Thursday, November 20, 2014

Naturalistic Evolution and Human Rights

 Let's take the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Now, if you're an atheist, we weren't created at all, we were the products of evolution. So, we would have to rewrite this statement as follows:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are evolved equal, that they are endowed by evolution with certain unalienable Rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But this, of course,makes no sense. In evolution, our goal is to survive and pass on our genes, and whatever advantage can help us do that can and should be used. That being the case, all the arguments against slavery and exploitation go down the drain.
The idea that we have rights that exist even when governments eliminate them go by the boards. It's a dog eat dog world, survival of the fittest, so why shouldn't I use whatever advantages I have? You may not want to go there, but how would you answer someone who does?
It's not a coincidence that the idea of human rights arose in a Christian culture. When people have power advantages, what reason can be given to stop them from taking advantage of it.
If we were all decide that are simply and merely products of evolution, and were not created by a God who shows no favoritism, what reason do we have for not taking advantage of a favorable power balance?

53 comments:

B. Prokop said...

Victor,

You didn't go far enough in your atheist re-write of the Preamble. It should perhaps go something like this:

We who happen to be wielding power at the moment declare the following must be believed solely on our say-so: that all men are evolved equal, that by blind chance they just happen to be endowed by evolution with certain meaningless, purposeless randomly distributed attributes we'll call "Rights" (for want of a more scientifically accurate term), that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness - that is, until someone stronger takes them away from you, which he ought to do, since by doing so, he demonstrates himself to be the Fittest.

Crude said...

Heh. "We hold these truths to be convenient for the moment!"

John Moore said...

One simple word: Cooperation.

Today's naturalistic evolutionists think it's important for all people to cooperate in our common struggle against the natural forces of decay and death.

Why shouldn't I use my own private advantages against my fellow humans? Simply because cooperation is far more powerful than any individual. This is obvious if you'd just stop and think.

The whole point of democracy is cooperation among people. It's not to set up God as our king by public acclamation, but it's to agree and compromise among ourselves.

Kings might try to "eliminate" our rights, and in that case it's up to us to fight to reclaim our rights. But the USA is not a monarchy, and the government can't eliminate our rights. Only we the people, by voting against our own interests, can eliminate our rights.

If you think the government can take away your rights, then you're not doing it right. That's not how how democracy works. It's all about cooperation.

Crude said...

Today's naturalistic evolutionists think it's important for all people to cooperate in our common struggle against the natural forces of decay and death.

No, they don't. Certainly not universally. You realize that "naturalistic evolutionists" comprises a wide, wide range of people, ranging from out and out autocrats to libertarians.

Why shouldn't I use my own private advantages against my fellow humans? Simply because cooperation is far more powerful than any individual. This is obvious if you'd just stop and think.

Yeah. So you cooperate with like-minded people... and use your collective advantages against the out-group. ;)

But the USA is not a monarchy, and the government can't eliminate our rights. Only we the people, by voting against our own interests, can eliminate our rights.

Our by voting against the interests of the minority. Never happened in our democracy, eh?

John Moore said...

1) Sure, some atheists don't promote universal cooperation. Some Christians don't follow all of Christ's teachings either. That doesn't mean the principle is wrong.

2) Sure, groups can use collective advantage against other people. That's why we have balance of power, frequent elections and an independent judiciary.

3) Sure, the U.S. system of democracy has flaws. If God gave us our government, it wouldn't have any flaws, would it? Most problems in our human-made government are due to people not standing up for their own rights.

Crude said...

1) Sure, some atheists don't promote universal cooperation. Some Christians don't follow all of Christ's teachings either. That doesn't mean the principle is wrong.

The difference is that when a Christian doesn't follow Christ's teachings, they are literally doing something wrong. When a materialist atheist decides to look out for themselves, or their group - they are not.

2) Sure, groups can use collective advantage against other people. That's why we have balance of power, frequent elections and an independent judiciary.

Oh okay then. That means things are just fine, because as we all know, the morality and beliefs and desires of people don't matter so long as the laws are correct. Those laws will, of course, be observed and enforced by moral angels.

3) Sure, the U.S. system of democracy has flaws. If God gave us our government, it wouldn't have any flaws, would it? Most problems in our human-made government are due to people not standing up for their own rights.

In other words: "I have no solution to anything. Hell, as an atheist, I can't even produce a reason why anyone should do the right thing, except fear of being beaten to death, which promotes just enough cooperation so the people you're 'in' with get their way.

But I'm a humanist, so watch me draw a massive fucking smiley face and pretend I solved something. Also down with religion, aka, the group of people cooperating who my cooperating group dislikes.'

Human rights, indeed.

John Moore said...

On point 1, atheists are indeed wrong if they refuse to cooperate with others. Maybe you're assuming that atheism has no basis for right and wrong, but it does. Evolutionary fitness is that basis.

It isn't a "dog eat dog world" under atheism, as Victor said, and that's because cooperation provides a powerful evolutionary advantage. Victor asked, "Why shouldn't I use whatever advantages I have?" And I'm giving the answer - cooperation.

Victor asked, "When people have power advantages, what reason can be given to stop them from taking advantage of it." Christianity's answer is "just obey the Bible," but materialist evolutionary atheism has its own perfectly good answer. And the interesting thing is that these two answers are very similar.

WMF said...

