A disproof of objective or “scientifically based” morality

November 27, 2015 • 10:45 am

I’ve made this point before, but have revisited it after my recent post on animal suffering and how we shouldn’t ignore it. When thinking about how to judge human versus animal suffering, I realized that there’s no objective way to do this, and that when trying to figure out how to treat animals, we must ultimately rely on subjective judgment. While science can help us make such judgments, it cannot give us objective answers, even in principle.

For example, is it right to do animal experimentation on primates? In so doing, primates and other mammals are injured or suffer, and yet there may be some ultimate benefit for humanity (this, of course, isn’t guaranteed). How many mouse lives or monkey lives are worth one human life, especially when animal testing doesn’t always provide cures? We think it’s okay to swat mosquitoes or kill a nonvenomous snake that’s simply annoying or scaring us, but we don’t think it’s right to kill a dog who’s barking at us. Where do you draw the line?

Or if, like Sam Harris, you think that “well being” is the objective criterion for morality, so that the most moral act is the one that maximizes overall well being, then your difficulty becomes this: how do you determine the relative weights of animal well being versus human well being? Science can’t answer such a question because we have no idea how to quantify well being among species, which depends on knowing how an animal subjectively perceives and values its existence. (I also question how science can judge the relative weights of different kinds of human well being, but I’ll leave that aside.) Is it immoral to swat a fly only because it’s annoying you with its buzzing? Is it immoral to kill a harmless spider simply because you don’t like spiders?

I am still traumatized at having seen a golf-course employee, several decades ago, flooding mole tunnels with water, and then killing the moles who came out by whacking them with a wrench. I’ll never forget that sight, which made me weep. Is the increased well-being of golfers worth more than the reduced well being of the whacked moles?

But it gets more serious when you come to food animals. Is it immoral to eat animals? How do you measure their reduced well being at losing their lives versus our increased well being when we eat a nice chicken or steak? Is it immoral to eat eggs from battery chickens? If so— because you weigh their suffering as heavier than our increased well being—then what about humanely raised animals? They may have a nicer life and be killed more humanely, too, but don’t they value their own lives? They’ve evolved, after all, to avoid death, and yet we kill them. To me that means that they don’t want to die, but we don’t know what “want” really means in an animal whose brains we can’t fathom.

I see no way to arrive at objective answers to these questions, for even in principle I can’t see how one can give relative values to the well being of different species. Of course one could punt and say that morality applies only to humans, but we know that’s untrue. We prosecute people who torture cats and dogs, and we have, by and large, stopped using animal testing for cosmetics. The latter is an explicit judgment that animal suffering outweighs the increased well being produced by applying blush or mascara.

Now I admit that I’m not a trained philosopher (though I do have one paper in a real journal to my credit), and perhaps others have considered this question in light of the notion that we can have objective moral truths. I’ve read Peter Singer, who’s told me personally that he thinks there are such truths, but I’ve never asked him to tell me how one can objectively arrive at his notion (which I share) that “animal liberation” is a very important cause.

In the end, like all morality, animal “rights” comes down to issues of preference and subjective judgment. Science and empirical observation can feed into those issues, but at bottom it’s still subjective.  I agree with Sam that in general our moral judgments, at least in our own species, correspond to utilitarian notions of overall well being, but I don’t agree that one can make such judgments objectively.

My title may reflect a bit of hubris, but I invite readers to tell me where I’m wrong.

173 thoughts on “A disproof of objective or “scientifically based” morality

  1. I invite readers to tell me where I’m wrong.

    You’re not wrong, you’re entirely right! Anyone who tells you you’re wrong is the one who is wrong. 🙂 The hankering after an objective status to moral values is the biggest wild-goose chase in the history of philosophy.

    My suggestion is that the illusion that morals are objective is programmed into us, and is a cheap trick that evolution turned to in order to make our moral sentiments more effective at their job (where their job is facilitating a cooperative lifestyle).

    1. I’m thinking that you are right, too, Jerry, and that this is one of Harris’ biggest blind spots.

      Morality is a judgement call, one that can be *informed* by science, but not made by science. Science can’t tell me if it is more moral to get my mom a life saving operation, or to use that same money to give life-saving vaccinations to thousands children on a foreign continent. And to the extent one can make a formula to make such decisions, the human judgement call is merely being moved into how the formula is constructed, what criteria are used and what weight each one is given, and that doesn’t make the outcome anything other than a human judgement, even if the process is obfuscated and made to look all sciency.

      1. How is “a judgement call” any different from “a complete guess” or “revelation” or “stuff made up because any answer will do”? How, for that matter, is it any different from saying there are no right and wrong answers at all?

        This line of argument should lead to nihilism because it basically makes “right” and “wrong” anything you want them to be, even if its contradictory and nonsensical. And if anything is on the table, then the very concept of right and wrong are meaningless, because it has no way of separating “good” judgement calls from “bad” ones.

        1. I think this is a slippery slope fallacy. You are assuming that one does things *because* they are right/wrong. If there is no right/wrong (probably true) there can still be behaviours that are better/worse for achieving a certain endpoint, like world peace. We pursue peace not because it is inherently “right” but rather because we want to live in a world without people fighting and killing each other.

          I would argue that morality is completely made up and personal. The only truly immoral act is one where you think it is wrong but go ahead and do it anyway. In that sense, ISIS etc. are not immoral – but their moral code is not one that I would personally want to see become ascendant.

          1. “In that sense, ISIS etc. are not immoral – but their moral code is not one that I would personally want to see become ascendant.”

            I would say ISIS’s code IS immoral – in fact about as obscene as it can get – because it leads them to impose their rigid values by force on others who do not share it.
            Exactly the same reason the Nazis were wrong. I’m sure Hitler was absolutely sincere in his beliefs.

            I think those fighting them – who may have doubts about whether they’re doing the right thing – are far more moral, precisely because they may entertain doubts. Contra your description of that as ‘immoral’. That doesn’t mean they always make the right choices, of course.

            I’m a contrarian – anybody who is *sure* they are right should be shot on sight. Anybody who has doubts – they’re much more honest.


            1. I agree with you up to a point – I’m just not sure that it’s really an issue of “morality”. As a determinist, I find it hard to call someone immoral for doing what they believe is right. They’ve presumably not decided to be evil. They’re just horribly misguided. Ethics is ultimately about what kind of society we want to live in, not what is objectively right. We fight ISIS because we find their ideology and behaviour distasteful and dangerous, not because we have some objective moral prerogative to impose our values on others.

              1. I’m a pragmatist, mostly. ISIS might not think they’re evil but – if that word has any meaning at all – ISIS certainly qualify for it with enthusiasm. I’d happily see them exterminated – for the good of everybody else.

                But I think I mostly agree with you. I’m extremely suspicious of ‘morals’ – which usually just comprises someone’s prejudices which they seek to impose on other people. I think ‘the greatest good for the greatest many’ is about as close as I can think of for a guide. Which begs the question of what is ‘good’, (it certainly isn’t what ISIS think it is), I think fairness would come into it and ultimately what is ‘good’ for each individual is what they think it is. I realise that definition is full of possible snags but I can’t come up with a better.


              1. Errm, no? (If I said ‘yes’, of course, I’d have to shoot myself).

                I should probably qualify that. Anybody who is *always* sure they are right about *everything* is a menace and should be… neutralised. The ‘shot’ was metaphorical. Maybe, since they suffer from dangerous delusions, they should just be locked up somewhere quiet where their certainty can’t do any damage.

                I have come across people like that and they alarm me.


          2. I certainly think we do most things because they suit us. We want peace where we live but if we can make a buck or two is other places, we will happily sell them arms and the rest of us can turn a blind eye if it makes us uncomfortable.

            So, I think we want to be moral and sometimes we act morally because we feel compelled to out of empathy – like when Jerry found the moles being whacked to be horrid but some of us just want to appear moral because that’s the social thing to do.

            For me, I’m strongly motivated by my empathic brain. If I were a sociopath, I wouldn’t rescue spiders (which scare me) out of the bath tub (and if they drown feel bad about it all day) or catch mice and release them away from my house. It’s probably stupid on my part and provides no advantage to me but I can’t help myself.

            1. I think that most of us want to live in a caring, empathetic society, and realise that this is only possible if everyone does their bit – including us. It’s the “Golden Rule”, I guess. We are probably hard-wired to recognise fairness vs inequality and therefore recognise when we ourselves are being unfair.

              Interfering with the actions of others is a bit more difficult than interfering with our own actions. I would not happily sell arms to anyone – but I am not sure (a) how to stop someone else from doing it, and (b) whether I even have the right to do so. The pain of living in a democracy is that a government you did not choose can do things in your name – but having chosen to live in a democracy, the only thing I can really do about it is to try and convince the rest of the country that it’s wrong.

              1. “We are probably hard-wired to recognise fairness vs inequality and therefore recognise when we ourselves are being unfair.”

                I’m sure we are, though it’s probably easier to recognise unfairness in third parties.

                But that ‘fairness’ instinct (almost synonymous with ‘justice’) can lead to vendettas and wars if not damped with a fair bit of tolerance and empathy.

                I think it also (probably) leads to a subconscious desire for there to be a heaven, a hell, and a just god to ‘set things right’. Unfortunately reliance on those things can then lead to a complacent attitude towards injustices.


          3. There’s nothing slippery slope about it. If you can’t admit a scale of good to bad that doesn’t depend on whim, world peace or a world caliphate are by your own subjectivist standard equally good/bad/null at the same time. You demonstrate it yourself in your reply: you have no genuine means of saying that anyone who contradicts you is wrong, because by your own subjectivist standards you’ve made it impossible both to contradict another’s POV and to contradict your own. Your endpoint of world peace becomes arbitrary whim, no more compelling than ISIS’s endpoint of dominant Islam.

            You can’t even keep the vocabulary straight. You casually talk about a “truly immoral act” literally right after saying morality is made up. You talk about morality being personal, as if someone could say “I think murder is immoral, but if you do it, I don’t care” like they were commenting on their dislike of broccoli. You talk as if not wanting ISIS’s moral code is supposed to be some rebuttal to their wanting to impose it on you, but fail to notice that this contradiction makes a hash of your own point.

            1. Why does “not have objective basis” have to equate to “whim”? There are many subjective criteria against which a scale of good to bad may be drawn. Functional human beings and societies operate on such criteria all the time. It is wrong to belittle them by calling them a “whim”. Not wishing to be beheaded is more than a whim, I would argue. For the fanatic, wanting a pure world in line with God’s plan is also more than a “whim”. But you are right in one thing: my desire for world peace is objectively no more compelling than ISIS’s endpoint of dominant Islam.

              I apologise if my language got bendy – language is like that. I was merely trying to differentiate between an action where the perpetrator themselves thinks it to be wrong, versus one where someone thinks they are doing the right thing. For me, that is possibly the only objective (hence “truly”) immoral act: doing something that you yourself think is immoral. That said, perhaps my feeling that you shouldn’t do things you believe to be wrong is subjective.

              You have also misunderstood the implications of personal/subjective morality. If I think murder is wrong, I still care if you do it. I think it is wrong and would be against my “moral” code. Subjectively then, you are being immoral. However, if you don’t think murder is wrong, it is hard to claim objectively that you are being immoral when you murder someone. My morality and your morality are not the same: they are subjective.

              Furthermore, I think you have missed (or I obscured) my main point: something is not right/wrong because it is moral/immoral. We brand something as “moral” or “immoral” because we have decided it is right or wrong against some subjective criteria (the “judgement call”), such as wanting to live in a society where people are not free to kill other people.

              Can you really not see the difference between a “judgement call” based on a preference, such as maximising happiness, and “any answer will do”?!

              1. Why does “not have objective basis” have to equate to “whim”?

                Because the only feasible alternative to an objective basis is basically divine command theory without the divine. The only major difference is that each person now relies on revelation as manifested through their preferences or desires, and each person has a different revelation. You still can’t keep it straight with your “doing wrong knowingly is objectively evil” example. And that murderer who doesn’t think it’s wrong: he’s not objectively moral because of his own whim. How does that not demonstrate my point?

                This non-divine command theory is just as vulnerable to the Euthyphro Dilemma: arbitrary authority or authority smuggled from elsewhere. What your proposing is effectively a religious coexistence in which the religions all use faith to get their dogmas even if, by some fluke, they don’t have a myriad of non-contradictory dogmas. As a result, the only tenable positions are nihilism – and I mean full-blooded nihilism, not fake nihilism that trots out subjectivity as a proposed “save” – and some form of objectivism, ideally ethical naturalism.

                If you have no way of calling a preference right or wrong without contradicting your own creed that they determine morality, then there is no difference between it and any answer will do. Appealing to subjective criteria that changes chameleon-like from person to person disarms you of any legitimate means of telling the difference, and every attempt you make to show that right/wrong and immoral/moral are two different things is showing why.

    2. Coel writes: “My suggestion is that the illusion that morals are objective is programmed into us, and is a cheap trick that evolution turned to in order to make our moral sentiments more effective at their job (where their job is facilitating a cooperative lifestyle).”

      But this would mean that morals really are objective, Coel. Evolution dictates them to us… they aren’t not subjective if we don’t choose.

      More generally, I think the “objective” part of morals, if such there be, is not a complete guide for all behavior. That’s certainly Sam Harris’ point, which is why he refers to multiple “peaks” on the moral landscape. Hence it isn’t a refutation of his argument to pose questions asked in this post and then point out his allegedly objective standard offers no guidance.

      1. I don’t think this makes morals objective – one person’s in-built moral preferences will not be identical to another’s, any more that our preferences for chocolate vs vanilla, or solitude vs company are the same. Just as a lack of “true” free will does not rule out making choices/decisions (even if we cannot ultimately choose what choices we will make), so an in-built sense of “morality” does not make that universal or objectively “right”.

