection. Progress is a relatively new ideal.

    And scientific progress and change have now become “obvious,” and yet some theocracies still exist.

    … science and democracy are social systems that respect – and require — dissent.

    Up to a point. You can’t, in the end, have a population that dissents from democracy and/or science — and I sometimes wonder if our society is on the verge of doing that.

    Contrary to some of the modern apologists, then, it doesn’t seem to me that a real foundation for human rights can be firmly grounded in any belief system ultimately based on mysticism. Benevolence and fairness – certainly – love and kindness – sure – but a system that relies on hierarchal and elitist claims of connection to a sacred authority will end up being closed and divisive as soon as it meets with dissent. It can’t place and meet its critics on an even ground, because it’s modeled on higher and lower, Enlightened and Unenlightened, parent and child, king and subject, God and Man. And where there is the authority of certainty, there is no need for – or possibility of — debate.

    Oh, I’d like to see someone debate these ideas.

  84. #84 Blake Stacey
    August 14, 2008

    The Greeks came up with not one overarching explanation, but many: atomist and anti-atomist schools, different philosophers preferring different primordial elements, and so forth. While they definitely had the urge to seek such grand principles, how much luck did they really have in finding them? While we’re at it, shouldn’t we also consider what factors prevented the Greeks from advancing farther than they did? It’s the sort of question where no one answer definitively wins (it’s not as if history is one thing happening at a time, anyway). Slavery and/or mystical tendencies in Platonic philosophy leading to a devaluation of experimental inquiry. . . pick your favorite cause.

    Of Cromer’s criteria for “objective thinking,” we can certainly find in hunter-gatherer peoples vigorous and substantive debate, direct participatory democracy, wide-ranging travel, no priests, and the persistence of these factors not for 1,000 but for 300,000 years or more. By his criteria hunter-gatherers ought to have science. I think they do. Or did.

    — Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1996), p. 316.

  85. #85 Blake Stacey
    August 14, 2008

    Sastra, OM:

    The observation, prediction, and testing done by pre-modern societies were more along the lines of useful technologies, not connected underlying explanations.

    What’s the difference? Technologies result from the application of insight. While I agree there was a “phase transition” in the Ionian city-states, I’m not so sure that’s the best way to characterize it.

  86. #86 poke
    August 14, 2008

    Sastra,

    I suppose the motivation is to try to explain an observation: first in ancient Greece, and then during the Western Enlightenment, we note the appearance and gradual development of two systems: science, and democracy (with its emphasis on human rights.) Interesting. Is there a relationship? Are science and democracy, taken as methods or approaches, “historically linked together through similar foundations and assumptions?”

    It’s weak evidence to work with though. There are probably many other unique correlations we could find between the two cultures. I think there needs to be a stronger motivation to focus on science and democracy in particular. I have reservations about attributing science to Ancient Greece anyway. And even if you make a case for it, it comes later in their history, with more focus on practical concerns. Archimedes and Galileo have that in common: they both lived in times where abstract thought was giving way to practical concerns. But it’s quite meagre pickings.

    I think if Cromer really subjected Greece to the same scrutiny he does Islamic society he’d be more inclined to say science is unique to 17th-18th century Europe. I came to this conclusion when I read Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. The book argues for the importance of earlier thought to science but I found it wholly unconvincing. Historians have a very broad view of what science is – too broad to be useful, in my opinion – and looking at what is supposedly the best evidence for earlier contributions convinced me that there was more that was unique to what happened in the 17th century than not.

    Reading Stillman Drake’s Galileo at Work further convinced me that Galileo is where the transition to modern science really occured. I’d include Kepler in this but not Copernicus, who was very much working in the Aristotelian system. What was unique about Galileo, though, was a total focus on pratical and quantitative matters and a raw hatred of philosophy. What’s great about Drake’s account is that, while it’s pendatic, he gets right to primary sources. Galileo had a lot in common with us. He sounds like one of us; many of his responses to his philosopher critiques could be taken straight from the comments of this blog. It’s amazing that the attitude of Galileo persists until today. If you read Kepler, on the other hand, he’s still very much steeped in mysticism. But they both shared the property that they let the data do the talking and didn’t pass it through the interpretive lens of philosophy before creating a model (although Kepler did after).

    I think that’s the unique genesis of science: to move directly from the data to mathematical models without the usual step of interpreting it into a philosophical system inbetween. I don’t think you see much of that in Greece.

  87. #87 The Swede
    August 14, 2008

    “The speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s”

    Is this statement true?

    No. It’s an approximation which holds in certain environments.

    “Morals which accomplish this better are better.”

    Is this statement true?

    No. It’s tautological given the definition of moral use I placed before it. If you place other uses on morals the conclusion changes.

    At this point in time, The Swede believes this proposition to be true, and I believe it to be false.

    That is incorrect. You may very well believe it to be false, but there is scant anything in this world which I believe to be true, and most certainly not that.

    That’s what I mean by “objective moral standard” (“OMS”): OMSs are what make moral statements and beliefs true or false, and they are indispensable in explaining what makes those statements and beliefs true or false.

    So show me some “OMS”. Say, three different ones? Until you do, they remain your fantasy, and are as real as the teapot orbiting Jupiter – no, less real, since we have evidence of teapots.

  88. #88 Josh K
    August 14, 2008

    Great post!

    “When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

    Damn thought provoking.

  89. #89 Mark Mobley
    August 14, 2008

    Great article.

    However, one quibble is that I’d rather see you refer to Bronowski’s series as the BBC documentary “The Ascent of Man”. It was commisioned by Sir David Attenborough during his tenure as Controller of BBC2, and only later broadcast under licence by PBS.

    Can’t knock Auntie Beeb, she has enough problems at the moment.