"Maybe you're assuming that atheism has no basis for right and wrong, but it does. Evolutionary fitness is that basis."

Racial hygiene hurray.

John Moore said...

You just do yourself a disservice by throwing out these straw-man arguments with Nazi references.

David Brightly said...

I'm not sure how seriously we should take this piece, so at risk of seeming a wet blanket...

Here is one way to answer the Spencerian rhetoric. His phrase 'survival of the fittest' applies not to phenotypes but to genotypes. A gene may be 'fitter' by virtue of inducing co-operative behaviour in its phenotype. Likewise, it's not my goal to survive and reproduce---I may have quite other plans---but it is the 'goal', if you like, of my genes, that I should do so. Bad luck on my genes, then.

But this is to do politics. If that fails the answer is the sword. As it was for the American Revolutionaries and their English forebears before them.

What reason do we have for not taking advantage of a favorable power balance? Conscience, if that counts as a reason.

Hal said...

Isn't the OP based on a genetic fallacy?

The fact that humans originated from a mindless, amoral process does not entail that humans are mindless and amoral.

Ilíon said...

^ In other words: *POOF*

Crude said...

Hal,

The fact that humans originated from a mindless, amoral process does not entail that humans are mindless and amoral.

We'll just wait here for someone to account for the mind and the morality in a mindless, amoral universe. Critiques shall be incoming.

Moore,

On point 1, atheists are indeed wrong if they refuse to cooperate with others. Maybe you're assuming that atheism has no basis for right and wrong, but it does. Evolutionary fitness is that basis.

Oh boy, the amoral and mindless process is the basis of right and wrong.

Behold, secular morality.

It isn't a "dog eat dog world" under atheism, as Victor said, and that's because cooperation provides a powerful evolutionary advantage.

Behold, secular morality. This involved cooperation, very encouraging!

Christianity's answer is "just obey the Bible,"

Around two millenia of philosophical discourse says otherwise.

but materialist evolutionary atheism has its own perfectly good answer.

Oh, it certainly does.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Hal,

The genetic fallacy does need discussing here. The awkward fact about arguments of a form which suggests the genetic fallacy is that those arguments aren't always fallacious. That's why Plantinga spends such a long time on Freud and Marx in his "Warranted Christian Belief" (WCB).

There are two broad roles evolution might be playing in the atheists account. One would be to say that (a) evolutionary processes explain how we come to be aware of independent moral truths. The other would be to say that (b) evolution is what grounds moral truths.

Now, if the account in question looks more like (b) then the relationship between the mechanism producing the belief and the "facts" to which those beliefs purport to correspond is close enough that these genetic style arguments against the view will not go through. The arguments against that approach will have to look a little different. And we have hints of such arguments in this thread.

Meanwhile, the genetic arguments against views more like (a), certainly need discussing.

My view is that that kind of view is utterly implausible on an atheistic metaphysics, that any correspondence between our evolved moral sentiments and an independent moral reality would be sheer dumb luck and so would undermine our confidence in our moral convictions. Trying to argue back against this would involve relying on the same moral sentiments which had already been called into question.

Of course it wouldn't follow that our moral beliefs were false, but it would seem to undermine their rational status.

For more on the genetic fallacy, you could do much worse than consult WCB.

im-skeptical said...

"There are two broad roles evolution might be playing in the atheists account."

Actually, that's selling reality short. There is a third alternative that is much more in keeping with materialist metaphysics (the term 'atheistic metaphysics' is meaningless): (c) evolution gives us a sense of morality that is consistent with enhanced survival through cooperative behavior. This is entirely independent from the question of whether "moral truth" actually exists.

David Brightly said...

Im, I think that your (c) is Steve's (b). By 'moral truth', in this context, he just means what we arrive at when we think about and try to rationally order our moral sentiments.

Steve, your argument under (a) can be run in reverse. It would equally be sheer dumb luck that the independent moral reality happens to conform with our evolved moral sentiments, and so cast doubt on the independent moral reality.

Does anyone opt for (a)?

im-skeptical said...

David,

I don't think (b) and (c) are the same at all. One assumes that moral truths exist, and the other doesn't.

Andrew W said...

This seems a bizarre discussion. Almost every human society of any notable size is built around a form of elitism, where a small number have disproportionate authority and receive a disproportionate benefit from the society's production. Any form of general egalitarianism is historically and evolutionarily a temporary aberration that will collapse within a few generations, if not much sooner. To say otherwise is a deliberate fiction to placate unruly masses, or to incite them to rebellion for the benefit of their leaders.

Steve Lovell said...

Skep,

I agree, the two options I offered assume at least a minimal moral realism. Of course to reject that won't leave you with an evolutionary account of ethics, but only of our ethical beliefs.

DB,

I also agree with you, it does cut both ways. And a rejection of moral realism is a likely outcome of reflecting on this line of argument. See for example "The Evolution of Morality" by Richard Joyce (one of my PhD supervisors).

That said, technically, I think lots of atheistic moral realists belong to the (a) camp but it's a difficult position to sustain. There is some logical room for them to exploit, and the "dumb luck" argument certainly isn't inescapable. The best attempts look to ground moral truths in some feature of human nature rather than see them as fully "human independent".

As I see it, these views risk collapsing into relativism, and it frequently becomes less than clear that they amount to anything more than "enlightened self interest" or the rationalisation of our natural tendencies.

