Ruse goes after scientism again, but screws up about morality

December 20, 2011 • 11:34 am

I love it when people like Michael Ruse and Josh Rosenau go after me, for their continued acrimony assures me that I’m on the right track. This week, in his continuing attacks on “scientism,” Ruse singles me out for being misguided about morality. And, in the process, he contradicts himself in a confusing farrago of claims.

Remember that Ruse recently pointed out three areas in which, he argued, truth claims were possible without science: mathematics, morality, and philosophical questions about the justification of ontological naturalism.  Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse put the loquacious Ruse in his place, but Ruse is back again in a piece called “Scientism continued.”  Here he zeroes in on morality as an area where there are objective truths.

Of course Ruse can’t leave out the obligatory critique of yours truly:

Let’s focus in on moral claims. My most doughty critic Jerry Coyne (really, I should pay him a retainer) [JAC: okay, Michael, I’ll take $50/pwn] says “while science can inform moral judgments, in the end statements about right or wrong (or, in Ruse’s case, whether one should feel ashamed of an action) are opinions, based on subjective value judgments.” And he goes on to say “I think that’s true.”

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

Indeed, I think that Sandunsky’s action, or any sex with children, is dead wrong.  But I still think that’s ultimately based on a value judgment about what is right and wrong.  The ancient Greeks didn’t think it was so bad, and presumably they had their own justifications for those acts, misguided as they were.  The point, though, that judging that “sex with children is morally wrong” does not ultimately rest on any objective fact about the world.  It could be informed by observations that sex with children traumatizes and injures them, but one must then still have reasons for thinking that trauma and injury is always wrong.  This is the problem that many had with Sam Harris’s assertion that “well being” was an objective criterion of morality.  While I agree with Sam’s criterion in perhaps 98% of moral judgments, I do think that there are immoral acts that actually increase overall well being, and moral ones that decrease it.

Not long ago people thought it was fine to have slaves, subjugate women, and torture gays.  Those were justified by various means as moral—most often from religious teachings.  Morality changes over time, and that is exactly the point of Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature.  At what point do we know we’ve arrived at the “objective facts” of morality? Is killing cows for food objectively right or wrong?  The reason morality changes is that values change—exactly what wouldn’t happen if there were “moral truths.”

Well, I needn’t go on saying that morality is subjective and that people who think that there are objective moral facts are wrong. Jason Rosenhouse has done this job far more thoroughly in his second takedown of Ruse’s anti-scientism at EvolutionBlog, “The basis for morality.”  Jason’s response is the same as mine:

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

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

The most bizarre thing about Ruse’s essay, which Jason points out, is that the end Ruse goes off the rails and seems to admit that morality must indeed be based not on science but on subjective criteria.

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

But they used to differ about such actions, and “decent, thoughtful people” still differ on many moral questions: euthanasia, abortion, the use of animals as food, the age of consent for sex, and so on.  If there are “moral facts” that everyone agrees on, like the egregious immorality of Sandusky’s child rape, what are the “moral facts” when substantial numbers of people disagree?

But wait! It gets worse, for Ruse imputes the “objective truth” of morality t0 Darwinian evolution:

I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not. (There are all sorts of good biological reasons why cooperation can be a much better strategy than just fighting all of the time.)

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

Is Ruse serious here? Certainly our instincts for morality may well have been molded in part by natural selection.  But that doesn’t mean that whatever “moral” behaviors were instilled in our ancestors were objectively right!  Many primates practice infanticide; chimpanzees are often murderous animals, and, as Jason points out, we’re probably genetically predisposed to xenophobia and tribalism. Are all of the “rights” and “wrongs” that evolution gave our ancestors written in stone? Of course not, because so many of them have changed in the last few centuries.  And they’ve changed not because morality is a priori objective, but because people’s views of each other, and how they should treat each other, have changed.

Jason concludes:

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

I agree.  So chalk one up for science, and against the pejorative use of “scientism.”

Now tell me this. Ruse is seen as a serious philosopher, and I’m constantly accused of philosophical naïveté.  Are Jason and I simply talking out of our nether parts because we don’t have our philosophy Ph.D.s, or can serious philosophers be legitimately criticized by tyros?

192 thoughts on “Ruse goes after scientism again, but screws up about morality

  1. Ruse’s main error appears to be equating “objective” with “accepted by nearly all modern Westerners”. It appears objective because no one he consults will disagree, but it’s just a subjective issue that essentially everyone currently agrees on.

    1. Yep, I think you hit the nail on the head; he’s conflating a subjective consensus with objective.

      On Jason’s site I suggested that one potential key difference is in acceptance of method; with ‘objective’ facts, the vast majority of sane people will agree on how to evaluate the truth claim. We all agree on how to weigh something. We do not all agree on how to measure beauty. Or moral virtue. In regards to morality, people have suggested various versions of utilitarianism; appeals to authority, and so on.

      That, however, may be an incomplete or flawed attempt to define objectivity. Just throwing it out there.

      1. My take on it is that because reality is objective, we can objectively define some actions as being moral or immoral, but it would be a very complex procedure- we’d have to account for a huge amount of variables and we’d have to have tightly defined criteria.

        I’m not sure that trying to undertake such a task would actually be worth the effort and it would still be subjective at the base level because deciding on which values to emphasis would be a subjective process.

    2. I completely agree with the idea that there are many subjective moral opinions that many westerners agree on and that doesn’t make them objective. I wish that the word “fact” wasn’t abused in this manner as a fact requires empirical or mathematical support.

  2. The ancient Greeks didn’t think it was so bad, and presumably they had their own justifications for those acts, misguided as they were

    The ancient Greeks only had “sex” with post-pubescent boys. The culture was sort of a pedagogical one, where older experienced men would teach and have a relationship with younger men who were just going through puberty. Usually it was between the age ranges of 14 – 25 where one was the “beloved” and 25 – 50 where one was the “lover”. And even so, there didn’t seem to be any penetration.

    Sandusky’s actions were penetrative sex with pre-pubescent boys, which is a different animal, and would still be frowned upon by ancient Greeks.

    1. Penetrative sex with prepubescent girls is accepted in many cultures, particularly within the context of “marriage” to much older adult males.

      1. In every state in the US, it is possible to legally marry someone who is below age of consent. In six states, there is no statutory minimum age for marriage. To be fair, most of these situations involve parental and/or judicial consent, but it serves to illustrate the lack of uniformity in what is generally considered a moral issue.

    2. Although it’s a rather morbid thing to ask I’m curious if you could cite a source (or a few) for the details of ancient Greek pederasty? I find it somewhat difficult to believe that this behavior was so uniform across Greece when the city states had such distinct cultures. I have trouble imagining that the Spartan May/September pairings followed the same dynamics as the Athenian ones, for example.

      The samurai of feudal Japan had a similar practice of pedagogical pederasty and would even announce their most distinguished lovers of their youth as honorifics on the field of battle.

  3. “Morality changes over time, and that is exactly the point of Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature. At what point do we know we’ve arrived at the “objective facts” of morality. Is killing cows for food objectively right or wrong?”

    I think you’re missing the point of Pinker’s book. Pinker is widely known to reject moral relativism, in fact I think he aligns closely with Harris’ views on morality.

    The fact that rape has been an ‘accepted’ practice in the past (although I don’t know how well accepted it has been by the hapless girl or boy being raped) does not make morality relative. It only means that our moral intuitions have been effectively honed by our modern and increasing understanding of human nature.

    1. our moral intuitions have been effectively honed by our modern and increasing understanding of human nature

      But why “ought” we accord our morality to human nature? From whence does that moral imperative come?

      1. Because that is the context in which the word “ought” or “should” makes any sense. Asking why “ought” we to avoid suffering, is like asking why the perfect circle has to be round.

        1. No it isn’t. Assuming we agree on the definition of a perfect circle, it has to be round by definition. Why is “we ought to avoid suffering” true by definition?

        2. The context in which “ought” and “should” make any sense is “if”.

          There must be an “if”, or the computation is broken.

  4. Case in point: capital punishment. There is no question that major religions differ on the morality of the death penalty. Some support it, some oppose it and, in the past, some incorporated it as a form of sacrifice. In the US, opinions are also divided, and not necessarily along religious lines. Some Christians oppose it, some support it even when their denomination officially does not. Staunch Christian James Richard Perry is proud of the number of people he has executed, as is his predecessor, and he is supported by the people at the Republican debate who cheered him on.

    Sex is another area that shows a change in moral standards, changes that are not necessarily religiously motivated. The age of consent, which also affects the age of legal marriage, has moved steadily upwards throughout time. “In the United States, by the 1880s, most states set the age of consent at 10-12, and in one state, Delaware, the age of consent was only 7. A New York Times article states that it was still aged 7 in Delaware in 1895.”

    What’s changed over the years is not the acts themselves, and there is no demonstrable absolute that can say that what was moral in 1880 is moral now. What has changed is people’s attitudes, and by any strech of the imagination, that is a relative measure. In 1880, what Jerry Sandusky did would have been condemned, not because of the ages of the children involved, but because of the homosexuality. Today, it’s not necessarily the homosexuality, but the ages that draws wrath upon his head.

  5. The truth of its wrongness is as well taken as the truth of the heliocentric solar system. It’s just not an empirical claim.

    Woo! Woo! Woo! How over the top can he go?

    Indeed, I think that Sandunsky’s action, or any sex with children, is dead wrong. But I still think that’s ultimately based on a value judgment about what is right and wrong.

    And I agree. Ruse’s argument is from an absolutist frame of mind in which anything that is not totally perfect, eternal, objective and infinite is considered to be entirely worthless. Ruse and other religious thinkers need to get over this. You would think a philosopher would be exposed to the concept that there can be shades of grey.

    1. I assume that “not just an empirical claim” here means “an empirical claim plus something more”, rather than “not an empirical claim but something else”.

      Because I sure hope that claims about the sun are empirical claims.

  6. There is a brute fact about moral judgements that must be considered before one embarks down this road. Both Jonathan Haidt and Mark Hauser have written about this fact, although I am not sure who put the observation on solid empirical grounds. The observation is this:

    Moral judgements are emotional responses.

    Any justifications or rationlizations are post hoc. There is no logically-derivable morality, Sam Harris’ excellent consequentialist manifesto notwithstanding. Choose as your ideal “Let the strong receive their due” instead of “Let’s maximize well-being for the weak as well as the strong” and Jerry Sandusky is just taking the morality of Frank Miller’s Sparta to its apotheosis.

    I have never seen a convincing rebuttal of the Euthyphro dilemma, just waffling theologian-speak, question begging, etc.

    And how could it be otherwise? Moral behaviour is built up from behaviours that work in an evolutionary sense. Altruism as a tendency in animals that nurture their young through a protracted dependent stage is probably more efficiently produced as a general pathway, with no energetically costly reqiurements for fine tuning, especially when balanced with competing mechanisms that handle territoriality, competition and aggression.

    Eusociality has probably been selected for via genes that influence these behaviours and Homo sapiens has recently felt compelled by our big brains to create, not just gods, but the equally fictious idea of “moral reasoning”.

    We rightly loathe Jerry Sandusky because he has violated the social norms that evolution has given most of us the emotional responses to favour: empathy, justice, and the desire to protect the vulnerable.

    God (and William Lane Craig) would have had Lot throw the children to a hundred Jerry Sanduskys so as not to put himself (Lot) at risk for a couple of angels who should have known what Sodom was like before showing up there.

    1. So what you’re saying is that whatever axioms we choose as our foundation for morality are equally likely to produce human flourishing (a decrease in suffering and an increase in well-being, health, etc.)? I think that’s a ridiculous idea.
      We might well say the same when it comes to claims about scientific ways of knowing and religious ways of knowing. The religionist could also claim that he does not accept the axioms upon which the sciences are based, and, in their place, he could offer his own axioms (such as the Bible) upon which to construct truth.
      Ultimately, we judge the “truth” and “objectivity” of our axioms based upon the results they achieve. Are you saying that a morality reducible to “might is right” is just as likely to produce human flourishing as “Let’s maximize well-being for the weak as well as the strong”?

      1. The scientist says, *if* you are interested in truth, *then* you must support what you say with evidence.

        The moral philosopher says, *if* you’re interested in maximizing human flourishing, *then* you should probably care about how you treat others.

        But you have to want the antecedent to begin with. If the “if” isn’t true for you, there is no way to make it so (aside from reprogramming your brain). Thus there is no logically-derivable morality, as Andrew says. And Sam Harris agrees, of course, when he’s being honest. He knows you have to care about human flourishing from the start, and that there is no logical way to get there if you do not. That is why sociopaths are, as far as anyone knows, a lost cause.

        1. Can you identify anything that an individual can accomplish more effectively without the aid of a flourishing society?

          Even a Montana woodsman hermit type of existence works a lot better with tools purchased from the general store in town, and doesn’t work so well if you kill the storekeeper and steal all the goods.

          Any antecedent you care to name…well, to maximize its potential, your best bet is to behave morally.