  90. #90 uncle frogy
    August 14, 2008

    the quote above — Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1996), p. 316.
    which I have not read, dam I mis that guy’s voice.
    is what I was getting at by questioning above. I doubt that the lose of “human rights” and the need for them to be granted by some entity has anything to do with science or authoritarian religion per say. I suspect that they spring from the same source within “nature”.
    As the quote says that the practice of science and participatory democracy persisted for 300,000 years. The question for me is how where “human rights” eroded and can we restore them to there rightful importance?
    Modern scientific thinking may differ from the earlier scientific thinking in the emphasis on systematic thinking and large data sets and records which came about as a result of agriculture and the settled villages and the division of labor that it required and fostered.
    Creative thinking and problem solving have not gone any where nor has independent and autonomous action been eradicated it has but slumbered a few thousands of years.
    science has more in common with our ancient roots then it does with anything between then and now.
    I am reminded of Yeats’s “second coming” and look forward to the struggle.

  91. #91 Hypatia's Girl
    August 14, 2008

    @#35 SC– Getting that bibliography would be awesome, I’ll figure out how to pass along a good email address.

    @53 R. Harris — I somewhat disagree with the following:
    “Only in a democracy can we begin to approach universality in human rights. Where there are contentious issues, such as abortion, the views of the majority should prevail. Sometimes our representatives do not act upon their knowledge of prevailing public opinion, thinking that they know better. Their responsibilities in formulating legislation perhaps makes them focus their minds more than the general public does.

    We are obliged to make human rights up as we go.”

    It is precisely the reliance on the views of the majority which can so endanger what we’d like to think of as true human rights, the will of the majority is what edges out the plurality of perspective which is necessary to permit human flourishing (that’s a big claim I know, but . . .). Connecting back to the notion of science, I was recently reading a very interesting article which I don’t have in front of me at the moment which looked at the movement of medical knowledge and political concepts. Interestingly the move was from a Greek democracy with Galen’s 4 humors (which must all be in balance with one another) to Harvey’s discovery of the role of the circulatory system, which made the blood the important life force, the blood which is a singular substance and which is ever in danger from foreign and pluralist encroachment. With that move we see a reduction of participation to that of the sovereign, who, of course, knows best.
    The notion that our governmental powers ought to be, or even can truly be arbiters of human rights by legislative fiat forgets that rights are predicated on interactions between actual persons. While I would argue for an approach which would be judged on a case by case basis, it somehow seems odd to me to think of it as “making human rights up as we go along.”

    @#76 – Rolan Le Gargeac — You are too right, I find myself becoming increasingly wary of State Power and the structure of Nations and nationalism in general. However, as I’m only writing my MA thesis (and still must get into a PhD program, and get a job and get tenure) I’m trying to avoid following my thoughts to their logical conclusion which may or may not involve a call for the violent overthrow of state power and a return to some sort of pastoral existence which, of course, has never existed in the first place.

  92. #92 John C. Randolph
    August 14, 2008

    State power is that which allows a framework of “dehumanisation”,

    I would say that the heart of the problem there is that people have for far too long been willing to accept the idea that morality changes when applied to groups as opposed to individuals.

    -jcr

  93. #93 John C. Randolph
    August 14, 2008

    Oop, hit post too soon. I also wanted to mention that when obedience is held up as a virtue that trumps one’s own moral conscience, Very Bad Things happen. War and genocide are only two of the worst examples.

    -jcr

  94. #94 Anthropeleres
    August 15, 2008

    “I don’t think the rigorous methods of science are “a very old way of thinking, suppressed by religious dogma and making a comeback.” I think that’s a bit romanticized, the “beautiful people” myth. The observation, prediction, and testing done by pre-modern societies were more along the lines of useful technologies, not connected underlying explanations.”

    I fear I have been misunderstood. I was saying that the *origins* of scientific thinking are not at all modern. I was not trying to say that early hunter-gatherers were rigorous scientific explorers nor even romanticizing them by implying that they were peaceful or without problems. There is a great deal of evidence to support that they were neither peaceful nor benevolent. It is, however, a human trait to try and understand patterns, so as to be able to predict future events. Before the invention of doctrine and dogma, this was done by scientific observation, if not by that name. Also, yes, much of the scientific thinking was related to tool use and refinement (as our our sciences), but it was also applied to herd movements, animal behaviour, plant growth cycles, all of which are aspects of biology, botany and ecology as we understand them today. They had to understand how the world around them functioned in order to thrive and eventually invent agriculture.

  95. #95 EdwinLJones
    August 15, 2008

    Good article. I once read a book by Sigmund Freud called ” The Future of an Illusion”. My conclusion of human rights based on that book is that religion is the continuation of war by other means. Religion is a way for the conquerors to continue control by implementing religion so that people will control themselves. The book “Art of War” by Sun Tsu also says that a continued war drains the resorces of the victors and cannot be continued for long. Therefore, a means by which people control themselves must be implemented. Religion, to me is merely population control in its’ purest form. Before finding Buddhism, I ran from one christian church to another. All I found were narcissistic agents of intolerance desiring control of my mind ( and wallet ). There are hundreds of religions out there claiming to know what gods’ will is for us and how we should behave. According to organized religion, humans have no rights as their lives belong to god. I’m glad dogma no longer confuses me. Good article.

  96. #96 EdwinLJones
    August 15, 2008

    Anyone caring to discuss the above can contact me at edwinjones@peoplepc.com.

  97. #97 melior
    August 15, 2008

    A very stimulating essay, Sastra.

    It is interesting to me to consider the issue from the other direction: the partial overlap between the anti-science mindset and the longing for royalism.