However, it is interesting to note the similarity of some of these approaches with the traditional Catholic "Natural Law" approach, which looks to give those "natural tendencies" some transcendent leverage.

Enough for now.

im-skeptical said...

"As I see it, these views risk collapsing into relativism, and it frequently becomes less than clear that they amount to anything more than "enlightened self interest" or the rationalisation of our natural tendencies."

Please don't try to tell me that theistic ethics amounts to something more than self interest. Are you not aiming for your ultimate reward? If you engage in giving or sacrifice, is it not with the view that you will be paid in the end?

I do those things because it makes me feel good. That's self interest, to be sure. But so is everything we do as humans. I doubt that you can identify a single volitional act by theist or atheist that is not in some way an act of self interest.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Skep,

As a piece of moral psychology, I find your assertion that all action is self-interested extremely implausible. I can see that one might come to that conclusion if you endorsed a psychological theory which had it as a consequence, but prima-facie it seems very implausible to me.

In any case it's strictly irrelevant at this point. My claim wasn't about what motivates actions but about the structure of the moral theories.

Perhaps I've misunderstood you?

im-skeptical said...

Our acts are generally regarded as morally good if they comply with the golden rule. Evolution has conditioned us to feel good about this kind of behavior. That's not to say that this is the main driving factor in our behavior. When there is a conflict between morally good and more blatant self interest, other aspects of a person's character factor into the decision about how to act. These factors form a calculus of risk and reward. For Christians, their view of the afterlife certainly plays a significant role in this calculus. But make no mistake, it is self interest that drives them, one way or the other.

Just as God is the simplistic explanation for how we came to be, moral truth is the simplistic explanation for why we feel good about certain behaviors and bad about others. One glaring problem with this theory is that you can't tell me precisely what these moral truths are. Sure, we can all agree that killing innocent children is bad. But when it comes down to less clear-cut or ambiguous cases, there are no moral facts. One person feels this way, another person feels that way, and they don't agree. Christians don't agree. The lack of agreement is proof of the subjective nature of morality.

David Brightly said...

Steve, Suppose we were to say that intelligence requires language, language requires sociability, sociability requires reciprocal altruism. The latter manifests itself to us self-conscious creatures through the moral sentiments. The moral dimension we find to our existence then takes on a reality independent of ourselves. It has to be thus in order that we be the rational embodiments that we are. Something like this seems to be the direction of Nagel's thought.

Steve Lovell said...

Skep,

You're changing the subject here, but I'm willing to follow for now.

I don't see anything more than assertions in your latest paragraph on self-interest. I just don't buy it. No doubt lots of our behaviour is ultimately self-interested. I see no good reason to think it all is.

Suppose a friend of mine has lost a loved one, and that I try to express my condolences as best I can. In what way is that act self-interested? I'm not doing it to make me feel better. I'm not even sure I'm doing it to make the friend feel better. I'm doing it because it's an appropriate response to the circumstances. The situation merits that sort of response, I see that the situation merits that sort of response and I make that sort of response. Self-interest? I don't see it. The examples can be multiplied.

As for your argument from disagreement ... Firstly the conclusion undermines the argument itself. If there is no truth in such matters, then there is nothing to disagree about. Why then should we continue to disagree?

Frankly the disagreement isn't exactly difficult to explain on an objectivist account, indeed given the admitted prevalence (but not omnipresence) of self-interest it's hardly surprising.

Plus while you're admitting the widespread agreement on many matters, you aren't drawing any conclusions from it. If conclusions about subjectivity can be justified to some degree from disagreement, why aren't conclusions about objectivity be equally justified from agreement?

The focus of the cases of disagreement reminds me of Chesterton's comment "Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules. There will be so many hard cases that everything will go soft."

In reality, what you're arguing is that since we're disagreeing about the hard cases, morality is subjective, and therefore while it's nice that we agree in the easy cases, someone who didn't agree in those cases wouldn't be wrong.

You seem to be expecting ethical matters to be as easy to decide as straightforward empirical questions. As Aristotle told us long ago we should be content with the level of certainty which is appropriate to the subject matter.

Steve Lovell said...

DB,

That's an interesting sounding approach. I've not read as much Nagel as I'd like. Where does he take that line?

My initial reaction is that the chain of requirements are not absolute. They are matters of degree, and so I'm struggling to see what the status of the resulting "moral requirements" will be. I'd like to think on it some more.

im-skeptical said...

Steve,

I am not changing the subject. You discussed moral theories and evolutionary accounts of "moral truth". I responded to your comment.

You can't separate morality from motivation. Morality is an important source of motivation. Morality makes us feel good about certain behaviors, and bad about others. The question for the theorist is: where does this sense of morality come from? Evolution explains it as a means of perpetuating the genome, without resorting to any mystical elements like "moral truth".

"I'm doing it because it's an appropriate response to the circumstances."
- Comforting our neighbors is an act that falls under the broad scope of the golden rule. Of course your intention is not to help yourself, but you would feel bad if you didn't do it. So you really are helping yourself.

"If there is no truth in such matters, then there is nothing to disagree about. Why then should we continue to disagree?"
- I was making the point that people who insist there is moral truth can't agree about what that truth is. You tell me why they continue to disagree.

