The claim is so often made that it has become a cliche: “Science cannot tell you what you ought to do”. The mantra that morality is a domain to which science has no access is oft-repeated by the religious, anxious to demark some sphere where religion can reign, free of irritating demands for evidence.
Such attempts to limit science’s scope are often accepted by scientists, notably Steve Gould’s tribe of NOMAds, who divide the world’s knowledge into “non-overlapping magisteria”, among which science is only “one way of knowing”. Any suggestion that science applies everywhere is derided as “scientism”. Indeed, some, such as C.S Lewis and Francis Collins, will go further, and argue that the inability of science to explain morality is an argument for God.
Yet, to many scientists, the world doesn’t seem to be divided into different spheres, with clearly demarked no-go zones where science’s methods suddenly cease to work and science comes to a shuddering halt. For example there is no clear divide between biology and chemistry, only a seamless transition that we call biochemistry.
And, if the world is seamless, then, for any question knowable to humans, science is the tool for knowing the answer (or, stating the same less provocatively, any tool that produces such an answer is a tool under the broad umbrella of science, using the same methods that work elsewhere in the seamless realm of knowledge).
So, can science answer questions about morality? Yes it can. After all, moral judgements by humans are a feature of the natural world and so are just as accessible to science as other aspects of the natural world.
The suggestion to the contrary arises principally from a fundamental confusion about what morality is, such that moral questions are often ill-posed. To explain why science can indeed answer moral questions I thus need to start with explaining morality.
1: Absolute Ethics
Perhaps the biggest red-herring in mankind’s history has been the quest for the false grail of Absolute Ethics, the idea that there is an Absolute Shouldness Scale, and that if we could consult the scale we would know for sure whether we “should” do X or “should” do Y or “should not” do Z.
Well, there isn’t. At least, no-one has ever found one, nor has anyone produced a coherent account of how such a scale could have arisen or even what it would mean. While some might want to regard “shouldness” as one of the fundamental properties of the universe, along with gravitational mass or electric charge, they have produced no good reason for so thinking.
Hankering after Absolute Ethics is the source of nearly all the confusion about moral questions. In order to think clearly about morality one needs to reject any concept of Absolute Ethics, no matter how intuitive the idea may seem to humans.
So what is morality? Our moral senses are part of our evolutionary programming. Humans are highly social and highly cooperative animals, and in order to interact with each other productively we need rules and mores for how we interact. Our moral senses are thus a social lubricant and a social glue. And, as with anything produced by evolution, they have been cobbled together in a pragmatic and utilitarian way, that will have depended only on whether they worked (in the sense of enabling our cooperative and social way of life).
Thus there is nothing Absolute about our moral senses, they are cobbled together to be effective enough for the job, in the same way that our livers, lungs, immune systems and visual systems have been cobbled together as effective enough to do their job. We do not need an Absolute ethical system, any more than we need an Absolute immune system or an Absolute liver; a functional one is quite sufficient.
Our human moral senses will be specific to our species, because that’s their job, enabling social cooperation within our species. Other species would evolve different and incompatible moral senses in the same way that they evolve different and incompatible livers and lungs and visual systems.
Thus moral judgements are human “ought” feelings about the behaviour of other humans (though other species might also have their own morality). In this sense “moral” judgements are among a range of emotions and feelings that evolution has equipped us with, along with aesthetic senses and sexual feelings.
In order for our moral senses to do their job, a moral judgement needs to matter to the person who makes it, it needs to seem important. And it will carry more weight if it seems to be not just an arbitrary opinion, but instead to be Absolute. And thus, in order for our moral senses to best do their job, evolution will have programmed us with the illusion that they are a manifestation of Absolute Ethics, and that our moral judgements are Absolute. And because evolution is an effective programmer, many people cling to that illusion.
Humans are one of the most homogeneous animals, with low levels of genetic diversity, and thus human nature is very similar across our species. This means that moral judgements will have strong similarities across our species, and this might reinforce the impression that they relate to an Absolute Shouldness Scale; but that would be anthropocentric projection of what matters to humans onto nature and onto the universe as a whole.
Anthropocentric projection of human concerns onto nature is, of course, a speciality of theologians, and hence, throughout history, they have attempted to project their illusory Absolute Shouldness Scale onto either a panoply of gods or a lone supreme God.