    It’s easy to think of examples of feelings (reasoning is too strong a word) which stretch to fit both:
    – the suspicion and distrust of “too much” knowledge in the hands of the common man
    – the certainty of having a single unimpeachable judicial decision-maker, and from having a single unquestionable source to answer difficult questions about how and why the world works as it does
    – the curious but apparently typical human urge to venerate something permanent and unchanging, manifesting in the extreme as neophobia

    Thanks for sharing your talk!

  98. #98 gbusch
    August 15, 2008

    In reading the first few paragraphs I had doubts about the post to captivate me, a quick scan through the comments convinced me to go back and boy am I glad I did. Great post with lots to think about. A number of very good comments as well. I’m even tempted to archive a copy of this for future reflection since it contains an enormous amount of fertile thought for this fallow field of mine. Again … a pleasure to read. Thank you.

  99. #99 Richard Harris
    August 15, 2008

    Hypatia’s Girl @ # 91, …It is precisely the reliance on the views of the majority which can so endanger what we’d like to think of as true human rights, the will of the majority is what edges out the plurality of perspective which is necessary to permit human flourishing…

    What you’d like to think of as “true human rights” are simply a product of your own thoughts. They may be excellent, or maybe not. However, you, as a moral agent, are part of a polity, where others have equal standing. The views of the majority, or at least of their elected representatives, must prevail.

    All that you can hope to achieve is to persuade others, by reasoned argument or by psychological manipulation, of the value of your views.

    As Jeremy Bentham said, the notion of natural and imprescriptible rights is ‘nonsense upon stilts’. Such rights do not independently exist ‘out there’, akin to Plato’s forms. Rights are simply what is granted by the powerful to other entities. This is based upon what the powerful think will best benefit them, even if that sometimes entails putting sentimentality before profit, such as with granting animals rights.

  100. #100 JB
    August 15, 2008

    A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.

    — Albert Einstein

  101. #101 maureen
    August 15, 2008

    No, Richard, the views of the majority must be challenged as must the views of the individual. I’m not suggesting that in the sense of constantly harassing them or attempting to put them down – simply in the sense of fulfilling our duty as humans constantly to ask, “On what basis to you consider that x, y or z is the right course of action? Is it of equal benefit to each of the persons who will be affected by your decision?”

    Also, the decision or opinion of the majority could only have the special status you want to give it if, on day one, each individual started out with perfect information and equal power. It’s a nice idea but I’ve not seen it done yet!

    You are also presuming a level of constancy in “the facts” which is impossible in a society in which knowledge accumulates and what is accepted as true for practical purposes will be different a week on Wednesday. An example? Well, I was into my 30s before tectonic plates were “fact” – I had to act effectively in society before then, I have to act effectively now in the light of all sorts of ideas, not a few of which have popped up during my lifetime.

    As for Bentham, yes, he had some interesting thoughts and his work led on to more and better. It is wise for all of us to remember, though, that not one of his practical schemes for running anything actually worked and some of them failed at the cost of great misery. The Millbank Penetentiary makes an interesting study and the Southwell Workhouse still stands as a monument to his equally unsuccessful ideas on the problem of poverty.

  102. #102 flaq
    August 15, 2008

    Great essay. I love your description of scientific thinking “forcing us to see things as they really are and not as we believe or feel them to be”. If only it weren’t so difficult for some people to embrace that idea instead of feeling threatened by it.

  103. #103 Richard Harris
    August 15, 2008

    maureen @ # 101, it would indeed be nice if, “each individual started out with perfect information and equal power.” As you acknowledge, they don’t. But that doesn’t change things.

    Rights are not pre-existing entities. They are a matter of opinion. Modern philosophy hasn’t proved Bentham wrong on this, at least. I, personally, think it would be better if only rationalists, (but how are they to be identified?), were allowed to formulate rights. But some Xians, (most?), would think it would be better if only their co-religionists, (who are easily identified), were allowed to formulate rights.

    All this makes it obvious that people should be educated to have a rationalistic worldview that avoids indoctrination in ideologies, because they poison everything.

  104. #104 maureen
    August 15, 2008

    My understanding of the thinking incorporated in the US Constitution and related documents is that rights are inherent in the individual but best exercised and protected by a collective agreement on how those individuals will arrange the process of government.

    Very few would argue that a country of many tens of millions should have no formal process of decision making or of ensuring justice. Very few would argue that we need to have a full referendum on the repainting of each lamp post in my street. The argument is always about where the line is to be drawn and that is where the concept of “majority” comes in and sometimes gets in the way of a rational decision.

    The majority of those engaged in the Putney Debates of 1647 believed that each man was a citizen who ought, as of right, to have the vote. But the majority of those who were in a position to recognise or not recognise that right believed that land-holding was an essential pre-qualification for citizenship in any full form, including voting. So a true majority was defeated by a power-weighted majority and the discussion continued for another four centuries.

    If I am to accept that I only have a right because Mr Bentham is of the opinion that I should have it then I just have to ask where the hell he got either the wisdom or the power to make that decision on my behalf.

    In the very recent past we have had majorities in favour of slavery, against giving women the vote, for attacking Iraq because Saddam Hussein absolutely-definitely-certainly had nuclear weapons. All those majorities have been overturned by challenge and by reason, just as their upending has been delayed by the last appeal of the majoritarian – the one which says, “But everybody believes ………”

    As a matter of pragmatism I can accept that the idea of a majority can be the way to get something done. I will continue, though, to see every majority as a temporary and imperfectly informed coalition, one whose opinion or decision may be overturned by any new fact which comes along – perhaps in the next five minutes.

  105. #105 ZacharySmith
    August 15, 2008

    This will probably re-state some of Sastra’s points in a more simplistic fashion, but here goes….

    I think the issue of slavery in the US is a good example of the worthlessness of the Bible (or any religious text) as a source of “moral guidance”.