          Sociopaths aren’t a lost cause because their goals are askew. They’ve got problems because their calculus isn’t working very well. And, indeed, the more successful the sociopath, the more moral his behavior. Serial killers are “successful” if the manage to even break into double-digit body counts, but the mortgage banking executives are still living high on the hog. In the past, those executives would have been feudal barons who tortured and murdered their serfs with reckless abandon; today, curbing their anti-social tendencies lets these parasites grow much bigger while causing much less harm to their hosts.



          1. Do dictators care about human flourishing? I think they are selfish and petty, and care mostly about their own whims. They also seem to get what they want, at least for a little while.

            I know what you’re going to say – it’s the “for a little while” part that is the key. Eventually dictators are overthrown, or assassinated, or other countries come in and take them out. So really they aren’t getting what they want. Ultimately, life does not work out well for them.

            The problem is that humans are not often this long-sighted. Especially humans who are petty and selfish and bad at delaying gratification (in other words, children and dictators). Right? It is not easy to sit down with Kim Jong Il and say “Listen, life will work out so much better if you just do this.”

            This is because, as Harris points out in TML, there is a drastic difference between what we say we want, and what we do. Harris knows, logically, that he would lead a happier, more fulfilling life if he spent more of his time helping others, and yet he doesn’t. I see this as stemming from the fact that Sam Harris isn’t one person. Sam Harris is a brain with a multitude of inputs and competing motivations. One part of “Sam” wants to save the world, while the other part just wants to chill and watch TV. Similarly, “I” do not want to eat this cake, because it is bad for my health, but at the same time *I want to eat this cake!* These are competing motivations within me. It makes no sense to pay attention *only* to the me that talks about long-term goals (such as health) and ignore the me that has immediate wants and desires.

            Back to Kim Jong Il (yes, I know he’s dead. Let’s pretend he’s not for the moment). It may be possible to logically convince “him” (read: one part of him) that being a dictator will not work out well for him in the end. But that doesn’t mean that will be enough to override the baser motivational systems within him, just as I often cannot override my desire for cake, try as I might.

            So it’s quite easy to say “everybody *really does* care about human flourishing,” but that still does not translate into action. And that fact seems to take most of the wind out of TML’s sails.

            Ben, are there any specific books that you get your ideas on morality from?

            1. The only real response that I can offer is that I’m taking a big-picture evolutionary perspective on the matter. And, just as evolution gives us recurrent pharyngeal nerves, it gives us sub-optimal local maxima (or minima) such as North Korean dictators.

              We’re fortunate as a society of modestly intelligent organisms capable of metacognition that we’re capable of re-routing our moral pharyngeal nerves: witness how Hammurabic laws used to be universal (and, indeed, enlightened, even revolutionary) and are now (generally) considered the ultimate in barbarity.

              Yes, that’s little comfort to the victims of Hammurabi’s modern soulmates. But nobody ever said life was fair.

              Sorry, I can’t offer you any books for guidance…this has all come from introspection, with lots of polishing in the powered tumbler of the ‘Net.



        2. I disagree. Caring about truth as defined by science is still a personal choice at some level. If you doubt this, then take a look at all the posts Jerry has made in which he’s had to defend scientific truth against those who would like to establish alternative forms of truth. See, all they do is choose to base their interpretations of the world on different axioms. There are millions of people who simply refuse to accept the naturalistic methodology. Of course, science goes on whether people accept its foundational assumptions (and, ultimately, they ARE assumptions) and continues to produce results. Similarily, morality must be based upon an assumption, even if it’s difficult to describe precisely. The foundational axiom of morality could be something like “well-being” and it would need no more justification than, for example, the mathematical law of identity. It is by its very nature irreducible and unprovable. It simply must be accepted. I don’t think its fair for people to demand something from a foundational property of morality (which we assign by decree) which they would not demand from a mathematical or scientific axiom (which we also assign by decree). In math we’d say, “feel free to reject these axioms if you want, but if you do, then we cannot continue” (recall Bertrand Russell); and there will be people who will reject them. But who cares? Similarly, there will be many people who will reject an attempt to provide a foundation (an axiomatic grounding) for morality, especially when it contradicts there holy books; but again, who cares? How is that any different from what goes on in the sciences? The only justification needed for a morality based on well-being would be the results it produced. Same as in science and mathematics.

          1. The purpose of a system of logic (and there are many) is to preserve something. You start with premises, and you follow a set a rules that allow you to derive other statements that preserve the property that you started out with in your premises. The logic that we use in science and everyday life is a system designed to preserve truth. If you start with true premises and you follow the rules of logic without error, then the conclusion you arrive at is guaranteed to be true. The law of identity, as well as the laws of noncontradiction and of the excluded middle, are taken as axiomatic in this system of logic because, though we cannot prove them, it seems unmistakable that they are TRUE. And it seems even more unmistakable that they are true when we can use our system of logic to discover truth about the natural world using this system – if the system were messed up, you would expect us to find a contradiction somewhere (as we may or may not have found in quantum mechanics). But generally, the system works. We are using it to have this conversation.

            So the three classic laws of thought have quite a bit of justification – they seem intuitively true (indeed I cannot imagine A and ~A being true in the same way and at the same time, no matter how hard I try), and they combine to form a system that works.

            Also, notice that this is a completely descriptive system. You cannot use facts about the universe to coerce people into doing something. It takes “wants” for that. It takes values. You cannot say “The rainforest is burning. Therefore, go do something about it.” There is an intermediary step, in which you admit that you care about the rainforest, and that you care enough to do something to preserve it. These are not things that logic can provide.

            But your moral system starts out with a premise that would allow you to coerce others into doing what you want. Now you can say, “The rainforest is burning and the rainforest means more to more people than what your individual preferences mean to you. Therefore, go do something about it.” Your moral system begins with an assumption about values, an assumption which would allow you to dictate for others what we should and should not do. And you say this needs no justification?

            Now I assume you think – and Harris does too – that we all “care about wellbeing” already. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that this does not necessarily translate into action. You may care about wellbeing enough to give up your TV time once a week to volunteer at a homeless shelter, whereas I may only care about it enough to volunteer once a year. If asked, we both would say “we care,” but this manifests itself in different ways based on a cadre of personality characteristics and environmental factors. Basically, if you want someone to change their behavior (e.g. stop beating women who refuse to wear burqas), getting them to say “I care” is not enough – at that point, you still have all your work cut out for you.

    2. Euthyphro dilemma–Either God wills something because it is good or something is good because God wills it. If the former, what is good is good independently of God. If the latter, God could will abominable things and we’d be forced to accept them as good: but this is absurd.

      The Platonic and Christian Platonist answer to the dilemma is that God is good and the good is God–there’s no difference between the two. Goodness is simply an aspect of the divine nature, and so the dilemma turns out to be a false dichotomy: it’s not either-or but both-and, or from a different angle, neither-nor.

      What do you think, balderdash?

      1. Balderdash from two perspectives. One: it is difficult to derive such a God from what is written about him. For some other god the concept might work, but Yahweh comes with several hundred pages of baggage which utterly conflicts with this idea. Two: human morality changes with culture and time period. Let’s say this hypothetical theologian is right and God and goodness are one and the same. Whose definition of goodness is He equivalent to? The 20th century western one? Why that one?

        1. Hi Eric,

          Thanks for the response. It appears you have two objections: 1) The God of the Bible does not appear to be perfectly good and 2) There are no moral absolutes. Both points may be true, but neither of them touch on whether it’s intelligble to conceive of God and goodness as identical, no? Would you admit that it’s at least logically possible to conceive of God and goodness as identical?

          Cheers, jb

          1. I think they do bear on that problem. If there’s no absolute goodness and yet God is equivalent to goodness, what is God? Some non-absolute subjective phenomena?

            1. I think I see what you mean, Eric. Above I was just trying to make the case that it’s logically coherent to conceive of God as goodness itself and thereby escape the Euthyphro dilemma. But if there is no absolute goodness, as you argue, then we needn’t bother with the distinction; we needn’t bother with the Euthyphro dilemma for that matter.

              So then the question is: is there absolute goodness, or, put it a little differently: are there moral absolutes? You adduce the fact that morality changes with time and culture as evidence against moral absolutism; but I don’t see that relativism follows from this: it could just as easily be the case that different cultures in different times have varying degrees of insight into the moral law, just as different cultures in different times have had varying degrees of insight into mathematical laws–the fact that two students get different sums for the same problem doesn’t mean there’s no right answer. And what’s more, whatever the moral divergences we see in different cultures and however profound they be, nevertheless there’s a consistent body of moral maxims and ethical principles that we in virtually every culture we have record of: do not murder, do not steal, follow the golden rule, et cetera.


              Cheers, jb

          2. To conceive of God and goodness as identical, we must be able to accurately characterise both, otherwise the statement is no more plausible than saying my keyboard and goodness are identical.

            Such a characterisation not only requires sound empirical knowledge of God, but also requires sound moral reasons for believing that my conception of goodness is actually good.

            Where do my sound moral reasons come from?

      2. Platonism? Really?

        Why not replace chemistry with the Four Elements while you’re at it?

        Christianity is so pathetically idiotically primitive and outdated that it’d be laughable to invoke it in modern discourse if it weren’t for the fact that so many people take it so seriously.

        Honestly, why are we even pretending to respect the notion that the Christians have a place at the grown-ups table?



          1. <snork />

            Which of us is it, again, who’s fantasizing out loud about the best way to fondle a zombie’s intestines in order to avoid having said zombie inflict infinite torture?



            1. Zombies, intestines, torture. Did you mistake the screenplay for Night of the Living Dead with the Baltimore Catechism?

              1. I take it you’ve never bothered to actually read your grimoire, then?

                On the fondling of a zombie’s intestines:

                John 20:27 Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

                On the zombie’s penchant for a bit o’ torture:

                Matthew 13:41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;

                42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

                Jesus Christ, don’t they teach you kids anything in Sunday School these days?



      3. Newsflash: You can’t be an entity and a property at the same time. They’re different things. It is an unfortunate characteristic of English that the same sentence can either act as a description, or an equivalence. “Tim is tall” is a description. I myself am not the abstract property of tallness. “Tall” simply describes me. However, “A man is an adult male human” is an equivalence. It says that the two things on either side of “is” are the same thing.

        “God is good” is a description – it can be no other. If it were an equivalence, that would be like saying that this being that has thoughts and actions is actually an abstract property. That’s a contradiction. A stupid, stupid contradiction, and I’m upset I even have to say it.

        1. While I’m not defending the idea (and may not fully understand it), I think the theist response would be that ‘goodness’ is not a property of God but that God, as the metaphysical Ground of Being, is That Which Makes Goodness Possible. The god of Classical Theism is not a moral agent at all, and so cannot be spoken (coherently) of as ‘good.’ The view that he is good is a misconception arising from the mistaken Theistic Personalist view of God.

          Classic Theists, of course, also believe in the bible and the resurrection of Jesus, which I don’t get at all, since THAT god clearly is a moral agent. Apparently further arguments are necessary to get there.

          1. But that’s just using nonsense to explain nonsense. No one can give a coherent explanation of what it means to be the ground of being, or what it means to make goodness possible.

            1. I have the same questions myself, but haven’t investigated them. However, I do suspect that, given the many centuries of Catholic philosophy, there are most likely formidable explanations that can’t simply be dismissed (not that you’re necessarily ‘dismissing’ them – you may well be very familiar with them. But I am not). I just wanted to point out that goodness isn’t a property of God under that view.

              1. Ah, yes. The Courtier’s Reply.

                Christian (and Catholic) philosophy is entirely devoid of “formidable” explanations, except to the extent that they’re often quite obtuse and obfuscated. They all start with their conclusions and proceed by any means necessary (generally including flat-out lies) to generate premises which “support” the conclusions.

                If “goodness” isn’t a property of “God,” then that simply means that “God” lacks “goodness.” In simpler words, God is evil — or, as I prefer to put it, Jesus is one truly nasty motherfucking sonofabitch. And that’s entirely supported by the evidence, too — after all, in the official canon, Jesus in his own words declares he’ll personally see to the infinite torture of every man who’s ever looked at a pretty woman and failed to immediately gouge out his eyes and chop off his hands. That’s in the Fucking Sermon on the Goddamned Hellmount, if you care to look. Right up at the beginning, too. And one of the tamest examples of Jesus’s “infinite love,” for that matter.



              2. Now, now, Ben. Non-Good creatures can still be of a Neutral alignment – or Unaligned by 4th Edition.

        2. Tim–I am sorry to have induced you to apoplexy but grateful for the distinction you make between entity and property; my Uncle Dick has always said that I’m obtuseness personified and now I have an answer for him. In any case, the objection seems like a good one on the face of it: to say that Tim is tall is not to say that Tim is tallness; to say that Jordan is obtuse is not to say that Jordan is obtuseness. And there is no entity in our experience to which we can point and also affirm that it is a property.

          But I think we’re only at the level of paradox here, not contradiction. At the level of contradiction we’d be talking of things like squared circles or married bachelors: things which are intrinsically unintelligble because the terms are mutually exclusive of one another. But entity and property are not things which are mutually exclusive of one another by definition, they are only mutually exclusive of one another in our experience.

          A two dimensional creature could not very well comprehend the idea of a cube from his everyday experience; he may even go so far as to describe it as a “stupid, stupid contradiction.” And in the same way, what may not be true of our everyday experience may very well be true of God. As C.S. Lewis puts it: “God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.”