2: Divine Ethics
The commonest attempt to establish an Absolute Shouldness Scale is to embody it in a god: “It is right because my god says so”. Since our moral senses are human moral senses, it makes sense to embody them in an Absolute version of a human, imagining God in man’s own image, as an idealised tribal patriarch. By doing so one can ignore the reality — that religions get their morality from people — and claim instead that people get their morality from religion.
Unfortunately, any attempt at establishing Divine Ethics suffers from fatal flaws, the most blatant being that there is no evidence for any such divine being. Equally problematic is that it doesn’t actually explain morality. Just saying “it’s a property of god” is not an explanation, it is accepting morality without explanation. By contrast, an emergence of morality in social animals, as evolutionary programming to facilitate cooperation, explains what morality is and where it comes from.
Since appeal to Divine Ethics provides no actual explanation, it leaves divine morality entirely arbitrary. This was noticed long ago by Socrates, who asked, in what has become known as the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
If the former, then there needs to be a standard of morality independent of God, which refutes the whole point of appealing to God as the anchor of ethics.
If the latter then that admits that morality is arbitrary: under the “divine command theory”, if God were a vicious sadist, then vicious sadism would be “moral”. Unless you subscribe to “might makes right”, there is no more reason to make God the arbiter of morals than there is to make a random person living in San Francisco the arbiter of morals.
One alternative to “might makes right” is to claim that an act of creating people confers a right to dictate their morality. However, this is again an arbitrary claim, and would imply that if a sadistic God created people in order to enjoy torturing them then torture and sadism would be good.
Some theologians will indeed follow this logic. For example William Lane Craig has argued that mass slaughter and genocide (as reported in the Old Testament) was not immoral because it was willed by God. One can have a certain admiration for someone who sticks to his guns, following a train of reasoning to a crackpot conclusion, long after the point when sensible people would have started to doubt their premises.
For those theologians who recoil from the implications of arbitrarily slapping the label “good” onto whoever is the Biggest Cheese in the universe, the usual attempt at rebuttal is to argue that goodness is encapsulated in God’s “nature”, and that God could not be anything other than “good”. This appeals to theologians because they conceive of their god as an embodiment of everything they most value in humans, and so include the best of human morality as a key part of their conception.
However, this is simply wordplay to confuse the Euthyphro dilemma rather than rebut it. What does the statement “God’s nature is to be good” mean? It either means that when judged against some standard of goodness independent of God, that God is found to be “good” (in which case we’re back to square one in defining “goodness”; though the honest answer would be that their god-conception is good as created by and judged against their own human moral standards), or it means that whatever God’s nature is, we’ll call it “good” (in which case we’re back to the arbitrariness of divine command theory, including the idea that under a sadistic god sadism would be “good”). The theologians may attempt to confuse the issue with verbiage, but they have not produced a rebuttal.
The last major flaw in ascribing morality to the omnipotent God envisaged by the Abrahamic religions, a flaw noted long ago by Epicurus, is that there is no evidence in the world around us for divine interventions for moral purposes, even where any moral human with the power to intervene would do so. This “problem of evil” can only sensibly be explained by the non-existence of God, though some theologians will try to get round it by redefining “moral” or “omnipotent” to something other than “moral” and “omnipotent”.
For example theologians might appeal to “free-will” as a good that necessitates and outweighs any resulting evil. However, a God who cannot achieve a higher good without unpleasant side effects is not omnipotent. Such a God is not the designer of the logic and nature of the universe, but is instead a constrained being, subject to the universe’s nature (and, further, the free-will plea doesn’t even begin to defend God against natural evil).
So where are we with morality? We are left with two possible meanings of morality.
3: Emotion Ethics
The only anchor for “morality” is in the feelings and emotions of humans. This is the primary meaning of “morality”, and has to be primary because our morality originates out of the feelings and emotions that evolution has programmed us with. One immediate clarification: it may seem that in anchoring morality in “mere” feelings and emotions I am (compared to the dream of Absolute Ethics) somewhat belittling it. I am not: human feelings and emotions are the only things that are important to us; I am thus attaching to morality the highest importance.
So what is moral, to a human, is what that human feels to be moral. (That is close to a tautology, but isn’t, since it precludes any of the other possible meanings of “morality” discussed above and below.)