    Obviously, back in the day, Bible-based arguments both for and against slavery were formulated. Pro-slavery groups cherry-picked verses that sounded favorable (or could be interpreted as such) to them, and likewise for anti-slavery groups. How could the same source of “guidance” give support to such two, vehemently opposed ideas?

    Assumptions about slavery had to have been in place first, either “slavery is OK” or “slavery is unacceptable”, then came the Bible-based rationalizations.

    And so it is with any issue – from the Bill of Rights to gay marriage. A society agrees upon a (very human) set of assumptions as to what is and what is not acceptable, then the religious rationalizations are tacked on after the fact.

    But as the original source of “morality”, religion is moot.

  106. #106 Charles Schisler
    August 15, 2008

    On Creationism:
    Since WHATEVER it is that exists, is necessarily a part of the Totality – surely no part of it could create the entire Whole of existence.
    As difficult as it is to create something from nothing – how much nothing would be required to create, from it, all that exists in an infinite Universe?

    On Politics:
    Democracy means EVERYONE gets to vote on who is to be my master.
    Imperial interventionists are THEMSELVES isolationists from the rest of humanity.

    On Education:
    He who dares not offend cannot educate.

    On Justice:
    Justice is easily measured by placing oneself into a potential adversary’s situation.

    On Ethics:
    Ethics is essentially a survival mechanism that evolution sorts out for many species and refines by development of the brain.
    Schisler@hargray.com

  107. #107 Dr.P
    August 15, 2008

    This posting’s thesis(along with its broad spectrum of interesting responses)captures & wonderfully illustrates the joys and utility of reasoned discourse. Thank you.

    P.S. my specific input for what it’s worth: not all ideas are worthy of respect; but scientific truths (discovered via objective experience & corroborated via valid methods) can claim truthfullness not because someone “says so” but because “they are so.”

  108. #108 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 15, 2008

    @ The Swede, #49:

    While this is correct, it is immaterial to the point at hand. That 2+2=4 is a tautology which reduces to basic mathematical axioms, not an objective thing.

    It has nothing to do with morals, but not because it is part of a formal system and therefore true (due to consistency). This happens in scientific formal theories as well, and ultimately they are empirical.

    Numbers in math is based on familiarity and convenience, it is for example possible to do math by set theory instead. So in that sense they are empirical, based on exploring our inventions on counting and measuring.

    @ philandsci, #60:

    But, as is often noted on this blog, science is messy. We may have made a mistake, and we may discover this mistake at some time in the future and revise our finding and our belief.

    Science is revisable, but it is also testable. After a large number of tests the probability that a fact needs revision becomes vanishingly small. Especially if it is tied to a theory and so mechanisms and other facts. So facts are robust.

    They are also true within their theory. But if you are looking for other kinds of truths you will be sorely disappointed.

  109. #109 windy
    August 15, 2008

    I suppose the motivation is to try to explain an observation: first in ancient Greece, and then during the Western Enlightenment, we note the appearance and gradual development of two systems: science, and democracy (with its emphasis on human rights.) Interesting. Is there a relationship? Are science and democracy, taken as methods or approaches, “historically linked together through similar foundations and assumptions?”

    Not all Greeks were democratic. Were the more democratic of the city-states more scientific? Maybe there was no correlation. I think in the present we also see a correlation between women’s rights and democracy, but in democratic cities in ancient Greece, women’s status was as bad or arguably worse than elsewhere.

  110. #110 The Swiss
    August 15, 2008

    Interesting post and great discussion here guys.

    I’d like to give philandsci a hand against The Swede (who deserves it, since he dismissed 2+2=4 as a mere tautology, rather than a truth). I think one may indeed argue for the existence of objective morals (which may yet have to be identified with sufficient certainty, just as in the past most facts about, say, electromagnetism, still had to be discovered and satisfactorily described, but they existed alright.)
    One may argue as follows, roughly along the lines e.g. of Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Austin Dacey (The Secular Conscience). First, we are as we are: social animals endowed with a certain degree of empathy for our fellows (bar psycopaths etc.). Therefore it is only natural (i.e. biological) that among our societal and individual values one often finds pro-other norms, or rules which are designed (consciously by humans but more often unconsciously through cultural evolution) to maximise the “common well-being”. We may well say this is a pretty universal human trait. Now, if we define as being moral that which maximizes the total sum of individuals’ well-being (very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment philosophers) then I find it quite obvious that objective morals exist (in every given situation, one choice of action/policy/norm will be objectively more moral than its alternative).
    Although of course, these may be extremely difficult to describe satisfactorily, and I suspect that they are highly context-dependent…

    But, to paraphrase Sam Harris: is it too early to say that to kill a daughter to defend your family’s honour does not augment the total happiness in the world? Is it too early to say that to systematically indulge in wishful thinking and superstition does not help society flourish?

    I think not.

    And by the way, for those of you who are skeptical about ever being able to accurately measure things like “total happiness”: you don’t really have to, you know. Even for Newtonian mechnics, you don’t really need to know the exact position and momentum of each particle of the universe, in order to predict the future date of the next eclipse.

    Black Stacy:

    let’s not forget the next big phase transition in the way to modern science, namely, it was only from the age of Galileo that systematic experimentation became an integral part of science. Among the ancient greeks, virtually nobody set up experiments to find things out; rather than interrogate Nature itself, they preferred to rely on logical argumentation and esthetical grounds (which by the way work beautifully in maths). Someone mentioned recently, possibly on this same blog, that Aristotle, the great naturalist, held some ridiculous beliefs: that women have fewer teeth than men, for instance. He just knew it, so why bother to look into someone’s mouth?

    Very unscientific, we would think today.

    PS: This is my first day as a doctor in mathematics, please cheer for me!