          Cheers, jb

          1. I think the problem is of definition here. You can define God to be goodness if you want, but then the onus is to so that the thing you called “God” before you came to define “God” as goodness is also “goodness”. I think this thing that was called “God” mostly looked liked a mythical superhero in most cultures, and it is not immediately obvious how it exactly the same thing as the thing that was called “goodness” before you (or C S Lewis, or Aquinas or anybody for that matter) came up with this definition.

            Just giving the same name to two things does not make them the same thing. Ask a mathematician: a lot of the modern discipline of mathematics is precisely about carrying out this last step of showing that two things can actually be given the same name.

      4. This “answer” seems to squarely impale itself on the second barb of the dilemma. William Lane Craig attempts something very similar, and ends up actually defending the genocide described in the Bible as moral because the victims get to go to heaven. Clearly, goodness is what god commands, and the absurdity is not far behind.

        I prefer to restate the dilemma somewhat. Is goodness the cause or effect of god’s command? The only other option is that goodness is unrelated to god’s commands, which I think fits biblical descriptions quite well.

        1. Hi John K–That’s a fine way of putting the dilemma. The answer from the Christian Platonist viewpoint is that goodness is neither the cause nor the effect of God’s command; rather, goodness is simply an aspect or dimension of God’s nature: goodness itself coinheres in God. Therefore, if it’s wrong to commit genocide under any circumstances God could not command genocide under any circumstances, since it would be a violation of His nature. While the goodness of God could certainly transcend our apprehension of what is good it could never flatly contradict it: God’s goodness may be to our sense of the good as a sphere is to a circle, but not as a square is to a circle.

          Cheers, jb

          1. Well, there goes omnipotence.

            Y’all really don’t bother to think these things through, do you? And then you wonder why the rest of the world laughs at your idiocy (when we’re not crying from the horrors you commit as a result of your embrace of your idiocy).



            1. Just the opposite, Ben. Evil is a privation; to say that God could do evil would be to say that omnipotence is subject to privation, which is absurd. Similarly, God cannot create a rock too big for him to lift because there is no such thing: nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

              1. I’m still utterly flabbergasted that you think people will take this sort of bullshit seriously.

                You really think your gods are omnipotent despite being incapable of doing evil and despite your claims that your gods are responsible for and plotting horrors of unimaginable evil.

                Never mind the Flood or the Apocalypse or even Moses’s Massacre of the Midianites. You would have us believe that it’s within your Jesus’s power to forgive Hitler yet he’ll instead be — at Jesus’s emphatic command to Satan — subjected to infinite torture for his decidedly finite crimes.

                Your fucking hypocrisy makes me sick. Of course your gods don’t do evil — they’ve got their henchmen to do the dirty work. I suppose you’re now going to claim that it’s not Jesus’s fault that Satan is running rampant on Earth? What is it, Jesus is too weak to overpower Satan? Or is it Satan’s “Free Will” that Jesus is powerless to overcome?

                How dare you presume to lecture people on morality. You wouldn’t know moral righteousness if Santa left it under your Christmas tree for you, all wrapped up with a pretty bow. Instead, you blather incessantly about these pathetic comic-book superhero characters you’re in love with.



              2. Hi Tulse—The idea is that evil by nature is a privation of some good; evil is not a thing in itself, or any particular being somewhere, like Satan, but rather evil is by nature parasitic on some good thing: like a tear in a shirt, or a car without an engine. Things in themselves, inasmuch as they are, are good: evil is just the lack of a thing that ought to be there. Thus, supposing God exists, and supposing that he is identical with perfect goodness, it would be incoherent to predicate of him a lack of goodness.

                Or again, the Greek word for sin, hamartia, literally means “missing the mark”. Any sinful action is by nature aiming at some good; it is just the means of acquiring it that is evil. The rapist wants sexual pleasure; there’s nothing wrong with sexual pleasure in itself, but the means by which he acquires it—by reducing his victim to a sexual object—is where he misses the mark. A man who murders another for his wealth is seeking material abundance; again, nothing wrong with wealth in itself, but the means he has chosen to obtain it misses the moral mark. Thus, if God is omnibenevolent it would be impossible for him to sin; but the fact that he cannot “miss the mark” hardly implies a lack of perfection or power on his part.

                Ben—You don’t believe in free will yet religious hypocrisy makes you sick: you might as well blame a tree for growing up crooked. While you’re at it, you might as well infer that since religious folk are such great sinners there is no such thing as sin.

                Cheers, jb

              3. The idea is that evil by nature is a privation of some good

                Yeah, I got that part, what I want to know is what the argument is for it, and more importantly, how you know the claim is true.

              4. Yeah, I got that part, what I want to know is what the argument is for it, and more importantly, how you know the claim is true.

                He doesn’t. He’s bullshitting with reckless abandon, and he knows it. He’s a con artist, a Liar for Jesus.

                I mean, what sort of idiot would seriously believe that a perfect god perfectly filled with perfect good would neglect to perfectly fill its perfect creation with perfect good and instead leave all these big honkin’ good-free gaps all over the place? Or, if it did manage to make such a mistrake in the first place, how it could fail to fill in all those gaps with its endless supply of goodness?

                The god-botherers don’t argue and they don’t expect anybody to actually buy into their play-pretend arguments. Instead, they preach and attempt to provide some intellectumamal-sounding technobabble to cover for their scam. That’s all he’s doing here — it’s all any of these sorry-assed apologists ever do, all they ever even pretend to do.



          2. if it’s wrong to commit genocide under any circumstances God could not command genocide under any circumstances

            I guess then it’s actually OK under some circumstances, as the Canaanites could tell you (that is, if they hadn’t all been wiped out on the orders of your god).

      5. I don’t see how it solves the problem. If “God is good and the good is God” then we’re back to morality being a matter of whatever God says it is, a matter of God’s whim. I suspect that even most devout theists would be troubled by the idea that, say, torturing babies for fun would be good so long as God says it’s good.

        1. Hi Gary–For sure, in fact in his essay The Poison of Subjectivism C. S. Lewis goes so far as to say that there is nothing in principle to distinguish Divine Command Theory from devil worship–so it’s critical that we distinguish ourselves from the idea that a right action is right precisely because God has commanded it. But to say that goodness is whatever God dictates is not the same as to say that goodness is simply part of the divine nature; in the former case good is contingent upon the will of God whereas in the latter case there is no shade of contigency in the good because it flows from, is part of, God’s immutable nature.

          1. So, what happens when Lex Luthor slips some red Kryptonite into Jesus’s morning cup of Romulan Blood Wine? Is that enough transmutate his immutable nature? If so, which device on Batman’s Super Utility Belt will rescue Maid Marion from Darth Vader’s secret underground torture chamber?



          2. So your god is omnipotent. Your god can do no evil. And your god has free will. So remind me again why your omnipotent god could not have given humans free will without the capacity for doing evil (thus eliminating the necessity of infinite torture in the afterlife)?

  7. I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not.

    So Ruse acknowledges that our moral values are contingent upon our evolutionary history, at the same time he is claiming they are objective? He must be using a very bizarre notion of “objectivity.”

    1) Other species have different standards than us on how to treat their fellow species-mates, as do preying mantises, and every other species.

    2) The standards as to how to treat others has changed dramatically over time, partly due to a change in who is considered “us,” who is under consideration. At one time, male property owners of the dominant race were the only ones who received consdieration. The concept that women, the poor, and minorities are persons and should have rights, and should be treated fairly, is historically recent. This raises the question: what about our treatment of primates? Mammals? Other animals? Plants… Perhaps people of the future will have very different ideas about this. I saw something in the paper just yesterday about experimenting on chimps. When our values have undisputedly changed so much, how arrogant to consider one’s own values to be the One True “Objective” set of values.

    1. Ruse, at least in _Taking Darwin Seriously_ and onwards (and that was 25 years ago or so) has always been subjectivist – or at least flirted with it. There it even affects his epistemological conclusions. (His argument is pretty weak, however.)

      1. Obviously, mantids are moral relativists…I mean, you’re in a jar and there’s this little male on your back and nothing else to eat…

  8. Dr. C.: Yes you can!

    1. Emperor’s new clothes
    2. Ad hominem

    Anyone can point out the fallacies in his arguments. You personal standing is irrelevant to (the content of) your arguments. Setting up a standard set of books one must have read or degree one must have received to make an argument is cowardly and ridiculous. If you strike home on his arguments, that’s all that matters.

    And all that “deepness” and “sophisitcation”? Just like in theology, it’s almost 100% verbal obfuscation; blinders and red herrings to distract you from his royal nakedness …

  9. JBillie, I think you’re onto the key to humanity’s “moral progress”. We’ve always valued compassion and fairness towards people like us(i.e. the Good Ones).

    It’s just that the People Like Us Club has been revising its membership charter in certain places to include women, non-Europeans, Muslims, non-human primates, etc.

    Unfortunately, this expansion of membership has been far from uniform and is subject to quixotic (and orchestrated) reversals.

  10. Morality really is nothing more than enlightened self-interest.

    Pick any goal you might have, including anti-social ones. Your odds of accomplishing that goal are greatly enhanced if you have the support of society, and greatly diminished if society actively opposes you. Society is far and away the greatest force multiplier known to humanity.

    All of those great moral dilemmas — slavery, subjugation of women, exploitation of children — are examples where a minority parasitizes some portion of society at the expense of society as a whole. Given two societies, one with and one without such parasites, the one without will (in general) prosper more than the one with. Yes, it’s not absolute, but nothing evolutionary is — yet, as we all know full well, it doesn’t take very much of an imbalance to drive radical change at geologic timescales.

    Though none of us will live to see society evolve foolproof defenses against parasites such as Bernie Madoff or Saddam Hussein, it should be obvious that you do the most to optimize your own chances of success (at whatever it is you wish to succeed at) by being moral, not by being immoral.

    Thus, the only real remaining question is that of what behavior is the most moral. I would submit that the following is about as good a set of rules as you’re likely to find today:

    I. Do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto.

    (The First Rule may be broken only to the minimum degree necessary to otherwise preserve it.)

    II. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

    III. An it harm none, do what thou will.

    The rules must be applied in that order. For example, following the second rule is not permissible in circumstances which require violating the first rule (except as provided for by the Exception).



      1. Torquemada applied II at the expense of I. Better to suffer a few weeks of earthly torment than an eternity in Hell, after all.

        And II is the foundation of all commerce and other cooperative endeavors. If you just follow III without II, you’d never pick up your neighbor’s mail while she goes on vacation — and she wouldn’t reciprocate, either.



        1. Ben,

          I meant II & III together being sufficent.

          I guess the key is the exception clause!

          Under I, the murderer is not punished, since he wishes not to be punished. That’s where I hang up on I.

          More detail on the exception clause please …

          1. I consider punishment abhorrent, and it is no oversight that my moral code does not allow for it, except “to the minimum degree necessary” to prevent people doing unto others as they do not wish to be done unto.

            We have yet to figure out a more effective means of reducing recidivism than with incarceration. And there are certainly those individuals so dangerous and so likely to re-offend that the only way society can defend itself is with lifetime imprisonment. But that’s a failing on our part; we owe it to those sick individuals to find a cure for their crippling mental illness such that they may one day rejoin society as productive members. And we need to do a better job at identifying those people before their illness has a chance to manifest itself in the first place.

            But a great many of those who are ostensibly being punished are instead victims of prohibition, and many of the rest lack the education and access to jobs and other resources that would permit them to be productive members of society in the first place. Solve the problems of inequity and suddenly you won’t have anywhere near as much need for punishment at all.



      2. II is only a heuristic, anyway. “Do to others what they want done to them by you” is an alternative.

        But II does have the advantage that ignorant revenge against you could benefit you.

        1. Actually, the “as you would have them do unto you” is more useful in this circumstance than “as they want you to do unto them.”

          Your variant would require you to do for others that which you personally consider abhorrent. Maybe the other is into S&M and that’s just not your thing, or maybe your neighbor wants help butchering the carcass he just killed on the hunt and you’re a vegetarian for moral reasons. Oh, hell, maybe your neighbor is Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolf Hitler.

          If your neighbor wants you to pick up the mail while he goes off hunting, and you want him to pick up your mail in a week when you go camping, my version of II says that you should pick up his mail. But with my version of II, you’re no more under obligation to clean the carcasses of your neighbor’s kills than he is to help you distribute “Save the Whales” bumper stickers to passers-by.



  11. Assigning meaning to animal behavior is tricky, and no morality or altruism could truly be pinpointed only because it depends on us claiming that we know an animal’s motivations. Until we can, the idea that there is an evolutionary basis for morality (in nonhuman animals) seems weak at best.

    It’s like those dogs who are deemed as heroes in the media for waking up their guardians when the house is on fire. As one dog trainer smirked, of course they woke up their owners. How else could they open the door to get out?

    1. Eh, the fundamental problem is no different from assigning meaning to other humans. There’s no ultimate way of knowing that other people actually exist, let alone what they’re experiencing.

      The job is easier with humans because of our communication skills — and that includes both verbal and non-verbal communication. But communication is only part of the way we build our internal models of other people’s mental states; we also analyze their actions.