"Frankly the disagreement isn't exactly difficult to explain on an objectivist account"
- So how do you explain it?

"If conclusions about subjectivity can be justified to some degree from disagreement, why aren't conclusions about objectivity be equally justified from agreement? "
- Naturally evolved morality is just a rule of thumb. It gives us broad guidelines for behavior, but it doesn't provide any hard rules, or resolve doubtful moral questions. These are the areas where disagreement arises. If there were objective moral rules, we should expect to have standards by which to resolve these questions. The fact is we have no objective standards to govern such issues.

"In reality, what you're arguing is that since we're disagreeing about the hard cases, morality is subjective, and therefore while it's nice that we agree in the easy cases, someone who didn't agree in those cases wouldn't be wrong."
- I would say someone who doesn't agree about the "easy" questions of morality is deviant.

"You seem to be expecting ethical matters to be as easy to decide as straightforward empirical questions."
If you have objective moral standards, you should be able to answer those questions. You are making excuses for why you can't.

Dan Gillson said...

Skep, I'm going to do you a favor and analyze what you wrote:

"Our acts are generally regarded as morally good if they comply with the golden rule." ... I can treat people poorly if that's how I wish to be treated, and my actions can still be considered morally good? Strange.

"Evolution has conditioned us to feel good about this kind of behavior." ... That's a vacuous statement. The opposite is also true: evolution has conditioned us to feel good about immoral behavior.

"That's not to say that this is the main driving factor in our behavior." ... Then what was the point of saying that evolution has conditioned to feel good about complying with the golden rule?

"When there is a conflict between morally good and more blatant self interest, other aspects of a person's character factor into the decision about how to act." ... E.g. ... ?

"These factors form a calculus of risk and reward." ... What factors? Good actions, self-interest, and character? Good actions, self interest, and character form a system of reasoning of risk reward? That makes no sense. A calculus of risk and reward would factor in 1. the likelihood of being caught, 2. how much one stands to gain, and 3. how much stands to lose.

"For Christians, their view of the afterlife certainly plays a significant role in this calculus." ... I feel like you're getting closer to your main point.

"But make no mistake, it is self interest that drives them, one way or the other." ... Ah-ha! Your thesis! Here it is!

"Just as God is the simplistic explanation for how we came to be, moral truth is the simplistic explanation for why we feel good about certain behaviors and bad about others." ... Because you say so, or ... ?

"One glaring problem with this theory is that you can't tell me precisely what these moral truths are." ... Two sentences removed from your thesis, and you've already lost your point. :-(

"Sure, we can all agree that killing innocent children is bad. But when it comes down to less clear-cut or ambiguous cases, there are no moral facts. One person feels this way, another person feels that way, and they don't agree.." ... Your thesis is that theists are motivated purely out of self-interest. How is this relevant?

"Christians don't agree." ... And therefore they're motivated purely out of self interest! It's a bad argument, but at least you brought it back around.

"The lack of agreement is proof of the subjective nature of morality." ... I ... wait ... I thought you were trying to prove that theists were motivated purely out of self interest. How did you end up concluding that the nature of morality is subjective!?!

im-skeptical said...

Dan,

The only thing vacuous is you. If you want to make a positive contribution and discuss my arguments on their merits, or lack thereof, get that huge chip off your shoulder. Then, if you still can't understand what I'm saying, I'll be happy to explain further.

Dan Gillson said...

Stringing together two disjointed, half-baked ideas does not an argument make. Next time, shoot for linear development. You're welcome.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Skep,

If you reread my comment you'll see that I already began to answer the question of how moral disagreement can be explained on the objectivist account. You doubtless think that disagreement is possible on many topics without taking the further jump of saying that there is no objective truth of the matter. Errors are possible in (nearly?) all areas. Moral judgements are particularly prone to being clouded by irrationality, self-interest, peer-pressure, and cultural mores.

I actually think that the argument from disagreement does have some weight, but not from the mere fact of disagreement. It's the nature of the disagreement, and the general shape of the attempts to resolve those disputes that really matters. However while I think the argument has some weight it isn't sufficient to overcome the initial assumption of moral realism.

Back on the topic of self-interest ... you are admitting, I think, that self-interest is not a motivating factor in the sense of self-seeking desires. Rather you think we are conditioned to feel better about certain forms of behaviour than others and therefore gravitate (not necessarily consciously) towards those behaviours which that conditioning reinforces. I can agree with that to a limited extent. I just think that it's an incomplete picture.

But of course if this is your account of action, then it's your account of action for both theists and atheists alike.

The question, is suppose, is whether this system of conditioning is really so self-referential and whether there is anything outside that system which can influence our moral judgements.

You write: "If you have objective moral standards, you should be able to answer those questions. You are making excuses for why you can't."

Do you have a particular question in mind? It's easy to talk in generalities, and it can be useful, but I reckon we'd benefit from an example.

im-skeptical said...

Steve,

Let me explain what I think objective standards are, and how agreement relates to that.

First, a definition of objective: "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased"

Now, consider the rules of logic. Are these rules objective? I think they are. We can write them down. We can examine any proposed rule and come to universal consensus on whether it is correct. We can apply these rules to all logical calculations, and they lead us to a correct conclusion (if applied correctly and consistently) without exception. If someone disagrees about a logical rule, his disagreement is irrational.

