Dan Fincke responds to me, claiming morality is objective

September 8, 2014 • 7:54 am

I previously wrote about Dan Fincke’s talk at the Pittsburgh Atheist and Humanist meetings, in which he claimed that there is indeed an objective morality: one based on “human flourishing.” It was only a 20-minute talk, as were all of them, so he couldn’t lay out his thesis in detail, and I had to respond here based on what I heard, and our dinnertime chat afterwards. You can read my response at the link above, but it was basically that, at bottom, “human flourishing” was still a preference, not some objective criterion for what is moral or immoral.

I think that people feel that there is an objective morality because we mostly share a sense of what is a good or bad thing to do, and that may have been partly instilled in our brains by evolution. But of course that sense isn’t universal: worldwide, people  differ on things like capital punishment, abortion, the treatment of women, and so on; and I don’t see how those differences can be resolved “objectively.”  Further, I’m not sure why we need to decree that morality is objective, or go through all kinds of tortuous philosophical lucubrations to show it (none of which I’ve found very convincing).

We all agree on two things: 1. Even if there is an objective morality, we won’t be able to use it to answer many of our hard questions (is a third-trimester abortion immoral?), for usually such moralities involve criteria that are difficult or impossible to measure. Seond, morality of any sort, even if not “objective,” can almost always be informed by empirical findings, and that might settle some of our differences. So, for example, if you feel that capital punishment is not immoral because it’s a deterrent and good for society in that way, and then you later find out that it’s not a deterrent, well, then, you’ve used objective facts to change your mind. But that doesn’t mean that your view that what is moral is what’s “good for society” is objectively right.

At any rate, Dan has written a long piece on his website Camels with Hammers at the Patheos network, defending his view of what he calls “Empowerment ethics,” a supposedly objective brand of morality. His post is called “Objective human flourishing: a first response to Jerry Coyne about ethics.” Clearly Dan, whom I like and respect, is a First Responder, but I’m not sure I have the time or energy to respond to any posts after the first one!

I will try to respond briefly here, as the Albatross is squawking at me and, truth be told, I’m not sure I understand everything that Dan has said. If I mischaracterize him, my apologies; and I urge readers to read his entire piece. I am perfectly aware that I’m a tyro and not a professional philosopher.

Dan’s thesis, I think, can be summed up in these paragraphs:

As to the nature of human flourishing, my basic view can be briefly boiled down to this. What we are as individuals is defined by the functional powers that constitute our being. In other words, we do not just “have” the powers of reasoning, emotional life, technological/artistic capacities, sociability, sexuality, our various bodily capabilities, etc., but we exist through such powers. We cannot exist without them. They constitute us ourselves. When they suffer, we suffer. Some humans might be drastically deficient in any number of them and there’s nothing they can do about that but make the best of it. But in general our inherent good is the objectively determinable good functioning of these basic powers (and all the subset powers that compose them and all the combined powers that integrate powers from across these roughly distinguishable kinds).

The good of our powers thriving is inherently good for us because we are our powers. And the inherent good of a power thriving is objectively determinable in the sense that it has a characteristic function that makes it the power that it is. The power of mathematical reasoning functions better when it can do certain kinds of operations and others worse. Powers of creation are measurable by their skills with the kinds of tasks that usually produce effective technologies or art that does what it is intended to do, etc.

The powers that are constitutive of our being are roughly knowable. It’s not entirely arbitrary, even if there are rough estimates involved, in assessing relative abilities.

Morality comes in at the stage of where any people who live lives impacting each other develop implicit or explicit rules and practices and judgments, etc. geared at cooperative living. Each of us has an interest in morality because we are social beings in vital ways.

. . . So, I think that an enlightened self-interest should lead anyone to realize that their own maximal empowerment according to their constitutive powers is ideal for them as the beings they are and that the more they empower others beyond them, the more their own powers actually grow.

. . . So, moral rules and practices and behaviors are a practical project. What objectively constitutes good instances of these are what lead to our objective good of maximally empowered functioning according to the abilities we have and what leads us to coordinate best with others for mutual empowerment on the long term.

That is, each of us has powers and abilities, and it is objectively good for us to not only maximize those “excellent powers”, which enable us to flourish, but also to use them as best we can to help others flourish. This, Dan says, is objective, because we not only know our powers, but we have some ability to measure “human flourishing.” (This, I think, is equivalent to the objective standard of “well-being” adumbrated by Sam Harris, another believer in objective ethics.)

The problems with this seem insuperable to me. First, “flourishing” is not defined, and I don’t think it can be, at least in an objective way.  What constitutes “flourishing” for one person may constitute “not flourishing” for another. Take a third-trimester abortion.  One could argue that society and the pregnant woman “flourishes” when women are allowed to make their own choices about abortion, no matter when it is. On the other hand, some could say that those are viable fetuses, and their entire flourishing lives are extirpated in such an abortion: they could be removed by Caesarian (as was the fetus in Ireland). Further, what do you say to the religious people who claim that all fetuses have souls and human flourishing is better when we act according to God’s will, which is to preserve those fetuses? I myself hold the free-abortion option, but how could I possibly convince a religious person that a better society will ensue if everyone adopts my view? How could I possibly convince them that there is no soul and no God? Would Dan say that that is “irrational,” and therefore off the table? If so, then it’s true for most people on this planet, and those people don’t see themselves as irrational.

And how do you weigh the different forms of flourishing? What about animals, for instance? Is it moral to do painful and lethal experiments on a thousand chimpanzees to save ten human lives? Is it moral to kill sentient mammals to slake our hunger for meat? How can we possibly resolve those questions through the “flourishing” criterion? How can we know what animal flourishing even means, since we can’t know their minds?

Are most of us immoral because overall “flourishing” would increase if each of us gave about 50% of our incomes to starving children and adults in the Third World? Surely that would reduce our own flourishing a bit (face it, most of the readers here, including me, earn far more than they need to survive), but the increase in flourishing among those whose lives are saved would be immeasurably higher than our the minor degradation of our quality of life. Some (I think Sam might have said this) could argue that, in contrast, a society in which we can’t keep our wealth and give it to our own kids is not a flourishing society.  That is a measurement problem, but one that Dan’s metric can’t solve. It will be adjudicated the way we always do: subjectively, but adducing evidence to support our preferences.

And what about those of us who simply don’t want to use our “excellent powers” to help society, because we’re lazy or are hedonists? What if I don’t want to do science, or write, but prefer to eat and travel? I would flourish more, but others would flourish less (assuming that I do some good!). Is that immoral? One could say that a society in which you’re forced to use your powers and help others is coercive, and people will flourish less in such a society. What if I want to do what I like, like photography, rather than what I’m really good at, say teaching (this is a hypothetical!). Is it immoral for me to give up teaching for photography?

Dan adds this rider to his system:

We have general standards—the rock bottom one I think should be maximum empowerment of the maximum number of people possible while making provisions that the minimum anyone lives under is not insufficient for minimum well being.

But that last caveat undermines his system, for it is possible for overall flourishing to be better if one person has their well being reduced below the minimum.  That, for instance, is the question of whether it’s okay to torture someone, even to death, if there is a high probability that by so doing you could save thousands of others. How do you adjuducate that? How do you measure an individual’s well being versus society’s well being? You can do it by counting lives, of course, in which case the answer is fairly clear, but some say that torture leads to the brutalization of society. How do you weigh “brutalization” versus life? There is no metric for that, because there’s no agreed-on metric for “flourishing.”

Here is why Dan thinks his system is objective:

Objectivity is in the reasoning process’s objective standards, comparable to how it is in science. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be hard cases where you need to make rough assessments reasonable people can disagree about in lieu of complete information. That happens in science too. Is medicine not a science because doctors sometimes disagree about hard cases with inconclusive data about what the best treatment is? Are physics or biology not sciences because there are always anomalies and areas for further research and areas where scientific competence is required to assess the virtues of one account over another?

No, objectivity doesn’t mean simple settled answers all the time. It means that the process of reasoning has well established goals and standards that can force people to conclusions they don’t like. Morality is not invalidated if people don’t like its results (in fact it’s vindicated if sometimes people are forced to admit that they really are being immoral or participating in an immoral system whether they like that or not).

Well, that sounds reasonable, except at bottom there is a big difference between morality and science: there are criteria for morality that are not universally agreed on, even by philosophers. In contrast, all reasonable physicists would agree that, say, we don’t know whether string theory is correct or not.

To my mind, “flourishing” is what Dan prefers as a criterion for morality. Most of the time that criterion will indeed give us moral guidance that corresponds to our reason and intuition. But it won’t always do so, and reasonable people, even philosophers, will disagree about whether “maximal flourishing” is the best criterion for morality. How can you settle who’s right? In science, we can appeal to empirical observation as the sole criterion for truth: either the rocks tell us that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, or they tell us something very different. There is no preference involved there.  Yes, we may not have all the data in hand to settle scientific questions, but even if we had all the data in hand about some moral questions, that wouldn’t resolve them (think about abortion); for in the end different people weigh the data in different ways—according to their preferences.