      Non-human animals are plenty capable of communication, and their actions are more than open to interpretation. And plenty of well-designed experiments have demonstrated perfect analogues to human morality in non-human animals. Other primates, for example, will refuse food in certain situations if they know that their peers are being deprived or unfairly treated. All sorts of animals share child-rearing duties. Just recently in the news was something I only half-remember about rats coming to each other’s aid (or something along those lines).

      If you assumption that animal minds are intractable was valid, your conclusions would make sense. But your assumption is waaaaay off base, and your conclusions equally worng.



      1. “But your assumption is waaaaay off base, and your conclusions equally worng.”

        You do enjoy arguing, don’t you, Ben? 😉

        I don’t think I am off base, for one thing I never used the word intractable. What I said was that it’s tricky.

        Are you saying that we can, with 100 percent certainty, know that the primates refused food *because* they FEEL empathy? Is that the only explanation, Ben? Or could it be some other social reasoning?

        Sharing “child” (and I assume you mean “infant”, as other animals do not have “children”) – rearing duties could easily be hormonal or related to group pressures / norms, not morality.

        Mice letting each other out of the plastic cage (kind of an ironic experiment, don’t you think?) could be for all sorts of reasons as well, although that one was pretty eye-opening.

        But to say we can assign a motivation to those actions is as of yet unfounded, unless you have evidence that I have not seen yet. If a dog gobbles down food after being alone for 8 hours it is fair to say it’s hungry. To say they wake up their owners to “save them” from a burning house, is weak.

        1. Since when do only those actions subject to metacognition qualify as being “moral” or “immoral”? And what makes you so sure that it’s your own metacognitive abilities that cause you to choose a moral action over an immoral one? For that matter, how do you know that other mammals don’t engage in metacognition?

          When a mother cat repeatedly re-enters a burning structure to rescue her kittens, it’s entirely fair to call that a moral act, regardless of the nature of the thought that caused her to do so. Sure, you could claim that she was only doing it out of a Darwinian drive to propagate her genetic investment in her litter, but you can make an almost identical claim that that’s why human firefighters risk their lives to rescue their tenth cousins from fires.



          1. I get what you’re saying, and I think it depends a bit on how we’re defining morality here. I figured this would be an issue. Anyway…..

            “how do you know that other mammals don’t engage in metacognition”

            We don’t know that they don’t, but on the other hand we don’t “know” that they do either. That’s my whole point. Assigning meaning where there is none.

            Comparing a firefighter saving strangers to a cat rescuing her *own* kittens? The cat also tends to the runt of the litter when it is sick, and would probably protect it from a viscious dog. That is not really the mother cat being “moral”, just her doing her biological job.

            Besides, we’re getting off topic. My main point was that we cannot insist that altruism in other animals proves that it has an evolutionary advantage or basis in humans.

            1. We don’t know that [animals] don’t [engage in metacognition], but on the other hand we don’t “know” that they do either. That’s my whole point. Assigning meaning where there is none.

              Yet you also don’t know that other humans “really” engage in metacognition (or “really” exist, for that matter). That’s my point. You’re using a certain set of criteria for your conclusions, but you’re not applying that criteria equally. In other words, you’re engaging in special pleading.

              That is not really the mother cat being “moral”, just her doing her biological job.

              The only basic assumption that can be used to justify that claim is that the mother and her kittens have a common set of genes, and the mother is acting to protect her genetic investment.

              And, indeed, there’s a great deal of validity to that assumption and argument.

              Where it breaks down, however, is in assuming that only parents and children are related closely enough for such genetic imperatives to come into play. And, in that case, it breaks down damned fast.

              The examples of siblings engaging in cooperation are legion. The archetypal example is bees in a hive. But it goes waaaay beyond such close relations…it’s been observed to apply to cousins, nieces and nephews, and even just the other members of the local pack / pride / whatever, regardless of how related the individuals are.

              For perfectly good reason: even two distantly-related members of the same species share, for all intensive porpoises, 99.999% of their genomes. Help a neighbor and you’re helping your own genes.

              And, of course, it goes far beyond species. You share at least 90% of your genes with all the other mammals. The firefighter who rescued the cat and her kittens after the cat had rescued the kittens was also preserving her own genes (as expressed in the very-closely-related cat).

              So, if you’re going to dismiss what the mother cat did because she was “just doing her biological job,” you’ll have to explain why the human firefighter wasn’t also “just doing her biological job.”

              That’s all I’m asking for, really. If you’re going to come up with some sort of criteria to decide that something is or isn’t a moral action, be sure to apply it equally in all directions. Because, if you do, you’ll find that the criteria you use to dismiss the possibility of an animal being a moral agent also dismisses your own possibility, and the criteria that establishes you as a moral agent also establishes the animal.



              P.S. If you really want to have fun with this, apply those same criteria to the social actions of certain plants…. b&

              1. Plants are fascinating. I would not be surprised if some day, we find they have a type of “feeling” we could equate with consciousness, although it would not resemble anything we understand as normal. I know that sounds extreme but I am not ruling it out either. 😉

                “The only basic assumption that can be used to justify that claim is that the mother and her kittens have a common set of genes, and the mother is acting to protect her genetic investment.”

                I disagree – that was never my assumption. My assumption is that animals have very strong instincts. Combine that with motherhood and you have a being, be it human or cat, who would risk their own lives at the drop of a hat to save their offspring. This is traditionally based on female hormones, and I would not call that morality.

                Nor would I consider *any* animal’s “altruistic” action as morality. That’s not to say that they don’t have it, merely to say that we don’t know their motivations one way or another.

                Hormones may factor into a firefighter’s decision, but really, does that sound even remotely correct to you?

                Dogs may protect their owners, but again unless you read Pat Shipman’s hypothesis, there is no basis to think that pet-human relationships have that “genetic” or hormonal reason. Again, where are the studies for what we’re discussing here? (I’ve posted none, I realize. Guilty.) 😉

                Granted we seem to have different defenitions going here. That may be the issue.

              2. First, rescuing several kittens from a burning building requires a great deal of cognition. I’m having a hard time understanding how “female hormones” could cause a cat to navigate her way into a the building back to her burrow, pick up the kitten, carry it outside to a safe place, and repeat the process. Indeed, the only hormone I suspect would be playing any significant role would be epinephrine.

                Second, let’s assume you’re right. The cat’s actions were due entirely to “female hormones.” Now, kindly explain how you know that a firefighter’s actions are not due entirely to “female hormones.” What criteria (besides, “Well, it’s obvious!”) are you using to discern between the primary motivational factors in each case?

                Lastly, let’s assume you’re even more right, and the cat’s actions are driven by “female hormones” and the human’s action’s aren’t. So what? The actions are (essentially) the same. If you replace the internal combustion engine of a car with an electric motor, does that somehow change it into something other than a car? If not, why should the motivation for behaviors make any difference if the resulting behaviors are the same? If you were to construct a cat robot with a computer brain that rescued her robot kittens, would that now qualify as moral? What if the cat’s robot brain were as sophisticated as that of Data from Star Trek? What about an alien with human-level cognitive abilities, or a chimpanzee the result of genetic manipulation to have a human-equivalent triple-digit IQ? Or a dain-brammaged human with the cognitive and communication skills of a cat?

                Unless you wish to invoke some sort of ghost-in-the-machine soul at work, I can’t for the life of me fathom how you could conclude that the mechanism matters when the output is identical.



            2. “I want other people to like me… There is a reward… It’s OK to help people with such motivations. Because helping is itself a great thing!”

              – Random Hiker dude in Driftveil City, Pokemon Black/White

  12. I want to say that what Jerry Sandusky was reportedly doing to kids in the showers was morally wrong, and that this is not just an opinion or something “based on subjective value judgments.” The truth of its wrongness is as well taken as the truth of the heliocentric solar system.

    And I want to fly in the Millenium Falcon. Sadly for both of us, we live in the real world. Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true.

  13. Ruse can’t be any good as a philosopher – look, he’s trotting out the old Ipse Dixit. Much of morality I suspect comes from the capacity of humans for empathy. “Don’t do that; you wouldn’t want anyone doing that to you, would you?” and “Help those people; maybe some day you’ll be in a similar situation.” Surely Ruse must also be aware of Moral Relativism and of cultural practices which are moral to one group and abhorrent to another? Such cases are coherent with the idea that morality is indeed an opinion, a value judgement. However, Ruse would rather trot out one case which he merely presumes is universally condemned as immoral and proclaims that the Other Wise Men said so: Jerry is wrong! It’s nothing personal, but Ruse is an idiot.

  14. Ruse is seen as a serious philosopher

    on the talk show circuit, maybe.

    In case anyone hasn’t mentioned it yet, not only is there a problem with the phrase “serious philosopher”, but even accepting that claim, Ruse contradicts himself constantly, and can’t be taken seriously at all, let alone as representing “philosophy” or any aspect of it.

  15. I don’t think one should use Sandusky as an example — at least not yet. We have a principle of innocent until proven guilty. You might think he’s *probably* guilty, but until he has his day in court its better to use another example of immoral behavior where guilt is a near certitude. There are many to choose from.

    I also think that people are too willing to jump to a conclusion of guilt when it involves child abuse, and this often leads to injustices that can ruin innocent lives. The McMartin Daycare Case is a prime example.

    I’m obviously not condoning child abuse or giving any opinion about Sandusky’s guilt or innocence. I’m only asking that you consider that someone accused of the crime isn’t necessarily guilty.

    1. yup, he’s been doing little but attempting attention mongering stunts for years now.

      I find him pathetic.

      FFS, he even went on a “debate tour” with WILLIAM DEMBSKI a few years back.

  16. “Remember that Ruse recently pointed out three areas in which, he argued, truth claims were possible without science: mathematics, morality, and philosophical questions about the justification of ontological naturalism.”

    One of the major consequence of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem is that we will never prove that the Zemerlo-Fraenkel axiom system of set theory is free from contradictions. On this system rest much of modern mathematics. That being so we should be suspicious of “non mathematical truths” including “moral truths”, and “philosophical truths” concerning the justification of ontological naturalism.

    1. Why does your last sentence follow from the ones before it? I would beware trying to apply Godel’s theorem outside of mathematics.

      I’m not saying it never applies anywhere else. But it doesn’t automatically apply to other fields, either. Are moral systems composed of arithmetical statements? That seems doubtful.

      1. If Church-Turing holds, then all cognition and computation can be perfectly represented by a Turing machine with sufficient resources.

        And, since every proposal for super-Turing computation I’ve ever come across or imagined either requires or reduces to a violation of conservation, I think it’s a damned safe bet that Gödel’s work has universal application.



  17. It seems to me there is some poor reasoning going on here both by Ruse and Coyne. Let me first say, that I agree with Coyne that there are no objective moral facts. I just don’t like some of his reasoning in favor of that conclusion.

    Coyne wrote, “Morality changes over time, and that is exactly the point of Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature. At what point do we know we’ve arrived at the “objective facts” of morality? Is killing cows for food objectively right or wrong? The reason morality changes is that values change—exactly what wouldn’t happen if there were “moral truths.””

    Just because there has been variation in opinion or disagreement over time and across individuals, doesn’t mean there is no fact of the matter. That is like arguing that since Ptolemaic astronomy was once accepted that modern astronomy is no more true than Ptolemaic astronomy or that since there is disagreement amongst biologists about how important a role natural selection plays in evolution that there isn’t a correct answer.

    Ruse seems to make the same mistake in reverse.
    “Decent, thoughtful people do not differ on Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions.”
    One could easily counter, “tasteful people agree that Catherine Denueve is far more beautiful than Grace Kelly.” This is just an appeal to popularity. “Everyone’s doing it, so I should too.” Lots of people agreeing on something doesn’t make it true either.

    1. Just because there has been variation in opinion or disagreement over time and across individuals, doesn’t mean there is no fact of the matter.

      yes, actually, wrt to morality it does.

      because morality is DEFINED by the people who practice it, and we can conclude that by the very observation of variation over time noted.

      Ruse seems to make the same mistake in reverse.

      since Jerry hasn’t made a mistake, it’s hard for me to see what the reverse of Ruse’s mistake would be.

      Ruse’s “mistake” is simply projecting his own subjective idea of morality and calling that objective.

      it’s a “not even” mistake. it’s utterly ridiculous on the face of it.

      1. “because morality is DEFINED by the people who practice it.” This is just begging the question against someone who thinks that morality is defined by an absolute standard. The people who practice it can get it right or get it wrong. Now, that isn’t my view, but you don’t just get to redefine the term without argument.

        1. The people who practice it can get it right or get it wrong.

          “right” and “wrong” being defined objectively by?


          1. all you’ve done is set up a recursive argument.

            you haven’t established any more relation to objectiveness than Ruse did.

  18. I think that there’s a reasonable defence for there being objective morality; that is to say that I think that there are objective ways to talk about morality, and that if we take too seriously some of the propositions about the nature of morality then we have ceased to talk about morality.

    There’s no objective ethics, as J.L. Mackie put it, in the notion of prescription handed down from on high, there aren’t facts like homosexuality is wrong. But there are relevant facts to morality, such as the question of whether an action will adversely affect the relevant parties, or whether that action will come to give a greater reward. Whether or not homosexuality should be considered morally wrong is not in the proposition itself, but the actions surrounding the proposition. To say “homosexuality is not morally wrong” would be shorthand for a description of the morally relevant facts. And we can argue what those facts are and how relevant those considerations are, and that’s a job for both science and philosophy.