Now consider moral "truths". We can't write them down, except perhaps for the broadest generalities, but even those are situation-dependent, and loaded with exceptions. If someone proposes something as a moral rule, will there be universal consensus about it? Doubtful. Can we apply the rule consistently to achieve the correct result in all cases? Absolutely not. If someone disagrees about it, is he irrational? Clearly, no. There is widespread disagreement about moral rules among rational thinkers.

Why? Because they are not objective. When we are faced with a decision about how to act in a particular situation, do we apply a consistent rule? No. Our decision is based on what we feel is the right thing to do. That's not objective. In the same situation, different people will make different decisions, because they have different feelings about what is right. Furthermore, if the situation is different, one person might make a different decision, applying some other "rule" that he feels is more appropriate.

Let's look at a real example. Lying is wrong. Many people feel that this is a objective moral truth. Now, let's say your grandmother, on her deathbed, spent the last month of her life making a sweater for you, her favorite grandchild. She gives it to you on the last day of her life, and you hate it. What do you tell her, just as she is about to die? The decision you make is based on what you feel is the right thing to do. And you can be sure that not everybody feels the same about it. This is non-objective, by definition.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Skep,

"Now consider moral 'truths'. We can't write them down ... Lying is wrong ..."

Presumably by "we can't write them down" you don't mean something that you've then gone on to contradict. But what do you mean? Let's leave that to the side for now.

Suppose I accept your "Knitted Sweater" example on it's own terms. The very best it establishes is the situational nature of ethical judgements. It certainly doesn't establish relativism or the falsehood of moral realism.

The example you've given trades on the fact that even in that case, we find it something of a dilemma. Which is to say even in that case we find we have a moral reason not to lie. Perhaps other considerations can outweigh that one, and you're right people will disagree about that. But that doesn't mean there isn't a right answer. And supposing the right answer is to lie, that doesn't mean that the moral status of a lie is subjective. At most it means it depends on the situation, and the fact that an action is a lie remains in every case a relevant moral consideration.

im-skeptical said...

Steve,

My whole point is that we face these dilemmas all the time. A supposed moral rule like "lying is wrong" is true, except when it isn't. Yes, of course it is situational. All moral decisions are situational. You can't write down a moral rule that always applies, like you can with logical rules.

Furthermore, the fact that different people will make different choices in the same situation is proof that these moral deliberations are subjective. If there were some objective rule that applies in a particular situation, there would be no need make a choice that could be different from someone else's choice. Everyone could simply follow the rule.

But that is nothing more than a fantasy. In truth, we go by our gut feelings when we make these choices. You can't deny that. It's what we all do. It's human nature.

Ilíon said...

"Suppose I accept your "Knitted Sweater" example on it's own terms. The very best it establishes is the situational nature of ethical judgements. It certainly doesn't establish relativism or the falsehood of moral realism."

Moreover, *everyone* has always known that the moral implications of any particular act depend upon the situation. For example, while killing another human being is always an evil act (*), it is not always necessarily a wicked act, and sometimes it's even morally obligatory.

A strange inversion I've long noticed is that moral realists/absolutists accept the situational relativity of moral judgment, whereas moral relativists/denialists tend to assert a false absolutism about moral judgments. For example, moral absolutists understand that just legal execution of murderers is not murder, but the denialists of real morality tend to condemn just legal execution of murderers as being itself murder.


(*) contrary to the false undestandings of many, the term 'evil' does not imply anything about morality: murder and (justifiable) homicide, and accidentally driving the wrong way on the interstate ... and having a toothache ... are all 'evil' acts or states, but they are not all 'wicked' acts or states.

im-skeptical said...

"A strange inversion I've long noticed is that moral realists/absolutists accept the situational relativity of moral judgment, whereas moral relativists/denialists tend to assert a false absolutism about moral judgments."

You have a bizarre understanding of moral absolutism. Absolute is relative and relative is absolute. Right. And Christians don't believe in God, but atheists do.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_absolutism

Steve Lovell said...

Skep,

Sorry for the delay in responding. I saw your comments (and Ilion's) but don't like commenting from my phone ...

Your position looks very idiosyncratic. Or rather your reasons for holding it seem very idiosyncratic. Your latest response to me might be characterised as follows

(1) There are moral dilemmas
(2) Some other premises
(3) Therefore moral realism is false

I've left (2) completely vague as for now I just want to concentrate on (1) and (3) in isolation. My reason for doing this is that the first premise seems to me to require moral realism to be true.

(1) There are moral dilemmas
(2a) If there are moral dilemmas, then when facing such a dilemma there are competing moral claims on our behaviour.
(3a) If there are competing moral claims on our behaviour then there are moral claims on our behaviour.
(4a) If there are moral claims on our behaviour, then moral realism is true.
(5a) Therefore, moral realism is true.

Now, if I regarded moral realism as false, it seems to me that this would undermine me taking the idea of a moral dilemma seriously. As such, I don't think your position does justice to the datum of experience which is the starting point of your argument.

Indeed, the argument has the weird looking conclusion that the very existence of classes in moral philosophy in which such dilemmas are discussed should be sufficient grounds for concluding that moral realism is false

im-skeptical said...

Steve,

I was really speaking more about moral absolutism than about moral realism. Despite Illion's claim, the two things are not the same.