  2. Hi

    Given living is a requirement for well-being in most people’s minds, especially non-religious ones, seems to me that all but a few societies have already decided that humans are more valued than animals. That is, we find it easier to kill various species, probably proportional to their dissimilarity to us (swatting the fly). I’m sure it would be possible to quantify this effect and develop some way to translate it into human benefit. For example, how many thousands or millions of fruit flies would we be willing to kill to gain an extra 12 months of life on average for humans? Gets somewhat more complicated when we consider animal and human suffering (non-well-being?), but still the only way the question of morality makes sense to me. I find it bizarre that anyone would think there is some absolute morality such that they would not swerve to miss running over a baby on the road if it meant killing two flies in the other lane.


  3. I suppose that it’s a combination: science/objectivity can tell you what an action will do, but it’s a subjective value judgement to say whether or not it’s actually acceptable.

    More of the former can influence the latter as moral systems with little contact with reality seem to be the most harmful!

  4. Morality, or the desire to increase overall well-being and its reverse, aversion to harm others, appears to be a combination of evolved traits with incomplete penetrance. Everyone has different levels of each trait and this is why some of us are horrified by hunting while others enjoy it. There is no demonstrable right or wrong, but our individual judgements.

    I don’t think this is a solvable problem, except through education and cultural forcing to emphasize the aversion to harm other living beings who are capable of suffering.

    It does appear morality is adaptive since on the balance humans are more moral than not. Sadly amorality or immorality doesn’t appear to be maladaptive enough.

  5. read Sam Harris’s paragraph #4, if you haven’t already: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html

    Suffering is an inherently subjective thing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make objective observations about it.
    We are quite justified in making the objective observation that rocks have no nervous system and that humans do.

    Does it get more complicated than that? Of course.

    The human brain is quite possibly the most complex physical system in the universe we know of. That we don’t yet have enough information to fully characterize the nature of well-being and suffering should not be confused with the notion that there are no ontological truths about suffering which, in principle, can be objectively characterized and beneficially implemented to improve lives.

    This seems almost self-evident, because the alternative seems to me that no other way of living can be objectively worse. The self-refuting absurdity of that claim means that surely objective truths do exist.

    I view the brain as sort of like worm holes, climate change, or even the stock market – bewildering in complexity, but nevertheless with ontological truths which surely exist in the haystack. It is up to us to find them.

    1. It is obvious that suffering is antithetical to well-being and that animals suffer, and we may be able to objectively discover how much animals suffer in comparison to us.

      But the decision to base our morality on the rule that we should minimize overall suffering is still a subjective preference. Other possible preferences: we should minimize suffering of beings in proportion to the amount that we love them, we should minimize overall suffering of humans, we should minimize our own suffering, we should act to maximize biodiversity and minimize environmental destruction regardless of suffering, etc.

      So yes, we can find objective truths about suffering, but we still have to make a subjective decision about how to apply that information to our system of morals.

      1. I just don’t agree with that.
        It’s not a subjective preference, anymore than deciding that prime numbers are numbers with no divisors other than 1 and self, that North Pole is Earth’s north-most point and has certain magnetic properties and that South Pole is south-most point and has certain magnetic properties, that self-contradiction renders an argument invalid, etc. These are truths inherent to the way the universe is. We are choosing words/definitions to describe these phenomena, but the phenomena themselves are there, whether we notice them or not, and regardless of what we choose to call them.

        If conscious creatures experience that not all ways of living are equally good (trivially easy – would you rather be well-nourished or starve to death?), then conscious can “suffer” (or whatever other verb/word you wish to call it).
        This capacity to sense better and worse ways of being seems to really exist as an intrinsic property of certain kinds brains (including ours), whether we want it to or not, whether we agree about it or not, and regardless of whatever we choose to call it.

        This “we would still have to decide that suffering is bad” is just playing Thimblerig with words. If words like suffering/bad mean anything, they mean things that lessen net quality of life. If you choose to call it something else (ie, I want to suffer as much as I can, and avoid wellness as much as I can), fine, but that’s a semantic quip rather than an actual argument or refutation that some ways of being are more desirable and fulfilling than others.

        I mean, nobody would take that objection seriously in any other discourse. Nobody would call starving to death another, subjectively valid version of a healthy diet; having late-stage AIDS another, subjectively valid version of having a healthy immune system; Japan’s unconditional surrender to USA being another, subjectively valid version of Japan conquering USA and decisively winning WW2, etc. Any fair-minded person would instantly recognize such statements to be either misusing words or using them to inaccurately represent objective phenomena in reality.

        I think that such cavilling directed at scientific, objective statements about conscious creatures living worse or better lives is no less nonsensical and impossible to take seriously.

        1. I think you are confusing “minimising suffering” with “deciding that suffering is bad”. No one (I think) is claiming that suffering is good. The question is whether the decision that minimises suffering is always the moral one.

          Imagine that the calculations came in and the net psychological suffering caused to a bunch of religious fundamentalists by a the existence of a gay/atheist exceeded the amount of suffering caused by beheading said gay/atheist. Can you really tell me that you would consider the beheading to be the ethical choice? It’s not just a semantic quip. It’s a real issue about whether certain freedoms – and even life itself – are more or less “valuable” than measurable suffering or pleasure.

          1. Well yes. Hypothetically, *if* the beheading caused less suffering, then, axiomatically, it would mean that we should behead the atheist, and I would therefore be in favor of beheading the atheist.

            But that’s a silly example, because the mere existence of an atheist can not possibly constitute suffering. And even if it did, there’d be deeper issues about can a society really be well if its majority can do whatever it wants to its minority.

            And, there is no “deciding that suffering is bad”. Again, it’s definitional. There are things that are bad in life (either absolutely, or on net balance, or relative to some readily available alternative). “Suffering” is just a label we put on things that are bad. We can question whether or not something constitutes suffering (ie, is enduring the pain of exercise worth the improvement in qualitiy/length of life?), but we can not question that suffering is bad. That would be like questioning whether the North Pole is really North, whether electrons are really negative, or whether getting checkmated in chess is really losing the game. These things are definitional, and they are referring to real things in reality.
            We use language to represent things in reality.

            1. You are missing my points.

              1. I don’t think anyone is arguing against “suffering is bad”. You need to let that one go. My point was that you were confusing this with the legitimate question as to whether *minimising* suffering is the (objective) target for morality.

              2. Are you denying that psychological pain/suffering exists? Do you not think that fear of missing out on eternal paradise due to inaction in this life can cause said psychological suffering? Perhaps you have never been religious. Religious fanatics often take such drastic actions because they believe in very drastic consequences.

              Personally, I think that minimising suffering should be part of a moral framework but life is too complex to make it the over-arching measure by which morality is defined.

              1. “My point was that you were confusing this with the legitimate question as to whether *minimising* suffering is the (objective) target for morality.”

                ‘Legitimate question’? That is not even an INTELLIGIBLE question, much less a legitimate one. What else could morality possibly be about, if not minimizing suffering and/or maximizing wellness? That is the only intelligible basis for the word “morality”.

                as to your point #2, I am less confident in my stance here, but I, tentatively, I think that 1) suffering may admit of gray areas, and 2) not all perceived psychological suffering is true suffering. I think it is possible for a person to be merely pretending to be suffering, and I think it is even possible to genuinely but mistakenly believe that one is suffering when in fact one is not.
                I guess I’d go again with the exercise example. An obese child being forced by his loving, concerned father to go jogging for the very first time may genuinely feel that his father is causing him suffering, despite the fact that the exercise is, in the long run, greatly minimizing the suffering he would otherwise experience if the father viewed the child’s obesity with apathy. All through that jog and perhaps even all through the rest of his life, the child could sincerely and strongly feel that he suffered, despite the fact that he never actually suffered for even one second (never suffered unnecessarily, that is).

                “Do you not think that fear of missing out on eternal paradise due to inaction in this life can cause said psychological suffering?”
                Belief in an eternal afterlife does not change what morality is (ie, minimizing suffering in conscious creatures, and maximizing their wellness); it is merely a difference of opinion in which causes lead to which amounts of suffering. If you doubt this, just ask yourself, Why is Hell bad? Obviously, because conscious creatures there are made to endure extreme suffering for eternity. And, conversely, Why is Heaven God? Obviously, because conscious creatures live in extreme wellness for eternity. Clearly, to the Christian as well as to the atheist, the goal is to minimizing suffering and maximize wellness.
                The Christian fears allowing the atheist to live because the Christian fears that doing so will cause the Christian to endure extreme suffering *later* – not because the act is harmful in and of itself. In other words, the Christian and the atheist disagree as to which action will cause the most suffering, not that minimizing suffering is the goal. But, everyone agrees that minimizing suffering is the goal. Otherwise, to the Christian, Hell wouldn’t be bad and Heaven wouldn’t be good.
                If, by “morality”, you think you mean anything at all *other* than minimizing suffering and maximizing wellness, then I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t think you do either. What else could morality possibly be about?

              2. Me: “My point was that you were confusing this with the legitimate question as to whether *minimising* suffering is the (objective) target for morality.”

                You: “‘Legitimate question’? That is not even an INTELLIGIBLE question, much less a legitimate one. What else could morality possibly be about, if not minimizing suffering and/or maximizing wellness?”

                Can you not even see that you have added “and/or maximising wellness” to my statement? If you are going to be righteously indignant, at least be right.

                Depending on your definition of “wellness”, perhaps there is no other target. However, I don’t think the balance between “wellness” and “suffering” is clear and objective, neither is “wellness” itself even clearly defined.

                Your example with the child is interesting as it brings in another way that *in practice*, I think morality is highly subjective. Even if we can all agree on an objective scale of suffering and wellness, we will never have the omniscience to extrapolate all the future consequences of actions. Therefore, it is basically down to what people believe the likely consequences are as to whether a given action is morally right, wrong or neutral. Clearly, there will be some clear-cut cases that (almost?) everyone will agree on, but consensus and objectivity are not the same thing. This seems to be your position too: by definition, morality is about minimising suffering but that different people have different view about what minimises suffering. Is that right?

                I would just add that the relative weighting of different kinds of suffering versus different kinds of wellness is also a matter of opinion and has no objective scale against which everything can be measured/compared. I could be wrong in this latter thought but feel that the burden of proof is on those who claim that such scaling and comparison is possible.

              3. There’s no “Reply” button on your recent-most comment, so I’m replying to a previous comment cuz I think the discussion went well even as it winds down.

                “Can you not even see that you have added ‘and/or maximising wellness’ to my statement?”
                That’s not adding anything though, as wellness is a continuum. At the bottom, there’s “suffering”, and at the top there’s “wellness”. Like temperature on a thermometer, making something less cold and/or more hot is just posing alternate ways of saying the same thing. I was alternate phrasing, not adding criteria.
                In case you doubt the continuum thing, we can know this subjectively, because when presented with two options of ways to live a life, we can prefer one way over another. We can also describe what would make the less desirable option become equally desirable. Hellen Keller’s pre-born soul, for example, might say, if even a choice, “I would want to NOT be born deaf/blind” or, alternately, “I would want a prenatal cure for my deafness/blindness”, and those would be expressions of wanting less suffering and more wellness, respectively, that imply the same level of wellness (just for simplicity, I’m ignoring any deeper benefits of leading a deaf/blind life and improving societys’ knowledge of deaf/blind life. Such benefits may well exist, of course.)

                “neither is “wellness” itself even clearly defined.”
                I agree that wellness is an open-ended concept, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the best idea/definition we can while continuing to better characterize the thing as we accumulate data. Being physically “healthy”, having a “good economy”, being “happy” are somewhat open-ended concepts, all of which we know exist and we agree are good to pursue, even as we gradually refine our understanding of what exactly they mean.

                “Even if we can all agree on an objective scale of suffering and wellness, we will never have the omniscience to extrapolate all the future consequences of actions.”
                Of course, but there’s a difference between saying we can’t know all consequences vs saying we don’t know *any* consequences. Some consequences we do know pretty confidently. My main argument is that, even when we don’t know all the consequences, we at least know that there are consequences and that some better than others, even if we can’t figure out which ones.
                As one last analogy, we know some number of people languishing in prison right now are innocent, and we know that some number of people we let go back into society are guilty of heinous crimes. But, that doesn’t mean that the project of trying in good faith to maximize justice is a flawed enterprise or that who is guilty/innocent is merely a subjective opinion. Who is guilty or innocent is an ontological fact of the universe. We should admit that some opinions are wrong and some are right in this domain, and we should seek opinions which are most right because they most maximize justice. Again, this is true to the best of our understanding (which is to say, more true than some alternatives we are capable of engendering) even if justice itself is a somewhat open-ended concept.

                And, I’m not indignant. Just utterly befuddled when you say that morality is about…well, anything at all other than maximizing wellness.

                I think that about wraps up the discussion though, but feel free to whatever if you like.

    2. I’m with Jerry on this one. Just because we can make some isolated objective statements about theoretical suffering and the capacity for suffering, that does not man that it is even theoretically possible to be able to extrapolate that out to objective moral truths, even if we had complete information. It might be (and I think is) completely impossible to be able to compare different kinds of suffering. Unlike counting birds in flight, it might be a meaningless question. For example, how to you weigh up present day suffering versus future pleasure or pain? Or psychological pain versus physical pain? Or cat pain vs mouse pain? It’s a judgement call – a preference – not a tangible, measurable thing.

      The problem is that everything is connected. You cannot make *any* decision about suffering that does not impact on other suffering – either of other beings or the future you. Just whether you live for another day or not has countless direct and indirect effects on other beings – not least the food-related impacts discussed in the animal rights thread recently.