    So in a sense, I actually agree with Ruse on this. Not quite sure about his explanation, but since I’ve only seen articles by him on the matter (where he has a short space and clearly likes rhetorical excess) so I think I’ll have to delve more deeply into his writings to see whether or not his explanation holds.

    1. if we take too seriously some of the propositions about the nature of morality then we have ceased to talk about morality.

      well, that’s the real point though.

      the very definition of morality itself is subject to debate.

      what *is* the “nature of morality”? It does not have an innate, objective, nature!

      Thus the the APPLICATION of any given definition of morality has to be subjective.

      1. the very definition of morality itself is subject to debate.

        Couldn’t the same be said of *all* knowledge, however? Would we be so willing to embrace someone who took this same line of reasoning to evolution, and took it to mean that there’s no such thing as evolution.

        1. Couldn’t the same be said of *all* knowledge, however?

          oh come on. don’t tell me you can’t think of an immediate exception to your own hyberbole?

    2. But there are relevant facts to morality, such as the question of whether an action will adversely affect the relevant parties, or whether that action will come to give a greater reward.

      I argued the other day that since all actions have consequence, thus all actions can be viewed, to a greater or lesser extent as moral decisions.

      I was rightly chided by someone claiming that the decision as to what breakfast cereal they would eat in the morning is hardly a moral decision.

      but isn’t it? Let’s use a bit of hyperbole…

      If you choose to eat cornflakes, vs say cream of wheat, it’s a small decision, but multiplied millions of times, it has a huge impact on economy and society, and you have affected countless people’s lives and livelihoods, and an entire global economy.

      and, if you get where I’m hyperboling away to, then you get why by definition, “morality” MUST be subjective.

      just because actions have consequences, does not mean that thus morality must overly all, and thus be “objective”.

      the two are not linked.

    3. But there are relevant facts to morality, such as the question of whether an action will adversely affect the relevant parties,

      If said adverse effects are a result of people’s perception of the act – i.e., cultural beliefs about that act – rather than some intrinsic property of the act itself, then its subjective. Look up the definition of subjectivity before disputing that. 🙂

      Consider the many ‘immoral’ acts for which this is true; punishment, shunning, or other adverse effects are a result of cultural beliefs about said act rather than any intrinsic property of the act itself.

      1. I’d be interested to see, for example, a case being made that female genital mutilation is perceived rather than actual harm. Or that infecting someone with smallpox is perceived rather than actual harm.

        You raise an interesting point, and one that ought to be taken into consideration. A belief in witches, for example, might lead to the slaughter of innocent people under the perception that such an act is what is morally obligated. It, too, is important to distinguish between what is handed down by culture and what has a more objective grounding. On that, I think, it warrants some caution to the extent to which we push our values on others.

        But I also think that the attempts to write morality off as subjective are doing so to the point of misrepresenting the concept and to the detriment of humanity.

        1. a case being made that female genital mutilation is perceived rather than actual harm.

          cutting an umbilical cord causes harm.

          obviously it’s immoral to do so…

          or is it done out of a perception of greater good?

          likewise, the “greater good” is the rationalization many cultures give, regardless of how WE judge it, for female circumcision… and male circumcision, for that matter.

          1. Ichthyic, it seems that you’re not dissolving the issue of morality, so much that you’re raising points of consideration.

            Would you honestly consider that cutting an umbilical cord and cutting a clitoris as being equivalent cases?

              1. I *am* trying, though thanks for the condescension. I’m not going to somehow pull everything out of 7 sentences. The umbilical cord is an entirely different situation to female mutilation, so if you’re trying to say my position is that any harm at all means something is morally wrong, then I might suggest that it’s you who is caricaturing my point. But I thought more of you than that, so I tried to clarify.

                Come on, Ichthyic, you’re being really unfair here.

              2. If you’re going to completely twist my point in order to score a rhetorical one, then what’s the point of even trying to have a conversation? Might as well just pronounce you King Of Knowledge and forget about ever trying to understand for myself. FFS!

        2. Or that infecting someone with smallpox is perceived rather than actual harm.

          Such as occurs in vaccination? In that case it could be argued that it is actual good.

          1. Why is it that people are taking known examples and twisting them to mean a completely different context? Might be a fascinating study, because surely there would be no person stupid enough to think that “infecting someone with smallpox” in this context is talking about vaccination.


  19. “I go rather with the late John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, thinking that natural selection put morality into place. Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not.”

    That’s a misreading of Rawls, who makes no such claim about natural selection leading to morality. Rather his Original Position is a thought experiment that rational people would find convincing given the obvious problems with basing moral oughts on facts about the nature of humans. He rightly sees the is-ought problem as a long-standing problem in liberal theory in it’s attempt to account for our considered judgements about human human rights based on a social contract that never actually existed. A Theory of Justice is his attempt to rescue liberalism from this well-known problem.

  20. Jerry.

    I don’t think the subject of morality is by any means decided by any one side at this point. That said, I do not find your arguments that morality is clearly subjective to be very compelling. In fact, I find that certain value theories that explain how value arise point to the possibility of “ought” statements having truth values. (In other words, to say “You ought to do X” will have a truth value, and hence it would be making an objective claim).

    But first, to the standard objections:

    — JERRY C.: “Morality changes over time,”

    Our views of almost anything objective has changed over time – e.g. assertions about the nature of the stars, the sun, the moon…all have changed over time.
    That doesn’t mean there aren’t objective truths about these things, and in fact we think, especially through science, we are getting closer to such truths.

    — JERRY C: The reason morality changes is that values change—exactly what wouldn’t happen if there were “moral truths.”

    Then, since our beliefs about other purportedly objective phenomena has changed over time, that is exactly what wouldn’t happen if the phenomena were “objective.”
    Sure we have agreement on many issues at the moment, scientifically. But that has changed…and could change again. But will that mean there is no objective facts about the world? No.

    I’m not arguing for relativism (scientific or otherwise): it’s the opposite. I’m just showing that the spectre of special pleading is hovering around your argument.

    I’m sure you’d want to say: But the difference is that scientifically we have a way of coming to agreement about objective facts. And this has indeed led to significant agreement about many objective facts. Whereas there seems to be no such agreement about morality, and no method offered for adjudicating between the purported truth of moral claims.
    Sure. But once there was no such methodology or agreement in place. But when that was the case, it didn’t mean objective facts weren’t there to be discovered.
    Our theories of morality may be in an earlier state of development, so we haven’t yet managed to agree on how to evaluate moral claims for truth content.
    A subjectivist may want to ask then: Well, mere assertions of possibility aren’t good enough. Give me some reason to believe it’s possible: show me that even in principle morality could be objective!

    Ok. There are various secular value theories that conclude moral statements can have objective truth value. I find myself most compelled by those value theories that look to Desires as the important lynchpin. (Desirism being my current favourite).


  21. Re:Euthyphro dilemma- What do you think, balderdash?

    Yes and here’s why I think so, though I agree with eric and Tim martin.

    First a digression and apology.

    Apology: Upon re-reading my posts, I find that they appear to jump discontinuously from idea to idea: e.g. going from criticism of the logical justification of morality to a drive-by mention of the Euthyphro dilemma, without the linking idea, that the first critique was of atheist moral absolutism (and its total dependence on essentially abritrary definitions of a Platonic “Good” to the parallel arbitrary equivalence of “God” (whatever that word means to YOU) with “Good” (whatever THAT word means to you). Sorry for the major ellipses. I envy those of you who can write about this heady stuff with fluency.

    The “why I think so” is actually contained in my effort to explain the jump in my post. And it is why I am unimpressed by most philosophy I have read, and why I view “logical argument” with great suspicion. (I am an amateur in math and philosophy, so the following could be totally the result of me not knowing what I’m talking about, but here goes).

    It seems to me that the “data” of logic are sets or lelemnts of sets that can be combined by the usual operators of set theory. For example things can be in the set G(good) or in the set B (not good), where B is the complement of G and so on. The rules of logic allow contructions of statements, axioms, conclusions, like syllogisms for example, that we can pretty reliably all agree are valid or not valid (e.g. create a contradiction).

    So far so good.

    Most people without academic training have a fairly good grasp of these rules too. I assume they are an emergent feature of languages with grammar, but I digress.

    So you say to someone: “John must have wrecked my car yesterday, because he has been in a coma since October and the doctors don’t know when he’ll recover”, and everyone knows that the rules of logic have been violated and that John, in fact can’t be the culprit.


    Because every thing or category in this construction has properties that we can agree on because of experience, at least to the extent that they function as categories or things for the logical operators to act on.

    Statements about gods, aesthetics, morality and values are not like this.

    God is by many definitions undefinable, and “good” is impossible to use as a property without begging the question.

    I’m going to conclude before I get in too far over my head and drown, because I’m starting to write myself away from my point, which is: logic is symbol manipulation and bears no necessary relationship to anything real.

    What the symbols stand for can be arbitrarily defined, so that anything the speaker wants to be true or axiomatic is so. There can be no recourse to empirical verification.

    God is non-contingent therefore God exists. QED

    Euthyphro dilemma:
    God is good therefore God=Good, QED.

  22. ..cont’d..

    There are a lot of steps to go through, justifying each step along the way, which is obviously hard to do in a small comment section. But to point to the principle ideas:

    What explains the nature of value in the first place? How does it arise? Answer: Desires. X is valuable insofar as it is such as to fulfill some desire. To see this, simply observe how things become valuable to people: an old photo of my father that is not particularly valuable to you is very valuable to my mother because it satisfies a desire she has (to remember my father, to have some visual record of him with which to commune etc).

    How does money, mere paper, take on “value?” It’s only valuable insofar as it is such as to fulfill some desire (e.g. to buy some food, or a home). If you want to talk about why ANYTHING is valuable it will only ever make sense in relation to some desire. Imagine a universe devoid of any desires…then try to make sense of saying any X is valuable. You’ll fail to make sense.
    Another important feature of desires is that they provide the only reasons for actions that exist. This is implicit even in how we explain the behaviour of each other. If you ask for the REASON Bill chose to open the fridge we will appeal to the combination of his beliefs and desires: e.g. the desire to drink milk and the belief that there was milk in the fridge. Absent appeal to any desire, we can not make sense of any reason for his action.

    Now, what about “ought” statements? What makes sense of ought statements? Well, again, we need the lynchpin of desires. Ought statements involve prescriptions for action. But desires provide the only reasons for actions that exist! So any ought statement will of logical necessity appeal to a desire. If I say “You OUGHT to catch that bus” it will mean nothing, provide no reason, have no prescriptive force, unless it appeals to some desire of yours – e.g. the desire to make it to the movie on time. Therefore, when you break down what is necessary to make sense of an ought statement, it is best expressed as: To say “you OUGHT to catch that bus” equates to saying “Catching that bus will be such as to fulfill your desire to make it to the movie on time.” That’s what makes sense of what one is saying with the ought statement.

    Notice what starts to happen here. This means the bus has “value” insofar as it is such as to fulfill some desire. But it only has value if it IN FACT is such as to fulfill the desire. In other words, it can not make sense to say something is valuable if it is not IN FACT “such as to fulfill the desire in question.” And this means that value..and from this “ought” statements…are by nature dependant on actual, objective facts. You can’t HAVE value without it being linked to facts (objective) and you can’t HAVE an ought statement mean anything unless it is linked to real facts about the world (e.g. catching that bus may IN FACT fulfill the desire in question or it may not IN FACT fulfill the desire in question).

    In this way, from the very nature of value, to make value claims (X is valuable) or ought statements, is to necessarily make objective claims (“X will be such as to fulfill the desire in question”). This is the part I think Sam Harris gets right, that value statements are objective claims. The problem is that he has not identified the locus of value specifically enough. He’s only got some form of “welfare of conscious creatures” which is so vague he runs into all sorts of problems.

    So back to value and ought statements. For any X to have value, or any “ought” statement to make sense, it must be evaluated as “true or false” depending on X’s ACTUAL propensity to fulfill the desire in question. So this is factual claim stuff.

    But one may say “Ok, fine, I can agree with you if you are talking about what are often termed “prudential” or “practical” ought statements. If I desire to hammer X nail and Y hammer will fulfill that desire, then that hammer has value to me and I “ought” to use that hammer.” But my desires can change, and morality is supposed to be oughts that are prescriptive for all of us, not just related to our personal interest. In fact, moral prescriptions typically contradict some of our desires (some guy may desire to have sex with a woman, but if that woman doesn’t want to have sex with him, then it is morally prescribed that he not act on his desire). So then…how can desires be the lynchpin of moral prescriptions?

    Here’s why: Some desires are moral; others are not. 🙂

    Can we actually have any basis on which to say this? I think it’s possible…

  23. “Decent, thoughtful people do not differ on Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions.”

    Define ‘decent’. Objectively. Or does ‘decent’ mean ‘someone who has the same morals as I do’?

    “Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not.”

    And you *know* this how? Not just guess, think or like how it sounds. How do you know this?