But, you might point out, two humans may and often do differ in their moral judgements. Indeed so. So which of them is right? If you ask that question you are hankering after Absolute Ethics; you are asking where on the Absolute Shouldness Scale comes Jim’s opinion compared to Fred’s. But there is no such scale, so the question “which is right?” is ill-posed and can’t be answered. And it can’t be answered not because “science cannot answer it”, but because it has no answer. So, “Jim judges X to be moral” is meaningful, as is “Fred judges X to be immoral”, but the question “which of them is right?” is nonsensical, because the word “right” in that isolated sentence is not anchored, since there is no Absolute Shouldness Scale.
Since human nature is similar worldwide there will be wide agreement on many moral issues across society and internationally. Of course, though, on many issues opinion will differ. So which course of action should society adopt?, and can science tell us?
Again, the very question hankers after Absolute Ethics, since the unspoken meaning of “should” as used in that question is how it scores on the Absolute Shouldness Scale. You can argue for your moral opinion, but you can’t argue that it is more “right”, no matter how much evolution may have programmed you to consider your own opinion to be the “right” one in an absolute sense. On which point, recent studies reveal that humans tend to project from “I want X” to the claim “God wants X”.
4: Consequence Ethics
One can argue that “morality” is aimed at increasing human contentment and quality of life, and can suggest that whatever leads to the greatest contentment is the most moral action. This stance has a long history, from the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to writers today such as Sam Harris.
There is a lot to be said for this stance. It is, indeed, close to the “human emotion” explanation of ethics, since human contentment and quality of life can only be determined by reference to our emotions and feelings. There is a difference, though, in that a person might be mistaken about the consequences of their morals. Thus there is a distinction between what a person judges to be moral and whether it does lead to a greater contentment and quality of life.
The classical Utilitarians, Bentham and Mill, wrote extensively about how to aggregate the “quality of life” calculation across all the peoples of society, to arrive at an overall most-moral instruction. And they floundered badly, coming up only with arbitrary summations (ones often biased to people like themselves). That whole attempt at aggregation was misguided: it was essentially an attempt to map utilitarian ethics onto an Absolute Shouldness Scale, and thus attain an Absolute judgement of what is moral. But there is no such scale, no matter how much we or they might hanker after it.
So can science answer moral questions?
Where does this leave morality and can science answer moral questions? Let’s list some moral questions which are properly posed and thus have answers:
Does Fred judge X to be moral? Do the majority of people in France judge Y to be immoral? Would implementing Z lead to increased quality of life? If we implement W, which many people want, will that lead to a minority being very unhappy? Is that unhappiness going to lead to social strife that would leave the majority less content? Can we educate people such that they change their opinion that Q is immoral to the opinion that Q is acceptable? Would people come to like or accept R over time?
All of the above are properly posed questions. And all of them can be answered by the tools of science. Humans are, after all, natural animals, and the study of them and their attitudes and feelings is just as properly a scientific subject as the study of sub-atomic particles. This science we call anthropology, with subdivisions such as social anthropology.
Admittedly humans are vastly more complicated than sub-atomic particles, so the task may be much harder, but that doesn’t mean science cannot address it; nor does it mean that science is the wrong tool to address it; nor does it mean that some other tool from some other “magisterium” (such as theology) would succeed better.
Let’s also list some other statements that are properly constructed statements about morality:
Paul thinks that X is immoral, and argues vociferously with this acquaintances to persuade them of this. Jim would like society to adopt Y, and is campaigning for that end. David thinks that Jim is wrong, and is standing for election to try to vote down any such law. The people of Murabia think that Z is highly moral; however the evidence is that a society where Z is prevalent is overall more unhappy with a lower quality of life than similar societies where people readily accept Z. Implementing Q increases the contentment of some of the population but decreases it for others.
Again, all of those statements are ones for which science — interpreting “science” in a broad sense of evidence-based enquiry and reason-based interpretation of data, and encompassing the social sciences — is the correct tool to discern truth.
Now let’s consider some moral statements and questions that are ill-posed and invalid because the question has no meaning, unless it is re-phrased and turned into a properly constructed statement or question, similar to those above.