      Even with Jerry’s mole example, which seems self-evident, what if it is more complex? What if the golf course worker knew that if the moles were allowed to live, someone else would poison them and they would have slow, painful deaths, rather than (hopefully) quick ones? How do you factor in our own lack of omnipotence, omniscience and ultimate responsibility for most suffering in the world? What is the relative balance of action vs inaction in how morally responsible we are for a given outcome? I’m not sure that is objectively answerable either.

  6. Well, I have to generally agree with Jerry’s conclusions; this was my overall feeling on the topic, and I’ve felt guilty for some time for not being a vegetarian. I don’t eat much meat, but I can’t quit pork. So far. I do think it’s “OK” morally to eat dairy products given that the animals are truly humanely raised. If they’re generally living as good a life as a cow or chicken could expect anyway, why not? I ponder whether it’s worth considering that these utterly domesticated animals would practically stop existing if we stopped raising them for a purpose. But that doesn’t justify killing them to eat, unless we come to the considered judgement that after living a certain natural life length, it’s OK to humanely kill them. Of course, there wouldn’t be that much of a market for elderly animals.

    Then usually I consider the fact that we live on a planet that evolved with a food chain, and that animals kill each other far more savagely than we kill them–when it’s done humanely. And at that point, I decide unconsciously I’m not quite ready to quit pork. But I still know it’s probably wrong. Given the evolution part of that, I’d be interested in how Jerry views that part of the equation if he weighs in on this again.

    If anyone has ever read the Eregon children’s trilogy, they’ll know what I mean when I say that after he becomes a dragon rider and sort of part elf, the section that deals with him becoming a vegetarian was pretty persuasive to me. (Except pork.) Also, I’ll just mention, in case anyone is looking for kid’s books, that it’s the second-best kids lit regarding theology after His Dark Materials. Eregon meets dwarves, for instance, and they introduce him to their gods and religion, leading him to ponder that obviously their religion can’t be right at the same time that every one else’s religions are right. As an elf, he essentially meditates a lot. It’s very well done. Sorry that’s off-topic.

    1. Humans are omnivores. Of course, they have a choice what to eat, but it is exactly this, a choice. Frankly said, going against one’s biological nature seem to me a waste of efforts, and definitely not a reason to regard oneself superior.

      1. I think people would respond that xenophobia, rape, and beating people up if they make us mad are also biologically natural, but that it does make us superior to go against them.

  7. I had some thought from your last post about the morality of animal testing and I’ll expand it here. From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, suffering is probably a way to avoid harm, so the fundamental problem is the harm itself. From that point, it’s hard to justify eating anything, or inflict any harm upon any organism. Plants and microbes actively seek to avoid harm, roaches and flies seek to live and reproduce as well. In short, it’s hard to justify eating animals from the animals’ perspective, simply that the animal doesn’t wanna be killed and consumed. But it’s a little more justifiable from the plants’ perspective, if you kill off the animal that eats the plants continuously, the plants’ well-being is preserved.
    On the other hand, if you look at it from the “gene’s perspective” like how Dawkin treated it. The gene is ultimately benefitted from industrial farming of food animals, the species gets to have a lot of progeny than it would if left alone in the wild. Also, it’s much less likely to be completely wiped out by natural selection so long as they stand valuable to human consumption. In short, it’s really hard to take a definitive stance, it’s dependent on the perspective one takes. And I don’t know how science can give any answer down to the fundamental levels.

      1. Works on plants. Not so well on animals 😉

        I do recall being profoundly unsettled by the idea that flowers ‘scream’ when you pick them. I think I eventually figured that was probably New-Agey woo. After all plants are continually losing leaves, branches, getting bits eaten etc, so they must be used to it.


  8. I am still traumatized at having seen a golf-course employee, several decades ago, flooding mole tunnels with water, and then killing the moles who came out by whacking them with a wrench.

    I sure hope this wasn’t a case of life-imitating-art, with the golf-course employee patterning himself on Bill Murray’s greenskeeper in Caddyshack waging war upon the gophers. Knowing that it was would keep me from ever watching that flick with pleasure again.

    1. This is why a big part of me detests golf. It’s hell on the environment – pesticides galore keep that grass weed free for one & harming the animals that put holes in it is really shitty — so people can play some stupid game without the unpleasantness of mole holes.

      1. Yeah, I foreswore golf a couple decades back. But I can’t quit you, Caddyshack. That was Mr. Dangerfield’s cinematic debut. Vive Monsieur Rodney!

        (I saw an interview with the late Harold Ramis, Caddyshack‘s director. He said on the first day of filming, in Rodney’s very first scene, he calls for quiet on the set, then yells “Action!” Nothing. After several beats, Rodney turns around, looks at him, asks: “You mean, do the bit?” … Yeah, Rodney, do the bit …) 🙂

    2. A couple of weeks ago I killed a gopher with a trap I borrowed from my brother.

      If it had been digging up the front lawn, which I stopped watering last year, California being in drought, I wouldn’t have minded, but the backyard is part of my family’s heritage; last Sunday there was a huge party there, seventy some people, including nearly all my family, kids running wild like they owned the place, which in a sense they do.

      Following my brother’s instructions, I dug into the gopher’s mound, located the tunnel and enlarged it enough to let the lethal trap operate. Two days later I extracted a dead rodent. Yay?

      I feed finches and doves with sunflower seeds in one corner, and I have to refill my hummingbird feeders twice daily. Somehow the yard produces enough insects to attract mockingbirds and gnatcatchers, and more often than not swallows nest under my eaves.

      Skunks, possums, rats and raccoons are occasional and even welcome visitors. They’re welcome to the fruit I don’t collect. I have pictures, but they’re not up to the standards of this site.

      Gophers, however, are a threat to a beloved and expensive bit of real estate, and as such deserve no mercy. If the trap had not been deadly, it probably wouldn’t have worked, but if I could have caught that little fucker, I WOULD HAVE BURIED HIM ALIVE!

  9. I think you’ve clearly illustrated why Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” is the worst book he’s ever written. I don’t think he ever truly addresses the points you’ve risen. I just don’t see how you can make morality objective.

  10. There is obviously a subjective element in the basic foundations of any moral system though it may be heavily supplemented by objective research.

    Effectively, there’s places with solid sand (Pasir Pali Beach in Indonesia), places with shifting sand, and places with quicksand, but even a well-developed moral system is a house of bricks built on sand.

    I like philosophy a LOT more than Ben Goren, but will concede that sometimes being a “trained philosopher” doesn’t seem a lot better than being a “trained seal” and/or “trained monkey”.

    But it can be useful to be a trained historian of philosophy.

    In the West, there has been both “virtue ethics” often preferred by the religious due its sense of being purpose-driven, and “consequentialist ethics” which underlies a lot of secular humanist thinking. Aristotle is the classic examplar of “virtue ethics”, and a popular religious figure like Rick Warren is in that tradition. Sam Harris is clearly in the tradition of “consequentialist ethics”.

  11. I think objective morality exists but the math is extremely tough. Morality is our sense of what actions by ourselves and by our tribe mates will best insure the survival and flourishing of our tribe and therefore ourselves. To find what actions best achieve this would require knowing all of the results of all possible actions by all possible people. It’s really just a math problem.

    Compassion is part of our moral instinct and as it turns out it seems to apply to animals. I saw a spider in my bathroom yesterday and it had been injured and was squiggling around in circles. It was suffering and it was going to die. I felt horrible and sad for it. I helped it die quicker and moved on with my day but I thought about it all day.

    All of that math I referred to would have to factor in the sadness and compassion we naturally feel for other suffering creatures. We don;t just desire survival but also flourishing which means happiness which means not feeling bad for suffering creatures.

    I believe the objective answers do exist. It’s just so much math and unknown quantities.

    1. Morality is our sense of what actions by ourselves and by our tribe mates will best insure the survival and flourishing of our tribe and therefore ourselves.

      What is your basis for that claim? Your own personal subjective feeling?

        1. Evolutionary biology is not about what “will best insure the survival and flourishing of our tribe” — that’s a fallacy that people like Dawkins have addressed many times.

          Further, in your scheme, how does one leap from “what evolution (metaphorically) wants” to “what we should do”? Why would we be under any obligation to follow evolutionary programming?

          1. I didn’t say that evolutionary biology is about what will best insure the survival and flourishing of our tribe. Do not take my words out of context.

            “Further, in your scheme, how does one leap from “what evolution (metaphorically) wants” to “what we should do”? Why would we be under any obligation to follow evolutionary programming?”

            1. I have presented no scheme.

            2. Evolution doesn’t “want” anything.

            3. We are under no obligation to follow evolutionary programming nor did I suggest that we are.

            Evolutionary biology can tell us why we feel the things we feel. We can therefore chose any course of action based on how it is likely to make us feel. If you want to feel good, understanding evolutionary biology can help you do so.

            1. Why do you think that evolutionary biology says that morality is about the flourishing of a tribe, as opposed to the flourishing of an individual?

              1. You seem to think I am making the case for group selection. I’m not. I’m a Dawkins and Pinker fan too. But the individual can not survive alone. The individual needs a tribe and it needs that tribe to survive and flourish if the individual is going to survive and thrive. And so we developed this thing called morality which is our sense of how we think we should act, and how we think our tribe mates should act, to best insure the our common survival and flourishing.

                Based on your objection to this, it seems as though you are saying that humans are not tribal by nature. Is that what you are saying?

              2. First, I don’t think that moral programming is primarily about the flourishing of tribes, but primarily about the success of individuals.

                Second, when people talk about an “objective morality”, they generally mean some objective oughtness. Accepting that it is objectively true that we have evolutionary programmed moral feelings does not give objective oughtness and so does not give objective morality.

                The fact that it is objectively true that subjective morality exists does not make morality objective.

              3. “First, I don’t think that moral programming is primarily about the flourishing of tribes, but primarily about the success of individuals.”

                Yes but an individuals success depends on the success of the tribe. So our morality has to considers both.

                “Second, when people talk about an “objective morality”, they generally mean some objective oughtness.”

                Not me. The word “ought” is a human construct. It refers to “the right way to act” and in that sentence “right” is our own personal judgement about what actions by us and by others will best ensure our personal survival and flourishing. But since our personal survival and flourishing is completely dependent on the survival and flourishing of our tribe, our moral instinct is mostly aimed at what will be best for our tribe in general.

                And remember, these instincts evolved in a time when we our tribe was only about 30 people who were almost all kin. So following these instincts as though we still live like that would be foolish. But knowing where these feelings come from and what they mean, allows us to create a strategy for how to deal with them in our current situation of exponentially larger tribes.

                Morality is objective. Everyone has the same goals morally speaking. It is our perception of reality that is subjective, and thus makes it appear as though morality is subjective. If everyone had the same perception of reality, we would discover that we have exactly the same ideas about what is moral.

                I march for the environment and the Taliban throw gays off of tall buildings. We are both doing what we thing is best for society. Our morality is the same. Our perception of reality is what is different. This difference causes different actions to be taken in pursuit of the same goal. A better society.

  12. My own personal sticking point on any discussion of morality is what the words “should” and “ought” mean. Most definitions are a bit circular.

  13. I think that it is important not to try to find absolute answers to this kind of problems. It maybe difficult to asses the morality of experimenting with mice to cure cancer, but the torture of monkeys for the benefit of the cosmetic industry is not. I have often find people that, to justify their immoral actions, say that absolute moral perfection is impossible. It is better to be moral 1% of the time than to be immoral 100% of the time.

  14. I agree with your conclusion: that morality is not objective. But your argument seems weak to me. Here’s a reconstruction:

    [P1] If morality is objective, then it is possible to know the relative worth of human and non-human animal well-being.

    [P2] It is not possible to know the relative worth of human and non-human animal well-being.


    [C] Morality is not objective.

    Is that reconstruction fair? If so, here are two problems. First, the support for [P2] appears to be an argument from the poverty of our imaginations. We don’t *actually* know how to trade off human and non-human animal well-being, and we can’t readily *imagine* how we could ever figure out how to make such a trade-off. So, we’ll never figure out how to trade off human and non-human animal well-being. Do you think that there is a way to support [P2] without linking imagination and possibility? Or maybe a way of reformulating [P2] that gets rid of the possibility claim altogether?

    Second, [P1] seems to carry with it a strong commitment: that when something is objectively true, we could come to know it. But why not think that some things that are objectively true are unknowable? In his response to the annual Edge question in 2013, Krauss gives some reasons to think that there could be objective truths about nature that are (physically) impossible to know. (https://edge.org/response-detail/23816)

    1. I think he also incorporates ‘The decision to base morality on well-being or any other criterion is itself subjective.’

      1. Sure, one might argue that the claim that morality ought to be based on well-being is itself not an objective, scientific claim. I think I agree with that. But that’s not an argument, it’s a claim in need of defense. Moreover, as far as I can tell, it’s not the claim being made in the post.

        The main claim in the post appears to be that there is no objective, scientific way to compare human versus non-human animal suffering or human versus non-human well-being or whatever it is that needs to be compared in order to get a moral calculation to work. (This assumes that non-consequentialist approaches to ethics that make moral claims out to be objective are unworkable, which I’m not so sure is true. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m happy to grant it.)

        1. I think two arguments are being made:

          1. There is no objective basis for even defining what the “goal” of moral behaviour is (and thus no objective way to define such behaviour).

          2. Even were we to concede that for the specific question of suffering, it is moral to minimise it, there is still no objective way to do this because it cannot be objectively measured.

          In both cases, I think the burden of proof is with those claiming objective truth. I am not sure how you can prove the negative beyond the disproof of any claims to the positive that come up. (It’s much like atheism in that respect.)

    2. I’d argue that morality doesn’t exist. It’s a useful illusion perhaps, like free will, and possibly ‘consciousness’. It’s a way of thinking about how our emotion feel when we do something.