As for moral realism, there certainly are moral claims. The fact that people make moral claims doesn't imply that those claims are true. People disagree about the existence of universals, but the fact that some people claim they exist doesn't make it so. So your assertion 4a is false. As for moral dilemmas, one possibility is that there are competing moral claims, and another possibility is that there are no moral facts to which one might refer, which might leave one in a quandary as to how to behave in some situations. So 2a is not a valid assertion, either.

My belief is that we have nothing more than a rule of thumb (the golden rule) that gives us our sense of morality. The rest, including everything you call "objective moral facts" is just the way we construe the rule of thumb. But the way we construe moral rules is very much dependent on who we are and what our views are.

As for moral absolutism, if moral realism is not true then there is no moral absolutism. However, if moral realism is true, we still have no basis to conclude that moral facts are absolute. Illion can't bring himself to admit that he is not a moral absolutist, but he still says that moral rules are situation-dependent.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Skep,

I think you've misunderstood Ilion, but he can defend himself.

I think you've also misunderstood me, at least partly. By "moral claims" in the argument (1)-(5a) I didn't mean the statements people make which they say are moral truths. Rather, I mean real moral considerations awareness of which should, other things being equal, prompt us to act in particular ways.

Your rejection of my 4a seems to be based on this misunderstanding.

I think your rejection of 2a looks like you're really saying that the moral dilemmas in question aren't "real" there are merely in our heads. You position doesn't solve those dilemmas, it dissolves them.

Ilíon said...

I can haz reading: "I was really speaking more about moral absolutism than about moral realism. Despite Illion's claim, the two things are not the same."

Contrary to the lies that some persons like to spread about me -- and in contrast to what they themselves say and do -- I *never* call others stupid, and certainly not "too stupid to understand x-y-z".

Since I believe, as a matter of principle, that *anyone*, including those who are indeed "mentally challenged" (*) can understand 'x-y-z' (given that 'x--y-z' is indeed coherent) if only he has the patience to keep working at it, and (possibly that) those who do understand it have the patience to keep working with him.

Therefore -- given that I don't, and can't, believe that 'I-pretend-to-have-reading-comprehension' -- is too stupid to understand what I had written (as see the remainder of the quoted post), and given that the information necessary to understand what I meant by what I wrote is there in what I did write, the only option left to he to explain his "misunderstanding" what I wrote is that he just doesn't want to understand what I wrote (nor the topis as a whole).

Similar evidence-and-reasoning is behind every time I label someone "intellectually dishonest". Contrary to the lies that some persons like to spread about me -- and in contrast to what they themselves say and do -- I *never* call someone a liar merely for disagreeing with me.


(*) which is say, we all do realize, from mere observation, that some persons are more intelligent that others and some are more stupid

im-skeptical said...

Illion,

I linked to an article that provides a definition of moral absolutism, and it's not defined the way you seem to think it is.

im-skeptical said...

Steve,

"I didn't mean the statements people make which they say are moral truths. Rather, I mean real moral considerations awareness of which should, other things being equal, prompt us to act in particular ways."
- When you say "real moral considerations" you seem to be referring to actual moral rules or facts. You are essentially asserting that these moral facts exist. This would be begging the question.

"you're really saying that the moral dilemmas in question aren't "real" there are merely in our heads"
- No, I'm saying that we do face moral dilemmas, but the rules by which we resolve them don't exist.

Think about how you decide what to do in such a situation. Do you go through a process of examining and evaluating the relevant rules and calculating the required action? "Moral rule #23b states that we should do this, but moral rule #86c states that in this particular situation, precedence should be given to that ..." No. That's a fantasy. Rules like that don't exist. That's not how human beings behave. The closest we come to that is the restraining impact of human laws.

What we do in reality is respond intuitively. We think, "I should do this." If there's any deliberation, it generally involves a consideration of the outcome or consequences of a proposed action. "It would be better for everyone if I did this" or "If I do that, I could face a lawsuit."

"You position doesn't solve those dilemmas"
- I don't claim to have a formula to resolve moral issues. I am merely describing how real people go about resolving those issues.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Skep,

In a way, I agree that I'm begging the question with my argument. But to make the problem appear in my premise (2a) and not in your (1) you need to hollow out your concept of a moral dilemma.

As a result what you're doing isn't faithful to the experience of moral decision making, where in the case of such dilemmas we seem to be aware of genuine but competing demands on our behaviour.

Anyway, your position now turns out to be merely an attempted description of how we make our moral decisions.

As a description, I think it's false if it's meant to be completely general and apply to everyone (or even to most people, or most people in our culture).

Of course I can accept that your description fits a great many people and say that that's a sad indictment of our society and the paucity of moral education in schools, churches and in the family.

I still don't see much if anything of an argument against moral realism.

im-skeptical said...

"As a description, I think it's false if it's meant to be completely general and apply to everyone (or even to most people, or most people in our culture)."

This is my understanding of how we face moral issues, and I don't think it is something that applies to only non-believers. If your understanding differs from this, please give me a realistic account of how you think people address moral issues. This is something I am interested to hear.

I guess my argument against moral realism goes something like this:

1a. If objective moral rules exist, you should be able to identify and enumerate these rules.

1b. Nobody has ever made a comprehensive enumeration of moral rules.

1c. Therefore, we lack objective evidence that these rules exist.

2a. If objective moral rules exist, they should cover at least the majority of life situations.