  111. #111 maureen
    August 15, 2008

    Several cheers for you, The Swiss!

  112. #112 EdgeWise
    August 15, 2008

    I’d love to read the expanded version. As it is, it is intriguing, but a little weakly connected, which may just be space constraints. Is the full version available somewhere?

  113. #113 The Swede
    August 16, 2008

    The Swiss,

    I don’t see how stating that 2+2=4 is a tautology which reduces to axioms makes it not a truth. In fact, I would think that makes it a formal truth. If there is a better way to describe this I’m all ears.

    I do however take exception to that the path of maximized measured or calculated gain in a moral sense is equivalent with a discovered objective moral. The search and the found path is still governed by subjective data, and there is also no way to know whether the path actually *is* maximized.

    What one has with your method is an improved way to as objectively as possible measure the impact of moral agent actions, but this does not equate finding objective morals.

  114. #114 Nick Gotts
    August 16, 2008

    Fine, thought-provoking post, and many interesting comments. I haven’t read Cromer, but I suspect that there’s a degree of Eurocentrism in the conclusion that only the ancient Greeks and post-Enlightenment Europeans thought scientifically. Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039) seems to have gone well beyond the ancient Greeks in methodological terms, and I suspect, but don’t know enough to do more than that, that both India and China may have produced thinkers comparable to any of the ancient Greeks between their time and that of the Renaissance. The proposed links between science and democracy are very interesting, but I agree with the doubt expressed by someone above that these were closely connected in ancient Greece – the main centres of proto-science were first the Ionian cities, particularly Miletus, which I think was never a democracy in the sense Athens was; and later Alexandria, capital of the Ptolemaic monarchy which was based on ruthless exploitation of the native Egyptians. Science in the modern sense requires both a technological and an institutional infrastructure that was probably not available anywhere prior to Enlightenment Europe – but I suspect it is a highly likely outcome of sufficient technical advance, rather than the chance result of numerous contingent factors as Sastra suggests. Further research is needed!

  115. #115 The Swiss
    August 16, 2008

    Hey The Swede,

    just joking about 2+2 (=4).

    Now seriously, I’m not sure I understand your objection. I think I share your skepticism towards the existence of objective morals as people usually think of such a thing (something like a way of behaving which is intrinsically good/bad, independently of everything else). But, if we factor in human (average) nature, then there are things which may be said to be universal values of societies and/or individuals. For instance: taking care of children (as opposed to letting them care for themselves, as many other species do) may be said to be a pretty universal human value, and indeed upon very hard reflection we may convince ourselves that such a practice actually does make more people happier. So in my view taking care of children is objectively more moral than the alternative (all the rest being equal, and barring those exceptional circumstances that philosophers or science fiction authors may think up ad hoc, just to prove me wrong).

    “What one has with your method is an improved way to as objectively as possible measure the impact of moral agent actions, but this does not equate finding objective morals.”

    Why not? I just observe that happiness (for oneself and others) is a value for most psychically sane people, in normal circumstances. Doesn’t this make it an “objective moral”?

    What do you mean by objective morals then?

  116. #116 eddie
    August 16, 2008

    On ‘objective moral standards'; Maybe there are loads but we haven’t found them yet. The only candidate I can think of is The Golden Rule.

    Brandon @78 – “Way to judge Locke objectively…”.

    Dude, it was your quote trying to put L in a good light re slavery. Was it badly chosen.

    PS – Welcome to the slum. Do call again. We got doctors.

  117. #117 The
    August 16, 2008

    The Swiss,

    The problem is that even when using your method to as objectively as possible measure the impact of actions of moral agents one is still measuring from a totally subjective basis.

    For example, I was just in Thailand. There I noticed that children were not afforded the same degree of protection and safeguards as in the western world. As a consequence, young people appeared to be much more aware of their impact on people around them and behaved in a much more mature and socially responsible way. To me, that makes the impact of removing protection and safeguards a moral positive, a better society. Does this mean that objectively such a change would be better in the western world as well? I doubt you can find a way to objectively discern whether this is so or not. You appear to be in direct conflict in views with me on that, and I feel my view is solidly supported by observation, yet you hold your view as objective and my view as wrong.

    The same goes for everything. We would not have democracy today if it wasn’t for slavery in the past. There would simply not have been a way to develop this method. This makes slavery a moral imperative, objectively, does it not?

    It simply is not possible to remove moral opinion from the effects of moral choices. Even in the case of hypotheticals designed to provoke objective moral choices, there is no consensus and no real ability to measure the exact objective result – the subjective is not only hard to measure, but subject to change. I do not hold the same moral values as I did a year ago, much less than I did 20 years ago.

    PS. Cheers!!

  118. #118 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 17, 2008

    @ The Swiss, #110:

    First, we are as we are: social animals endowed with a certain degree of empathy for our fellows (bar psycopaths etc.). Therefore it is only natural (i.e. biological) that among our societal and individual values one often finds pro-other norms, or rules which are designed (consciously by humans but more often unconsciously through cultural evolution) to maximise the “common well-being”.

    I haven’t read Harris or Dacey, but in as much as the “social” in sociality can be assumed to result from adaption or emerges from drift it isn’t guaranteed to maximize “common well-being”.

    And by the way, for those of you who are skeptical about ever being able to accurately measure things like “total happiness”: you don’t really have to, you know. Even for Newtonian mechnics, you don’t really need to know the exact position and momentum of each particle of the universe, in order to predict the future date of the next eclipse.

    Um, we must be able to measure an observable in some form accurately at some time, to test a hypotheses. It is irrelevant whether we need it later or not.

    (But by your analogy “happiness” (particle momentum and mass) is also superfluous to understand social values, there is some other concept (body momentum and mass) that emerges and replaces it.)