      As such it’s quite possible that our moral illusions will converge on a social consensus over time… but it’s not a requirement of the indifferent universe.

  15. Whenever I think about this, I keep coming to the conclusion that we build our personal morality with empathy. That is, almost by definition, subjective. But the process of empathy is a physical, material, “objective” brain function. If that makes sense?

    I once watched a cat torment a wounded baby rabbit for fun, until I “put it out of its misery.” I love cats, but we have different subjective interpretations of the universe.

    Personally, as far as eating, or wearing, animal products is concerned, (even dairy – if you’ve ever seen a “cow-shwitz” factory farm, you know what I mean), I will argue that paying a little bit more money for humanely raised food is a good alternative to thoughtless consumption. I will argue that on moral, ecological, and economical levels. All living things die, and some living things evolved, or were bred, to be eaten, milked, shaved, etc. That’s just how nature is.

    1. “….and some living things evolved, or were bred, to be eaten, milked, shaved, etc.”

      No living thing evolved to be eaten, or shaved for that matter. This is teleological thinking. Mammals did evolve the ability to produce milk for their young and humans learnt to exploit that. You can’t turn around and make out that the animal evolved so in order to be milked. Unless you are using milked as a synonym for suckling. Which is just ambiguous.

      Being selectively bred to give more milk, grow more wool, etc. is a different matter.

      1. In North America, deer have evolved as prey to predators. Remove the predators and there is ecological disaster. Humans, and some o our primate cousins, have evolved to be omnivores. My argument was not meant to be teleological. My choice of the words “to be…” was misleading. All animals evolved. Some are prey while others are predators.

        When I was a child, I would explore the small animals that lived in the meadows and marshes around me. I could imagine the holocaust that occurred every time a new sub-division or highway expansion went in. I have never heard this brought up in discussions about animal suffering.

        Is it less moral to kill an animal and eat it with respect or destroy millions of them with impudence for some other economic goal?

  16. Singer is a Benthamite, after a fashion. So the idea is that non-human animals can suffer, and so we should not abuse them. How does one objectify suffering? By figuring out what their interests are, and being “cautious”. This is why Singer, for example, does not eat shrimp – he isn’t sure if they have any interests, so gives them the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, he goes on to say, the abuse is increased to the extent that the organism *has* interests. Finally, one then compares to a human of comparable intellectual capacity if one wants to see if one is being hypocritical. (This is where the adult chimpanzee vs. human infant stuff, notorious as it is, comes in.)

    Does this work as an argument? I think the weakness is in the last step – in figuring out what it tells us we should do precisely. I agree that animal experimentation of certain kinds (particularly for non-medicines and non-foods, e.g., cosmetics) is often reprehensible – and has improved, however. Is it needed at all? Good question. What about non-human animal experimentation, period? Tricky, because doing without would indeed condemn many humans to death or the like. (Not to mention many non-human animals, as well.) What does this tell us about food? Well, he seems to presuppose that death is infinitely disvaluable to an organism, so perhaps my departed friend Raven’s argument works here: she raised poultry in such a way that their life was pretty hedonic before she killed them to sell or eat their meat. This counterargument works if you assume that death can be of finite disvalue only. (How does one compare? I don’t know.)

    As a final remark: subjective matters often have objective indicators. This is why psychophysics works, for example. So perhaps we are just missing the right ones? Alas, this is something of a “bootstrapping” problem – as it also is with learning to do without non-human animal experimentation in general.

    1. I am troubled by the proud announcement on cosmetics “not tested on animals”. If I suffer damage from such cosmetics because it has been dumped on the market untested, will people say that those with the vanity to use cosmetics do it on their own peril and have only themselves to blame?

      1. I think it doesn’t mean it’s not untested but not tested on animals. I think humans can still test out these products.

        And I react to a lot of cosmetics because of my stupid French skin so it probably won’t save me.

    2. I think death only has infinite disvalue if one considers their life to have infinite value. I don’t know about others, but I don’t consider myself infinitely valuable.

      But one thing I’d mention is that death is inevitable either way, and all that’s being decided is the timing of the death, earlier vs. later. And even if death itself had infinite disvalue, a shift in timing might only have a finite value.

  17. I think Sam Harris is being (perhaps deliberately) obtuse when, without any hedging, he claims morality can be objectively defined & studied.

    But having said that, I think the utilitarianesque “maximize wellbeing” principle comports quite well with what what the vast majority of people use instinctively to make value judgements. (I do think that “fairness” runs a close second or possibly comes first, such that many people are willing to reduce overall wellbeing to maximize “fairness”, but the case can be made that such cases are a misapplication of “fairness”, the purpose of which should be to maximize wellbeing).

    Objecttive science can *inform* our subjective instincts about the suffering and well-being of other people and of other species. Even today, as we learn more about the inteligence and emotional lives of other species, if nothing else, this increase our ability to empathize, drastically altering our moral opinions about the treatment of animals.

    It may be difficult, but I do not think it is impossible in principle to assign objective measures to the relative well being of gophers and golfers, though with the caveat that there may be subjectivity involved in selecting the particular objective standard of measure. Other information from science will help inform our subjective intuitions and empathies when selective & updating the standards for measuring suffering.

    We are within a couple decades of computer simulation making animal experimentation unnecessary, at which point the morality of such experiments is clears, as they are not necessary. We are similarly a couple decades away from “growing meat in vats”, making the suffering & slaughter of food animals a clearly immoral choice.

    Today it the relative value of the suffering of chickens vs. my desire for particular food on my plate is not clear. This has more to do with lack of data & models (high uncertainty, in effect large error-bars) than it does with it being in principle impossible to assign a value to.

    1. But note that one needs to do animal experimentation to build the simulations! One must then wonder about this bootstrapping problem. (I’m tentatively in favour of this stuff in the hope it will improve matters later, but it does strike me as unfortunate.)

  18. I think you’re appealing to some false dichotomies. “Objectivity” doesn’t imply that there is a unique best solution to every proposition, or that there is a well defined ordering of values. There can be “objective moral truths” without guaranteeing a resolution to every moral problem. Also, ideas can have a subjective origin and still be approached objectively, and can still have objective truth values. We can reason about feelings, and feelings can be “wrong”.

    1. ” There can be “objective moral truths” without guaranteeing a resolution to every moral problem.”

      There are no “objective moral truths,” no more than there are “objective religious truths.” Both are human assertions.

      Even things that seem easy to say are objective moral truths aren’t, such as “Killing people is wrong” and “hurting people is wrong” are not objective moral truths. A very small subset of pacifists agree that it is *always* wrong to kill people, but most of us believe it is ok to kill in self defense. Likewise, hurting people is wrong, but sometimes hurting people is ok, too, such as in self defense, or for medical treatment, such as re-seating a dislocated shoulder.

      And to the extent you can say, “Well, we can codify the exceptions” you are just proving that the “objective moral truths’ are no such thing, because we don’t all agree on the exceptions, of there should even be any exceptions.

      1. You’ve just made a bald assertion without an argument. The entirety of mathematics and scientific theory consist in “human assertions”. Objectivity isn’t defined by the origin of propositions, but by how they are assessed and disputed. “Objective moral truth” also doesn’t mean “a simplistic rule applied with absurd generality without exception” as you seem to think. If a pacifist thinks it’s always wrong to kill, and you think it’s permissible under certain circumstances, it’s still possible that one of you is objectively right and the other is wrong, or that both of you are wrong in some way. “Exceptions” do not defeat objectivity. If I believe “the perimeter of any shape is equal to its width times pi”, then there is a clearly objective exception: “unless the shape is not a circle on a Euclidean plane.”

        1. Indeed, I did make an assertion. I even made a universal, without qualification – something I rarely do. However, mindful of Christopher Hitchens, what has been asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence, to wit your assertion that objective moral truths exist. Prove it – objectively.

          I used simple examples, because the idea of “objective moral truth” is a simplistic idea. If there is objective moral truth, then we should all agree on, at the very least, the simple propositions, right? Yet we don’t. Because objective moral truth isn’t a real thing, no more so than objective religious truth.

          1. It’s a matter of how objectivity is defined, and whether we believe rational constructs can have objective truth value. Objectivists traditionally believe that rational propositions (e.g. geometry) are objective truths. But mathematics is founded purely on intuitions, and some of those intuitions can be revised multiple ways (e.g. the parallel lines axiom). Understanding of those intuitions has evolved a lot over the millennia, as we find different contexts where different intuitions prove valuable. Although there is some room for alternative intuitions leading to different systems, mathematics is the archetype of objective reasoning; it’s pretty easy to spot when somebody is doing it poorly, and when some proposition is wrong. Ethics is not quite as clean, but looks to me very similar to mathematical reasoning. You will never find universal agreement on any topic (many people have crazy ideas about math), but that doesn’t count against the existence of objectively right and wrong answers. For example, I think reasonable people can agree that it’s wrong to exterminate all life on Earth. If you can’t at least agree to that, then I wouldn’t be comfortable having you around.

            1. “You will never find universal agreement on any topic (many people have crazy ideas about math), but that doesn’t count against the existence of objectively right and wrong answers. For example, I think reasonable people can agree that it’s wrong to exterminate all life on Earth. If you can’t at least agree to that, then I wouldn’t be comfortable having you around.”

              And you would be wrong. Plenty of people, typically Christians, millions and millions of Christians, beleive that wiping all life on earth is actually a good thing.

              You are also showing your double standards. You note that there is no universal agreement on math (how many people really disagree that the sum of the angles in a triangle is something other than 180 degrees?) but then you trot out a “universal” truth that all “reasonable” people believe it is wrong to exterminate all life on earth.

              You can’t legitimately use exceptions as *proof* of your proposition (people have crazy ideas about math, so lack of universal agreement on math is not proof that it isn’t objective), and in the same paragraph ignore the exceptions (only “unreasonable people” agree that killing all life on earth is bad) to prove that there are universal truths to morality.

              You haven’t proven the existence of objective moral truths.

              1. I don’t think it’s possible to “prove the existence of objective truths,” let alone objective moral truths. But rational discourse presumes the existence of objective truth. It has nothing to do with how many people agree on a particular claim. The mere fact that we argue commits us to the premise that one or both of us is genuinely wrong.

                It’s not particularly relevant, but I strongly doubt that many Christians believe it would be okay to exterminate all life. It’s possible that somebody out there believes that, but I think most rational people would agree that view is wrong.

  19. Regarding the tormenting of a baby rabbit by a cat, Chris suggests that cats are “subjectively” different from humans. Humans deliberately organize dog fights for fun, during which they throw puppies and other comparatively defenseless animals to the fighting dogs in order to stimulate their ferocity. Koreans wire the paws of dogs behind their backs to keep them immobile but alive at market. I’d say humans share considerable subjective similarity with other predators; humans are just more elaborate about some things.

  20. As already mentioned,it isn’t inconceivable that we could produce a complex way of quantifying what most of us would consider moral for common situations– so, objective descriptions or predictions. Understanding that there would be outliers, maybe a spectrum. But not an overall objective quality of “right” vs wrong, independent of subjective opinion. And would it work for novel scenarios? Maybe not.

    I am not sure why that seems to distress some people so much. I’ve known several professed atheists who told me they really dislike making subjective moral decisions. They want a rule of some kind. I notice them torturing their rule of choice, be it Kant’s imperative or whatever, so that it fits their desired action. The rule itself winds up containing terms that can’t be as defined as necessary to work for every new circumstance.

    I’ve never found a moral rule without subjective exceptions, personally, at least hypothetical ones. And I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t eat meat, who is a pacifist. I think I’m that way because of biological tendencies plus culture, not because I know what is right. I have some intense opinions but at least I know they aren’t based on some kind of freestanding “natural law.”

  21. “In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.” — Wittgenstein

    In other words, even if there were an objective morality in the world, there’s no reason to follow it.

  22. Not being either a scientist or philosopher, I
    may be way out there in my thoughts on suffering. Being moral and having compassion is an evolutionary development that has allowed individuals to increase their own well-being by caring about and increasing the well-being of their “tribe”. But who and what other life forms do you consider as part of your tribe? The more extensive your sense of tribe, the more difficult the survival choices for an individual. However, the more humans, animals and other kinds of life you include in your tribe, and your compassion for all, the better it is for the entire planet, I think.

    Given the fact that all life forms must consume other elements to maintain existence, we can hardly swear off all animal and vegetable sources of what we have designated as “food”. (I include vegetables and fruits because there have been tests done that indicate they experience something akin to pain when injured or when other plants near them are uprooted or cut down.) The individual’s need to live (and survival of the group)generally will not permit him or her to succumb to compassion for all life to the point of eating nothing.

    Since most humans have left the forest and farm for the city, they seem to think that food
    arrives magically packaged in grocery stores in portions ready to eat; all nice and sanitary with no indication of what had to have happened to the animals and plants before they were displayed in the market ready to prepare and eat. Commercial food raising of animals and plants is not without pain and danger to all involved. Most people prefer not to know or think about the lives of what they eat. We moved with our children to a little farm when the kids were young and raised most of our own food, primarily so they could learn about where food came from and how it came to be packaged. One of the kids named our first pig, “Baby”. The trauma of taking the pig to a slaughterhouse was such that no more animals received such names. Our two cows were named “chuck” and “rump”, the roast sisters.

    I will continue to survive by consuming animal and plant life in full awareness of what goes into their designation as “food” and the role they play in allowing me to continue to live.
    And I will be grateful.

  23. I think we can lead lives without morality and not necessarily turn into psychopaths.

    If I find myself using the word “should”, I carefully rephrase it to “I want” in some way. And by being more aware of the possible repercussions of my getting my wants and some possible unintended effects, I find I have limited my wants.

    If some one is pained by another’s suffering then by all means don’t cause that other to suffer, and by all means advocate or be active, but just be aware there will be consequences some of them unintended. If we are comfortable with that … go for it.