Should we do X? The majority favour Y, but a vociferous minority oppose it, so would it be wrong for the majority to impose Y? It would be wrong to do Z, since Jane and Sarah would be unhappy about it. We should not allow Q, even though many want it.
Taken in the abstract, these questions and statements are all attempts to read off a yes/no answer from the Absolute Shouldness Scale, and as such they cannot be answered since there is no such scale.
They are akin to asking “Does chocolate taste nice?” Not, “Does Fred think it tastes nice?”, or “Do most humans think it tastes nice?”, but an abstract “Does it taste nice?” as though there were an Absolute Taste-Niceness Scale.
Similarly, “should” questions only make sense referred to some goal or to someone making the judgement. “Should I take the parcel or leave it here?” cannot be answered in the abstract, and nor can moral “should”s. This stance does not take the “should” factor out of morality, instead it explains it and properly locates it as the value judgement of a human.
One could argue that the question “Should we do Y?” is a shorthand for “Do *you* think we should do Y”, or “Would doing Y increase our contentment?” If so, then fine. And then the long-form of the question is properly posed, and can be answered by science.
However, the oft-stated claim that “Science cannot tell you what you ought to do” is essentially the statement that science cannot give you a mapping onto the Absolute Shouldness Scale of Absolute Ethics. Yes, we know that, but that’s not because of any limitation of science, that’s because there is no such scale, no such Absolute Ethics. Science cannot give you a trajectory to the planet Vulcan either.
But science can indeed answer any properly posed moral question. All that is needed is clarity of thought about what question you are actually asking. So science can indeed answer moral questions; but don’t expect any easy answers about what you “should” do.
I just want to thank you for such a well written piece (yet again). This blog is marvelous and I share it on G+ and recommend it. Thank you so much for putting the time and energy into each piece. =)
This is a funny story indeed. so tell us what is the purpose of life? and what happens to the dead people? what about afterlife as God promises? evolution is crap. nobody believes it at all other than some minority trapped in darwin’s story. There is no proof and nothing at all. it is just there to make atheist comfortable with their heart.
As far as we can tell there is no “purpose” of life, since it was not designed for any purpose by any intelligence. What happens to dead people? They decay, the “pattern” that was them disperses, they return to non-existence, just as before they were conceived and born.
If you’re at all interested in the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution, I recommend as a good introduction Jerry Coyne’s book “Why evolution is true”.
You ask “what is the purpose to life?” as if only a God-given answer will satisfy you.
You’re being lazy, Mark. You want the question answered definitively for you without having to do any of the work. Ditch the fairy-tales and think for yourself what you want to do with your life.
Obvious troll is obvious.
According to logic, can science answer an opinion if it has a factual basis?
Interesting. I started reading this post expecting to disagree with you (and I do still have a bit of the problem with the title of the post), but your comments do broadly gel with my own view which is that science (or the scientific method) can provide insights into moral questions but cannot determine the conclusions.
What I mean by this is that science is able to make predictions about the benefits and consequences about a course of action, but the question of whether we think the benefits outweigh the consequences is a human one for which an objective (or absolute) answer does not exist.
I have enjoyed all of your posts very much. Thanks for writing them.
First, you should read Jesse Prinz’s “The Emotional Construction of Morals”, if you haven’t already.
Second, the problem with your view is that it becomes relativistic. The serial rapist who “feels” that rape is moral seems to be, under your system, no more moral than the person who gives half their paycheck to charity because they feel that that’s the right thing to do. You can try to convince others to adopt certain feelings, but then there is some evidence that feelings are not always amenable to change using reason and you’d still have the issue that the serial rapist is just as justified in trying to convince others that rape is moral as the other person is in convincing them to donate half their pay to charity.
As for Absolute Ethics, we have had many consistent systems worked out over thousands of years. The problems people have had with them are precisely the same ones they’ll have with yours, which is that the justification does not seem sufficient. But that’s a far cry from saying that they don’t exist in any meaningful way; it’s claiming not that they aren’t workable Absolute Ethical systems, but that they happen to be wrong, just as one can claim quite reasonably that yours is wrong as well.
All this talk about absolute ethics bollocks is just absolute nonsense from. Science can not explain why we have just the right proportion of gases in our atmosphere and why Earth is the only planet fit to sustain all forms of life because if it was purely a result of a big bang, our solar system wouldnt even be the current state. Laws of science would not exist had there not been an intelligence to put them in place. Laws don’t just form out of nothingness. God is bigger than science.