In the end, I don’t think Dan has proposed a system that is objective. He simply asserts that “maximal flourishing without taking anyone below minimal flourishing” is an objective criterion for what’s moral. I would say that that is his preference—one that, granted, will usually coincide with other people’s preferences as well. But it is not objective, at least in terms of morality. We can imagine situations in which, for some rational people, things that leads to maximal flourishing don’t necessarily correspond to what’s seems right. Maybe Dan would say that in such cases we need to reassess our criteria for what “seems right,” but I would counter that who is he to tell us what the objective criteria really are? Will other ethical philosophers bow down before him and admit that he’s shown that morality is objective? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

115 thoughts on “Dan Fincke responds to me, claiming morality is objective

  1. I agree with Professor Ceiling Cat entirely on this (and didn’t really understand Dan Fincke’s conception).

    If I may beg indulgence for a slight hijack, I’d be interested in a straw poll of commenters over how many people here think that morality is objective versus subjective?

    A subjective morality is one where “you ought to do X” refers back to a human value judgement about X. An objective morality is one in which “you ought to do X” holds independently of any human opinion about X.

    1. Subjective.

      Morality is therefor a human construct NOT some ‘thing’ that exists without us. An objective view implies I feel some sort of an external goddish agency, like the idea of ‘evil’ wich is also subjective (& wildly over used as a term).

      1. The sciences are objective pursuits, even though they don’t imply that there’s a god deciding how elements interact or which path an electron will take. Only if you think morality is legalistic is a law-giver required. Dan’s whole point is to try to provide us with a morality that isn’t legalistic.

    2. I think your poll question would draw argument from most of the people who believe in an objective morality. Because morals involves human reactions, emotions, and judgements it makes no sense at all to remove human “opinions” from the definition of morality. It would be like trying to find an “objectively delicious” cookie which is delectable regardless of whether anyone in the universe likes the way it tastes. Anything which describes reactions from subjects must translate “objective” into “inter-subjective.”

      So your definition of “subjective morality” would be the same as their definition of “objective morality.” Perhaps this makes more sense:

      An objective morality is one where “you ought to do X” refers back to common human value judgments about X. A subjective morality is one in which “you ought to do X” is always a matter of individual opinions.

      1. it makes no sense at all to remove human “opinions” from the definition of morality.

        I agree with you entirely, but I am currently arguing with some philosophers who do seem to do exactly that, and hold to an objective morality that is not about human opinion.

        1. Really? Interesting. The only people I know who want to completely remove morality from “human opinion” are the ones who want to give it to God (or Spiritual Essence.) Theologians, then, rather than philosophers.

          1. If morality were truly objective, then presumably any intelligent species would independently converge on the same moral “truths.” On the other hand, if morality is subjective, then human morality should differ substantially from moral systems devised by, say, intelligent aliens.

            If our morality does depend on “human opinion,” then it isn’t objective. Now, it may be constrained. That is, subjective morality doesn’t necessarily mean “anything goes.” Humans may all roughly converge on similar morals because we share common traits and characteristics. But that’s still a long ways from demonstrating morals are objective.

            1. “If morality were truly objective, then presumably any intelligent species would independently converge on the same moral “truths.””

              I don’t think that’s such a stretch. The thesis is, in short, that moral truths are discoverable things which promote the flourishing of individuals and of societies. So yes, any society which survives will generally converge on the same moral truths, because doing so improves the odds that the society will survive.

              Haven’t we all used this argument against people claiming that we’re moral because of our “Judeo-Christian heritage”? Jerry just linked to Nick Cohen’s wonderful article in the Guardian, and cited his passage on that point as an example of good writing. Of course we’re not moral because we got our ideas from Christianity; on the contrary, Christianity’s good ideas about morality, such as they are, it has because those are generally useful moral precepts that all societies end up agreeing on! We can’t speak for aliens as yet, but it’s not like there’s one monolithic human culture, leaving us without anything for comparison.

              “If our morality does depend on “human opinion,” then it isn’t objective. ”

              Morality doesn’t depend on human opinion. It depends on human COGNITION. It is intimately tied to the way actions affect our thought processes. And if that makes it subjective, then you’ll have to chuck psychology out the window as well.

              1. I don’t think that’s such a stretch. The thesis is, in short, that moral truths are discoverable things which promote the flourishing of individuals and of societies. So yes, any society which survives will generally converge on the same moral truths, because doing so improves the odds that the society will survive.

                Sure, I agree that it’s possible, but that’s the very thing which needs to be demonstrated. Even if human morals are manifestations of an underlying order (like stable game theory solutions or whatever), there are likely to be a multitude of successful strategies. It’s highly unlikely there is any single “best” moral system for all intelligent organisms and more than there can be a “best” body shape. All morals systems are contextual.

                An alien society which ruthlessly culls its unproductive members could be even more “successful” than our own, yet we would recoil at their barbarism.

              2. Consider reproduction and childcare. It’s a fact of human evolution that we have few children and invest a lot in them. So childcare naturally seems to us to be an essential feature of civilized society, an “objective” moral good.

                But it didn’t have to be that way. Another perfectly viable reproductive strategy is to have lots of offspring and abandon them to fend for themselves. To intelligent aliens whose evolution followed that trajectory, the notion of childcare as an objective good would be incomprehensible, since “obviously” only those individuals who survive to adulthood qualify as persons worthy of moral consideration.

                So if you want to claim that “any society which survives will generally converge on the same moral truths”, you first have to show why it’s impossible for an intelligent social species to evolve from a cheap-but-plentiful reproductive strategy.

              3. H.h.
                This is the crux. Human flourishing requires acknowledging human brains and capacities. Our empathy modules, say, may invoke too much pain to implement your alien flourishing model, whereas they lack such empathic structures. But that’s why it is better, in my view, to quit speaking of morality altogether. Yes, we are trying to increase human flourishing, whether this is what we ‘ve meant by morality does not matter, but I do think the connotations that hang on the word morality strongly discourage us from simply seeing it as human flourishing. And it therefore makes more sense just to move on, and say, yes, we are trying to build more robust selves and societies, naturally. When aliens come along, hopefully we will take in both our psychologies as we both try to flourish alongside each other.

            2. “If morality were truly objective, then presumably any intelligent species would independently converge on the same moral “truths.”

              But, there is an awful lot to unpack in that seemingly simple statement. And lots of room for misunderstanding.

              Keeping with the very general scope of that statement I’d say, if different intelligent species have a different evolutionary history, which by definition they would, that while there may be basic moral “truths” in common, the moral systems that result in each species achieving the best outcomes for their particular cultures may be quite different, even given the same basic moral “truths.”

              1. In one of his books (Consilience?) EO Wilson imagines what it would be like for an ant to give a speech on “objective morality.” It would be saying things like “Now it is obviously good and beautiful to eat one’s own excrement, for that there can be no argument.”

                If an alien species were close enough to us to warrant inclusion in our loosely defined category of ‘person,’ then the likelihood is that vaguely similar ideas of honesty, kindness, gratitude, and fairness would be shared. We can easily imagine the distinction between aliens we eat and aliens we form treaties with. The hard issue I think is to consider our sense of moral obligations to other species here on earth. We humans both eat dogs AND form friendship pacts with them (though seldom does a human do both.)

              2. We can easily imagine the distinction between aliens we eat and aliens we form treaties with.

                Could we not just as easily imagine aliens who do not make such a distinction?

        2. I usually get the “there is no such thing as an objective fact” argument from philosophers. I think I need to trade philosophers with other people. The one’s I know are running out of cogent arguments.

          1. If you conflate objectivity with absolute philosophical certainty, this is true; no such objective facts exist, because we can never be abosolutely certain of anything. But if you can wrap your mind around calling something objective fact when you have a “merely” high confidence it is true independent of our existence, then yeah, I think we can say there are objective facts. Evolution objectively happens. GR is objectively true. Eating the babies of ones’ own species is wrong is objectively true? Probably not. If it is, many earth animals are downright evil, and it doesn’t seem sensible to call them that. (Even if you bring up conscious choice, you’ve got Pans to deal with. They do that.)

            1. Your comment is, i predict, going to prove very useful to me in the future. I actually had someone mount an exhaustive argument with me that “Topeka is the capital of Kansas” is not an objective fact. I accused him of being a pedantic ass (which he was) but I should have told him to stop conflating objectivity with absolute philosophical certainty.

      2. I’m not sure that conforms with how scientists use the word ‘objective.’ Maybe one reason Jerry says morality is not objective and Dan says it is, is because they’re using the term differently.

        Pretty much anything can be made objective if by that you mean ‘common, agreed-upon procedures and terms for measuring it.’ I think what scientists mean is that you have additional evidence independent of the agreed-upon process to suspect you’re measuring something external to human judgment.

        To use a silly example, let’s say I define ‘beauty’ this way: “Blond hair gets 1 point. Brown hair gets 2. Red hair gets 3. Blue eyes gets 1 point, all other color eyes get 0.” That is objective in the sense that now different people from many different backgrounds can follow a procedure for measuring beauty and get the same answer. I could, if I wished, use a survey representative of the entire human population to update my point values – in which case it would arguably pass your “common human value” criteria. But is this enough to say that beauty is objective? I think most scientists would say no. A commonly accepted definition of what you’re trying to measure plus a commonly accepted procedure for measuring it is not enough. You need some evidence independent of these two things to give you confidence you’re measuring some objective thing.

        1. “I’m not sure that conforms with how scientists use the word ‘objective.’ Maybe one reason Jerry says morality is not objective and Dan says it is, is because they’re using the term differently.”

          I am sure you’re correct about this. I intended to make this exact point in my comment, but then I read your and you did it better.

        2. The usual response is that, if we’re going to make that objection, then NOTHING is objective. The only reason we consider the sciences to be objective pursuits is because we have collectively agreed to follow the appropriate procedures and terms for measuring things. You can’t level that criticism at an objective morality without also leveling it at everything else we call objective. Which, if you’re a postmodernist, you can do, but that’s not a very useful pursuit.