    1. If you got it right with the first question, and “decent” is about behaving morally, then the answer to the second question would be that he knows the people more like him survived because of the current great number of people more like him.

  24. Finally…

    Back to the nature of value and ought statements. X has value, and I ought to do X only insofar as X has the propensity to fulfill a desire(s). Well, can we ask these questions about desires themselves? Yes, it turns out we can. Desires fulfill an important criteria along the route to morality because they are malleable (if they weren’t, since “ought implies can” then desires would not be objects of any ought statement). But desires ARE malleable. That’s why someone brought up in one culture has acquired the desire to cover their women in cloth bags, whereas we in our culture have not acquired this desire. Given it is possible to encourage some desires over others, we can ask: Which desires OUGHT we encourage? The answer will, as per the nature of value/ought statements, depend on a desire’s propensity to fulfill desires!
    Take the desire to rape. “Ought” we encourage the desire to rape? Well, does the desire to rape have the tendency to fulfill desires (= valuable/good desire) or the tendency to thwart desires (=bad desire)? Obviously, at least in this case, it’s the latter. The very nature of rape is that it thwarts the desire of the victim (to rape is to force someone to have sex with you against her/his desire).

    Does the desire to rape have the tendency to thwart other desires? Seems obvious it does. Imagine having a knob on a machine that increases within a society the frequency and strength of the desire to rape. As you turn up the knob, you will get more and more desire thwarting: insofar as rapists act on their desire and rape people, you have more victim’s desires being thwarted. And any person with a desire to rape who is not successfully fulfilling that desires is ALSo having his desire thwarted. It’s clear that turning the “rape desire” knob upward would increase the prevalence of desire-thwarting all around.

    Turn down the knob, and desire thwarting goes down. What would be a good replacement for the desire to rape? How about the desire to have sex only when the other party desires it too. (With other caveats to tweak that as needed). Well, as you turn up the knob on that desire, you will see it has the tendency to FULFILL desires. (Note that is not turning up the desire for sex, it’s turning up the desire that when you DO have sex it is fully consensual). As that desire spreads in proportion and strength, it has the tendency of fulfilling desires. Hence…the desire to have sex only if the other person desires it as well is a “good” “valuable” desire for it’s tendency to fulfill desires.

    And note that these remain factual claims. The claim that the desire to rape is “bad” is to claim it has the tendency to thwart desires, and this is an objective, factual claim. It could be true, it could be false. And evaluating it’s truth will depend on the facts of human physiology, human psychology etc.

    So moral “oughts” differ from persona prudential oughts only in category, not in kind. Moral oughts are those oughts with have to do with which desires tend to fulfill other desires. They have to do with the desires that a society has better-reasons-for-promoting, because it makes it more probable to live in a society in which our desires are being more often fulfilled, and less often thwarted.

    If indeed this value theory is sound – it’s insight into the very nature of value as arising from desire, and that desires provide us with our reasons for actions – then it follows that value and “ought” statements will be linked to real facts, in the ways described. There is a subjective component yes – desires. But that is not the ONLY component because morality would be about the RELATIONSHIP between desires and real states of affairs, and relationships can be fully objective, and you can be right and wrong about those relationships.

    If someone wants to point to only one aspect of this moral theory – the subjective component of “desires” – and say this makes the theory merely subjective, that is to miss the other components – that moral statements involve claims about the RELATIONSHIP between a subjective component (desire) and objective facts (states of affairs that will fulfill desires). It would be no more cogent than a creationist pointing to the fact evolution theory has a component of “chance” (e.g. mutation with respect to an organism’s fitness) and saying “See…look…there’s chance in your your theory is ultimately just based on chance!” They’d be missing the other components of the theory.

    Sorry, there are many other steps and justifications along the way, and this is certainly not my theory (see Alonzo Fyfe’s Desirism). I’ve just done my best to give a brief outline of the general idea, in case you had not considered such objective moral theories before.



  25. Surely an objective morality would make for a clear demarkation between right and wrong. A crisp line separating the moral from the immoral. If that is the case then why do the proponents of objective morality always pick examples that are well to the immoral side of any dividing line? They never, for example, talk about gay marriage or a woman’s right to choose. Can you have an objective morality with a huge blurry grey area?

    1. They pick those examples in order to shut down the contrary arguments, as those contrary positions become de-facto condoning of the abhorrent acts. Just as Jerry had to do in his rebuttal, he had to “defend” child rape as part of the argument. This is not to say that Jerry or anyone else here thinks that child rape is OK, but in order to have a civil conversation a lot of disclaimers have to be put in. It makes for handy quote mining later on.

      1. Careful with such a broad, dismissive brush.

        Picking moral examples we likely agree upon can
        be the best route for clarification, when you are trying to give examples of how a theory ratifies certain given “facts.”

        There are always areas of knowledge that are a currently unexplained by science. The world is messy with it’s facts and it owes us no easy, black and white answers.

        There are blurry boundaries and margins everywhere. Imagine trying to make the case for how science can deliver factual or reliable knowledge, while only being able to appeal to all the examples that are in scientific dispute! Then you would hardly be providing examples that support your claim, would you?
        Why would anyone do this?

        Similarly, for someone proposing a theory of objective morality, it will be recognized that reality is messy, there are shades of gray and hard questions to answer. But, just as in science, that does not mean that there are questions that can be answered! The moral objectivist can point to the clearer moral examples for illustration is simply doing the same as someone defending science, pointing to the clearer examples of reliable scientific “facts” to make the case for how science can guide us to objective facts.


  26. —“Surely an objective morality would make for a clear demarkation between right and wrong.

    Actually one would realistically expect the opposite!

    An objective moral theory (like the one I described) links moral prescriptions to facts about the world.

    That means our having to grapple with investigating and uncovering the necessary facts about the world. But has this EVER been easy? Obviously not. It’s been a huge, centuries-long struggle to try to understand what facts about reality we think we know, and it’s ongoing. There are many facts that are likely to remain utterly unknown to us (e.g. Sam Harris’ example of “how many birds are aflight at this very second on earth. That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, and we may not know it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective answer).

    The moral theory to be suspicious of is the one that offers up easy black and white answers! If morality is linked to real world facts, when have real world facts been so easy and black an d white to know?


  27. More practically, I think we will have to stop abdicating responsibilty as mature, decent human beings, by searching for some authority to confirm our our moral intuitions. There is no objecitve morality. Period.

    All we can do is convince others to prefer our moral values over inferior ones. Scary? You bet: Child abuse and sex slavery are rampant throughout the world, as are many other injustices and cruelties. The Good Lord’s objecitve morality hasn’t helped, nor will a secular objective morality. I wonder if alleles that lead to altruism, empathy and co-operation can win the selection war over those that lead to aggression and ruthlessness. Maybe the evolutionarily stable balance has been reached. Maybe the selection pressures on the relevant genes are weak enough to make that question meaningless.

    Interestingly, it seems that improving emotional and material circumstances (specifically reducing material inequality) for people improves the indicators of a society’s collective morality better than prescriptive or pedagogical approaches, if the findings of The Spirit Level are to be trusted, so explicit discussions of moral philosophy may be beside the point.

  28. —“There is no objecitve morality. Period.”

    I’m waiting for someone who makes this claim to
    show a theory of value supporting it.

    “people disagree” does not meet this criteria.


    1. Nice way to shift the burden of proof. Shouldn’t the people who claim x does objectively exist have the burden of proof for showing x exists?

      I don’t think I have the burden of proof in showing unicorns are not an actual animal. I don’t think I have the burden of proof in showing fairies do not live at the bottom of my garden, or that a teapot does not orbit the earth. It is up to the people who propose such things do have objective existence to give evidence for them. Likewise, objective morality.

      1. Eric,

        It’s not a shift of the burden of proof. Stop being so reflexive, as if anyone who doesn’t share your conclusions must be using some slight of hand. Try engaging in the actual
        arguments instead.

        Andrew made a claim: “”There is no objecitve morality. Period.”

        So… you think someone can just make such a claim with no burden of justifying their claims?

        If I say “there is no objective fact about the orbit of Jupiter, period!” I don’t take on any burden to provide justification for such a claim?

        Let’s be consistent. If Andrew is going to make the claim that he knows “there is no objective morality” he ought to be able to support that claim.

        And since the concept of morality is co-mingled with value, it behooves Andrew to give some account of the nature of value and why we ought to agree with him, and then why the nature of value means there can be no objective morality.

        It’s rather odd if you don’t understand that to be the case.

        As for me, as I said I wasn’t going to “prove” objective morality, only provide an argument that it is possible in principle (and therefore, it may be the case moral statements have truth values).

        I’ve already given some line of reasoning, justifications. Simply ignoring the line of reasoning offered, not showing any of the premises to be false, and going on to talk about fairies is no sort of real rebuttal.

        So, can you tell me what is wrong with the value theory I briefly outlined? It certainly may be wrong, but talking about fairies won’t show how it’s wrong.



        1. Andrew made a claim: “”There is no objecitve morality. Period.”
          So… you think someone can just make such a claim with no burden of justifying their claims?

          What is the null hypothesis?

  29. “The reason morality changes is that values change—exactly what wouldn’t happen if there were “moral truths.”

    I am interested in how you would go about explaining theory change in science then? How can scientific “truths”, i.e. theories, based on the best available evidence, change over time? Does this then reveal that there are values (epistemic and non-epistemic) involved in science?

  30. @Ben you seem to be ignoring what I say in my comments. I mentioned female hormones, AND instinct, AND motherhood. Navigating her way through a burning building is a different set of skills entirely that she would use even if she were only trying to save herself.

    “What criteria are you using to discern between the primary motivational factors in each case?”

    Again, you keep ignoring my central point. There is no way to assign motivation to a cat unless you are a cat.

    1. I mentioned female hormones, AND instinct, AND motherhood.

      …and that’s different from what drives humans in similar situations…how, exactly…?

      Again, you keep ignoring my central point. There is no way to assign motivation to a cat unless you are a cat.

      No, I’m not ignoring your central point. I’m dismissing it as irrelevant.

      What’s the relevance of motivation in the first place? I fail to understand how motivation has any bearing whatsoever on questions of morality, except to the extent that it drives the ultimate decisions on what actions to take. I also fail to understand how the mechanism by which the motivation is generated are relevant.



      1. “except to the extent that it drives the ultimate decisions on what actions to take”

        So you’re actually saying that someone can make a moral decision without deciding anything? Ben, please. Give me a break.

        I think this whole conversation could have been a waste of time since we did not bother to define morality from the get-go. We obviously have vastly different ideas of what it means. To me it is a human construct only thus far in our understanding of animals, which is lacking.

        1. There you are again, assuming without evidence nor reasoning, that decision-making requires metacognition and that this can only take place inside the human mind.

          What is it about the decision-making that humans do that makes it so radically different from other forms of decision-making such that only those decisions made by humans can be considered to occur on a moral landscape?



          1. There you go again, misquoting me. I never said that decision making requires metacognition. What I said, for the umpteenth time, is that we cannot know what animals are thinking inside their own heads.

            You should argue with yourself from now on, Ben, unless you want to stop misquoting me.

            1. I didn’t quote you, mis- or otherwise. I paraphrased your words.

              Metacognition is the act of thinking about thinking, of being aware of your thoughts.

              You wrote — and here I’m quoting — “So you’re actually saying that someone can make a moral decision without deciding anything?” Since, at a trivial level, a thermostat can be said to make a decision when it alters its state, your use of “decision” here can only make sense if the decision is a metacognitive one — otherwise, you’d be arguing that thermostats do make moral decisions, which is clearly contrary to the point of your rhetorical question.

              And you’ve yet to even pretend to address how it is that you’re able to know what other humans are thinking inside their own heads and why those same techniques fail when applied to non-human animals.

              I’d love to argue these points with you, but you’re either refusing or unable to defend your position. All you’re doing is insisting, without further explanation, that this is solely the domain of humans, period, end of story, foot stomp.

              So, for the umpteenth time: how do you know what other humans are thinking; why doesn’t that work for non-human animals; and why is the method of decision-making even relevant to the question of morality in the first place?



              1. You are such a silly goose! You only went one sentence before you misquoted me *again*. I never said I was able to know what people say inside their own heads. I said that we cannot know what animals think. Are you going to keep ignoring that point, or are you going to have some guts and address it?

                A thermostat does not “make decisions”, silly. Find a dictionary defenition of “decision” which says a non-living thing can make one without consciousness and I’ll believe you.

              2. But if you can’t know what people are really thinking, then the fact that you don’t know what animals are really thinking is a red herring, completely unrelated to your objections to considering the actions of non-human animals on the moral landscape.

                So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, on what basis are you concluding that humans are the only animals capable of moral actions?

                As to your dictionary request, there’s nothing in mine that requires life. For example, “the action or process of deciding something or of resolving a question.” The thermostat controls when to turn the heater on or off, and the process it uses to determine when the heater should be turned on or off is a decision. And I think you’ll find Google and Siri are both quite capable of resolving questions.

                Once more: what separates humans from animals on the moral landscape and how do you know that separation is valid?



        2. “So you’re actually saying that someone can make a moral decision without deciding anything?”

          hmm, a recent thread here about what the current neurological research on the human decisionmaking process, and the implications for the concept of “free will” comes to mind…

          anyone care to point this person to that discussion?