Sure it can! Life evolved to fit its surroundings, so of course the surroundings are “just right” for our sort of life. In the same way, science can explain why the shape of a puddle is exactly right for the precise shape of the water in the puddle!
Yes, it would. Cosmology explains why we have planets strewn across the universe. There is nothing surprising in having some Earth-like ones in the mix.
“Laws of science” are just descriptions of how the world is, they are not “things” that “form”. If you have a world you can have a description of it (and thus have “laws”).
Hello Verbose Stoic, thanks for dropping by:
That “no more moral” phrase can only be an attempt to refer to an Absolute Morality system, so it is asking whether the serial rapist or the charitable donor is the more moral in some absolute sense. However, the whole point of my argument is that there is no Absolute Morality system, and thus that the idea of which is the “more moral” has no answer and no meaning in the abstract; it can only be answered in the sense of people’s feelings and opinions as to which is more moral.
A *consistent* system is not the same as an “absolute” system. Yes you can produce a self-consistent system of morals, but no-one has then validated it as being “true” or as having any absolute standing.
But then I’m not advocating an “absolute” system; indeed the whole point of my stance is that nothing such is possible, and the whole idea is a red-herring, an illusion programmed into us by evolution in order to make our moral judgments seem to matter more.
But nowhere am I prescribing what is wrong or right; I am not proposing a system of what people ought to do, let alone attempting to establish it as Absolute. All I’m doing is trying to understand what morals are and what questions about morals even make sense.
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Interesting article. Where does this leave practical decisions? For example, if we come back to the rapist from above, he may presumably think he has acted morally while a court would think otherwise. Being more powerful the court would imprison him. It would be easy to think of many other examples along these lines. So we end up with a “might is right” (or “might is moral” since you seem to dislike the term “right) situation. Is this your position? Presumably this is in fact what occurs in nature/evolution but I think it might take a bit of persuading for people to accept genocide, say, is moral because the perpetrators think it is.
Not really, my position is that “might is might”. It doesn’t follow from the court being more powerful that it is “right” or “moral” (nor that it is wrong or immoral). Different people might then have different opinions about the morality (I’d suspect that most would side with the court).
But I wouldn’t even try to persuade people of that; my whole stance is that an abstract “X is moral” is a meaningless claim since there is no such thing as “absolute” morality. You can sensibly report that “Fred thinks that genocide is moral” or that “Peter thinks that genocide is immoral”, but the abstract question “is genocide moral?” is meaningless. The only sensible question is “Do think that genocide is moral?” where you specify who is doing the opining.
It seems to me that you (author of the blog) argue against yourself. Basically you argue that there is no such thing as morality, since in the asbtract the very idea of morality is meaningless. Science cannot answer meaningless questions, therefore cannot answer questions about morality – by your own argument. It can only answer whether some has a sensation called morality.
Science cannot answer questions about “absolute” or “abstract” morality (because they don’t exist), but science can answer questions about morality as it actually exists, namely as the opinions and feelings of humans.
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Of fundamental importance to the study of physics is stability and instability. For instance the periodic table is composed of forms of matter that are stable over time periods relevant to humans. It would seem that a given society’s sense of morality is really just one of many possible stable configurations of social interaction which has evolved in time. It should not be surprising that many more possible configurations can exist that are equally stable. It should also not be surprising that, like atoms, there is no truly stable society. The fundamental rule that dictates everything is the one prescribed by evolution: survive as a species. I do not believe science can provide us with the an answer to how to best achieve that. Nor do I believe that science can tell us whether we sit at the “optimal” stable point in the moral evolution of society. Nor do I even know what “optimal” would mean (survival of our species for infinite time?). Morality is often constrained by what we personally perceive to be important to our survival. Many scientist often favor ending human suffering as their source of moral direction. However, if this does not lead to an even more stable and efficient society then their sense of morality will go extinct. Survival and morality must go hand in hand in order to last. Take this into consideration when passing moral judgement on others.
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> moral judgements by humans are a feature of the natural world and so are just as accessible to science as other aspects of the natural world.
Not all aspects of “natural world” are accessible to science. Freedom cannot be studied as it transcends determinism.