          We have plenty of evidence that we’re measuring some objective thing. It’s called psychology and sociology, the observable facts about human cognition and behavior. The effects that a given action will have on the mental state of others, and on society, are objective facts about the physical world. They are discoverable things, at least in principle.

          1. “if we’re going to make that objection, then NOTHING is objective” would be an argument from consequences, and only has force if the term ‘objective’ must be defended at all costs.
            I think we should all know by now that ‘objective’ refers to a property that nothing actually possesses outside of mathematics. ‘Intersubjective’ can be useful, but my personal preference is to avoid discussions where it comes up.

          2. The usual response is that, if we’re going to make that objection, then NOTHING is objective.

            Ah, but see my post #7. Most scientific claims pass an additional objectivity test in that different independent tests, relying on different assumptions and processes, converge on the same answers.

            To put it pithily, science has ways of eliminating or reducing both the random bias and systemic bias problems. Dan may have a way of reducing random bias, but not systemic bias.

      3. Because morals involves human reactions, emotions, and judgements it makes no sense at all to remove human “opinions” from the definition of morality.

        If you and Dan are conceding that morality is going to be different for lions and extraterrestrials, I think you’ve lost the objective/subjective fight right there.

        1. Why? Surely there are objective facts about lions which differ from objective facts about humans. I don’t see a problem with limiting an objective human morality to human beings.

          If the term “objective” means that it isn’t limited to specific categories (not “human morality,” just Morality-Floating-On-Nothing-In-Particular) then I think it would be very hard to say that anything is true at all. Evolution isn’t an objective fact because not everything evolved.

          Sometimes I think half the debate over ‘objective’ vs. ‘subjective’ morality is quibbling over the “proper” definitions. Other times I think it’s mostly that, but no, there’s more here than semantics.

          1. Why? Surely there are objective facts about lions which differ from objective facts about humans. I don’t see a problem with limiting an objective human morality to human beings.

            If someone said that the concept of mass was objective, but that it was perfectly acceptable to have a concept of lion-mass different from human-mass (with different criteria for what counts and how you measure it in the two cases), wouldn’t that seem silly to you? Either mass is objective across both, or it isn’t objective at all.

            I think there’s a difference between rational and agreed-upon subjective characteristics, and objective characteristics. We can probably come up with some rational and agreed-upon morality for lions (based on things like pride health etc…). But the fact that the ‘moral goodness’ of humans eating baby humans may differ from that of lions eating baby lions means that the moral value of eating the babies of ones’ own species is probably not objective in the way that the mass gain from eating a baby is objective.

          2. I would add that I think part of the semantic problem here is that there is some negative connotation to the term ‘subjective.’ People don’t like a decision of theirs being labeled that; it feels weaker than saying you’ve made an objective judgment, and probably nobody wants their morals or ethical judgments to be considered weak.

            I bet if there was no negative connotation to the term, or if we had a different term for subjective judgments that were considered very rational, based on sound principles and theory with which 99% of people agreed, there wouldn’t be this push to label morality objective.

    3. Subjective

      This is funny in that I’m usually the big, mean “scientistic” atheist arguing with philosophers in favor of objectivity. As Dominic says in his comment, it is a human construct. Ideally, morality would be tempered by empirical data, as in the example provided by prof. Ceiling Cat, and a system of morality based on “human flourishing” would certainly be better than the shame based codes of morality we endure now. Ultimately though, it seems to me that life experience plays far too key a role in the development of one’s worldview for morality to be objective.

      1. I have a suspicion though that the “shame-based codes of morality” you speak of fall under the category of “human flourishing” in the minds of their proponents. If you keep asking “why” and “why” and “but why” they will eventually get to “because more people will be fulfilled that way.” Consensus.

        It’s surprising how many moral disagreements come down to factual disagreements. Our ideas of right and wrong begin to improve when communication improves — and a lot of life experiences began to accumulate.

        1. I agree, except that I would’ve said in the hearts of their proponents as people, particularly those whom would propagate a shame based code of morality, are more inclined to feel than they are to think.

          1. Strangely, I suspect many of them would say the same about us. Even people who blather on about “heart knowledge,” mystical instincts, and special revelations from God usually think they’d be foolish and irrational to ignore the weight of that powerful emotional evidence.

    4. Subjective. Consider living on a desert island with very few people, but internet access, and the best beaches in the world. For some this is a prison, for me a maximally flourishing existence. How is anyone going to adjust the aesthetics of life to be objective? Impossible.

      Make Dan Fincke listen to Rite of Spring for the rest of his life. Probably he would go insane. For me, utopia.

      1. I am not sure what my view on this question is, but I don’t see this as an argument against objectivety. This seems to me an error in specificity. Instead of using a specific musical composition, consider “subjecting to repeated unpleasant noise for the rest of life.” That people may find different compositions more or less annoying is not the key metric. That the noise is causing a certain quantifiable change in mental state is the key metric.

        1. But how to quantify changes to mental states. It seems impossible, except through some probabilistic feature which is tied to a fundamental maximal human flourishing. Objective morality will universally fail when it is ultimately tied to specific aesthetic arguments, i.e., reasonable constraints to our liberties will ultimately never be completely agreed upon, no matter how rational.

          What is one person’s symphony is a chain saw to another. There are people who feel morality is blessed upon them knowing they have the right to bear arms. Others, like myself, think the right of private citizens to own guns is utter nastiness. Of course, statistically speaking, guns have as much relevance in my life as lightning strikes do to my cats.

          1. fMRI is a pretty good start on that. The cognitive sciences are beginning to make useful progress. It is still early days but I don’t think it is at all unlikely that we will be able to quantify changes to mental states usefully in the future. We already have some ability to do so.

    5. According to your definitions, subjective; according to Sastra’s, objective.

      But the “common human value judgements” are limited by in-group. Morality changes as, inter alia, the circle widens.

      /@

    6. Subjective.

      For the record, when faced with the choice between deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics I would choose a fourth option which, although I assume that some philosophers will long ago have called it something else, I would call something like contractualism: Our ethics are a combination of (1) what biological evolution built into us because it worked, (2) what cultural evolution built into human societies because it worked, and, crucially, (3) negotiations and struggles between competing interest groups making up society.

      Thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not lie come from the first two, and thus they are basically universals, because no society could function if stealing and lying were considered virtues. I fully expect the same rules to apply in any sapient species in the universe.

      On the other hand, women aren’t allowed to leave the house without a guardian, you shall not have abortions or, to take a nicer one, you shall not lynch people but give them due process come from the third, which is why they are not universal but instead depend on the details of the local social contract.

      If anything, one could call the universals objective but I wouldn’t even do that. Why is “it works” a criterion? Who said that evolution gets to decide our ethics? Yes it did, but with what legitimacy? It’s turtles all the way down.

  2. The social/science objectivity distinction is one I’m glad you addressed. A provisional social conclusion that may be collectively agreed upon (with few exceptions) regarding morality is quite different from an empirically valid and predictable phenomenon.

    1. Indeed; we should be able to quantify “human flourishing” so we can measure it: baseline it & improve it.

      1. But wouldn’t it work better if coming from the other direction?
        Instead of flourishing, the reduction of harm. That doesn’t solve the preference issue, because we still have to define harm, but I’d rather try to define harm than flourish 😉

        1. I thought that was addressed as part of the flourishing part. Even if it isn’t it’s still not helping solve the issue which is arriving at something quantifiable so we can measure it and improve upon it where necessary.

  3. “there are criteria for morality that are not universally agreed on, even by philosophers.”

    The existence of disagreement on the subject isn’t dispositive of objectivity. Say you were dealing with someone who said that there was no objective truth to evolutionary theory. Sure, it’s your belief that life on Earth developed gradually over long periods of time, but lots of people disagree.

    Of course, you might quite reasonably respond that a lot of those people misconstrue what evolution actually entails; we all know that the evolution that creationists don’t believe in often differs from the real science. A correct definition of evolution, combined with the observable facts about the world, makes for an objectively true theory. Hardly a complete one, as there’s always more to learn and points on which there is honest debate, but those debates occur in a realm of objectivity.

    Why is that impossible for morality? If we correctly define what “morality” means, and that definition corresponds with the observable facts of human cognition and behavior, why is it not also a realm of objectivity, amenable to scientific analysis?

    “In science, we can appeal to empirical observation as the sole criterion for truth”

    In the end, I don’t think Jerry has proposed a system that is objective. He simply asserts that “empirical observation as the sole criterion for truth” is an objective criterion for what’s scientifically valid. I would say that that is his preference—one that, granted, will usually coincide with other people’s preferences as well. But it is not objective, at least in terms of science. We can imagine situations in which, for some rational people, things that are supported by empirical observations don’t necessarily correspond to what’s seems true. Maybe Jerry would say that in such cases we need to reassess our criteria for what “seems true,” but I would counter that who is he to tell us what the objective criteria really are?

    1. If we correctly define what “morality” means, and that definition corresponds with the observable facts of human cognition and behavior, why is it not also a realm of objectivity, amenable to scientific analysis? [my emphasis]

      I’d argue that by objectifying morality in this way, you’ve reduced it to a branch of anthropology: it is objectively true that humans think and act in certain ways, and hold certain moral opinions. But the moral content of those thoughts and opinions is not thereby elevated to the status of objective moral truth; it remains a contingent product of human biology and culture.