  119. #119 The Swiss
    August 17, 2008

    Ah! I see that you Skandinavians don’t like Swiss morality :-)

    Swede, we’re not listening to each other: I say “I think objective morals exist, even if possibly they’re very diffcult to identify”, and you counter “the evidence indicates that it is impossible to objectively decide what is moral”. I think I understand your example with Thailand, but I don’t see how it undermines my argument.

    “Does this mean that objectively such a change would be better in the western world as well? I doubt you can find a way to objectively discern whether this is so or not.”

    So what? Even if we’ll never be sure to know which strategy is best for us westeners, obviously one of the two strategy must be better (as just as good as the other one). No matter how you measure the outcome.

    In the end I suspect that, once it is correctly defined (here the mathematician in me talking) morality will be thought to be objective simply by logical necessity. A moral action or policy should be defined something like this: A behavioural strategy which maximized some desired value(s), especially person-invariant values (think the Golden Rule: it looks the same, no matter who thinks it).

    If such a definition of morality will turn out to be prevalent, then you must admit that, whenever you have two actions to choose from, one will necessarily be better then the other — even if the complexity of the situation may well doom us to never ever ever know which one it is.

  120. #120 The Swiss
    August 17, 2008

    Torbjörn:

    I haven’t read Harris or Dacey, but in as much as the “social” in sociality can be assumed to result from adaption or emerges from drift it isn’t guaranteed to maximize “common well-being”.

    Well, of course. That’s why we don’t just blindly trust our animal nature…

    I was simply remarking that humans are instinctively moral (not always for the best :-), and that, say, it is not all an artificial structure which only depends on culture and is malleable at will (as Marxists sometimes pretend), or that it is imposed by the powers that be (as postmodernists phantasize).

    This is the starting point of any discussion of morality: human nature.

  121. #121 The Swiss
    August 17, 2008

    We would not have democracy today if it wasn’t for slavery in the past.

    ?
    Where did you get that?

  122. #122 The Swede
    August 18, 2008

    The Swiss,

    The point you are missing is that no, one of the choices must not be “better”. They are both better depending on the morals you hold, or to phrase it differently, the axioms you walk in with. And there is no way to decide which moral opinion is superior except subjectively, and thus varying between individuals.

    Your definition highlights the problem. I do not desire the same things you do, I do not hold to the same values. And the golden rule is broken beyond belief, I can’t believe anyone is naive enough to use that as an example these days.

    And yes, I am certain that there will be groups which hold that morals are objective, and define the “objective basis” for moral decisions themselves to force on others. Say, like xtians do today. That people do this has no more bearing on whether objective morals exist than people claiming the earth is flat has bearing on whether the earth is flat.

    As to the development of democracy, it hinged on all citizens getting enough free resources to be able to take part in the political process. The only way to achieve this before industrialization (which in turn, at least in our history, was contingent on a free and powerful middle class) was through slaves who were not citizens.

  123. #123 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 18, 2008

    I was simply remarking that humans are instinctively moral

    @ The Swiss, #119 & 120:

    Yes, we agree there, probably in some cases such as kinship selection, and of course as our general propensity to exhibit characteristics of social creatures.

    That doesn’t mean however that much of what we do is instinct, but is contingent on our specific society (and its developed morals). There is a certain disconnect here in your wish that a specific behavioral strategy will maximize an observable value, and a general propensity that may (adaption) or may not (drift) contingently increase (but perhaps not locally maximize) fitness.

    I’m not a biologist, but AFAIU some biologists looks at the mind, moral and other complex traits as epiphenomena on the underlying biology. That means that they may even be what some call “spandrels”. For example, general intelligence can perhaps be a result of the complexity of visual processing, and specific hominid intelligence could perhaps be a result of the complexity of sociality in groups.

    There is still a relation of course, some of our moral behavior can be seen in other animals and especially apes, but it would mean that in all probability some moral behaviors are too complex to be instinct and must be learned.

    Btw, while I’m not sure it is cut and dry, I believe The (other) Swede has a point in that if we are arguing about it and/or if people display different morals in different cultures, the claim that morals are solely rigid instinct becomes weak.

  124. #124 windy
    August 18, 2008

    As to the development of democracy, it hinged on all citizens getting enough free resources to be able to take part in the political process. The only way to achieve this before industrialization (which in turn, at least in our history, was contingent on a free and powerful middle class) was through slaves who were not citizens.

    Is “our history” = American history? The English had their Bill of Rights and the French had their revolution without a slave economy. Iceland had an ancient parliament, and while they had slaves, not a slave economy.

  125. #125 The Swede
    August 18, 2008

    Is “our history” = American history?

    No. Not even close. Start by looking at ancient Greece, then look at Rome. Iceland is a case in point; their welfare was built on trade, pillage and slavery, not quite in that order. And an important piece is that the parliament was only open to males. Women were left at home running the household using the slaves while the men went to discuss politics. No way it would have worked otherwise.

    By the time France had their revolution and England decided to abolish dictatorial monarchs, technology had progressed to the point where individuals had spare resources without slavery – but not enough for a full blown democracy like the Greeks had, and arguably we’re still not at that point unless we reinstate slavery.

  126. #126 The Swiss
    August 18, 2008

    The Swede:

    The point you are missing is that no, one of the choices must not be “better”. They are both better depending on the morals you hold, or to phrase it differently, the axioms you walk in with.

    Well, I gave you examples. Do you object to them? Of course you’ll always find someone who’s in disagreement with any moral principle you care to come up with. But then the world is full of discoverers of perpetual motion machines… Does this invalidate the 2nd Law of thermodynamics?