> Humans are highly social and highly cooperative animals
Humans are not animals because freedom is their unique quality.
> the question “which is right?” is ill-posed, it can’t be answered.
It can. Ethics leads humanity to social freedom which can be understood as elimination of any violence. There is a moral system based on freedom. It is explained in the book “Cult of Freedom & Ethics of Public Sphere”. And there is a site dedicated to this (objective) ethics – http://ethical-liberty.com.
That’s an empty claim for which you have not given evidence.
So is that.
Coel, I find much to agree with here. We agree that “moral judgements by humans are.. . as accessible to science as other aspects of the natural world”, “Humans are … highly cooperative animals, and … we need rules and mores for how we interact”, and “our moral senses, … are cobbled together … in the same way that our livers, lungs, immune systems and visual systems have been cobbled together …”
But what was the selection force that made this cobbling together happen? I see, at the bottom of our peculiar and diverse sets of ‘moral’ senses, emotions, and cultural moral norms, a specific selection force that defines a universal moral absolute that is intrinsic to our physical reality. Let me explain.
The cross-cultural, universal moral absolute in all this cobbled together biology and cultural norms is a very specific category of cooperation strategies, in-group cooperation strategies such as direct and indirect reciprocity.
This conclusion is justified by its explanatory power and its meeting other normal criteria for provisional scientific truth when tested against what I see as the most appropriate data set: past and present enforced moral codes, our ‘moral’ emotions such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, shame, and ‘righteous’ indignation, and our sense of right and wrong as defined by empirical data such as Jonathan Haidt’s six cross-culturally universal “moral foundations”.
Thus there is an absolute right and wrong about what is universally moral. People may genuinely feel that their cultural moralities that allow treating out-groups (women, other races, and so forth) unfairly is in some way universally moral, but they are just factually wrong.
But how does this claim about what is universally moral for people become a claim about cross-species universal morality?
Consider the following. In our physical reality, there are commonly benefits of cooperation much larger than those possible by individual effort. Also, exploitation of other’s efforts at cooperation is almost always the winning strategy in the short term and sometimes is in the long term. Unfortunately, such exploitation destroys future benefits of cooperation. This is the cross-species universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma. Our ‘moral’ emotions, enforced moral codes, and sense of right and wrong are necessarily flawed biological and cultural heuristics selected for by their ability to solve this universal dilemma and reliably obtain the benefits of cooperation without being exploited.
Thus this is not just a cross-cultural universal definition of human moral behavior (in-group cooperation strategies) but, with the ultimate source of morality intrinsic to our physical reality, this is a cross-species universal, and eternal, definition of morality.
So can science answer moral questions? I would say science is silent about what our ultimate goals ought be, but science is perfectly capable of telling us what moral behavior descriptively is and how we might employ morality to obtain whatever our ultimate goals are.
If it might be of any interest, I contrast Jonathan Haidt’s, Stephen Pinker’s, and my own views on morality in a short post at
The site is dedicated to illuminating our understanding of life, in its broadest sense, from an evolutionary perspective.
I don’t see how this shows that there is a “universal moral absolute”. The existence of human feelings and intuition doesn’t show anything more than that humans have moral feelings, and the fact that much of this is common across all humans only shows that humans are all pretty similar; which we are, all being part of the same species, and a species with a relatively small genetic diversity at that.
Coel, thanks for responding.
Right, the above data set about what people consider or have considered moral can only justify the reality of an objective (mind independent) cross-cultural universal function of morality for people. However, if actually true (as I argue it is), this alone seems to me to have serious implications for moral philosophy and resolving many disputes about what moral norms ought to be enforced. It also defines an objective function for human morality (but not an objective ultimate goal).
Are you thinking that, if true, the above would not show there was an objective (mind independent) cross-cultural universal function of morality for people?
In any event, additional steps are required to justify a cross-species moral universality claim which was perhaps your point.
First, we have to identify a people independent source of such a universal function of morality. That source is the solutions, such as direct and indirect reciprocity, of the cross species universal dilemma of how to reliably and sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without being exploited (as I described in my initial comment). These solutions are as cross-species universal as the simple mathematics they are based on.