  4. I really think his objective morality idea does not float, or if it does then any objective morality is mutable between societies & through time. Take examples from history – human sacrifice was performed by Aztecs who surely believed they did that for the good of their society.

    I think he wants his own particular 21st century objective morality, not that of some lunatic fringe group or a society like that of the Romans which saw no wrong in what we would find the (revolting) displays of violence in the ampitheatre.

    I am fond of Isaac Asimov’s saying, “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right”.

  5. It seems to me that morality can be called “objective” only if that there is virtually 100% inter-subjective agreement on some very, very basic rules in relationship regarding what is “fair” and “good” and what is not. I think there are — but for that kind of universal human consensus you have to go meta and vague.

    For example, fairness is good and cheating is bad when dealing with the members of one’s own group. Treat similar things in a similar way. When someone — anyone — apparently justifies cheating they’re explaining why it’s not really cheating or doesn’t count as wrong in this case or that. But as a general rule, yes, everyone’s working assumption is that cheating is “wrong.”

    And then we get to specifics and all hell breaks lose.

    The point though is that there IS consensus on principles if you go back far enough and that gives us all something to work from. Consider what it might look like in a hypothetical world where everyone was a sociopath, a solipsist, and/or changed from moment to moment on what sorts of treatment from others was considered positive and what was considered negative. Discovering any principle would be hopeless. The human ethical situation therefore is not absolute chaos. There are many places we can get a grip on where we all agree regarding good vs. evil. If nothing else, we recognize the divide: that’s not nothing. That’s a start.

    Keep in mind though that the difficult moral problems are usually not arguments on good vs. evil (which usually turn out to be factual disputes when you get right down to it): value vs. value is harder.

    1. Well said. What is objective in morality is, so far, going to be legislated by subjective perspectives which make rational claims about the good life. Reason can help reach and maintain or fortify what is moral, but then specific details are going to break an objective foundation to morality.

    2. “It seems to me that morality can be called “objective” only if that there is virtually 100% inter-subjective agreement… ”

      The whole point of calling something ‘objective’ is to be able to move ahead in the face of doubt and disagreement. “Objectivity” gives us the power to disregard dissenters who are unacquainted with the facts and also to disregard our own wishful thinking or fearful hesitation. To require 100% inter-subject agreement is tantamount to conceding that the phenomena is purely subjective.

      1. The whole point of calling something ‘objective’ is to be able to move ahead in the face of doubt and disagreement.

        Perhaps I should have said “the potential for consensus.” If something is labeled ‘objective’ we usually mean that every observer would or could agree on what it is if they had a clear perspective (ie are adequately acquainted with the facts and not biased by their own passions.) 100% (or close to it) inter-subjective agreement would then be theoretically possible for any objective fact or system. Not perfection, no: but at least improvement.

        I was trying to point out that we all do seem to have a more or less universal agreement if we go back far enough and look for the most basic principles. That’s more encouraging than if we didn’t. We share some standards.

        We move ahead in the face of doubt and disagreement then not by ignoring the naysayers, but by trying to convince them through their own standards on the assumption that it can be done.

  6. Dan Fincke is still doing what Sam Harris does, which is to hide all the subjectivity under a rug and calling it “maximal flourishing” rather than Harris” “maximizing well being”. We still have to make subjective moral judgements moral judgements about what constitutes either of those, so I’m pretty flummoxed as to why either Fincke or Harris would try to fob off such an obvious shell game.

    1. As Sam Harris has pointed out, saying that morality is about human flourishing isn’t controversial. It is in fact the majority position of modern moral philosophers. Eudaimonia is basically the only thing left on which morality can be based, once you’ve dispensed with a law-giver.

      1. “As Sam Harris has pointed out, saying that morality is about human flourishing isn’t controversial.”

        That’s kind of missing the point. Harris and Fincke are falsely claiming that by waving around terms like “human flourishing” or “maximizing well being” they have demonstrated objective morality. They haven’t. Morality is a balancing act of competing interests, as Jerry has pointed out. Determining what constitutes “human flourishing” etc. is subjective *judgement*. We can use science to inform our judgement, but not to make it.

        This reminds me of how theists claim that beings as complex as humans must have been created, therefore god. But they haven’t really solved their problem that beings must be created, just put off the contradiction by one iteration. Same goes for the “human flourishing” and “maximizing well being” objective morality shell game. Fincke and Harris has just swept the problem of subjective morality under the rug of undefinable terms that temporarily hide the subjectivity of morality, hiding the issue for a single iteration, and when you pull back the rug the problem remains.

        1. “Determining what constitutes ‘human flourishing’ etc. is subjective *judgement*.”

          Yes, but so what? It’s a subjective judgment because we don’t have complete information. In any situation where people have to make a judgment with less than perfect information, there will be subjectivity. Different people will estimate the unknowns differently, and their conclusions will differ for that reason.

          But the objectivity of a thing isn’t threatened by the subjectivity of our opinions about that thing. The crucial distinction to draw is morality vs. opinions about morality. Opinions about morality are subjective. Each of us has to reach our own conclusions, and we do so through a sloppy and often careless process that relies heavily on moral intuitions and community standards. But these sloppy efforts are aimed at reaching the objective truth: what really is better for flourishing.

  7. there is a big difference between morality and science: there are criteria for morality that are not universally agreed on, even by philosophers. In contrast, all reasonable physicists would agree that, say, we don’t know whether string theory is correct or not.

    Popularity is not necessarily a good basis for refuting Dan’s point. It’s not bad, but its not great. Ideally we’d like something better to hang our ‘objective’ hat on. Here’s what I am thinking:

    1. ‘Objective’ in both cases typically refers to ‘not just opinion.’ The idea is that if different people do the defined detection/assessment process, they will get the same result. That makes the result not subjective. You give the same scale and object to multiple people, they should return the same answer for weight.

    2. Like science, ethics may come up with some assessment process that all or most people accept (it’s not likely, but its possible). Dan could come up with tests for flourishing that are like the scale and weighing process: when different people use them, they get the same result. (I agree Dan hasn’t done this yet, I’m saying he could. The possibility/impossibility of doing so is not what separates science from ethics.)

    3. But in science, we use multiple, independent, verification methods to assess whether we really have an objective thing or not. Its not enough to use one type of detector to look at solar neutrinos, we’re going to use three, each with different operating principles. If they converge on an answer, that gives us greater confidence that neutrinos objectively exst. And when they don’t…we go back and reexamine our theory, our supposedly objective criteria. No such indepdent convergence is or has occurred in ethics studies. “Objective tests” are instead intimately dependent on the peculiar definitions and test processes each individual moralist defines for ‘goodness.’ Dan could give us a clear procedure for measuring flourishing which, if different people followed, would give the same answer. But Dan’s definition and procedures will not converge with Alice’s, Bob’s, or Charlie’s independent procedures for measuring what is supposed to be the same thing – moral goodness. Different, independent scientific tests of the same concept converge when we have something objective. And if they don’t converge, we go back to our hypothesis and modify/reject it. Different, independent tests of the moral concept of goodness do not converge. Time to go back and reject the hypothesis that there is some objective ‘there’ there to measure.

    I think that’s one of the key differences. It’s not whether you can lay out some methodology for measuring X which different people can run and get the same result. Pretty much anyone can do that for anything. It’s whether people coming up with independent tests for X based on different starting premises will converge on an answer or not.

  8. I’m going to answer here having committed the error of not having read “all” the posts and “all” the comments and possibly sound like a sail flapping in an uncertain wind. I beg forgiveness rather than permission at this point.
    I think we are caught in a very human foible of not wanting to seem evil by rationalizing ways to have “morals”. Part of the power of apologist argument is the subconscious guilt we all feel about doing what we perceive as wrong things, so when they tell us we are broken and the only god can fix us, some will find that an easy way to escape that emotional/psychological dilemma.
    “Morals” as a term, is a placeholder of uncertain value and meaning, and we all assume everyone elses understanding of it is the same as our own. I avoid using it when I can, like “belief” it just leads away from clarity sometimes.
    A couple questions spring to my mind when I hear the term “Objective” bandied about in association with morals. Surprisingly, I almost like Craig’s definition so I pare away the weasel words and what remains is fairly simple. “Something that is true outside the operation of mind.” Gravity doesn’t need an observer to be true. With that in mind, what moral act can occur in a mindless object? I can’t think of any. What of people who live in isolation from other societies like the Piraha? Will they have the same objective morals as we do? Apparently not.
    I’m ok with the label of subjectivity, even if it’s said with a sneer from a christian.

  9. With the human flourishing measure, even if we assume it could be quantified, it is nevertheless flawed because of the “human” component. Who are we to choose our own flourishing above other animals? This is what has led to species extinction & environmental damage because we put our own flourishing above the flourishing of other animals.

    1. A fair point. However, that doesn’t stop it from being objective, it just means that it’s currently limited in scope. Psychology is only about the human mind, but that doesn’t mean psychology can’t be treated as a science, or isn’t studying objective facts. It’s just studying objective facts about humans. Heck, chemistry is only studying objective facts about the interactions of elements, almost exclusively involving only electromagnetism.

      That said, there’s good reason to think that, even if we’re only concerned about human flourishing, damaging the environment isn’t moral. After all, an impoverished biosphere isn’t, as it turns out, at all in our best interests. Caring about other species helps improve our life satisfaction, both short term and long term.

      1. “A fair point. However, that doesn’t stop it from being objective, ”

        How can it be objective if it is based on a subjective foundation? No matter how much science and “objectivity” you add on top of the subjective foundation morality remains subjective.