    Other examples: Do you think a democracy is by and large better for its citizens’ welfare than a dictatorship? If you think a dictatorship is, then one of us is wrong. I really don’t see what’s so difficult here. Is abortion ok? No? only in certain cases? Not so easy, but some answers are better than others, if we judge them by their effect on people’s health and happiness.

    And there is no way to decide which moral opinion is superior except subjectively, and thus varying between individuals.

    I don’t see any reason for believing that the situation is radically different than, say, in biology. Just as a biologist may fruitfully use “fitness”, say, to explain and predict, then so can an ethicist use “happiness” or “common good”, even if it is devishly difficult to measure (or even to precisely define). Your “there is no way” is quite unwarranted IMHO.

    The Other Swede:

    you get me wrong: I’m not saying we should stick with what instinctive set of moralities we have inherited from natural selection. Indeed, I’m all for progress here… I just think that the good social instincts are mainly there, and that there are *reasons* for keeping those and enhancing them, while curbing others. Reason is the word here, and the open system of dialogue and checks that helps us using it correctly (so as to connect back to this thread’s topic… :-)

  127. #127 The Swede
    August 18, 2008

    Well, I gave you examples. Do you object to them?

    Evidently, as I provided direct counters to several of them.

    Do you think a democracy is by and large better for its citizens’ welfare than a dictatorship?

    No. However, democracy lets the people choose their own path, which is more moral. Potential improvement in welfare is not worth the moral tradeoff.

    Not so easy, but some answers are better than others, if we judge them by their effect on people’s health and happiness.

    Ok, a trivial example. Take 20 men, all of whom cannot get a girl, even for a night. Several of them are close to suicide, others are near the breaking point where they will go postal and start killing people. Others are so bothered by this that they cannot function professionally or socially. These 20 men gang up, go to the bad part of time, and kidnap a young woman who’s stuck in heroin addiction and probably will die within a few years. They put up a “time sharing” where they each have a day with her, and set up rules including no permanent damage, good medical care and a healthy diet for their captive.

    As a result, all 20 men experience tremendous improvement. None are suicidal anymore, none have homicidal urges, and several of them rally in the workspace to the point where they directly impact the city economy in positive ways.

    After a while, the woman grows to appreciate the situation as well. No longer facing death, she’s grateful and lives a much happier and healthier life than beoore.

    Does this tremendous improvement in the city economy, the welfare of these 20 men, and even in the woman make the action these 20 men undertook moral?

    According to your suggested guidelines for measuring objective morals, I would say the case is pretty strong that yes, it does. Yet there is no way you will ever see me calling the act moral. Would you?

    There is simply no way to objectively set up morals and make it work. Morals aren’t that simple; they’re not logic built on verifiable observation. They’re based on subjective axioms which to an observer may seem completely arbitrary – and often actually *are* completely arbitrary.

  128. #128 The Swede
    August 18, 2008

    Of town, and not of time, of course. Duh.

  129. #129 windy
    August 18, 2008

    Iceland is a case in point; their welfare was built on trade, pillage and slavery, not quite in that order.

    Romantic images of the Vikings aside, their economy was likely built on wool, fish and farming. And slavery was abandoned in Iceland by 1117. (For example, in the book Women and Slavery they attribute the early end of slavery to the more modest resources on Iceland compared to Norway, completely opposite from your theory: “Modest economic opportunities appear to have been chiefly responsible for the de facto end of slavery in Iceland.”!)

    Some historians (like another Swede, Dick Harrison) argue that actual slave economies (where society was dependent on the labor of a huge slave class) were quite rare, since it was hard to replenish the slaves and there was a danger of rebellion. D.H. argues that in most societies through history, slaves mostly did small scale house work, the full blown slave economies like Roman Sicily and the American South were the exceptions.

    arguably we’re still not at that point unless we reinstate slavery.

    Are you insane or just trolling?

  130. #130 The Swede
    August 18, 2008

    And the early form of democracy also ended (or rather was heavily curtailed) at about that time, or before, probably also due to lack of resources. My main point is the correlation between spare resources (especially time to go to debate) and democratic development.

    And no, I am neither insane nor trolling. Most people in the modern Western world do not have the time to handle direct democracy of the ancient Greek kind. Heck, most people find it hard enough to know where their representatives stand on general issues, much less specific issues. In order to reinforce democracy people need more and deeper education and more spare time for political questions. This is arguably not possible today without retreating standards of living, either in everyone or in a slave class.

    Do note that I am not confusing is with ought.

  131. #131 windy
    August 18, 2008

    And the early form of democracy also ended (or rather was heavily curtailed) at about that time, or before, probably also due to lack of resources.

    Now you’re twisting facts. The democracy endured after the official end of slavery and slavery was dwindling before that.

    My main point is the correlation between spare resources (especially time to go to debate) and democratic development.

    And that reasoning is poor, since Iceland was poorer, more equal and more democratic than, for example, Norway at the time. The Althing met once a year so the time demand was not huge.

  132. #132 Nick Gotts
    August 18, 2008

    It would be less confusing if we did not use “democracy” for two such different systems as ancient Greek “democracy”, which did indeed depend on a high level of participation by the citizens – who were a minority of the adult population – and modern representative democracy (although in Switzerland there are I think elements at the cantonal level that resemble the ancient form). Ancient Greek democracy excluded not just the slaves, but women and free non-citizens (“metics”), who IIRC were quite numerous. It was one development of a system of king+council+assembly which was quite general in Greece, and was also adopted by Rome – the Athenians and some other “city-states” got rid of the king and council, the Roman Republic of the king (and in a key innovation, allowed retention of citizenship by colonists), the Macedonians kept all three. Modern representative democracy certainly grew out of slave societies – and this is as true of Britain and France as of the USA, the former two just had their slaves at a distance – but I don’t think it’s obvious this was inevitable: developments of technology that raise labour productivity are a very general phenomenon in human societies, and extensive slavery may actually impede them.