But while this function of morality is universally available to all species from the beginning to the end of time, can we know that all intelligent species’ biologies and cultural norms actually will be selected to motivate or advocate (in appropriate circumstances) such strategies – to share a universal function for morality? The benefits of cooperation are so huge that I think it is essentially certain that all intelligent species that face the cooperation/exploitation dilemma will have evolved the concept of morality in order to solve it. Indeed, intelligence arguably may have been chiefly selected for by the benefits of being able to implement these strategies and avoid being exploited when seeking the benefits of cooperation.
But perhaps there are intelligent species that do not compete within their in-groups, such as some social insects, and do not cooperate with other groups that they do compete with. For them, there is no cooperation/exploitation dilemma. I agree they would not share this universal function in their ‘moral’ behavior. But I am not at all sure they could be usefully said to have any morality as people understand it.
I still don’t see how this establishes any objective (mind independent) standard of morality.
If Tom likes ice cream that is his subjective feeling. If Tom and all his school friends like ice cream that is their subjective feeling. If every human in the world likes ice cream that is their subjective feeling.
It doesn’t matter how many people share the same subjective feeling, it is still their subjective feeling, and does not establish any objective standard.
Such an account would be based on the “benefits” of the actions, and one can only define “benefits” in terms of what outcomes people want, which again relates back to their subjective feelings.
One can indeed say that *if* humans want a certain outcome (such as a prosperous, harmonious society produced by cooperation) then one can make objective statements about how to achieve that aim. That, though, is still a subjective moral system.
Coel, what people see as benefits of cooperation is subjective and what people see as the ultimate goal of enforcing moral codes is subjective.
It does not follow though that what the function of moral codes descriptively ‘is’ is subjective. Those cooperation strategies such as direct and indirect reciprocity are as objective as their mathematics and form the underlying principle for an objective morality.
For example, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is a wonderfully useful heuristic for behaviors consistent with indirect reciprocity. Defining an objective moral code based on in-group cooperation strategies is just a matter of coming up with norms consistent with those strategies.
Perhaps we ought to move this conversation over to your more recent thread “Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense” where I further clarify why I claim there is a mind independent objective morality.
Wait. Are you suggesting that the planet Vulcan doesn’t exist? Burn the heretic!
You say: “The only anchor for “morality” is in the feelings and emotions of humans. This is the primary meaning of “morality”, and has to be primary because our morality originates out of the feelings and emotions that evolution has programmed us with. … human feelings and emotions are the only things that are important to us.”
May be there is possible another, a bit broader wording for the meaning: The meaning of human existence is survival of human beings on a cosmic scale. Non-restricted, ‘eternal’ life for individuals, filled with feelings and emotions. As Carl Sagan said: “Universe’s matter attempt to get conscious about itself”.
Today for us – meaning, task and responsibility. Imants Vilks, http://www.artificialintelligence.lv editor.
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Hi Coel – really interesting blog, but I felt I couldn’t pass it by without commenting on what seems to be a fairly outstanding case of double standards in your writing. Apologies if it seems like I’m trolling – I’m not trying to be offensive, but am genuinely interested in understanding how someone so clearly alert to the anthropomorphic extravagance of theism appears to be so utterly blind to their own tendencies that way…. For example, when you say: “And, as with anything produced by evolution, they have been cobbled together in a pragmatic and utilitarian way” – aren’t you ascribing a fundamentally human quality (pragmatism) to the evolutionary process ? Pragmatism to me suggests a conscious acceptance of the facts of reality – something that only a living being capable of imaging and being misled by something other than the facts of reality, would actually have ? It’s very difficult for me to see how evolution could be thought of as ‘pragmatic’ in this sense. Likewise, when you say: “And thus, in order for our moral senses to best do their job, evolution will have programmed us with the illusion that they are a manifestation of Absolute Ethics, and that our moral judgements are Absolute. And because evolution is an effective programmer, many people cling to that illusion.” – are you not indulging in egregious anthropomorphism here ? After all, the ability to ‘programme’ somebody surely implies intelligence, forethought, values, objectives and goals, not to mention technical abilities – all qualities of human beings, but surely not qualities of the purely physical/biochemical process of evolution, which is surely an unselfconscious, spontaneous, undirected process, with no pre-defined or determined objectives whatsoever? Even more egregiously, doesn’t your assertion that evolution has programmed humans with an ‘illusion’ suggest that evolution is not only a super-intelligent person, but that it also has a peculiar interest in messing with our heads ?I’m sorry, but the whole ‘evolution as all-powerful computer programmer’ metaphor seems far more in keeping with religious thinking than with pure science. In fact, it seems merely like a projection of your own beliefs about the superiority of ‘science’, back on to nature, in precisely the same way that theists project their own self-understanding on to ‘God’. I don’t think nature or evolution are ANYTHING like computer programmers…..