      2. Yes, I thought the same about the environment, however I bet you can still have flourishing with quite a bit of pain to other species. At the end, I think there needs to be more thought put into just what constitutes flourishing.

        1. Indeed. Aristotle believed slavery was ‘natural’ and beneficial to society. I can just see a Republican somewhere formulating a theory whereby flourishing means slavery may be a good alternative to prison…

      1. Sure but what thresholds to we out in place? When does our flourishing take a back seat to other animals?

  10. First of all, let me say, I am way out of my depth here. Morality is well beyond me–I’m a lawyer. And I mean that only partially comically, for as anyone who has ever been involved with the justice system knows, morality ends up as a tertiary concern. That being said, morality has always seemed to me similar to another evolutionary feeling with which (I believe) everyone is familiar. Namely, love. I don’t think anyone would dispute that such a thing exists, nor do I think anyone would dispute that it cannot be objectively or, for lack of a better term, deontologically analyzed. Morality strikes me the same way, as a “feeling” evolved in us. Just as we can say “love exists” without laying down objective laws therefor, I think morality is obviously subjective. But I might well be entirely wrong.

    1. I this there’s considerable merit to this view. Love is how natural selection motivates us to take care of our families and thereby enhance our fitness. Similarly, moral intuitions are how natural selection motivates us to coexist peaceably within our tribe or social group, and thereby enhance our mutual fitness.

      On this view, moral prescriptions are contingent products of our evolution, not objective truths that are Out There awaiting discovery.

  11. I’ll just reiterate what I said on the previous thread – isn’t this the wrong question?

    How can we make our morality *more* objective (rational, rigorous, scientific, whichever word or words you prefer)? That’s a much more interesting question isn’t it?

    (Hopefully not breaking the roolz here, I’m not trying to dismiss the discussion, just trying to help point it in a better direction).

    1. How can we make our morality *more* objective (rational, rigorous, scientific, whichever word or words you prefer)? That’s a much more interesting question isn’t it?

      Absolutely. I think the first step will involve a radical overhaul of the notions of values and emotions. That will involve refining and expanding our current knowledge in the mind sciences, then linking them more strongly to the social sciences, and finding a way of translating those findings into a flexible, multi-factorial decision-making system for assessing positive and negative experiences across multiple individuals and finding functions that best predict and fit with the experiences of the host. This would enable an objective means of cross-comparing brain states.

      In short, I think it will involve demonstrating that emotions and values are not some irreducibly complex basic fact about our existence, but are reducible to something non-emotional and non-moral. More specifically but speculatively, it could in a sense involve proving them to be cognitivist; that is, they reduce to making claims about the state of the world – including that part of the world the host lives in – and those claims can be checked independently. It should also be possible to demonstrate, for a refined and clarified concept of value, that people can “miswant” things, that is, their desires and emotions make claims that submit to verification and falsification, and so can be correct or incorrect.

      The hardest part, I predict, will be breaking down those structures in the brain responsible for such processes and finding out what information they contain, and translating that into the corresponding declarative statements and claims. This is probably the most daunting challenge, since most brain studies at the moment are either on large-scale lobes or focused on neuron biology, with some murky chasms in-between.

    2. TJR, I think you make a very good point. One way Dan and other philosohpers as well as X-ethicists (bioethicists, etc.) can positively contribute to society is to take what we have, think through the consequences, and try and make it better. Forget finding the ultimate answer: find improvement.

  12. I disagree that “flourishing” is necessarily a criterion. I think it is better described as part of the definition of what morality and ethics are. Even in disagreements, most people seem to agree that morality has some connotation of human well-being, putting aside our inability to describe a “well-being” unit. While the definition may be subjective, at a meta level, so are the definitions for all words we have. We subjectively decide on their meanings, but then we can objectively measure to what degree actions fit the meaning.

    A second problem I see here is that we tend to label actions either moral or immoral. Sam Harris addresses this with his moral peaks. There could be, in principle, a maximally moral action to take, but actions we do take could be measured in degrees of morality. I think health is a great analogy. We can objectively determine whether someone is “healthier” without saying that the are either healthy or unhealthy to the maximum degree possible.

  13. I do not have a strong position on this question. But I have some thoughts on this article.

    1) Some part of these discussions seem to be not just about whether morality is objective or subjective, but about what objective means. I often see what appears to be people arguing past each other because they have different ideas about what objective means. Similar to what free will means in the free will debates. At least some of the objective people are changing the meaning of objective, and at least some of the subjective people are not acknowledging or addressing that, or maybe missing it.

    2) What seems to be a very major part of the problem is just what morality means, precisely. For example, Jerry’s use of morality in the OP seems to include that it is dependent on what people believe, by definition. If you define it as that, then you have excluded by definition the possibility of it being objective.

    Jerry said, “How could I possibly convince them that there is no soul and no God?”

    Perhaps I don’t understand what Jerry means by that, but if it is an argument against morality being objective I disagree. I don’t see how that has any bearing on the question of objective / subjective.

    3)I agree with Dan that objective does not mean simple, settled answers, and would add concrete and clean. And it does seem that many of the arguments on the subjective side are of the type, “we don’t know how to measure that so it isn’t objective.”

    Jerry said, ” Yes, we may not have all the data in hand to settle scientific questions, but even if we had all the data in hand about some moral questions, that wouldn’t resolve them (think about abortion); for in the end different people weigh the data in different ways—according to their preferences.

    I don’t think I agree with that. That different people weight the data in different ways can certainly, and does, occur in science. That people do that even when they shouldn’t does not seem to me to be relevant to the question of objective / subjective morality. It sure makes it difficult though.

    4) At the moment it seems to me that you have to define what morality is, and that if you do that precisely enough, it seems to me that from that starting point morality could be largely objective. If you define morality as being merely “how we behave in groups,” or something similarly vague, then that seems to me to be something that just is that needs to be studies, like any other animal behavior. If you define morality as a system of behavioral rules designed to achieve a certain goal, then that seems a whole different animal. Something constructed. In that case you have to decide what the goal is, “human flourishing” seems a pretty good goal to me, and then it seems largely objective from there, to me. And yes, “human flourishing” is really difficult to figure out. But I don’t see how that goal could be any more difficult than any other goal for a system of behavior.

    1. It seems my later comment agrees with much in your analysis (at least if I squint).

      But even if I had refreshed, would I have wasted a nearly finished comment? Of course not!

      1. It’s tough on these types of posts. You see it when there are only a few comments, you compose a post, click “Post Comment,” and there are 4 times as many posts as when you started!

        And half the time one or more of them have said what I was trying to say, and said it better!

    2. You take people to task for meaning different things by ‘objective’ but then don’t hesitate to use the word in a very specific narrow sense. People are not wrong to mean different things by ‘objective’. The word, in fact, has many different senses, and we ought to be careful about how we use it. That’s one reason why I prefer to focus on what it’s function is (as opposed to what it’s meaning is). The only reason we care whether morality is “objective” or not, is because if we can honestly say it is objective, then we can grant ourselves license to impose it on other people in an attempt to stop some of the suffering we see going on all around us. It’s not like we need a science of morality to tell us people are hurting and we ought to do something about it. We are simply seeking the authority to confront the worst agents of suffering and restrain them. We are seeking to screw up our courage and we need the power of the term ‘objectivity’ in order to do it.

  14. “Some (I think Sam might have said this) could argue that, in contrast, a society in which we can’t keep our wealth and give it to our own kids is not a flourishing society.”

    Up to a point, I think, this may be true. But would there not be a tipping point beyond which accumulating wealth leads to the flourishing of a few, but the opposite for society at large?

    1. This is a very culture bound statement. There are certainly ways to organize a flourishing society in which this statement would not only be false, but would be unthinkable. It presupposes the sort of stratified, capitalistic society we currently find ourselves in, where personal property is sacred because it is a pre-requisite for survival, and where the survival of any individual is directly tied to their individual family prosperity, rather than the health of the commons. It is an ideological statement which simply defines all forms of socialism as non-flourishing by assertion.

  15. I’m with Jerry here as so many others, and I see several good analyses of where Fincke goes off rails.

    I think he is conflating two things, “measurable” with useful, and “objective” with testable.

    1st conflation:

    I can take Fincke’s mathematics example. Fincke observes that the “power of mathematical reasoning functions better” in some cases. He is both looking for something that can be measured and at the idea that mathematical procedures can be measured for usefulness.

    The conflation starts there. This isn’t how we should map ethics to mathematics. We can observe moral behavior and so measure for usefulness. Likely some moral behavior will be useful, especially if it has evolved.

    But ethical systems like Fincke’s is not what people do. It is what people may use to simplify judicial systems. In which case when we compare them for usefulness, it is like comparing different _areas_ of mathematics. And is algebra more useful than analysis?

    How would I know!?

    2nd conflation: Eric did this one in #7. I’m just labeling it.

    When a philosopher asks for an “objective” morality, they are as usual confused or spreading confusion. (I think; maybe I am.) What they mean is that they want an empirical method to adjudicate, not moral behavior, not the effects of moral behavior, but the (comparative) effects of using an ethic schemata.

    My guess is that statistics would start to go awry in the 2nd step. How do we isolate moral behavior from other social behavior as it affects, say, economy? And what do we do about the lack of a reference group?

    And when we get to the final, 3d stage, how do we find people who are willing to follow a specific ethic schemata? Lab studies?