    1. I’m thinking it would be more helpful to the discussion here if you would post some of your thoughts about this post in particular rather than pointing to an old article on your website.

  24. Consider some practical experience.

    Last October we spent a couple of weeks touring Bhutan, a small Tantric Buddhist country between India and Tibet. National policy is Gross National Happiness. They really make it work. The economy is mostly subsist rice farming. English is their second language. The state provides universal health care and free education through grade 12 and sends its graduates around the world for more. Our guide was a walking encyclopedia. And more Buddhist temples and water-driven prayer wheels than you can imagine. We got templed out.

    Buddhists don’t kill anything. It’s the moral way to be. Dogs are everywhere, inoculated against rabies, marked by notches in their ears, most of the time stretched out on the sidewalk asleep, but always willing to approach, wag tail, and welcome a handout. Cows are raised for milk. There is some beef sometimes available.

    Buddhists don’t do the meat cutting. Instead, they import Hindu butchers. There are no butcher shops in Bhutan. However, at one stop along our way we did see in an open grassy area, three smiling imports processing beef bones and chunks of meat.

    The evening meal includes rice, lots of veggies, with spicy chiles (Spanish spelling), and chicken-flavored bones. Imagine a plucked chicken stretched out head to toe, then chopped with a cleaver every 2.5 centimeters, then stewed. After a few tries, we decided to skip the chicken-flavored bones. The cows and chickens are probably happy about all that and approve of that moral stance.

    We live in Hawaii. Currently the Big Island is experiencing an outbreak of dengue fever with more than 100 cases. The state has been spraying insecticides, especially around schools. We’ve sent our relatives there a large quantity of 40% Deet spray. The Big Island stores have run out.

    A couple of months ago, some legislators were fighting against GMO everything and introduced legislation to control it. (They, including one MD, haven’t discovered the connection with millions of years of natural GMO development.) Today these same legislators are inviting in GMO anything, especially GMO mosquitos engineered to spread disease resistant offspring and offspring who die before they can reproduce.

    If we have a choice, self-preservation inspires moral justification, even GMOs. Depending on the circumstances, morality is as stretchable as a rubber band.

  25. I recommend watching ‘Something the Lord Made’, a 2004 movie that is available to stream online. It’s a true story about a researcher and his assistant learning how to treat shock and blue baby syndrome using animal models (dogs usually). Watching that, I thought it would be hard for animal rights groups to argue that animal experimentation was unnecessary, when weighed against what was learned/achieved.

    On the flip side, while most of us find the idea of cannibalism horrible, I have to wonder what arguments we could come up with to try to dissuade, for example an advanced alien race, (or the giants in Jack the Giant Killer) from eating us. I think any argument we provided would also be applicable to the animals we eat, ergo if the argument won’t stop us from eating animals, why should it stop someone from eating us?

    In short, subjective.

    1. It won’t stop them from eating us. However, we are unlikely to be a food source they’d crave. I find it much more likely that they will exterminate us to take over our planet.

  26. It is, I think, an objective fact that if we want to eat at all we have to accept some level of imposing our needs over those of other organisms, including killing them and depriving them of space to live. Without any recourse to god or religion we do have de facto dominion over all other life on earth and have to decide how we use it. There does not seem to be any clear objective guide to where we should draw our lines but I think we are wise to recognise that we must cause some harm to our fellow occupants of planet earth but we can and should do as much as we can to limit this to “acceptable” levels. What constitutes “acceptable” and whether or not you think this should preclude the eating of meat is a subjective choice for each of us.

  27. I love this post and topic!

    As for the invitation to tell Jerry where he is wrong, I can interact with a couple of points.

    About “an animal whose brains we can’t fathom,” I know I can’t understand the head of my former cockatiel, but I grew to love her and I think she loved me too! (If birds love…) Of course, I had contributed to her torture by having her in the first place and by confining her flightless to a cage, but she bonded with me. She wanted and would ask for my shoulder. I believe we felt a mutual sense of peace when she sat on it. (She would clean her feathers and groom her dander from my hair.) What is that? Oxytocin for me maybe, but what for her? I don’t know. But I’ve often wondered if a similar sort of quality could be experienced with a chicken, minus the shoulder sitting. I try to banish the possibility from my mind, because, were it to be true, my heart would break, like Jerry’s with the moles.

    Granted the quality would be different depending up on the genetic propensities of the animals involved. My childhood cat didn’t express love like my cockatiel, but we were also bonded. Despite there being four humans in the household, my cat, whom I’d had from kitten hood and whom my poor-judgmented parents never had fixed, would beg to give birth to her kittens in my particular closet versus the set of all other possible nooks. The kittens about to pop out of her, she’d jump onto my outside screen and hang meowing until let inside and ensconced in closet.

    I share the anecdotes as I know we’ve all had similar experiences and because I wonder why these don’t more weightedly inform our cultural decision-making with regards to factory farming. Is empathy crushed by convenience?

    This brings me to my second place of interaction with Jerry’s post. Is morality a necessarily subjective enterprise? It does seem to me that moral systems are comprised of relative comparisons and that they depend on reason. Does reason itself depend on the subjective? Is judgment ever not subjective?

    With a decrease in childhood mortality and as quality of life improves for much for much of our world’s population, we can direct our attention to matters of morality that don’t depend on our own survival. How exciting and scary! In medicine, groups resolve some of the ambiguity of relative comparisons by forming consensus panels of experts to formulate and issue guidelines. These guidelines act as normative principles, baselines for public decision-making. We could do something similar for factory farming. But the issue would be in finding a set of moral experts that have enough social sway that society would trust their judgment and steer itself differently than it does now. We’d first have to use reason (and other metrics?) to choose who should be at the table. But it goes without saying that we’d also have to have some way of judging whether our reason is used soundly, and the panelists would require some kind of metric for assessing whether their own judgment is sound…

  28. Just to toss a spanner into the works, I note that if animals were not bred for food, they would not live at all.

  29. When talking about human well-being versus animal well-being I think it makes a difference what you mean in human terms.

    We, in the developed world, don’t need to eat meat to survive. We have so much food we can indulge in faddish eating,

    Eating meat is more a matter of cultural tradition and the pleasure of eating the meat.
    Outside of the ethical considerations of the individual animals lives there is the impact it has on the world’s climate.
    The droughts in Syria over the last number of years has been put down to climate change. That contributed to, and in some people’s judgement, drove the disaster because of the regime’s reaction to all the discontented people who moved into the cities because their farms failed. It’s not the only cause, but it can’t be discounted as a fairly major factor.

    I personally believe that meat-eating and the pleasure it gives has a lot to do with the glutamate receptors on our tongues, which some believe might be to make babies suckle more vigorously, what with the high glutamate content in breast milk. The foods humans love are high in glutamates. The umami factor.
    I’ve worked as a vegetarian chef and the foods that people love most are often those that give those same taste sensations, as close as possible.

    Getting over our over-consumption of flesh foods means marshalling our reason over our desire for pleasure. I think it is the visceral enjoyment of meat that often keeps the awareness that meat eating is not just about ethical treatment of animals, but also our fellow humans, at a remove.

  30. My late Swedish brother-in-law had a story, very illustrative of Swedish humor.

    A guy sees a friend eating a steak in a restaurant and says he shouldn’t. After all, “Why should cows suffer?”

    So the friend becomes a vegetarian. One day, they meet again, and the one asks they other, “Why should vegetables suffer?”

    The friend starts to eat nothing but salt. You can see what’s coming now: “Why should salt suffer?”

    Swedes laugh at this joke more than most Americans, but it does illustrate a point. We are biologically carnivores. Which still does not keep us from overcoming our biological constitution — if we see a reason for doing so.

    Probably, that anecdote just muddied the waters.

    1. But we aren’t biologically carnivores.
      We lost the ability to synthesize our own vitamin C millions of years ago within the line we evolved from. We still have the necessary genes apparently, but when a mutation knocked out the function, it didn’t matter to us as our diet included enough foods with vitamin C so there was no selective pressure to retain it.
      It’s proof of common descent in all apes and monkeys, humans included. It is also proof that our diets were not carnivorous, but omnivorous.
      Even then, to say that because we are omnivorous that we therefore ought to be omnivorous would be deriving an ought from an is. Not that you have said that here, but it often seems to be implicit when people talk about our ‘natures’.

      1. Sorry, this is not to disagree, but I don’t know what vitamin C has to do with carnivorousness, if that is a word. I’m not a biologist, so to me carnivores are simply those which eat meat and veggies and have done so for … a long, long time.

        1. Our early homo forbearers adapted to quite a meat-heavy diet, but came from an omnivorous lineage.
          Carnivores synthesize their own vitamin C. They don’t need to eat foods that contain vitamin C.
          If we don’t eat foods that contain vitamin C we get scurvy.

  31. I agree, and while I think Harris’ writing is fantastic on other subjects, I would like to see you convince him on this one.

    And there’s another factor to consider. What if there _were_ an objective morality, determined by mathematical calculation of the greatest well being – shouldn’t our laws be adjusted to account for it? So we would be legally bound to, say, sacrifice the life of one person to save five, as in the trolley problem. And what if the one person was one’s own child and the five were strangers? Or worse, strangers from a different “tribe”, such as Muslims, or Republicans? 😉

    1. And there’s another factor to consider. What if there _were_ an objective morality, determined by mathematical calculation of the greatest well being – shouldn’t our laws be adjusted to account for it?

      Why on Earth not? You could raise the same pointless criticism of objective truth. If there were an objective truth, our beliefs should be adjusted to account for it, regardless of if people like or agree with that particular truth. We don’t consider it a problem when creationists argue against the biology curriculum that favours evolution, because we have reasons to think they’re wrong. If anyone has a problem with objective truth, they can then do what is sensible to do: challenge it on rational grounds to test if it is true or not, using the standards of evidence and reason. The obvious problem would be if we proceeded with a truth that wasn’t, in fact, true, and nothing about that is a point against objectivity.

      1. Yeah, I’m saying why not; I did it in a rhetorical way, but I’ll come out and say it: Because many of us would not support such laws (logical though they might be).

        1. If many of us would not support creationism in the biology classroom, would that suddenly prove evolution was therefore false, or even that the very notion of truth and falsehood is suspect? Your best rebuttal to objective law is the appeal to popularity, which is the polite way of saying you have no genuine rebuttal.

        2. Darn, let me try again:

          If many of us were creationists and would not support evolution in the biology classroom, would that suddenly prove evolution was therefore false, or even that the very notion of truth and falsehood is suspect? Your best rebuttal to objective law is the appeal to popularity, which is the polite way of saying you have no genuine rebuttal.

          1. Believe me, I get your point! Like Jerry, I’m not convinced that there is objective morality. But if im wrong, I’m raising the uncomfortable question that would arise for us creatures who evolved to protect our own offspring at the expense of unrelated individuals if we were legally required to do otherwise.

            1. Well, I get the obvious practical limitation, but it doesn’t mean squat if it’s intended as a meta-ethical objection because nothing about it contradicts the idea that right and wrong can be determined objectively. If evolution rigs the game so we can’t win at it, then it is what it is. It means – if the society’s laws genuinely are rationally based and not mistaken or fudged or merely pretending to be rationally based like some ideologies are – that those people would be objectively wrong, however strongly they felt about it, unless they could provide a compelling rational case to challenge said laws.

              Again, if nearly everyone was a gut creationist, and made it impossible to put evolution on the biology course through sheer resistance, then the wrong biological theory ends up on the curriculum. It can’t rationally follow that evolution is wrong or that the very notion of right and wrong are not objective.

              1. I would put this in the category with free will. I know it’s not objectively real but I can’t help but behave as if it were. If it were morally “true” that I should save five strangers at the expense of my own child I really would have to behave as if it were not true! If that makes me equivalent to a creationist then so be it. 😑

              2. I’m afraid I don’t see what point you’re trying to make with this response, at least no point I haven’t already addressed. This is neither a criticism of objective morality nor a vindication of, say, subjective morality. If you know something is not objectively real, then that’s it as far as the discussion is concerned. Your inability to handle it or see around an illusion you know is there is no genuine rebuttal. What are you trying to say, then, by bringing it up?

                (As an aside, I don’t understand the idea of behaving as if free will exists. I exercise, whenever possible, my skepticism when the subject comes up, and try to see things through deterministic logic – at least give or take quantum and other physics-based caveats about causality – and I’ve not felt any major inconvenience in doing so).

              3. Wow, I never claimed to be making a “rebuttal”; just contributing some thoughts to the discussion. Feel free to ignore if that’s a problem.

              4. Oops. Sorry for coming across as deliberately argumentative. I had assumed you were implying a rebuttal in that statement, but I see I was assuming too much. Carry on! 😛

              5. I’m very late to this thread, but in general I’ in agreement, Reasonshark. Though I’ve argued objective morality here at length before, and I think my doing so again would just repeat past discussions.

    2. The idea that there may be an objective morality is like saying the universe is completely predictable.

      A super computer should be able to predict the course of an asteroid after 50 billion years. I personally do not think it is possible to predict such events. Likewise it is equally unlikely that an objective morality could be proved.

      I would venture to say that the problem of predictability is related to the problem of objective morality.

      1. But that would just tell you where the asteroid is heading. It would not tell you where the asteroid “should” go to make the best possible universe. For that, you need some criteria against which to compare different trajectories. Without an objective source of such criteria, any judgements based on such comparisons are predicated on subjectively-determined criteria. So it is with morality. (Unless you invoke divine authority.)

  32. Is it immoral to eat eggs from battery chickens?

    Does it matter if it is a fertilized and thus (pace Feser, but per Bentley Hart) an ensouled egg?