2b. Any moral rules that we can come up with are only rules of thumb, and do not cover most real-life situations.

2c. Therefore, there is no comprehensive set of moral rules.

3a. If objective moral rules exist, they are independent of your beliefs or opinions.

3b. There is nothing like universal agreement on what is morally right in a great many real-life situations.

3c. Therefore, objective moral rules do not exist.

Steve Lovell said...

Thanks for that Skep,

"This is my understanding of how we face moral issues, and I don't think it is something that applies to only non-believers. If your understanding differs from this, please give me a realistic account of how you think people address moral issues. This is something I am interested to hear."

This deserves a fuller response than is going to happen today ... and perhaps than is going to happen at all in this context. I'll try to put something together soon.

For now I'll concentrate on the arguments.

"1a. If objective moral rules exist, you should be able to identify and enumerate these rules.
1b. Nobody has ever made a comprehensive enumeration of moral rules.
1c. Therefore, we lack objective evidence that these rules exist."

There is a slip between 1a and 1b. I'm happy to accept a limited versions of 1a but for 1b to do the work required you have to assume that if moral realism is true we should be able to enumerate all moral rules. But this is obviously false. No one has ever enumerated all the logical truths, mathematical truths or scientific truths, but presumably this doesn't count against realism in those arenas.

"3a. If objective moral rules exist, they are independent of your beliefs or opinions.
3b. There is nothing like universal agreement on what is morally right in a great many real-life situations.
3c. Therefore, objective moral rules do not exist."

This is the argument from disagreement again. Appropriately fleshed out I think there is some merit in this argument, especially in combination with other considerations. However for reasons expressed elsewhere in this thread, the argument is far from conclusive and the insufficient to overcome the initial presumption of realism.

"2a. If objective moral rules exist, they should cover at least the majority of life situations.
2b. Any moral rules that we can come up with are only rules of thumb, and do not cover most real-life situations.
2c. Therefore, there is no comprehensive set of moral rules."

This is a more interesting argument. To be honest, however, I'm not sure quite what situations we are imagining which our moral rules "don't cover" and the sense in which those situations aren't covered.

More later. Shame this has thread is no longer on the front page of Vic's blog.

im-skeptical said...

Steve,

"Shame this has thread is no longer on the front page of Vic's blog."
- I made a bookmark for it. Easy to get to.

"I'm happy to accept a limited versions of 1a but for 1b to do the work required you have to assume that if moral realism is true we should be able to enumerate all moral rules."
- That's not true. Notice that I said 'comprehensive'. What I mean by that is that there is (or should be) a finite set of fundamental rules that are sufficient to form the basis of all moral calculations. This is equivalent to rules of logic or mathematics. It is possible to extend those rules with an infinite number of theorems, but all theorems are derived from the fundamental rules. On the other hand, if you need to invent a new fundamental rule every time a new moral situation is encountered, then it is fair to say that a comprehensive set of moral rules does not exist.

" for reasons expressed elsewhere in this thread, the argument is far from conclusive and the insufficient to overcome the initial presumption of realism."

This argument attacks the "objective" aspect of objective moral rules.

"I'm not sure quite what situations we are imagining which our moral rules "don't cover" and the sense in which those situations aren't covered."
- Go back to the grandmother scenario. Should you lie? What is the rule? Does that rule always apply, like a logical rule would?

Steve Lovell said...

A short comment for now. After I made my last comment I started to wonder whether by the "cases not covered" you meant cases like the "knitted sweater" (grandmother) case.

I reckon the problem in those cases (if there is one) isn't that they aren't covered but that they are covered by conflicting rules. Not too few rules but too many.

More tomorrow, time permitting.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Skep,

I'm a bit pressed for time, so this still isn't going to be a full response. Perhaps at the weekend ...

I feel I understand better now what you mean about a comprehensive enumeration of moral rules, by your analogy to mathematical axioms.

There are of course famous difficulties in the "completeness" of mathematics. Indeed, also of logic. I'm thinking partly of Gödel, but also about Wittgenstein's "saying/showing" distinction and the difficulty, wonderfully illustrated by Lewis Carroll (in "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles"), of making an entire system explicit (both its axioms and rules of inference).

Let's put those concerns aside for now. As a Christian, of course, I think the fundamental moral "axioms" (on which all the law and prophets hangs) are succinctly stated by Jesus:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22 v 26-40)

Now lots depends on how the concepts here are unpacked, and as I say I don't have time for a fuller response. Indeed, if I was trying to make a fuller response just now that probably wouldn't be where I'd start.

Supposing, however, that I did start here ... I'm guessing you'd say that these "moral axioms" make your point about situations which aren't "covered" all the more pressing. However, there is that unpacking of concepts to do, and perhaps once that's done these "axioms" will turn out to be sufficient.

Remember that even if we ignore those issues from Gödel etc, not all mathematical truths follow obviously from the axioms. It takes serious graft to prove many mathematical theorems. Moral thought may not be so technically involved as mathematical reasoning at that level, but sometimes it still takes effort or insight to come to the further moral conclusions from ones we've already reached.

More whenever I can ...

im-skeptical said...

Your two commandments govern behavior with respect to our obligations to God, and behavior with respect to our obligations to people. From my perspective, it is the latter that is of primary concern. That's what I would regard as morality. And that commandment is basically the golden rule.