    Is morals subjective/objective? [Wouldn’t “relative” vs “absolute” be more apt?]

    Neither, I think now. But they are much further from being “objective” than “subjective” in the philosophical senses.

  16. Dan Fincke’s talk at the Pittsburgh Atheist and Humanist meetings, in which he claimed that there is indeed an objective morality: one based on “human flourishing.”

    Does he mean the flourishing of individual humans or of humanity itself?

  17. Morality, or at least its metaethical basis, is objective if its claims are true independently of people’s opinions to the contrary: that is, it would still be wrong to kill people even if every person on the planet thought, “Killing, what a good idea!”

    “Oughts” boil down to a pointer saying “this hypothetical world I’m outlining is one which, when compared with the others, is better, all else being equal”. So the question resolves to what in the real world corresponds, unambiguously, to a positive or negative scale that delineates better or worse states. The most obvious example is pain and pleasure, broadly speaking, though that doesn’t mean they can’t have complex relationships with each other (for instance, feeling guilty about enjoying an experience you think you should hate, or enjoying an experience you also find painful).

    And, unless we’re dualists, we must conclude that these positive and negative experiences emerge from the physical matter and material anatomy and physiology of our brains.

    Of course, humans aren’t clones of each other, so the triggers for these positive and negative experiences must be as varied as locks and keyholes, requiring their own keys, and sometimes interconnected so that affecting one also affects another, sometimes in a zerosum fashion.

    The other concept I find useful in these discussions is the notion of necessary evils, which points out that sometimes two options in a moral dilemma both suck, and the best you can hope for is to choose the one that causes the least damage, without somehow conceding that the choice has any positives to it. So questions like “Is it moral to do painful and lethal experiments on a thousand chimpanzees to save ten human lives?” are badly phrased. It isn’t “which is moral” but “which is less immoral?” It sounds like a distinction without a difference, except that calling one of them “moral” implies some degree of good in them, and ignores the broader, take-a-step-back option of trying to reduce the incidence of said dilemmas in the future.

    The notion of leaving morality as a subjective game of unjustified rules is tantamount to sawing off the branch you’re sitting on. It’s intellectual abdication, because it is a defeatist response to the mysteries still in the field.

    1. Well, can you answer the question: Which is less immoral: to do painful and lethal experiments on ten thousand chimpanzees in order to save ten human lives or not to do these experiments and accept the consequences?

      1. Not to do the experiments. What species the lives belong to is strictly irrelevant, except in the sense that the species division also coincides with some relevant facts about the minds of the two groups, which isn’t guaranteed. For instance, I would reverse my decision if the tradeoff was against ten thousand earthworms, or better still, ten thousand trees.

        Unless there’s some extra information I’m not privy to (like the ten people are all that stands between a country of millions and brutal oppression), the alternative is tantamount to suggesting “mental handicaps” are a thousand times less sentient (and therefore less worthy to live) than “normals”.

          1. Maybe so, but speaking by analogy, there’s a difference between asking “Will I be richer if I do X?” and “Will I reduce my debt if I do X?” For one thing, it acknowledges that both answers in a multiple choice question still suck, and highlights a higher need to avoid getting into such positions in the first place, if one can help it. Saying chimp genocide is moral sounds uncomfortably close to saying it’s OK, normal, and acceptable to me.

  18. How could I possibly convince them that there is no soul and no God?

    Reason, argument, debate, and dismantling the immunizing strategies and cultural assumptions which forbid this when it comes to supernatural claims.

    And a lot of other people doing this too.

    And time. Lots of it. Generations.

    And recognizing that progress is possible, capitalizing on it, and working for the next improvement using the same means. If you didn’t agree, then you probably wouldn’t bother arguing against the compatibility of science and religion because there’s no use trying to convince “them.” Settle for eternal compatibilism. So kind of a weird question, coming from you.

    1. Yes, because this obsession with objectivity versus subjectivity is in the end destructive. Why should it be assumed that because something is ‘subjective’ it is therefore a matter of arbitrary preference (‘I prefer a society where people are kind to each other’ versus ‘I like sawing off heads, so why shouldn’t I if Allah tells me to?’)? Why is it assumed that ‘subjectivity’ precludes any kind of conversation? I suggest that we need to look at this subjective/objective dichotomy and ask if it is so absolute as it is often claimed to be.

      1. I’ve always wondered the same thing, especially in the context of religious debates. A very common theme for theists (think people like W.L. Craig) is to assert that atheists have no objective basis for morals and then act as if this means the whole debate is absurd. He never bothers to explain why he thinks objective morals must exist. What if they don’t? What do we do then? His opinion may be that a world without objective morals is terrible. So what? It might indeed be terrible, just like a world with gravity that accelerates objects at 10 m/s^2 is terrible should one fall off a cliff.

      2. Why should it be assumed that because something is ‘subjective’ it is therefore a matter of arbitrary preference (‘I prefer a society where people are kind to each other’ versus ‘I like sawing off heads, so why shouldn’t I if Allah tells me to?’)? Why is it assumed that ‘subjectivity’ precludes any kind of conversation?

        Because appealing to a subjective foundation is essentially an argument from revelation. It gives no reasons, it claims unearned authority, it resorts to dualism to keep the material world from the mental world, and it makes no standards to distinguish itself from bias, lack of substance, and invalid alternatives. It’s to look at a moral dilemma, shrug your shoulders, and leave it to whatever chance throws at you. And since people disagree on moral issues, it can’t even pass a basic benchmark like coherence and consistency, since it denies the existence of right or wrong answers and leaves any choice to arbitrary whim. It can’t distinguish a mistake or error from a correct answer, because it can’t coherently find one to begin with. It is, in short, antithetical to every principle of reason.

        Moreover, appealing to subjectivity has the effect of hiding from a committee of people any reasons for taking it seriously. It is thus special pleading for avoiding critical inquiry, and in the absence of justifiable reasons for any particular preference, it gets stuck in a trilemma: any particular preference is arbitrary, and therefore they’re all as good/meaningless as each other; it’s circular; it leads to an infinite regress that refuses to connect to anything objective because it’s denied itself that option.

        If the basis for a moral system is merely “I prefer it”, that’s a debate stopper. It robs you of any substantive apparatus for criticizing people whom you think are morally “wrong”. The alternative is to be a hypocrite: claim right and wrong are subjective, and then moan because someone, working off their own subjective morality, isn’t following your idea of right and wrong.

        1. ‘If the basis for a moral system is merely “I prefer it”, that’s a debate stopper.’

          That was precisely my point. And it was why I suggested that we need to think about these categories of ‘subjective’ (bad) and ‘objective’ (good), particularly in connexion with ethics and aesthetics, and ask whether they are quite so cut off from each other as some people seem to suppose, or to what extent they are relevant where ethical issues are concerned. The only ‘objective’ morality that seems to be being proposed is a form of utilitarianism, which bears small resemblance to any genuinely ethical life, it seems to me, and which, as Bernard Williams has pointed out, ‘tends to debase the moral currency’, encouraging situations in which ‘the bad acts of bad men elicit from better men acts which, in better circumstances, would be bad’ and leading to the probability that there will be an escalation of pre-emptive activity, ‘the total consequence of this, by utilitarian standards themselves,’ being ‘worse than if it had never started.’

          1. Just as, incidentally, an appeal to an ‘objective’ morality can be a debate stopper. ‘I do it because that’s God’s law’; ‘Yes, it is right to torture this child in front of its parents, because there is a good likelihood that they will then cough up the information we need to prevent some terrible event, of whose likelihood we have heard, from happening.’

            1. Just as, incidentally, an appeal to an ‘objective’ morality can be a debate stopper.

              Er, no. The time-honoured counter of the ironic echo doesn’t work here, and for a big reason. If there are objective reasons behind morality, then they go through the debate and discussion and critical examination and intellectual demands that all objective knowledge requires. Indeed, that being objective knowledge enables.

              What you’re describing is simply unquestioned dogma closer to deontology – and that last one is sheer rhetorical passive-aggressive character assassination, at least when it’s not self-defeating as an example (why couldn’t someone question the efficacy of the technique, the comparison of one girl’s suffering and the predicted disaster, etc?). And what would your subjective answer be to it, anyway? “Stop it, I don’t like it?” If you’re going down that route, you might at least acknowledge the lack of genuine argument it entails.

          2. And it was why I suggested that we need to think about these categories of ‘subjective’ (bad) and ‘objective’ (good), particularly in connexion with ethics and aesthetics, and ask whether they are quite so cut off from each other as some people seem to suppose, or to what extent they are relevant where ethical issues are concerned.

            It’s possible (and necessary) to ask such questions, I agree. It also depends on which meanings you’re going for. For instance, in the trivial sense that ethics refers to people’s minds rather than the outside world, then it is subjective, but then so is any mind science. In the sense that it’s simply a mind game with no object in the world to refer to, it seems less clear to me that this is how ethics works.

            The only ‘objective’ morality that seems to be being proposed is a form of utilitarianism,

            Is it? I was thinking closer to the negative sort of ethical hedonism.

            which bears small resemblance to any genuinely ethical life,

            Apart from the forms that valorize benefits to the point where they warrant sacrificing as many as it takes to achieve a perfect utopia, it usually seems to me to be among the closest. Deontics and virtue ethics, by contrast, strike me as arbitrary dogmas of dubious authority and uncritical egotistical posing for a good CV, respectively.