  133. #133 windy
    August 18, 2008

    Modern representative democracy certainly grew out of slave societies – and this is as true of Britain and France as of the USA, the former two just had their slaves at a distance

    That’s true, I should have mentioned that – but I think Swede is making post hoc ergo propter hoc error. Here’s an easy way to test: if his thesis is true, women should have gotten the vote first in very wealthy societies, where they had lots of free time, right? But it’s not what happened.

  134. #134 The Swede
    August 18, 2008

    My thesis is not that where there is more free time, democracy develops faster. My thesis is that democracy requires free time. Your test is testing the opposite. Find me a place with a working democracy where people have no spare resources, and most of all no spare time, and I will concede.

    And especially, the more power the people hold, the more time they need to commit to wield it. And for the power to actually be what we term democratic, and not just rubber stamping a not understood political decision someone else put together, people need to be well educated and informed. This takes resources, vast resources.

  135. #135 windy
    August 18, 2008

    Find me a place with a working democracy where people have no spare resources, and most of all no spare time, and I will concede.

    There go the goalposts…

  136. #136 The Swede
    August 18, 2008

    Once more, it’s a matter of definitions. I started out talking about democracy in the Greek vein (admittedly not explicity), but you posed a counter based on women’s voting rights – that is a different goal, indeed, and to set the sight there the goalposts have to move.

    If you wish to remain with the original issue, don’t pull backwards “tests” out of the sky and then yell foul when they’re questioned.

    In order to maintain a democracy, people need spare resources to divert to political issues. The more power the people handle, the more spare resources they need. In order to reach the level of involvement which the ancient Greeks had for their citizens, we would need to emulate the way they have built their state to some extent. That was my original premise, and it remains.

  137. #137 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 19, 2008

    @ The Swiss, #126:

    you get me wrong: I’m not saying we should stick with what instinctive set of moralities we have inherited from natural selection. Indeed, I’m all for progress here…

    Yes, I could well get you wrong. I believe it was you who argued that there exist objective morals (maximizing some observable) and used instinctive morality as an example. If your argument is that there isn’t any objective morals in evidence, then it will be very tenous to claim that they can be constructed and enforced at all.

    In my eyes morals is what the majority of people choose to do. (I wouldn’t want to make always existing freeloaders and sociopaths to behave “morally”, even if they are acting according to their own choices.) They can’t be prescriptive, as we should have freedom as individuals to deviate from the norm.

    But they can guide prescriptive rule sets, as regards what is found to be harmful for others. For example, flashers don’t physically harm others but do so by being psychologically threathening and by breaking the norm in a most provocative way. So they can be judged against rules partially based on, or at least conforming to, society moral.

    But then the world is full of discoverers of perpetual motion machines… Does this invalidate the 2nd Law of thermodynamics?

    That exemplifies what I meant when I commented that The Swede is probably correct when he points out that arguing points to a fuzzy (and then probably relative) concept. We can immediately identify that those PMM ‘discoverers’ are crackpots. However, we can argue about what morals is without such an identification.

  138. #138 The Swiss
    August 20, 2008

    I believe it was you who argued that there exist objective morals (maximizing some observable) and used instinctive morality as an example.

    No, no, not as an example. Sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. I was just trying to convey the idea that we are far from being “blank slates”: we start out with a certain mental profile, as a species, which makes us what we are: a social species. Morality, in the only way I can understand it, has to do with the interactions between sentient beings and how they affect each other’s happiness. Hence obviously, one cannot properly study morality without understanding how we function.

    In my eyes morals is what the majority of people choose to do.

    Is this is your definition of morality, then we’re just talking about different things… If instead you’re implying that what the majority chooses is moral (as if this added some quality ((self)righteousness? virtuosity? what?) to the majority’s choice), than I don’t know what you mean. But you seem to contradict yourself here:

    < blockquote >But [morals] can guide prescriptive rule sets, as regards what is found to be harmful for others.

    So do you think after all, like I do, that “harm to others” should be a criterium of moral judgement?

  139. #139 Jeremy Kareken
    August 21, 2008

    “Morality, in the only way I can understand it, has to do with the interactions between sentient beings and how they affect each other’s happiness. Hence obviously, one cannot properly study morality without understanding how we function.”

    I think happiness has less to do with it than you think. I certainly believe that happiness enters into it, but the history books are full of people who do self-sacrificial things to the detriment of their happiness. And I might also posit that sentience has less to do with it that we might think. What good is self awareness when making decisions on whether or not my children should eat?

    Morality is a set of behaviors, some more plastic than others, that generally helped ourselves, our families and our communities survive through various times in our history. I’m sure we can argue that we’ve outgrown some of those behaviors, like we’ve outgrown our tailbone.

    Frankly, I feel somewhat the same about God. God exists as a tool and a vestigial concept. As a tool, God focuses some peoples’ minds in getting through unpleasantness (which in itself, as a coping mechanism is in fact a purpose). The concept of God also was used as a tool to both keep people down and free him.

    But a hammer isn’t intrinsically bad if it is used to hammer peoples’ skulls in or build a house to keep their neighbors warm. It simply is.

    As a vestigial concept, those with pronounced religiosity in their personalities pass that religiosity onto their kids. It seems to be a somewhat genetically heritable trait, though I don’t know the current state of the twin studies that arrived at this conclusion. If studies are still valid and to be believed, people who have a God in their brains are no different from people who have other inherited behaviors – more resistant to certain problems, more prone to others.

    I don’t dislike people based solely on their religiosity, nor the religiosity itself. I don’t dislike people for their connected earlobes, I just don’t focus on the lobe-less flaps. Though frankly they do kind of give me the creeps.

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