    2. “There is no way to assign motivation to a cat unless you are a cat.”

      Or to a primate unless you’re a primate?
      Or to a russian unless you’re a russian?
      Or to a Ron Paul unless you’re a Ron Paul?
      Or to Matt Groening’s left brain unless you’re Matt Groening’s left brain?

      Where would you like to make the distinction? At species-level? At clade-level? At breed-level?

      1. Matt Groening’s left brain will surely be left for science to puzzle over for decades. 😉

        Correction: I should have said “moral motivation” As I stated before, if a cat gobbles down his food, safe to say he was hungry.

        My standard is the ability to ask someone to explain their moral motivation. Even I may not understand fully why I do something – but I sure as heck can find out more about a stranger’s moral motivation if they steal my money than by asking them than knowing why a dog wakes up their owner when the house is on fire.

  31. A quote from Tomas Nagel on Sam Harris:

    “Harris has identified a real problem, rooted in the idea that facts are objective and values are subjective.

    Harris rejects this facile opposition in the only way it can be rejected—by pointing to evaluative truths so obvious that they need no defense. For example, a world in which everyone was maximally miserable would be worse than a world in which everyone was happy, and it would be wrong to try to move us toward the first world and away from the second. This is not true by definition, but it is obvious, just as it is obvious that elephants are larger than mice. If someone denied the truth of either of those propositions, we would have no reason to take him seriously.

    the case for moral truth… has to come from within morality, as the case for scientific truth has to come from within science, and the case for mathematical truth from within mathematics. The true culprit behind contemporary professions of moral skepticism is the confused belief that the ground of moral truth must be found in something other than moral values. One can pose this type of question about any kind of truth. What makes it true that 2 + 2 = 4? What makes it true that hens lay eggs? Some things are just true; nothing else makes them true. Moral skepticism is caused by the currently fashionable but unargued assumption that only certain kinds of things, such as physical facts, can be “just true” and that value judgments such as “happiness is better than misery” are not among them. And that assumption in turn leads to the conclusion that a value judgment could be true only if it were made true by something like a physical fact. That, of course, is nonsense.”

    1. Thanks for that quote from Tomas Nagel.

      This is precisely the location where I think Sam Harris (and apparently, Tomas Nagel) shift from
      right to wrong. (Or at least, this is the point at which I disagree with them).

      In other words: I agree with Sam Harris about the objective nature of morality and how morality is going to necessarily entail descriptions of facts about the universe, and hence moral prescriptions can have an objective nature (be true, objectively).

      The problem is I don’t think Sam Harris has gone all the way to identifying the locus of value. He’s..almost..there but not quite. He’s settled on the well being of conscious creatures. And that really does capture, in general, most of what we’d want to talk about in moral terms. And I think he argues well for
      it up to this point.

      But as even Sam Admits, the well being of conscious creatures is still vague enough to bet him into all sorts of controversy and he admits it would be nicer to have more precision. But he allows himself this fuzzier concept by appealing to concepts like “health,” pointing out that health is also a fuzzy concept.

      However, a lot of smart people have been working on this subject well before Sam came along, and I think some have driven further than same, to a more precise understanding of the nature of value and morality. Personally, as I’ve explained in other posts, I find certain theories that identify Goal/Desire fulfillment as the locus of value to be more precise and more specific than Sam offers.
      It explains more than Sam can currently explain with his theory.

      For instance, as Tomas Nagel points out, Sam thinks he’s hit bedrock with the mushy concept of “well being of conscious creatures.” Sam therefore claims that to even ask “Why would the worst possible misery for everyone be bad?” is to ask an incoherent question that can not be answered. Of course he reinforces that with
      the insult that anyone asking such a question has “hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.”

      Well…yeah…if Sam were right. Except that
      other, more precise moral theories that (I believe) get deeper than Sam’s actually DO indicate that such a question remains intelligible, and that it has an answer. And in fact the answer is extremely significant to the concept of value and morality.

      One answer is derives from the value theory that value/morality derives from desires: that “good” and “valuable” equates to “that which is such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.”

      If you look at misery and suffering you’ll see in every case that the thwarting of strong desires are inherent. If “good” has to do with desire fulfillment and “bad” has to do with desire-thwarting, then we can see why
      the worst-possible-misery-for-everyone would be “bad.” Because this would inherently involve the thwarting of desires (everyone’s desires) which would be “bad” or “evil.”

      And identifying desire fulfillment as the locus of morality (rather than the mushier “conscious well being”) allows for a more precise understanding of morality and a more precise moral theory, so in fact not only is Sam’s question answerable…the REASON it is answerable is of prime importance, and missed by Sam. (That is IF the moral theory centred around desires is sound, which of course must be argued for).

      Anyway….something I’ve wanted to get off my chest about Sam’s claims I guess…:-)


  32. Only a child would think that morals are objective and absolute. We don’t have to look very far to see variations in what is considered “moral” behaviour, and we don’t have to refer to ancient cultures to see it.

    I, for one, consider using cluster munitions in urban areas where children may subsequently pick up a bomblet and be maimed, is IMMORAL.

    Those who order their use, and the soldiers who use them consider it to be MORAL.

    I would consider the genocide of entire tribes of peoples so that you can take their land is GROSSLY IMMORAL WHATEVER THE CIRCUMSTANCES. Apparently, Christians don’t agree.

    William Lane Craig thinks it’s morally acceptable to murder children. I happen to disagree.

    1. William Lane Craig thinks it’s morally acceptable to murder children

      But only if one has obtained the requisite “get out of jail free” card [aka “Gawd”] first or even retroactively – fairly easy to do if one is delusional or psychotic to begin with. Also a variation of the argument that it is the “winners” who get to write – or re-write – the history books.

  33. We call this the “Ethnic Food Argument” — it all comes down to personal preferences, but my personal preferences are the best and right.

    “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”

  34. “The Darwinian argues that morality simply does not work (from a biological perspective), unless we believe that it is objective. Darwinian theory shows that, in fact, morality is a function of (subjective) feelings; but it shows also that we have (and must have) the illusion of objectivity.”

    – Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously, p. 253.

    Seems like Ruse is now under the illusion of objectivity, if by objective he means that moral truths are independent of subjective feelings, which seems to be what he’s claiming. But as Alex Rosenberg points out in The Atheists Guide to Reality, just about everyone except for sociopaths shares a genetically transmitted core morality that generates those feelings. So even without strong moral realism it isn’t the (nihilistic) case that anything goes.

  35. There’s a disheartening trend it seems in these comment sections to treat anyone floating the
    possibility of moral realism (moral statements having truth values) with the same type of dismissiveness as is aimed at theists. In fact, simply arguing for the possibility of moral realism is to be treated as if one were making disingenuous moves, like a religious apologist.

    Yet (as I understand it) a majority of secular/atheist ethicists/moral philosophers who have spent a long time looking into the various arguments, tend toward moral realism.

    Are the secularist philosophers propounding moral realism all wrong? Of course they could be. (And I’m not saying Ruse’s argument works in particular). But it seems to some folks here, moral realism is so connected to the types of claims made in theism that it’s just not to be taken seriously wherever it is encountered – the result being an argument for moral realism is not seriously engaged. Which is really too bad, given the importance of the issue of morality in our lives.

    At least that’s the impression I’ve got from some responses to the moral realist value theory I outlined, where I’m not getting engagement with the actual argument. Instead I get what look like reflexive dismissals of the typed aimed at theists.


  36. Are Jason and I simply talking out of our nether parts because we don’t have our philosophy Ph.D.s …

    I certainly wouldn’t say so – not by a long shot, although I would suggest that one or both of you might have somewhat of a misplaced faith in the ability of the scientific method, as an algorithmic procedure of some sort, to access or reach all “Truth”, even only that which is in the realm of “objective reality”. As Paul Davies put it in his The Mind of God:

    Is a Theory of Everything feasible? Many scientists think so. …. There is a long history of attempts to construct completely unifying accounts of the world. In his book Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanations, John Barrow attributes the lure of such a theory to the passionate belief in a rational cosmos: that there is a graspable logic behind physical existence that can be compressed into a compelling and succinct form. [pg 165]

    But my readings in and understanding of philosophy, and science for that matter, seem to be quite a bit less extensive than either of yours so maybe I’m the one more likely to be speaking from that region ….

    … or can serious philosophers be legitimately criticized by tyros?

    I would definitely answer in the affirmative – particularly since I’ve been doing likewise. But, as always, Richard Feynman has some cogent and relevant observations on the point:

    Our patron saint, Richard Feynman, in the essay, “What Is Science?” admonished the student: “Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. …. Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” And later: “Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the race … does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom that it may not be wisdom.” [The God Particle; Leon Lederman; pgs 192-193]

    Absent such challenges it seems far too easy for orthodoxy – whether scientific, philosophical, moral or theological – to turn into dogma – the theological version being well past its “best-before-date”, although even he had, I think, his blind spots:

    Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

    On which I think Dennett, in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has the better perspective:

    There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.

    Although I’m a very great way from understanding even what that baggage consists of, much less its implications.

  37. I’m slowly trying to read myself back into philosophy, particularly moral philosophy and epistemology. I’m far from getting there, since a lot has been done since I last did any serious work in philosophy. However, I would hesitate to say that values are subjective. There’s simply too much out there that needs to be considered. I am thinking, right now, in terms of things like Parfit’s On What Matters, which, as I understand it, takes a cognitivist view of morality — that is, one that differs from the expressivist positions of people like Simon Blackburn and (apparently) Michael Ruse.

    We seem to be able to get down to some statements that seem clearly to express an objective morality. Doing grievous bodily harm to a child, for instance, is more than just subjectively wrong. Same thing goes for doing grievous bodily harm to an animal, without sufficient warrant. Those are at least prima facie reasons not to perform acts which cause such harm. And I don’t think it depends upon the particular stage of moral development, nor upon the fact that there are certain people, sociopaths, who can see no reason not to do such things.

    However, if we grant that such things are morally wrong, then we have at least a little bridgehead in a realm of moral value which may allow us to develop moral principles further. And the fact that people may differ from us on such matters is not necessarily a defeater for such a point of view.

    My problem, I think, is that I do not know enough about contemporary moral philosophy to say for sure. I want to know more, and to read some of the basic texts, before I make any definite statement as to the objectivity or otherwise of morality. And while of course tyros can criticise moral philosophers, it is important in this case, I think, at least to try to become more knowledgeable, before coming to final positions about these things. I am slowly but surely reading through Parfit’s On What Matters, and I think this is probably an area, unlike theology, where things are not just being made up, and where, in fact, greater knowledge is required in order to make reasoned judgements.

    Speaking of Steven Pinker, for example: his whole project will not work unless there are objective values in some sense. For you can’t talk about the Better Angels of our Nature, unless, in fact, there is something truly better about peace than war. And I don’t think that that means we just say it more forcefully, but that peace just is better than war, and kindness than brutality, and that we have good reasons to choose the better way, even if, in the event, it is hard to pin down exactly what those reasons are, and how we can rationally argue the point.

    The job of philosophy, of course, is never done, and while it may only achieve clarity, as Rosenhouse suggests, that clarity if vital to our ability to think rationally about these things. Not that we are forced to worship at the shrine of moral philosophy, but we should at least try to take their attempts at clarification seriously, and find what we can say intelligibly about these matters. I don’t think I’m in a position to answer these questions definitively, so I forbear, but I think there are more or less definitive answers to these questions, and they are not simply subjective preferences.

    1. I presume it means “it is acceptable for me to impose this moral standard on others.” But of course people such as Ruse are addressing the wrong question.

    2. Russel,

      I tend to go with what I understand to be the general distinctions between subjective, relative, objective and absolute morality.
      (Leaving aside for now subjective and relative).

      Absolute morality is the concept that moral prescriptions are “absolute” in the sense of being incorrigible – the statement “Rape is bad” or “You ought not rape” is true for all persons, in all places, at all times.
      Theists often talk in terms of God providing the basis for Absolute Morality (but of course their actual reasoning and cherry-picking belie their goal).

      Objective Morality is the concept that value and moral prescriptive statements can have truth value – can be “true” or “false” just like our attempted descriptions of other real world facts, and hence in that sense the statement “Rape is wrong” is an objective claim (hopefully, a true statement).

      The difference is that for a claim to have an objective truth value, it doesn’t need to be an
      Absolute claim (true for everyone/everywhere/all times). For instance, claims about relationships can be objectively true, even though relationships can change.

      The claim I am shorter than my mother was once objectively true. Now that I’m an adult, it is objectively true that I am taller than my mother. This is not simply subjective insofar as it simply reports the subjective opinion of a person. Anyone who would dispute the claim that I am (now) taller than my mother would be truly, objectively “wrong.”

      So statements about relationships have objective truth values – the fact there is a relative element (relationships can change) does not negate their objective nature.

      So I go along with the proposal that if an analysis of value shows that value statements are (or can be) true, and prescriptive “ought” statements of the type typically seen as moral prescriptions can have objective truth value, then moral prescriptive statements are objectively objectives statements, not mere expressions of opinion, and so someone denying a moral prescription would be objectively wrong.