            ‘tends to debase the moral currency’, encouraging situations in which ‘the bad acts of bad men elicit from better men acts which, in better circumstances, would be bad’ and leading to the probability that there will be an escalation of pre-emptive activity, ‘the total consequence of this, by utilitarian standards themselves,’ being ‘worse than if it had never started.’

            I’m fully aware of the prisoner’s dilemma, thank you. And how is the distinction between long-term and short-term benefits somehow a point against utilitarianism, especially if you just admit that utilitarianism is capable of noticing and acting on it?

            To get this discussion back on topic, though, I wonder what you have in mind about this subjective-objective dichotomy. Can you provide an example of how they might not be mutually exclusive and/or incompatible?

            1. I have been, and am rather busy, so this shall be brief. Since you, reasonshark, seem to be better qualified than I am (I am a mere layman, but nevertheless find it hard to share your contempt for Bernard Williams), might you take the trouble to explain more clearly what you mean by an ‘objective ethics’ (there seem to be a variety of ethical hedonisms), because so far you have come across as being rather more interested in being aggressively aggressive , in demonstrating your intellectual superiority and in throwing around technical terms (behaviour that a pseudonym perhaps encourages)? I wholly agree with you that asserting that ethics is ‘subjective’ (and therefore arbitrary) is unsatisfactory, just as asserting that aesthetic judgement is ‘subjective’ (and therefore arbitrary)is unsatisfactory and wrong. I think it would help everybody if you took the trouble to explain more clearly what you think a viable objective ethics consists in, and what part the subjective feelings and beliefs of people might play in it. I am being serious, and am not trying to score points. I should be very interested in your response, and I am sure others would be.

              1. might you take the trouble to explain more clearly what you mean by an ‘objective ethics’ (there seem to be a variety of ethical hedonisms), because so far you have come across as being rather more interested in being aggressively aggressive , in demonstrating your intellectual superiority and in throwing around technical terms (behaviour that a pseudonym perhaps encourages)?

                Firstly, I wasn’t “throwing around technical terms” and “being aggressively aggressive” (also, isn’t that tone trolling?). For one thing, deontology and virtue ethics aren’t obscure jargon, but are alternatives on par with utilitarianism. Given you knew about the latter, I thought you might be familiar with the former. At the very least, they’re easy to look up online. I most certainly was not trying to bamboozle you, though. I’ll grant I haven’t always explained myself very well, but your accusations are totally premature and unnecessary.

                Secondly, what I mean by “objective ethics” is this: that statements like “killing is bad” and “you should be nice to people” are on par with statements like “John is tall” or “the square root of minus one is known as i or j in mathematics”. That is, they can be true or false, and are subject to the same rules of critical enquiry as most fact statements. Strictly speaking, that’s ethical naturalism, and the four bullet points at the start of the Wikipedia article for that capture it nicely, but I think this should suffice to sum up my position:

                Ethical sentences express propositions.
                Some such propositions are true.
                Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
                These moral features of the world are reducible to some set of non-moral features.

                I should qualify this, though. Just because I agree with the idea of objective morality, doesn’t mean that I think any particular proposed objective morality is true. Fincke’s proposal, for instance, strikes me as anthropocentric and, like Harris, his criterion of “human flourishing” (Harris’ is “wellbeing”) is too vague to be of much use.

                I wholly agree with you that asserting that ethics is ‘subjective’ (and therefore arbitrary) is unsatisfactory, just as asserting that aesthetic judgement is ‘subjective’ (and therefore arbitrary)is unsatisfactory and wrong. I think it would help everybody if you took the trouble to explain more clearly what you think a viable objective ethics consists in, and what part the subjective feelings and beliefs of people might play in it.

                I suppose the best way to sum it up is that I think it rests on what a moral justification is. The view of morality-is-subjective proponents appears to me to be that moral policies and decisions are either vindicated by the attitudes of the beholder or non-rational/irrational and therefore outside the boundaries of rational consideration.

                I don’t think ill of the proponents themselves, but I do think such ideas are, at best, likely incorrect (if harmless), and at worst, almost certainly incorrect and a potential source for much mischief and confusion. To put moral judgements on a foundation like that is to lead to contradiction and arbitrariness because the emotions in the attitudes don’t have to appeal to any other standard, so a negative attitude and a good attitude on the same topic are either both correct or both incorrect. It’s the Euthyphro Dilemma applied to human opinions, and the biggest single lesson to take from the Euthyphro dilemma is an anti-authority one: to distinguish between arbitrary/meaningless instructions and the actual issues themselves. In short, it cannot solve problems of conflict and incoherence because it has no real standard of justification other than the emotional equivalent of “because I say so”.

                You compare it with aesthetic judgement, and I’d like to pre-empt a likely confusion. I’m not saying something like “people who prefer Bach over Beethoven are wrong”, or trying to say that the emotions and attitudes are always wrong in their judgements. On the contrary, it’s rational to seek out that which gives pleasure, and any “wrongness” comes strictly from non-aesthetic issues like the moral concerns that may accompany it (for instance, if a brand of music increases the risk of suicide or depression) or intellectual issues (like a song spreading propagandaist lies, pretentious charlatans trying to put it on an elitist pedestal, or, more harmlessly, the lyrics containing scientific inaccuracies). And gut feelings that some action is immoral could, in theory, be vindicated more often than not. What I am saying is that there’s a difference between enjoying an emotional experience and claiming it’s either a great authority on the truth or somehow a different kind of truth outside objective criticism and concern, which is what the morality-is-subjective proponents seem to be saying.

                If nothing else, ethical naturalism strikes me as the logical consequence of the removal of spiritual, super-natural, or otherwise vaguely spiritualistic options from scientific findings and knowledge. I think it’s not a coincidence that morality-as-subjective proponents sound like the secular versions of these decidedly non-secular alternatives.

            2. Thank you very much for this – though I’m afraid I have no particular moral objections, whether subjective or objective, to what some regard as the sin of tone-trolling, except when it is used as a sort of escape-hatch. No, you have made your position much clearer, and I mostly respect it. But as to your examples – ‘Killing is bad’ or ‘You should be nice to people’ really do not seem to be quite on a par with something like ‘John is tall’ or your example about the square root of minus 1. The first surely needs to be qualified: I think it was the Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s aunt, who was in Auschwitz, who remarked that it wasn’t pacifism that liberated the inmates but the Soviet Army. As does the second: perhaps ‘You should in normal circumstances be nice to people’ might be better, or (to avoid the word ‘nice’, which I dislike): ‘You should, so far as is possible, behave to people kindly, and in all circumstances justly’.

              Yes, I take your point about moral justification: it is a good one. But of course we usually have recourse to moral justification only when circumstances demand it: most people (I try to hope!) simply act ethically as a matter of course, out of their nature (and not in obedience to rules or propositions or for fear of punishment), and it is only when we are faced with a difficult moral situation that we might seek to justify our decision against those of others, or have recourse to something like the utilitarian calculus in order to make the best of a bad job (which is why I think utilitarianism provides a thoroughly bad model for ordinary ethical activity). A good scientist, surely, is not one who seeks to be successful at all costs, and makes calculations as to whether he might get away with a little sloppiness here or a little dishonesty there, but one who is driven by a desire for truth.

              There is also the case that our usual ethical attitudes may break down under the stress of, in particular, great fear or great anger. Or that, war, say, may bring out the nastiness that lies somewhere in all, or most, or many, of us. From the British politician Tom Driberg’s book ‘Ruling Passions’: ‘As a test of readers’ opinion’ (about the indiscriminate bombing of Germany) ‘ I printed a paragraph’ (Driberg wrote for the Daily Express)’quoting a letter to his wife from a Briton in a German prison hospital. He wrote of a “sweet little” six-year-old girl named Hilda who had been visiting him: “she is never tired of perching by my bed and looking at the photographs of you and the baby”… I therefore dramatised the argument by asking bluntly: should we bomb… Hilde….’ Regarding the response: ‘As I expected, it was strongly in favour of bombing (her). The score was at first 21 to 1. After a bit more argument in the column, it ended up 37 to 20…. Most of the letters were hysterically shrill and vindictive….’

              The problem with the ‘subjective’ view is that in the end, so it seems to me, is that it can only appeal to, or rely on, power to support the moral (or immoral) beliefs it advances, and of course, as both you and I have said, it closes off conversation and debate.

              Thank you very much for your good reply!

              1. You’re very welcome, and I’d like to thank you in turn for your thoughtful response.

                Your qualifiers are fair enough criticisms, I think, and I have no objection to them. In practice, I think statements like the ones I picked for examples are way too simplistic as descriptions, and any accurate statement would be heavily qualified with a lot of conditionals and extra clauses, such that the result would probably look like legalese. We just simplify them into short phrases to make living easier, I guess.

                I’m also accepting of the fact that we don’t always act with a specific ethical rationale whenever we behave. For sheer practical reasons, we probably couldn’t anyway. I’ve heard theories that emotions evolved as shortcuts to producing situation-relevant behaviour, sacrificing subtlety and caution for faster and more committed responses, so it’s probably something like that. At most, I’d probably say that emotional thinking is a necessary component of our moral lives, if only for practical reasons, much like it is for other fields of human experience and daily living.

                On ethical attitudes breaking down in stressful circumstances, that’s probably best summed up as “we’re only human”. I don’t want to sound like a fatalist, though, and I do think a future understanding of morality – whether scientific or not – will probably get better at reconciling moral positions with general findings about human nature. There’s no getting away from the fact that we are evolved creatures, capable of greater feats than most, but still “carrying the stamp of our lowly origin”, to paraphrase Darwin. I’ll say no more, though, as it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. 😉

  19. Sounds to me like he’s basing the “objectivity” of morality on a state (“flourishing”) which itself seems to be derived at subjectively- can that work?