  33. One of the problems with the measurement problem, besides the fact that it’s an appeal to personal incredulity and current ignorance, is that nothing about it suggests subjectivity is any real answer. Virtually anything from the charge of subatomic particles to the complex interactions of a single brain is quantifiable, and we’ve no compelling reason to think there’s anything mystical or dualistic going on in minds, whether human or animal. Even whole societies are made up of quantifiable stuff, though to a much more complex degree than, say, geological formations or weather patterns. Moreover, it’s something that falls under the purview of scientific investigation, at least broadly construed, and it’s certainly amenable to the larger field of reason.

    With this in mind, anyone claiming moral values are non-quantifiable and not subject to scientific evidence and scrutiny might as well be saying they don’t exist, or that they live in an ontologically different realm to the rest of reality, i.e. anyone trying to seriously invoke subjectivism must, to at least appear consistent, be either a nihilist in reality or a dualist. The argument is no better than people invoking the usual dualist mysticism when it comes to any question we have about minds and sentience, humanity and soul, and so on. Jerry, you’re passing the buck to “judgement”, and it might as well be “revelation”, divine or not.

    It’s true we know a lot less about the minds of animals than we’d need in order to determine our priorities when faced with moral dilemmas, and we’re a long way from extracting the best information needed to identify the relevant differences, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument we did have such knowledge to hand. If even that can’t resolve the difference, then even talking about values, morals etc. is meaningless twaddle, akin to studying the brain’s machinery and wondering where the ghost is.

    And why do our preferences have moral authority in a way that a thorough scientific understanding of the minds of animals never could, making values unique entities in the entire observable universe? Quite apart from that sounding too much like “magic”, that would make them as arbitrary as divine commands, with the exact same problem when faced with contradictions and conflicting preferences. Moral criticism becomes not just impossible – because someone working on a different preference to you is both right and wrong at the same time – but meaningless hot air. And you can’t dodge that and give science a role in helping such judgements, for the same reason divine command theoreticians can’t invoke reason without running smack into the other fork of the Euthyphro Dilemma: that the reasons themselves contain the moral authority needed to give god/”subjective judgement” their weight, and therefore the latter must be strictly irrelevant.

    There’s no way to put subjective perception and values on a pedestal in an age when the mind sciences have gone so far in demystifying them. At least Hume had the excuse of being born a couple of centuries before it was revealed humans are not fundamentally different from animals, never mind minds from matter.

    1. Why is it so hard to reconcile a genuine lack of moral authority with the reality that different choices have different outcomes and not all outcomes are (subjectively) desirable? If you feel the need for an authority to appeal to then yes, all is meaningless for no such authority exists. (Nihilism.) By why do we need such an authority? In what way is recognising the biological reality of pain and pleasure – and having empathy – putting subjectivity on a pedestal? That makes no more sense to me than arguing that I shouldn’t choose my favourite ice cream just because there is no objective authority on what ice cream flavour is best.

      Perhaps true morality does not exist at all. I am ok with that. It does not logically follow that therefore anyone should be able to do anything they like without being negatively viewed by their peers – and/or themselves.

      1. You might as well ask why a lack of epistemic authority can’t be reconciled with using the words true and false. You unswervingly embrace nihilism head on, and then propose “desirability” as an alternative that’s OK without moral authority. That’s eating your cake and having it. If it’s desirability that counts, then you’re stuck the instant they start conflicting with other desires, such as the many desires of other people. Just because you’re fighting shy of saying desires are your moral authority, doesn’t mean it isn’t an authority you’re appealing to. The only difference between it and divine revelation is the lack of divinity, and even then the dualist implications of it come pretty close to that general ghost in the machine flavour.

        Even your taste issue is a shambles. I’ve made my point in my other reply to you, but in short, how does the concept of “favourite ice cream” work if there is no authority on – in other words, if there is no way of distinguishing – which flavour is best. You’re not getting rid of the authority. You’re simply giving it to your own tongue and denying said authority exists. To use the key and lock analogy again: it’s fine to say some keys fit a lock and others don’t, and we can distinguish the ones that do from the ones that don’t and scale them on a measure of “fittingness”. This relies on some authority in being able to distinguish fitting ones from non-fitting ones. As with keys and locks, so with you and ice cream you favour.

        Your last paragraph is a stunning example of what I’m talking about: if you say true morality does not exist, then it’s pointless to use words like “should”. The very notion of something that “should” be the case goes out the window, because without some non-arbitrary standard, there’s no sensible way of distinguishing what “should” be the case and what “should” not be the case. If you’re going to be a nihilist, then be one.

        1. I’m not a nihilist. I just happen to think that life is more complex and nuanced that you seem able to contemplate. There is no such thing a moral truth but ethics is still a useful concept for a functional society.

          Perhaps it’s just a language thing. I think you are getting fixated on a very narrow definition of words and then projecting those definitions onto others. For example, you attack my perfectly acceptable use of “should” by inferring a meaning that I did not intend. I was clearly using it in the context of logical compatibility – and to highlight the problem with your (empirically nonsensical) over-extrapolation of a perfectly reasonable position. One can follow rules of logic and compare empirical observations to (our best understanding of) objective reality without the need for a non-arbitrary moral standard. Your obsession with dualism also makes me think that you and I have a different understanding of what it means for something to be subjective – but that is dealt with in a different comment.

  34. The morality of killing animals is indeed a complex topic and I see valid points on both sides of the debate.
    I would like to add one complicating factor: killing animals for reasons other than eating meat (I don’t think I saw anyone addressing this issue).
    If you run a simple Google search you will learn that almost everything in our modern life has some ingredient coming from the meat industry: clothing (leather, fur or feather insulators), cosmetics (soap, shampoo, shaving cream), pharmaceuticals, plastic additives, food ingredients in general (jelly, rennin in cheese, …) , photography (in the old days), hair brushes, filtering media for sugar, beer and wine industry, and the list goes on and on and on …
    I still have the feather pillow that my grandparents brought from Germany before I was born and I will never forget their fetterbetten.
    Twenty years ago I led an Energy Conservation Study in one of the largest slaughterhouses in Brazil. I was impressed because there is almost no waste: every single part of a cow has some sort of use … and the most expensive part of a cow at the time was the kidney stones which were exported to Hong Kong to be used as pearl seeds.
    What is the position of PETA and most vegans on this issue? Animal derived products should not be used whatsoever. The alternative? Instead of using wool, you should use cotton or SYNTHETIC fibers. Instead of leather, use petroleum derived polymeric materials. Let’s be honest: there is no true substitute for animal fibers that is sustainable and provides the same characteristics. I am a Chemical Engineer working for the oil industry and even myself find it immoral to replace animal fibers with synthetic materials. If you live here up North, your best bet for a winter coat is “Canada Goose” which uses geese feathers and coyote fur as main insulators. Similarly, there is no clothing material with the same safety and abrasion resistance as leather.
    The comforts and well being of our civilization is highly dependent on the animal industry. If we stop killing animals for food, what is going to happen with all these other industries?
    I am all in favour of a better humane treatment of animals. I am all in favour of decreasing meat consumption (nowadays we rarely eat beef at home and wild game has been our first choice). But, as a Chemical Engineering I still see an animal as a fantastic renewable natural resource that has provided so much for the humankind. I just can’t see life without using animals.

    1. And it should be pointed out that synthetic leathers harm animals, just in oil spills and pollution.

      Except the harm is a step removed so people don’t necessarily consider it

  35. You can in principle though objectively answer questions like, “Is this a good way to spread wellness & prevent suffering?” Right? “Is removing my skin a good way to prevent infection?” No. “Would it be good for society?” No. We can realistically answer these kinds of questions in the way that a doctor. When you ask things like “which is worse, 100 chimp deaths or 1000 human deaths” it’s just demonstrating that some ethical questions are hard for us in 2015 to answer. It doesn’t mean that we can’t realistically put an evidence-based answer on a spectrum with right on one end & wrong on the other.

  36. My thoughts,through the history of the hairless primate we have moulded ourselves, fashioned even and learnt from what knowledge that is acquired. Unsavoury practices (a term not applicable to the Nazi’s or say, Pol Pot) have not been eliminated but diminished as a result of what has been observed, stigmatised and renounced.
    To me this means, morality is out there, expanding and consolidating internally, a behaviour has to be actioned, found to be abhorrent, no value to the group, the planet, or to other life forms for it to cease. For instance, what is the value of biodiversity? do you not think we are beginning (finally) to learn that it is not there for us to brush aside without consequences. Is this room for optimism and therefore improved well being?
    I do not have the faintest idea as to what proportional role genes play, but for certain they surely do. We have not learnt from being in a closed system. Genes, brain and environment.. my interpretation, the objective is the observation and the subjective actions the practice, simplistic as usual but the only way I can get my head around this issue.

  37. None of these questions are easy. As for the incident where moles were killed, I can see that it was not just a matter of moles vs playtime for golfers. The employees at the golf course depend on having golfers come, pay their fees, eat at the concession stand, and so on. To an employee, the moles were a direct challenge to their bottom line. I too would not like seeing it, but I can reluctantly understand how an employee would support the necessity of molicide.

  38. A recurring theme seems to crop up in this thread: arguments that it’s inevitable that some harm would be committed – whether because our society depends on it, nature is built to inflict it, or we’re obligate meat-eaters who have to do it – as if this were a weighty blow against objective morality.

    This is no different from pointing out we are inevitably ignorant, biased, easily fooled, argumentative, and incapable of learning everything there is to know before we die, and then implying that this somehow shows truth and falsehood are nonsense. In short, it’s a non-sequitur. Even if it were inevitable that harm, death, etc. would occur no matter what, then that just fits into the objective category of “wrong”, with the added subcategory of “wrong things that cannot be addressed”. Life sucks, you lose the game before you even play it, and you can’t do anything about it.

    A monstrous tragedy, definitely, which would make the idea of no objective morality quite appealing, I should think. The tragedy of human fallibility in truth-seeking might make someone “decide” that they can pick and mix truth itself, I expect, but how do we determine whether this is wishful thinking or not?

    1. What if morality is an emergent property of inter-subjectivity?

      I can understand talk of objective facts, but not objective values.

      We can talk of good food and bad food. Taste is based in objective facts about our biology. You can have a cuisine, say Thai. There can exist a whole spectrum of cooks, some who cook badly, to the extent that most people would taste their food and judge it to be bad, while a set could be judged to cook so well as to be considered among the best Thai chefs.
      All of this could be the case without there being an objectively good Thai cuisine. There might even be some who taste the food of the best Chefs and disagree that theirs is the best.

      I remember many times talking with theists who talked about our physical existence, and referring to it as ‘merely’ physical, because they were committed to to the idea of a spiritual self, or soul, which was qualitatively better. So much so that the physical was thoroughly devalued. Even though this soul was an imaginary entity that they couldn’t even define.

      Sometimes I get a similar feeling when people talk about objectivity; That the assumption that there exists an objective morality devalues subjectivity. Yet subjectivity seems to me that sine qua non of morality. Only subjects can have values.

      1. Ah, I’m glad you brought that up, because it raises the other theme running through this thread, and I’d like to respond to that.

        There’s this way subjectivity is treated, as you demonstrate here in the case of taste. It’s apparent that understanding a statement like “this food is the best” relies just as much on the properties of the brain doing the tasting as on the food itself. There is not a scrap of information in either case that isn’t amenable to objective study. So how come we accept that it gives rise to an ontologically distinct category called “subjective”, in an age when the mind sciences have shown how objective our minds really are?

        In short, what do we mean when we erect the subjective-objective distinction? What’s so special about a “subject”, a “perspective”, a “point of view” that is so distinct from, say, the objective mind sciences that it uniquely gives rise to a morality without said objectivity? It made sense when Hume et al made that distinction, because they thought minds and mind-stuff were fundamentally and ontologically different from mere matter. In short, they were dualists, on par with free will libertarians and believers in the ghost in the machine. Such a view is obsolete in a world where objective mind sciences have basically demystified sentience, the mind, the soul, mind-stuff, perspective, the subject, the point of view, etc. as the workings of wholly objective parts in what is essentially an organic computer.

        When it comes down to it, a mind and a thing it likes the taste of is fundamentally no different from a key and a lock it fits into perfectly. I think statements like “This is the best food” are on par with a key saying “This is the most fitting lock”. There are objective criteria for assessing “goodness of food” and “fitting”, but we don’t need to erect a loaded concept like “subjectivity” to make it work. We don’t dismantle paintings to find “beauty” in them for the same reason we don’t dismantle locks to find “fitting” in them.

        Unless, of course, there’s some undercurrent of specialness, of exceptionalism, possibly even of dualism, still lurking in the word “subjectivity”. Again, this would make some sense in a time when the fundamentally different nature of mind rather than matter was considered common sense. Nowadays, though? The concept deserves a lot more skepticism.

        1. For me, subjectivity is simply that it is different depending on the subject. So light objectively has a wavelength but subjectively has colour as different subjects will interpret that wavelength of light differently. Whether each subject does so in a predictable and deterministic way is irrelevant. Do you have a different definition of subjectivity?

          The problem with morality and suffering etc. is that there is no equivalent of wavelength that we can objectively measure – we ONLY have subjective things. These cannot be compared because we do not know how to scale/normalise them – nor is it obvious how we can ever know.

          1. Well, a lock is different depending on the key you have. Some locks fit the key perfectly, others get it stuck, and many more simply can’t go in to begin with. We don’t need the notion of subjectivity to be able to point this out.

            I don’t see why it’s any different with brains, except that we’ve been taught that perception, point of views, etc. are held to some different standard from the rest of the universe. Your example of wavelength versus colour illustrates my point. Since colour vision is a function of eyes and visual processing, every step of the process at least in principle can be mapped out objectively. So can a bumblebee’s ability to see ultraviolet light, and so can a bat’s ability to hear ultrasound. There’s no way to deny this without invoking some form of consciousness dualism, which in any case goes against the increasingly robust scientific consensus. If different brains are wired up to use a different internal language as part of its visual processing, then that’s no different from multiple computers using different codes to do the same tasks. Again, subjectivity is superfluous.