All human language is very anthropocentric and therefore anthropomorphic, which means that it’s hard to write without using words that can be interpreted that way. But that’s not the intention. One just has to interpret the metaphors correctly! Maybe my writing shows the influence of people like Dawkins, who often write using this sort of metaphor.
The word “pragmatic” is intended to evoke the idea that, as regards evolution, the only thing that matters is what works, the end result, not any other considerations.
Evolution is a “blind” programmer, a programmer without intelligence, forethought, values or goals. The end result is a programme (or a genetic recipe), and in that sense evolution is a “programmer”. Again, one can take the language as metaphorical. It is certainly not intended to imply foresight, goals, etc, which of course evolution does not have.
Again, it is a “blind” programmer which has programmed the illusion for the entirely pragmatic reason that the illusion increased survival/reproduction. In non-metaphorical language, having the illusion increased survival/reproduction, and thus was naturally selected for, and thus the descendants (ourselves) now have that illusion.
Not even if one uses natural selection to write (or, perhaps I should say “arrive at”) computer code? See, e.g., this wiki page on evolutionary computation. “Evolutionary algorithms are now used to solve multi-dimensional problems more efficiently than software produced by human designers, and also to optimise the design of systems.”
Thanks for the quick reply – and I completely take your point about the difficulties of expressing the facts of evolution coherently without the use of anthropomorphic metaphors, but to be honest I think that the drive to ‘explain’ science through the use of such metaphors, as yourself and Dawkins do, actually causes far more harm to science in the long run. I write as someone with an amateur’s passionate interest in science, and completely share your belief that science is the best tool that humans being have for understanding the universe and themselves. And that’s the reason why I wince slightly at writing such as the above – I completely sympathise with the point you are trying to make, but it almost feels like the minute you try and defeat a theistic or pseudoscientific anthropomorphism with your own scientifically informed anthropomorphism you are not only laying yourself open to the charge of hypocrisy, thereby weakening the claim to the higher truth value of science in the eyes of the neutrals, but imperceptibly, the more you use these metaphors the further away from an accurate description of nature you get. So even an apparently harmless metaphor like ‘genetic recipe’ automatically leads the mind away from the facts of the matter when it is read. Genes are not a recipe, because no one is cooking or preparing anything. They are also not a recipe in that they don’t stand ‘apart’ from the ‘dish’ they are an apparent ‘blueprint’ for – but exist as an intrinsic part of that dish, inseparable from that which they produce.
“Not even if one uses natural selection to write (or, perhaps I should say “arrive at”) computer code?” – sorry, but no, this doesn’t really do anything to change my mind. By definition, the evolutionary algorithms have an intelligent designer, namely the human being who came up with them. The fact that they then ‘evolve’ by themselves doesn’t make them any more a facsimile of nature itself – they were still designed with a specific purpose, and to fulfil a specific function – and therefore do nothing to support that evolution is like computer programming.
I think that people react differently to such language and whether one likes it or not comes down to taste. Some people do indeed “wince” at such metaphors, while others interpret them as intended and don’t see a problem. Given the nature of human language, and how loaded it is with concepts of human agency, it is difficult to write well without using such metaphors.
I really liked the article. It doesn’t feel right, but scientifically, there really are no morals. Murder is just an action. Sometimes we think it is morally correct (electric chair, firing squads, etc.), and other times we don’t (genocide). I am very much a Hedonist (which doesn’t really mean what most of society has attributed to it).
An action in and of itself is just an action. Circumstances impact whether we see that action as being good or bad, even if the action is the exact same. A common example is abortion.
Ever hear that question about if you would kill Hitler when he was a baby knowing all the “horrible” things he would do?
What would be an interesting follow-up would be to see how individuals are affected when they act against their moral bearings.
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