  20. I haven’t waded through Dan Fincke’s reply beyond what you quoted, but the principle seems to be a bit like this, both in his and in Sam Harris’ case:

    1. Claim that morality is objective, and that that is a great novel insight that more people should agree with.

    2. Be confronted with unsolvable problems for the above claim.

    3. Retreat to the position that morality can be informed by empirical data, something that nobody really doubted in the first place, but that intractable individual problems don’t matter.

    4. Wait a bit and go back to #1.

    It seems most charitable to assume that they always mean #3 but don’t communicate clearly.

    1. There’s no retreat. Morality is objective, intractable problems notwithstanding. The lack of an answer, or a procedure to find an answer, or even the very possibility of there ever being a procedure to find an answer, does not make a question non-objective. One of Harris’s useful illustrations: how many birds are in flight at this moment? At best, we could make a very rough estimate, but there is a clear and simple answer. We have no way of knowing what that answer is, but it’s just a number. It’s just some whole number of birds who are (were) in flight at this (that) particular moment. The number of birds in flight at any given time is an objective fact about the world. Our estimates are necessarily subjective, but the actual answer, whatever it may be, is objective.

      1. When you say “number of birds in flight” I know what it means, and I would recognize such a measurement, even if we don’t currently have a sufficient instrument. Given a reliable instrument, I could not dispute the measurement.

        When you say “what is moral,” you could devise all the reliable instruments for its measurement you want, but I could still dispute that what you are measuring is morality.

        1. In which case, you’re either a moral nihilist or in serious denial. It also sounds like you’ve decided a priori that morality has nothing to do with anything objective, so your argument ends up being circular, helped by the fact that you have jettisoned the usual examples of moral and immoral acts and left the word (and therefore the criteria for) morality as vague and open as possible, an approach which would have stopped biology dead if applied to the concept of life.

          And if you go on to say morality is subjective and no amount of facts will tell us what we ought to do, then congratulations: you’re a dualist, shoving mind off into another reality and in defiance of decades of neuroscientific work.

      2. Indeed that is not a good analogy at all. The number of birds in that flight is a matter of fact, and whether, say, “thou shalt maximise average wellbeing across all sentient beings” is likewise a matter of fact is precisely the question; you cannot presuppose that it is, you actually have to make the argument.

        Ultimately, to me it comes down to the question of legitimacy in the light of morals being about “shalts” and “oughts”. The number of birds is just a number, but a moral guideline tells me what we should or shouldn’t do. And here I ask: why should even some hard fact of life get to decide what we may do? Who made that fact our boss? Turtles, down, all the way.

        If there is to be any legitimacy it can only come from our (collective) decision, and because we could have decided otherwise morals are a matter of subjective preference.

        1. Ah, that’s not the analogy. “The number of birds in flight” is not analogous to “morality is about flourishing”. “The number of birds in flight” is analogous to “This, rather than that, maximizes flourishing”. The appropriate analogy to “morality is about flourishing” would be something like “quantity is determined by counting”.

          Everything is turtles all the way down, if you insist on looking at it like that. Why should my understanding of physics be constrained by empiricism? Who says? Heavier things falls faster, dammit, and I don’t care about your silly “experiments” designed to prove otherwise. That’s not what physics is about to me, and you can’t convince me to change my mind. There is no fact which can compel me to accept facts. There is no logical argument to prove the value of logic.

          What you have identified is a non-problem, and it is immediately recognized as a non-problem in every sphere of learning except morality. Only morality is expected to justify itself in a way that nothing else ever could.

          1. Here’s the problem: even if you had a way of accurately measuring the “flourishing” of everybody on the planet (which seems unlikely), and a non-arbitrary, non-controversial procedure for aggregating those scores into a meaningful Global Flourishing Index (even less likely), and a rigorous science of psychohistory that lets you predict the effects of social policy on GFI (least likely of all), you’re still left with the question of why we should care.

            The fact is that many of us do care. To you it may seem obvious that if global flourishing is sub-optimal, we ought to do something about it, and I might agree with you. But we don’t have to look very far to find people who don’t. Wall Street wizards happily plunge the country into recession to enhance their own standard of living. Politicians knowingly enact bad legislation to improve their poll numbers and advance their careers. News media value market share over an informed citizenry. You and I may call such actions immoral; the people who commit them call it rational self-interest, doing the best they can for themselves and their families in an imperfect world, and the idea of maximizing global flourishing just isn’t on their radar.

            So the claim that “morality is about flourishing” is far from an objective statement of fact. It’s an opinion shared by many humans, but by no means all of them (never mind sentient aliens in a galaxy far, far away). We can, if we have the power, impose our notion of morality-as-flourishing on human society as a whole, and maybe the world would be a better place (by our lights) if we did so. But we should remain skeptical of our own unexamined assumptions, and not fool ourselves into thinking we’ve discovered The Truth about morality, just because our view prevails.

            1. you’re still left with the question of why we should care.

              A problem that plagues subjective morality ten times over, I might add, since subjective morality cannot answer the question either. Indeed, it robs the question of meaning, since it denies any real criterion on which to judge the issue, leading to either the scylla of moral relativism – with all its contradictions – or the charybdis of moral nihilism.

              Your question is based on a deepity. There’s the trivial sense that we require a rational justification for setting up a system so, which is based on facts, which are answerable to a scientific approach. And then there’s the second sense of rhetorically motivating someone into doing something through speech, which for shorthand I’ll call manipulation. You’re mixing both senses here, which is dishonest bait and switch.

              If we give an objective explanation of, say, why the GFI best fits our knowledge of morality, you switch to the second sense and claim “well, that doesn’t motivate me – I don’t feel anything – so your answer fails”. If we appeal to rhetorical techniques to get you into agreeing, you get to claim our analysis is just puffery that has strayed off its objective basis and get to play according to the rhetorical game, which can now involve finding some obscure persona who wouldn’t be persuaded and say, “well, it won’t work on him, so you have no case”. It ignores by discounting a priori the fact that people can make mistakes. If I had all the evidence on my side but couldn’t persuade a creationist to take empiricism seriously, does that mean evolution is just one origin myth among many? Of course not, but that’s the nature of your (rhetorical) argument.

              For what reason is it hypothetically better to take an interest in a science of ethics? Even a selfish egoist would want to know about better and worse alternatives, and how to navigate them. They just also behave either like solipsists (as if they were the only real beings in existence) or like “subjective” parties stuck between relativism and nihilism, one myth among many.

              But we should remain skeptical of our own unexamined assumptions, and not fool ourselves into thinking we’ve discovered The Truth about morality, just because our view prevails.

              Which can be done best with objective criteria, and cannot be done at all with subjective ones.

      3. Sorry about the double post, but I hasten to add: At this point the trick sometimes seems to be to claim that our preferences are a matter of objective fact.

        But again that is just the question of what is, not whether it should be like that. If that is how it works one could just as well say that Egyptian women should be mutilated if it turned out that 78% of polled Egyptians were to be in favour of FGM. Perhaps in this case it is clearer that it just doesn’t follow than with the liberal values none of us would want to question.

  21. Moral objectivity does not linger for too long it seems.
    My tuppence worth and I feel like I’m drowning in vagueness.. it is not how we should behave but how we do behave. Evolution did it’s bit and we (humanity) have learnt many lessons through trial and a lot of error. We now have a set of moral and ethical norms as a result of this history and all things considered these norms suffice and keep us above the water line.
    Okay it’s not all rosy and a work in progress but the mere fact that a discussion of this nature can take place is in itself a part of this objectivity, defining this as it can be seen with clarity is something else.
    No moral or ethical conduct is possible if it is not in our brains to do so.
    This then is meme evolution at full throttle and it could be possible we are not asking the right questions or even looking in the right wardrobe.. a mathematical value? some future technology or a walking breathing person with extraordinary empirical insights? all of the above?
    It’s a slippery character is moral objectivity.

  22. “human flourishing” was still a preference, not some objective criterion for what is moral or immoral.’ Actually, Hitler would have argued that he was all for human flourishing and that was why he had to have certain “parasites” exterminated. All these arguments don’t fly. They are biased by arm chair professionals probably with a tenure who have a certain way of looking at “flourishing”. Amazon indigenous Indians have another and people addicted to meth yet another. Who’s to decide. The “great flourisher” of course. No, evolutionists, humanists and other “ists” need to understand there is an objective science to decide these things by: cybernetics, the science of control. And as cybernetician von Foerster said, the scientific imperative, kind of Kant II, is “behave in a way so that choices become more numerous”. To understand the formulaic sentence you need to study the concept of “requisite variety” and this is where you will find your objective ethics, morals, standards, whatever and you can even derive rigorous mathematical proof if you like.

    1. Ah, a coda. Please explain the relations between von Foerster’s adage, the concept of ‘requisite variety’, and an ‘objective’ ethics. Also, what is an objective ethics supposed to do and why is it desirable? What is objective about it – that is to say, what does it mean for an ethics to be ‘objective’rather than ‘subjective’ (I put these words in quotation marks, since it seems to me that they require definition)? Being ‘objective’, does it then provide you with rules, perhaps with rigorous mathematical proofs as to their validity, as to how to behave in various specific situations? Or what does it do? I am not trying to put you on the spot. I am genuinely interested in answers to these questions.

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