            And I think this terminates your objection to morality and suffering. You are saying, in effect, that morality (good and bad stuff) and suffering can never be objectively measured. On suffering, you’re simply wrong. Unless dualism is on the cards, suffering must be a function of a subroutine of brain activity, and the most obvious candidates for good and bad that I can think of – pain and pleasure – only require confirming that the phenomena exist. For instance, sticking your hand in a fire will get a pretty clear answer as to the negative experience of pain. This, too, must be a function of the brain, so in principle it can be located inside the brain objectively. The same goes for pleasures, other good experiences, and sentience in general, and we can be correct or incorrect when it comes to judging the same in other beings (other people, chickens, lobsters, etc.) and comparing the trade-offs under different conditions and variables. Again, the alternative is to assume some form of dualism.

            Again, subjectivity as commonly understood deserves a lot more skepticism, especially when subjectivism is raised as though it were a compelling position.

            1. Subjectivity can be special without denying that it arises from a material substrate.

              Without subjectivity there would be nothing known. Without a knower there is no knowledge. No pain, no pleasure, no good, no bad.

              Consciously aware subjects are the product of the most amazingly complex organ we know of.
              Our perceptions of colour, sensation, taste, are all created by our brains, and they are conscious experiences.
              If I stand on a mountain and watch the Sun set, and stand in awe at the beauty of it all, all of that would not be possible without subjective awareness. All the electrical and chemical events that start with light hitting my retina are processed within my brain to create a world of shade and colour that isn’t the wavelengths of light themselves, but a representation of them that is the closest I’ll get to them.
              My brain plus the objective world gives rise to a whole world that came into existence when I was born and will cease to be when I do. For every human subject there is a whole perceptual world mapped onto the objective. And there is no reason to limit this to human brains.

              Even the concept of objectivity is a mental category of a subjective awareness. It is not something you can even say you know. It is an abstraction.
              Yet you would deny subjectivity a compelling position when it is the only position you can even experience.

              1. Davey, you beat me to it. I do not understand this compulsion to invoke dualism in order to have subjectivity. Reasonshark, are you claiming that it is impossible to have a subjective opinion that is the deterministic product of “brain stuff”? If so, perhaps this is just a semantic argument. (As so often happens because word definitions, like morality, are subjective brain constructs: words do not have objective meaning. That does not mean that we can invent any definition on a “whim” and expect to function in conversation.)

                “We don’t need the notion of subjectivity to be able to point this out.”

                Once again, you seem to be putting the cart before the horse. It is not that subjectivity is required to explain different brain “keys” fitting different brain “locks”. Subjectivity is the product of there being different locks and keys in different brains.

                I’d also like to point out that I am not a subjectivist in general. The observation of pain might be an objective truth whilst its moral implications remain a subjective opinion.

            2. OK. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is theoretically possible to measure pain and pleasure within a brain. Let’s even take the leap of faith that it will somehow be possible to compare between brains – and even between brains of different species. (I’m actually far from convinced this is possible and not because of dualism – we simply don’t any way to test such a comparison.)

              What is the objective criterion against which these measurements are to be applied to make a moral decision? How do you decide if good experience balances a bad experience, even if you can measure them? How do you balance “100% pain” in a child against the same pain in an adult? Or a cat?

  39. “We think it’s okay to swat mosquitoes or kill a nonvenomous snake that’s simply annoying or scaring us, but we don’t think it’s right to kill a dog who’s barking at us.”

    Huh? Kill mosquitoes, yes. But leave the snake alone, it’s minding its own business.
    I’d kill the dog though, if it wouldn’t shut up. Of the three, the snake is the only one that is not causing a nuisance.


  40. You are wrong on this for the same reason most moral relativists are: you’ve failed to address just what a moral is and why the concept is of any value to us. Without it being tied to the concept of value, it is just preference. In that case, people are just trying to artificially mandate their personal preferences by calling them morals.

    The concept of a moral is a rule that provides a common value, and value is a measurable quantity. It may be that measuring it is very hard. It may be that the calculation could result in different rules depending on differing estimates of the quantities, but that doesn’t change that it the value itself is objective.

    Generally speaking, the values will be with respect to game theoretic puzzles, like Prisoner’s Dilemma, Ultimatum Game, and Tragedy of the commons, with the immoral act falling into the case of the free-rider. This is why natural selection would select for it, but genetically seeding it is difficult.

    This is why, for instance, we not only have the instinct to punish the person who cuts in our line, but also if they cut in somebody else’s line, because if line-cutting is permitted we all become worse off. But, we also get angry and the people who don’t act to punish line cutters because they are free-riding against their obligation to punish, so as to avoid putting themselves at risk, such that we have to do the dirty work by which they benefit.

    This is the basis of morality, and is objectively measurable. It’s why we have moral instincts. Now personal preferences, and ability to hijack those instincts with preferences might be subjective, but they are self-surviving memes. Memes that survive by masquerading as morals will survive better than those that don’t.

    So, for example, the belief that everybody finding Jesus will be in their long term interest is still a calcuable value, under the assumption that finding Jesus has that true effect. It’s an objective calculation that even we atheists can do; it’s simply based on a fictitious payoff so we assign that value to zero.

    Herein lies another area people confuse subjectivity and objectivity. The moral value calculation is objective, but the estimates of values that go into it are based on differing content history, or differing mental structures that do the calculation.

    Even the protection of pets and other animals may tend to be about the indication of how you treat others under your care and protection, and whether you can expect them to have your back (or protect your children, family, interests, etc.). I don’t know that this is it explicitly, but it is an example for where there is an objective calculation involved.

    Otherwise, it has no business being called a moral. It would just be a preference.

    1. “This is the basis of morality, and is objectively measurable.”

      The color of paint is objectively measurable, as are the dimensions of a painting, but that doesn’t mean the beauty of the panting can be prescribed as a universal “objective truth” by those measures.

      Morality is merely the name we give to our rather plastic empathy and social instincts as mediated through our upbringing and culture. It is our “gut” feelings – feelings that vary from person to person. As humans, we are uniquely able to give post hoc rationalizations to our feelings, whether it is mistaking romantic love for a higher cognitive function rather than our more primitive emotions, or thinking that morality is some higher function, rather than the emotional “feel first, rationalize later” function that it actually is.

      Morality is a judgement call. And while you can “objectively” measure various aspects of it, you can’t distill the vast variety of “ises” into “objective truths” and “objective oughts”.

      1. The color of paint is objectively measurable, as are the dimensions of a painting, but that doesn’t mean the beauty of the panting can be prescribed as a universal “objective truth” by those measures.

        Because the properties of the subject doing the perceiving are, of course, beyond scientific investigation, even though the current mind sciences make it abundantly clear that there’s no special magic ingredient to make our experiences work.

        Anyway, why does an objective truth have to be universal? Why can’t it be conditional, parochial, on a case-by-case basis? It is objectively true that some keys will fit a particular lock, and others won’t. Do we prescribe the fit of any particular key in any particular lock as a universal truth, as if it were wrong if some keys didn’t fit? Does “fittingness” require an abandonment of objectivity, since it’s conditional on properties both in the key and in the lock to make it happen? Of course not. Why is it any different when the key is a human brain and the lock a painting?

        Unless you’re a closet dualist trying to smuggle in some prescientific notion under the term “subjectivity”, objectivism is the way to go.

  41. I’ve heard Sam flesh out “well-being” in a few different ways, but one that goes to Jerry’s mosquito example is that part what goes into consideration of an organism’s well-being is their capacity for experience, particularly of suffering/pleasure. He maintains that we feel harming mammals is less moral than swatting a mosquito because the more complex nervous system in the mammal allows it to experience more suffering than a mosquito.

  42. “In the end, like all morality, animal “rights” comes down to issues of preference and subjective judgment.”

    Jerry, how do YOU make these judgments? You must follow some kind of process to come to conclusions about what you think is good. Suppose you followed such a process and came to such a conclusion; how would you know whether you did it correctly? Or are you saying that there is no “correct” when it comes to this process? If that’s what you’re saying, then why bother with the process at all, when flipping a coin yields the same level of confidence?

    1. Scientific method applied to administrative and engineering controls which prevent harm to people, like air bags, is not coin flipping. These are morally useful things to apply to one’s life.

      FAA and DOT have regulations which prevent huge numbers of deaths, not to mention the NIH standards for both vaccines and public health policies. These are tested, debated, and always improvable standards that we apply to our lives and they whether we like it or not, the moral outcome is better for everyone.

      The preferences for life is still subjective, but we, as humans, are not about to stop ‘the process’ if it improves our lives.

  43. I seem to have gotten a different message from Sam’s writings and speeches on this issue. He never denies that there is an unavoidable subjective starting point for any moral calculation. He draws an analogy with medicine, in that we can’t really determine an objective definition of “healthy”, but that doesn’t stop us from using science to make people healthier. Sam’s assertion is that we have subjectively-derived ideas about what states of consciousness or being are most desirable, but that science is how we find the best means of getting to those peaks on the moral landscape. I don’t think that he’d find much to disagree with in Jerry’s arguments here. He would most likely acknowledge that there is no “perfect” definition of the worth of individual animals, and that any determination is inevitably at least partially arbitrary.

  44. Back in the late fifties when I was doing some graduate work in philosophy, I had an ethics prof (wish I could remember his name) whose interest was “In-groups vs Out-groups.” We all have these groupings: friends and (usually) family are in-groups, those we strongly disagree with or dislike for one reason or another are out-groups. We use these groupings to make moral judgments about people and animals. Pets are in-groups, pests are out-groups. These groups probably have degrees of “in-ness or out-ness. And our degrees of “groupiness” probably strongly influence how much we care about what happens to members of these groups. For example, ISIS members are an extreme out-group to me. I was quite happy when I found out that a drone incinerated Jihadi John. I wish the same fate on all of them. On the other hand, we have to decide when does an animal go from a pet (or something like that) to a pest? I care about animals that are members of my in-groups. I care less about those that are members of my out-groups. For me, food animals are more likely to be out-group members so I care less about their treatment. Others will put food animals in their in-groups and care a great deal about their treatment. This is why we differ or have moral angst about how we treat animals.

    1. I once read that the Carib Indians would select a child from within their own group and raise it separately. The child would never be spoken to, or treated in anyway other than as livestock.
      Eventually it would be slaughtered and eaten. I read this years ago, and can’t remember where, but given how it does seem to be about creating a different category for the child, an out-group, it doesn’t seem implausible.

  45. As a Sam Harris fanboy (surely not the first to comment here), I’ll tell you where you went wrong:

    “I see no way to arrive at objective answers to these questions, for even in principle I can’t see how one can give relative values to the well being of different species.”

    Well being depends on consciousness, and consciousness depends on nervous systems. Some nervous systems are more complex than others, as the University of Cambridge readily admits (http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf).

    Now, following their conclusions, there is no real scientific question as to whether mammals, (most) birds, and (big) octopuses enjoy states of consciousness that are homologous with ours. They certainly do. They may not be as cerebral as homo sapiens, but they’re right next to us on that spectrum.

    To admit this is to admit that there is a real, objective difference between putting a gun to a chimpanzee’s head and pulling the trigger, versus squishing a spider. And, not coincidentally, our moral intuitions and emotions tend to follow this gradient of conscious experience. There’s a reason more people keep mammals for pets than other animals; there’s a reason we will never feel ethical obligations towards rocks.

    Anyway, that really doesn’t contradict your point. Eating animals is pretty obscene, and I consider myself a less ethical person than I could be for doing it. So does Sam Harris, from what I’ve heard him say on the topic. But I gotta have that meat.

    1. But what, objectively, makes us the point of comparison? And what it were, say, a chimp versus a dolphin? Yes, some animals are demonstrably more similar to us than others, and yes, we tend to feel more affinity for things we can anthropomorphise. (Not just animals – people get attached to things with perceived “personality”, like Mars rovers.) But I am still not sure how one then decides whether it is objectively right to kill ten chimps to save one human, for example. Or how many birds must be saved in order to make it morally right to kill – or jail – one cat, for another example.

      1. Is this really that difficult of a question? Take a hypothetical: Pretend that we are talking purely about physical pain, that we have and a complete neuroscience. If we do then we can quantify the amount of pain it causes when you kill a certain amount of birds and a certain amount of cats. We can quantify this using all sorts of methods of death, etc. We also will have enough information to know about their conscious experience. Given this quantification ability we can simply add up the sums of pain to find the right tradeoff level. If you think that pain is going to diverge widely between species, I think you are mistaken they are built on similar neural mechanisms. Even so, if they do differ, there may be answers to these questions. To assume that moral skepticism is the correct answer at this time, that morals are subjective is premature. Moral agnosticism is more appropriate.

        1. I don’t think we’ll ever have enough knowledge for the kind of inference you propose: we’d need to know how the measurable nerve/brain signals were converted into immeasurable “sensations”. Maybe we will manage that, somehow. It still wouldn’t answer how to weigh up pleasure versus pain, though, or pain versus death, or a lot of little pain versus a small big pain etc. I just don’t think we have an objective scale for these things in the same way that we can measure temperature or energy etc. We have no objective “optimise this” criteria to convert those measurements into moral judgements – that I am aware of.

          Theoretically, we might find evidence for God. Until we do, I’m an atheist. Theoretically, we might find an objective morality scale. Until we do, I’m a subjective moralist. (Moral subjectivist? Someone who thinks morals are subjective!)

          Regardless of our theoretical future advances – and whether I should really be a skeptic – when it comes to morality now, I’m pretty convinced it’s subjective. Would you agree?