      I’m most compelled by moral theories that say a moral prescription can be understood as a claim about a real world relationship – the relationship between certain things that actually exist (our desires) and the real world states of affairs that would, in fact, fulfill our desires. Hence moral statements would be objective claims, in the same way my claim about my height relationship with my mother is an objective claim.

      Not that I’d be enlightening you on these matters…but since you made the comment you did….



      1. (Sorry for the previous typos).


        FWIW: An interesting outcome of a value theory based on desires as I’ve outlined earlier (if it is sound) relates to Hume’s is/ought dilemma.

        First of all, I think folks like Sam Harris are wrong to be dismissive of Hume’s dilemma. Hume really did raise our consciousness to some of the slippery reasoning and unjustified assumptions we often encounter when people are making moral claims.

        We have to start by admitting there does at least seem to be a difference between “is” and “ought” type statements. Examples abound – prescriptive statements prescribe actions; whereas many descriptive is statements do not.

        Right now a child IS starving to death. But no one would say that is the same as saying that child OUGHT to starve to death. If someone used that is statement as tantamount to that ought statement, we would surely stop him in his tracks and ask for justification.(One could go on and on). And it’s a very helpful distinction to notice when analysing moral claims to notice when someone has not actually justified their line of reasoning.

        So I think Hume is right. As I remember, Hume didn’t say that the move from is to ought is impossible…only that he couldn’t himself imagine the answer and that anyone moving from is to ought statements owes an explanation of how they are doing it. (Hume I think was right
        in appealing to “the passions” as a possible promising area on this subject).

        Anyway…people have taken Hume’s is/ought dilemma to mean there is this unbridgeable gap between some sort of world of “is” and the world of “ought.” And naturally, theists are happy to appeal to this apparent schism to show we need to appeal to a supernatural realm to find out bridge to “ought.”

        An interesting outcome of a desire-based value theory is that the answer to Hume’s dilemma is not simply that the passions (our desires which provide reasons for actions) provide the BRIDGE from is to ought. Rather, there is no “two different worlds.” There is only really the world of “is.” Because the actual meaning content of an “ought” statement is best understood as an “is” statement: saying anything is “good” equates to “X IS such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.” And the same goes for ought statements “X action is such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.”
        (Or alternately, in Desire Theory: one ought to have X desire equates to: X desire has the tendency to fulfill desires – an “is” statement).

        So ultimately, ontologically speaking, there is only “is” and “ought” statements are just a subcategory of “is” statements – they are the “is” statements which make objective claims about the tendency of certain desires to fulfill desires in general.



  38. I agree with Penn @1 above.

    That fact that we have a large body of moral values in the western world that are essentially universally accepted ignores the fact that these values have not always been part of our moral code (see slavery, human sacrifice, women’s rights, etc), and that they are not all universally accepted across all cultures.

    Obviously, eve here in “western civilization” we don’t have a consensus on abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, etc. People on both sides of these issues tend to insist the other side is morally wrong.

    Even if you hold the position that morality is not subjective, how can you hold the position that you have definitively determined what those objective morals are? For thousands of years, we’ve been getting it wrong on certain key points, but NOW, today we finally have the absolute right set of objective moral values? Surely people have always had similar thoughts throughout history.

  39. “Decent, thoughtful people do not differ on Jerry Sandusky’s alleged actions.”

    While I agree with this statement, it is essentially tautology. Anyone who did differ would not be considered a decent, thoughtful person, because they differed.

    “Those proto-humans who thought and behaved morally survived and reproduced at a better rate than those that did not.”

    Maybe they survived and reproduced because they killed their competition.

  40. Science at its best is emotionless. It can help to inform moral decisions, but beliefs and biases have no place in science.

    The only place morals have in science would be for experiments using live subjects. But again, the results should be free of bias.

    I thought Pinker’s book concept (I say this because I cannot judge it properly not having read it yet) falls a bit flat in that it only proves that violence has declined, not immoral behavior. Maybe people have just switched to more benign crimes because punishment encourages them to do so. Has theft gone down? From all accounts in the media, teenagers these days are more narcissistic than ever.

    Again – my comment comes from a cursory glance at the issue, certainly not from my grasp of psychology.

    1. From all accounts in the media, teenagers these days are more narcissistic than ever.

      But that has always been true about “all accounts in the media” concerning “kids these days”, going back generations now.

      1. Fair point, I should have cited studies. I did hear a report on NPR about actual experiments which showed that some teenagers think it’s not stealing when they take something that is in plain sight, even when it clearly belongs to someone else.

        As I point out in a post I wrote recently, one study may or may not be valid. But if anyone’s interested I’ll track down the *science* (not media stories) that I’ve read.

        From what I’ve seen, it’s reached unacceptable levels.

  41. My take:

    Morals is observed social behavior (including opinion) in populations.

    Obviously then it isn’t a single valued distribution. For example, Ratzinger holds that it is morally important to let pedophiles continue to abuse children in order to protect his church while most non-catholics would hold that child abuse is morally perverse.

    This is a problem for ethicists like Ruse and Harris, which want to establish some single valued measure on morals. (Never mind that such a measure has external references and is absolute.) Can’t happen.

  42. @Ben
    ‘on what basis are you concluding that humans are the only animals capable of moral actions?”

    Third time in a row you have misquoted me. Show me where I said only humans are capable of moral actions. Seriously, copy and paste it from my comments.

    I said that we cannot know what animals are thinking. I guess you are terrified of that statement since it is my primary point and you still refuse to address it.

    AI is an interesting topic and I suppose by that defenition, computers of some kind are able to make decisions; but animal motivation is very different than computer “decisions”.

    1. Your statements insisting that animals are incapable of moral actions run rampant through this thread. For example, “To me it [morality] is a human construct only thus far in our understanding of animals, which is lacking.”

      So, let’s go for a bit of clarification.

      “Yes,” “No,” or, “I don’t know”: Do humans act on moral decisions? How do you justify your answer?

      “Yes,” “No,” or, “I don’t know”: Do non-human animals act on moral decisions? How do you justify your answer?

      If the answers to those two questions are different, please explain the difference.



      1. In science, Ben, when we speak of a construct, we are referring to something anthropogenic. Kind of like (when I used to be a veterinary nurse) people would tell me, “my cat is such a snob”.

        Now, sure cats may think other cats are “snobs”. But let’s be honest, snobbery is a human construct. So far as cats go, we cannot say for sure how they would *define* snobbery or if they even have such a concept.

        I am NOT saying animals have no morals. I am SIMPLY saying that if they do, it may be some version of it that humans do not fully understand. That is all.

        So okay, for clarification, “Do humans act on moral decisions”? Ben, since we always seem to be speaking different languages: what do you mean by moral decisions?

        I am not a psychologist nor a philosopher, so I would only use my own narrow defenition of “morals” to answer the question, which may not be the right one.

        “Do non-humans act on moral decisions”? The answer is, I don’t know. And neither do you.

        1. Curious. You want a definition before answering the question as it applies to humans, but you’ve no problem dismissing it on principle as unknowable as it applies to other animals. And you refuse to explain that dichotomy.

          I think this dictionary definition of “morality” will suffice quite well for the discussion at hand: “a particular system of values and principles of conduct, esp. one held by a specified person or society.” And, for the sake of this particular argument, kindly take “person” with a very large grain of salt — replace it with something like, “intelligent agent.”



          1. Even more curioius that you insist on changing a dictionary defenition to suit your own point.

            Since you cannot ask a cat what are its particular system of values and principles of conduct, Ben, again: no one knows how animals percieve morals.

            1. …and you’ve already agreed that nobody knows how [other] humans perceive morals (or anything else), either, so we already know that that’s completely irrelevant to the discussion.

              It seems pretty clear that you have no interest in explaining how you know what you know, so why are you expecting to convince anybody of the truth of your claims? Do you really think that simply repeating your claims without backing them up is advancing the discussion?


              1. Actually I think it’s up to you to show any evidence at all that we can “read” animal motivation, Ben. I’m saying there is no evidence. How about getting off your couch and providing some?

              2. I’m not (yet) claiming that we can read animal motivation.

                You’ve agreed that we can’t read human motivation, yet you’ve also claimed that humans act morally. Therefore, the ability to read motivation is completely irrelevant to the discussion.

                I’ve provided you with the definition of “morality” that you asked for before you would consider answering whether or not human actions can be described in moral terms, yet you’ve not yet answered that question. Until you tell me whether or not humans act morally and, if so, how you know that they do, I cannot tell you whether or not animals also act morally.

                That’s what this is all about. You’ve yet to establish the standards by which one determines whether or not an action is moral, aside from some sort of very vague handwaving that, if a human does it, it is, but if a non-human animal does it, it’s not.

                Give me the standards by which you know whether or not action is moral, and we can then apply those standards to both human and animal actions and we’ll have our answer.



  43. @Ben I guess the point you’re not getting is that I do not feel myself qualified to play psychologist. I let them define morality.

    However – if you’re asking me for my personal defenition of morality, I’d say that each person acts in a way that they think is acceptable. I mean, I’m sure even most serial killers justify their acts one way or the other.

    So personal morality would be someone’s standards for themself. A society’s moral standards would be their expectations for the community. A nation’s morality…..well, you get the picture. It’s how we are expected to act.

    So while animal socieities certainly have norms, individuals are hard to read. So if a elephant suddenly kills a tribesperson, we can only speculate as to why. We cannot read the elephant’s mind, or know if the elephant could know a human defenition of “right” or “wrong”.

    1. If I may ask, how could such a definition be useful — or, indeed, anything other than a tautology? One’s personal standards may change over time, but that’s hardly relevant to the standards at the time the decision is made. All you’ve done is create an equivalence between morality and decision-making.

      And, I hate to break it to you, because it’s a perfect equivalence, it applies equally well to non-human decision engines as well. What ever the process by which the decision is made, it, by definition, is congruent with the standards in place at the time for that individual and therefore moral.

      Not only is it not necessary to know what the standards are to know that they’re moral, your definition, if anything, means the simpler the mind, the more moral. After all, it takes quite a bit of sophistication in order to have a mental set of standards that includes weighted probabilities for conflicting desires.

      Seeing how the logical conclusion of your definition is the opposite of the outcome you’ve been arguing for, there are only two possibilities: either you’ve incorrectly communicated your definition or you’ve yet to fully consider the logical consequences of it.



        1. I’m arguing against yours because, to me at least, it’s incoherent, unsupported, and unsupportable.

          My only argument (so far) is that any standards for evaluating behavior must be applied equally regardless of the mechanism that controls the behavior. I would further suggest that it is the decisions themselves that should be judged, not the process by which the decisions are arrived at.

          If you were playing tic-tac-toe against a chicken, would you insist on a different scoring method because you have a different emotional attachment to the game than the chicken does? No? Then why should anything else be any different?

          Even with your offered definition, your complaint is that an elephant’s actions aren’t moral because you can’t read an elephant’s mind — and yet, you can’t read another person’s mind any better, so that remains a red herring.



  44. Philosophy is a wonderful scam. They make statements about everything with not a single bit of evidence or people even asking for the same.

    That is a job we all should have.

  45. I think Ruse and (to a lesser extent) Jerry and Russell Blackford are wrong about moral objectivity.
    Ruse because he claims moral objectivity can be arrived at by a non-scientific process (whatever that could be)
    and Jerry/Russell because they deny moral objectivity by fiat.

    What do we mean when we refer to an objective fact? Lets take the age of the earth as an example.
    We currently think that the age of the earth is around 4.5 billion years (give or take a few hundred million).
    Why can this be considered an objective fact? I think it’s because we have an explanatory theory,
    the consequences of which are compatible with known empirical data.
    The theory involves radioactivity and geochemistry which ultimately rest on quantum mechanics.
    The theory has definite consequences for the age of particular types of rock and these ages can be independently checked.
    We have here the holy trinity of science: theory-deduction-experiment, it’s simply what we mean by objective.
    Anyone is free to check the logical consistency of the theory, the deductions and the quality of the empirical data
    that supports (and especially contradicts) it.
    A fact is objective to the extent that it is scientific.
    This is why Ruse is wrong about a non-scientific objective morality, it’s an oxymoron.

    I think Sam Harris makes an excellent case for an objective (i.e. scientific) morality.
    Let’s take a moral proposition like “homosexuality between consenting adults should not be considered a crime or amoral”.
    Can this be considered an objective proposition? Most would say no, I would follow Harris and say yes.
    As before we need an explanatory theory, deduction and empirical data for it to be objective.
    Harris’ theory is based on minimizing the needless suffering of conscious beings.
    It has definite logically consistent consequences, in this case prosecuting homosexuals would cause needless suffering.
    And we have lots of empirical data, the case of Alan Turing who was chemically castrated by
    an ungrateful British government is a particularly tragic example.
    Notice that the axioms of the theory need no more justification than do the postulates of quantum mechanics.
    In both cases what matters is that the consequences of the theory must align with the empirical data.

    This of coarse is why all moral arguments involving god are not even wrong.
    From a theory like “god is good” we can deduce absolutely nothing about what god thinks about,
    for example, homosexuality. How could any human claim to have objectively acquired such knowledge?
    If the theory has no deducible consequences then what possible empirical data could support it?

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