You must be aware that this has been a guide for our behavior throughout the ages. It is part of humanity that we feel instinctively, and certainly not dependent on any religion. But it is only the most general of guidelines, and it doesn't help much in a wide variety of real situations.

If you want to claim that there are objective moral rules, I think you should be able to say something like "in this situation, the rule states that I should do this." It doesn't matter if the rules don't cover absolutely everything, but they should at least serve as a practical guideline for day-to-day living, and help us most of the time.

Instead, we have only a general rule, and we have to rely on our intuition to guide us in real-life situations. That is not objective morality.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Skep,

I hope you're still checking for comments here. Apologies for the delay. Between deadlines at work and a heavy cold, I haven't had much time/energy to devote to this, and wanted to make sure any further comments were a little more substantial.

I'm happy to agree that awareness of moral truths such as the golden rule (in various formulations, some better than others) is not restricted to Christians. That doesn't mean that the metaphysical foundations are to be found outside theism. So when you say it's "not dependent on any religion" your point is in one sense accepted by all (reasonable) parties, but in another sense rather more debatable.

Anyway, let's take a few steps backwards. You were asking for moral axioms. I think part of the issue is that it's difficult to arrive at agreement on the axioms when we haven't properly agreed the framework in which those axioms operate.

Have you come across Alasdair MacIntyre's description of the three parts of morality in his seminal After Virtue? A similar three part scheme is offered by Lewis in Mere Christianity.

I'll start with Lewis. Comparing humanity to a fleet of ships, he says there are three things a ship needs when out on the water with other ships.

1) How to stay in good working order
2) How to avoid hitting other ships
3) Why they are at sea in the first place

The first two are inseparable. If the boats aren't in good working order they won't be able to steer well enough to avoid the other ships, and if they keep hitting each other then the boats won't stay in good working order for long.

These correspond to individual ethics and social ethics. Lewis says we've had plenty of the latter and very little of the former. The recent interest in virtue ethics may go some way to address this. However we have next to nothing about the third part. You might think that it's not important. I disagree. If two boats collide, and they each accuse the other of "being off course", then clearly judging the matter will depend on where the fleet as a whole was supposed to be headed. That contextual information is vital. I'll not labour the extrapolation to religious matters.

(Cont.)

Steve Lovell said...

(Cont.)

In MacIntyre's version, the three parts of ethics are:

1) Man as he is
2) Man as he ought to be (his "telos" or "purpose")
3) Ethics is then the practice of getting from 1 to 2.

It should be clear that there is a close correspondence between Lewis's "Third Part" and the "Telos" element from MacIntyre.

In MacIntyre's thinking the whole modern ethical mess results from jettisoning the "telos" and hoping that the remaining two parts of ethics can sensibly be fitted together in it's absence. He argues, persuasively in my view, that they cannot.

You may compare the idea to that of a company "vision statement". When making difficult decisions, a company with a good vision statement can and should compare the various courses of action against that vision statement to help see which course of action best promotes that vision.

Likewise, the purpose of life, if there is one, is something against which many things can be measured, and it is in the wider context of such a purpose that our axioms must be formulated and interpreted.

I've wheeled in some heavy machinery here, and I don't imagine you're going to be especially keen on what I've said. But let me head off one line of possible objection.

You might argue that bringing all that theological context is all very well, but others don't share those theological views and so this still makes ethics subjective.

In response to that I'd simply say that in that sense, all thought is subjective. We can only start with the beliefs we have. Just as Achilles couldn't get the Tortoise to infer the conclusion in the example cited previously, I can't get all possible interlocutors to share my assumptions. But that doesn't mean those assumptions are false, nor that they are only "true for me". Indeed, if MacIntyre and Lewis are right, only the theological 'heavy machinery' can make sense of our moral intuitions, so we can argue from those intuitions to the legitimacy of using that machinery.

Hope that's enough for now.

im-skeptical said...

Steve,

That's one of the most thoughtful discourses on ethics that anyone has shared with me. I hope my response will be worthy. So I'll think about it for a bit and reply tomorrow.

im-skeptical said...

Steve,

I think at least to some degree, we see things in a similar way. Of course, the part that involves God is a point of disagreement.

Plato raised the issue of whether God defines what is good, or good is independent of God. We find it impossible to accept that God could arbitrarily declare anything to be good. We all have our own idea about what is good, but we don't always agree among ourselves. Where does our conception of good come from?

We also have a vision of the ideal person we strive to be, although the vision takes different forms. There's so much we all have in common, yet so many individual differences. What's the best explanation? Our humanity explains the behavioral traits we share. And it also explains the differences between us.

Steve Lovell said...

Hi Skep,

Sorry for the excessive delay in responding. Deadlines are now passed and I seem to be over the worst of my cold(s).

In your mention of Plato, you raise the issue of the Euthyphro dilemma. There are several approaches available to the theist who wishes to ground ethics in God. I've outlined my own position online and in my PhD Thesis.

In your further comments you are raising two sets of issues, one related to how we know moral truths, and another related to what grounds those moral truths. It's important when considering many theistic approaches to remember that they are primarily accounts of the grounding of moral truth and not accounts of how we come to know moral truth. In many ways, theistic accounts of moral epistemology may re-use much that would be said by those who disbelieve in God. The first of my links above elaborates on this point further.