          1. You are overly pessimistic. Neither you nor I know what we will discover in the future. However we do know that any scientific discovery that is not restricted by physical laws is potentially discoverable (this is a tautology, but its important). We are not speaking about the origin of the universe here, we are talking about brains, objects we have complete access to. A lot has already been done in this area, and there is no reason whatsoever to conclude that we won’t get a very good understanding of our brains eventually. Certainly you shouldn’t have defined sensations as “immeasureable” (how on earth do you know this, are you a prophet?) in fact, we already have crude measurements, more neural activation in certain areas (be it the injury site, or in the brain) is correlated with subjective or behavioral indications of pain. Obviously comparisons between different emotional categories may be difficult, but maybe they are not as difficult as we think? We don’t know, but I certainly can make my own judgments over how much pain I am willing to endure to enjoy some certain benefit, in fact our brains seem designed to calculate this very type of thing.

            Your comparison of atheism and morality is unfair, and I suspect not completely accurate. Most atheists are actually technically agnostic, if we get evidence of god we will beleive, but until then we do not. We are 6.9’s on Dawkins atheists scale. But this is a bad comparison. We have a TON of evidence that suffering exists, and that happiness exists, and that people (and animals) prefer the latter over the former. So while being an atheist until we get evidence of gods existence makes sense, being a moral subjectivist does not. We already have the evidence, what we don’t have is a good understanding of it. A better analogy would be to think of it like gravity before Newton. At that point there were masses of evidence indicating that gravity existed, but no one knew what it was. I think the most reasonable place to be is moral agnosticism, with a leaning towards objectivism.

            I don’t know what you mean by subjective, the term is a muddle of equivocation and nonsense. Are you saying that subjective states are not part of the universe, and hence not objective? I agree that morality is about consciousness, but I don’t agree that it is just up to personal *subjective* preference, or that the term subjective actually makes sense. Nor do I think that the subjective states of humans differ so much from one another that if they were all raised in exactly the same environment that their preferences would be so vastly different that an ideal compromise that maximized communal happiness would be impossible. If you think that the world has no objective differences in level of suffering if it either a)mostly resembles America b) mostly resembles ISIS, i completely disagree. I don’t care that our measurements are currently crude, they are still up to the job to realize that things like ISIS and factory farming are deeply unethical. Even lesser evils like restricting gay marriage obviously cause increased suffering. Why would anyone rational deny this?

            1. Subjective: “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.”

              The fact that these may be deterministic opinions does not make them less subjective. The fact that MOST people would agree, also does not magically make something objective. (I think you are confusing “shared gut feelings” with “objective”.) Members of ISIS presumably *would* disagree on the fundamental basis of ethics. I suspect their view of morality does not minimise suffering but is based on some other criteria regarding alignment with God’s will or some-such. I think they are wrong but I have no objective basis for this.

              Something can be objective within a pre-defined framework (once, say, it was agreed that morality was about reducing suffering) without actually being objective because the assumptions of that framework are
              themselves subjective. (In that sense, I am not sure that anything is objective in absolute terms.)

              Even if we could accurately calculate suffering versus pleasure and incorporate people’s individual preferences for different trade-offs, at what timescale do we apply the calculations? The rest of the life of the Universe? This becomes an impossible calculation – but anything else is an arbitrary (thus subjectively determined) decision about what we are trying to optimise – and how.

              And do you *really* think that morality is objectively about minimising suffering? If we managed to do the sums and worked out that it was impossible for humans not to cause net suffering, would you consider global extermination of humanity to be the ethical choice? Or what if the biggest net “pleasure rating” was achieved by keeping everyone in a drug-induced coma pumped full happy drugs – would you consider enforcement of that to be ethical?

  46. “I agree with Sam that in general our moral judgments, at least in our own species, correspond to utilitarian notions of overall well being”

    Humans are relatively nice, but not very good utilitarians. For humans, good intentions seem to be more important than the real outcomes.

    For an intelligent social animal this seems to me a logical outcome. It’s a way to gain social status and at the same time minimizing cost. Only sometimes people pay the full price.

  47. I agree with Jerry that our morality is actually founded on our personal preferences, and I think these are based on a spectrum of different basic moral desires (somewhat different for each person) that are then shaped by education and life experience.

    However, I think this leaves hope for an objective morality in principle: if the basic moral desires of normal people are similar enough (which seems plausible), then the differences between their expressions would plausibly be due to different information, which could be corrected by science.

    For example – if it’s true that we all accept, as a basic moral value, that moral decisions should take all relevant information into account, then arguably not-knowing or ignoring what goes on in animal-forms is an objectively immoral viewpoint – in the sense that all normal people will believe it wrong. Similarly, arguably once a normal person knows what goes on there, and the relevant facts about animal consciousness and so on, then the conclusion of animal rights follows. And so on.

    I’m not sure if in practice our basic moral desires are common enough, shared enough, for such an objective morality to really exist. But in principle at least, I submit that it is possible.

  48. I doubt that many of us could bear living under the circumstance that there is objective right and wrong, good and bad, and thus no dilemmas. Some of our best remembered poetry and works of fiction presuppose nonobjective standards of morality. I think the circumstance in question is the positing of something inconsistent with humanity as we know it. I apologize if this thought has already been offered.

  49. Electrons are no different outside me than inside. And they do not care. We make the preference for minimized suffering and it is ours: a subjective choice.

    As PCC(E) says, there are objective criteria we can apply to help solve moral issues, but ultimately there is no proof of a moral objective foundation for reality.

  50. For a fascinating argument for the objectivity of not only morality but aesthetics as well I highly recommend a book by David Deutsch called “The Beginning of Infinity”. Steven Pinker has also recently noted how amazing this book is. Apparently it was an inspiration for his next book.

    Also Richard Carrier has written extensively on this topic (also on the objective side). I recommend his excellent book “Sense and Goodness Without God”. A good summary of his thoughts on this topic can be read on a recent blog post entitled “Open Letter to Academic Philosophy: All Your Moral Theories Are the Same”. He has an interesting take on the morality of eating meat in a post called “No, Bacon Is Not as Bad for You as Smoking”


    1. I’ve read Richard Carrier’s posts on the subject of meat eating and frankly, it seems like a long argument in self-justification.

      He decides (for no apparent reason) that what matters is that one can appreciate life (or something like that, this is from memory), and therefore animal’s life is unimportant. As clearly mammals and birds are conscious, the bar is set high enough so only _self_ consciousness is relevant. Then he argues that for economic reasons you’d want to be humane to your livestock – which makes no sense at all (to increase profits, farmers would want to use as little as possible area for example, use concrete as it’s easier to clean than straw, mess up chickens wake cycles, etc. None of this is doing any good to the animals).

      I can understand Jerry Coyne’s position about eating meat – not something to be proud of, but still something that people do. Nobody is perfect, etc.
      I can’t understand Richard Carrier’s except as rationalization (“I’m moral. I eat meat. So, eating meat must have a moral justification”)

  51. Hi Jerry,

    Thanks for the interesting read. I’ve been interested in ethics for a long time and have thought deeply about our obligations to animals. Like Peter Singer, I do think we can aim for objectivity in ethics (but not in the sense of some spooky, mind-independent properties or truths). You may be interested in an essay I recently uploaded on the question of how we can evaluate our relative obligations to different species. I’d be interested in hearing what you think of my approach. You can read it at http://www.RationalRealm.com/philosophy/ethics/animal-rights-wrongness-killing.html

  52. A bit off the topic, but what about the relationship between ethics and time.

    In a hypothetical scenario with limited resources, is it more ethical to allow a creature to perish now than to give it sustenance, when the likelihood is that if you keep it alive it will produce offspring and, because there are sufficient resources to sustain the offspring, they will all perish in agony at a later point in time?

  53. I think the evidence is pretty strong that our moral _sense_ is innate (given to us by Darwin, no gods required). This can explain why we can (sometime) agree on many (but certainly not all) moral questions.

    One of the keys to our innate morality is empathy (or more generally, “theory of mind”) – humans (for biological reasons) are pretty good at understanding the world from someone else’s point-of-view. We are better at this with other humans than with other animals – which, I think, is one of the reasons we try harder to avoid hurting a fellow homo sapiens than some other animal, but also why we care about a cat more than an octopus – we can understand (or think we can) better.

    In the end, that’s what morality is about – putting yourself in another’s shoes (or paws). Sociopaths are defined by the lack of _empathy_. Lack of morality is the _result_.

    The argument that’s left is whom should be empathise with. This is Singer’s expanding circle.

    Personally, I believe that in the future everyone will be vegan: it’s a matter of time until we can grow meat in the lab, without all the waste of growing an entire animal. Therefore, at some point it will be _cheaper_ to grow meat this way.

    In addition, animals are pretty bad models for humans (which is why so many drugs fail at stage 3/clinical trials). This drives a search for better models. Of course, animal experiments are likely to be required to develop such a model (Hooke’s experiments on dogs would seem barbaric to us now – even Hooke understood he was torturing the dog, refusing to repeat the experiment. But could we have done without them?).

    I wonder – how would our descendants look at us? As a necessary step to an enlightened future or barbarics?

  54. I think we need to use the words “subjective” and “objective” carefully when we are talking about the nature of ethics. These terms can mean very different things to different authors and thinkers in this area. Ethics can be “subjective” in one important sense and still be “objective” in another crucial sense. I’m a thoroughgoing naturalist. I don’t think ethics is underpinned by religion or God’s commands and neither do I accept that there are non-natural ethical properties of things and events. But I do think that ethics is objective –and necessarily so. I try to sort through some of the confusions and show that the longstanding objectivist tradition in meta-ethics is well-founded in a short essay I have just uploaded at http://www.RationalrRealm.com/philosophy/ethics/is-morality-subjective.html I am interested in hearing whether you find my argument persuasive.

    1. I found it an interesting read. However, for me you are still making the mistake of setting up a subjective moral framework – the requirement for impartiality. You correctly argue that within this framework there is a clear objective requirement – indeed, I think you make a case that within any moral framework, “objectivity is a necessary attribute of ethical thinking”. The problem is that the moral framework itself – the set of rules against which actions are judged to be (un)ethical – is not objective. Different people – different societies – will (and have!) come up with a different framework. What is considered moral by one group is not considered moral by another and there is no objective to say who is right. All we can do is define what is moral within our social group.
      Of course, this does not equate to saying that we think everyone’s morality has equal validity. We don’t – but only because of the very preferences that have caused us to come up with our own moral code in the first place! So we want to intervene when ISIS throw gays from the roof of a high-rise building because for us (a) it is morally wrong and (b) it is morally wrong to stand by and let someone else do it. We are not being impartial in this decision. If we were trying to be truly objective and impartial, on what basis could we argue that the moral code of our social group is better than that of another?
      Regarding your insistence for impartiality as part of a moral framework… Personally, I am not convinced that impartiality is a universal requirement for ethical behaviour. If two children were drowning, I don’t think anyone would consider it immoral for a parent to try and save their own child preferentially, even if the chances of saving the other child were slightly higher. Interestingly, we would probably consider it immoral to save that child if it meant drowning another child that was not otherwise at risk, even though the end result was the same. The circumstances and context are important and make morality incredibly complex. I am not convinced that you could come up with a clear moral framework (i.e. set of objective rules) that would generate a majority agreement with the “moral choice” in every conceivable scenario. (Though it would be interesting to try!) Without (or even with?) such majority agreement in all cases, on what basis could you claim that such a framework was objectively correct?

  55. Rich, thank you for your thoughtful consideration of my argument. In some ways, I think you are arguing past me and not with me. You say I “make a case that within any moral framework, ‘objectivity is a necessary attribute of ethical thinking'”. That’s all I wanted to show. You go on to argue for a kind of relativism in ethics –” All we can do is define what is moral within our social group.” – using the traditional argument that different individuals and societies have different norms. This ignores two usual counterarguments. (1) Differences of opinion do not entail the absence of an objective viewpoint. That some people think the world is a flat disk while others that it is a sphere does not entail that it is not one or the other or something else. (2) Cultural relativism fails to account for moral reformers within societies and, I add, for the sensibleness of cross-cultural criticisms (e.g. child labour, FGM, etc).

    You use the case of the moral permissibility of saving your own child from drowning while letting someone else’s child drown as an example of the lack of a requirement for impartiality. Your test case is oversimplifying the requirement for impartiality. Many universalist systems account and allow for the moral preference to aid our own children. Peter Singer does so with his preference utilitarianism (kin altruism is built in to our genes and society would create more disutility by forbidding filial preference). R. M. Hare accounts for it as saving your own children is what people would make as a universal rule that applies impartially to all parents. John Rawls’ social constructivism accounts for it by his agents choosing that rule behind his veil of ignorance.

    I agree with you that the “circumstances and context are important and make morality incredibly complex.” And I’m not arguing that I can “come up with a clear moral framework (i.e. set of objective rules) that would generate a majority agreement with the ‘moral choice’ in every conceivable scenario.” As I say in my final paragraph after raising some questions about how the requirement of impartiality cashes out: “It is questions such as these and the practical application of answers to the enduring ethical dilemmas of our day that make normative ethics so difficult for even the best and fairest moral thinkers. This nebulous requirement for impartiality explains why many important ethical questions appear so intractable to the people on opposing sides of an ethical disagreement.”

    My argument is more limited in its ambition than what you perhaps hoped. My key point is that objective reasons in moral deliberation and debate are contrasted with selfish, parochial reasons. It is a mistake, I tried to argue, to contrast objective reasons with reasons that originate from individual’s preferences and perspectives. Being naturalists, we all grant the latter. But to say that it therefore follows that ethics is subjective is to give way too much to the woo woo people. Thanks again, Rich, for sharing your thoughts.

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