On objective moral values and duties: A reply to Anthony Freeland

The Christian blogger Anthony Freeland has invited me to debate the topic of whether morals are objective or subjective. Anthony has written the first post, arguing that objective moral values and duties do exist.

I’m arguing that morals are subjective, and will structure this post as a reply to Anthony, though elaborating on my wider views at times (for more of which see these three posts). To start with, I’ll concur with Anthony’s definition of the terms. Subjective morals derive from and are dependent on human feelings and opinion on the matter. Objective moral values and duties need to be independent of human opinion (though, as below, more broadly they need to be independent of the feelings of any sentient being).

I regard human morality as part of our evolutionary programming. We have evolved to have feelings about how humans treat each other in order to enable and facilitate our cooperative way of life. If a species evolves to cooperate, say by hunting communally, then it needs ways of policing the divvying up of the meat.

Let’s suppose that there were some objective “oughtness” about the universe, such that particular acts were objectively moral or immoral. Evolution, being a “blind watchmaker” with no insight or foresight, would have no way of knowing about that objective morality.

Our evolved intuitions and feelings would not be about that objective morality, they would be about the subjective moral feelings that evolution programs us with for the entirely pragmatic reason that, in a cooperative ecological niche, those who cooperate best and succeed best socially will (in general) be best at surviving and leaving descendants.

Once we discount our feelings and intuitions as arguments for objective morality, the moral realists are then left with essentially no good arguments.

Anthony Freeland, of course, disagrees.

(1) He first appeals to “personal experience and common sense”, and asks:

Was what Hitler and the Nazis did, in exterminating the Jews, evil? . . . do you believe that the terrorism perpetrated on 9/11 was evil?

Most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever, and I hope that all readers feel the same way. That condemnation comes from human feelings on the matter. But, Anthony asks, is it objectively wrong?

Well, to be honest, I don’t even know what that question means. The “wrong” could mean that it is harmful. But one can only define “harm” in terms of what humans like or dislike, which gets straight back to anchoring the concept in human subjective feelings.

Alternatively, one might suggest that something is “objectively” wrong if it is the opinion, not of humans, but of a god. But that simply substitutes the subjective opinion of one entity for that of another, and runs straight into the Euthyphro dilemma.

A wider definition of “objectively” wrong would be wrongness that is independent of any sentient being’s feelings on the matter. In order for an act to be “objectively” wrong it would have to be in-principle possible that the act was “morally wrong” even though every sentient being in the entire universe saw nothing wrong with the act and indeed regarded it as commendable. But, if that were the case, then what would it being “wrong” even mean?

Now, let me accept that most humans have an intuition that their moral feelings reflect an objective standard. I suggest that that intuition was programmed into us as an easy way of making our moral feelings more effective. If you try explaining to people that our morals are “merely” evolutionary programming and do not reflect an absolute standard, they often accuse you of debasing morals and making them sound unimportant — and from that you see why the trick works!

Even though most of us do have an intuition that morals are “objective”, I see no reason why our intuitions would be reliable on that point. As above, our intuitions would have evolved for pragmatic reasons that had no way of knowing about any “objective” standard of conduct.

To illustrate this point, consider this image. Are the squares A and B the same shade of grey?

checker shadow illusion

Everyone’s intuition says “no”. The correct answer is “yes”. The reason we are fooled is that our brains have evolved as pragmatic devices to interpret the world, and here they are making assumptions about the effects of lighting and shade, and thus getting it wrong. Since it is that easy to fool human intuition, we cannot use our intuition as a reliable guide to whether morals are objective. We need, instead, to use solid evidence and sound reasoning. The whole point of science is to do better than coming to conclusions merely on intuition.

(2) Anthony’s second argument rejects a purely “sociologically conditioned morality”, the idea that human babies are born as “blank slates” and that our moral feelings are purely a matter of cultural and social conditioning. Anthony rebuts this by pointing to studies showing that even young babies have the rudiments of morals.

I entirely agree with Anthony on this and reject the “blank slate” idea. I maintain that vast swathes of human nature are the product of both genetic programming and upbringing and environmental influences. My whole stance is that human moral feelings are part of our evolutionary programming, and so I am not surprised that their rudiments are present in babies (though nor am I denying that cultural influences are also important).

(3) Anthony then points to the universality of morals and ethics, saying:

In virtually all societies, murder, rape, theft, and other moral issues are strikingly consistent. Professor Hellier would have us believe that it is because evolution has programmed morality in such a way that all peoples have essentially the same view on main moral issues. But would it not be more plausible, if the Moral–Evolutionary Theory were true, that evolution would be observably more advanced in some races of people than others?

One feature of the human species is that we have very little genetic diversity compared to most other species. Humans very nearly did not make it out of the Pliestocene (the era ending about 12,000 years ago). The evidence from our genetic diversity is that the total human population went through repeated “bottlenecks” where the total population of our ancestors dipped to perhaps only 6000 or so individuals around 50,000 years ago. That’s pretty recent in evolutionary terms. The result is that we’re all from pretty much the same breeding stock. It’s only in the last 20,000 years that human populations have climbed dramatically.

The result is that (barring a few minor local adaptations such as skin colour) humans are pretty much the same worldwide. Each of us is genetically about 99.5% identical to any other human! (Though that number depends a bit on how one quantifies differences.) Thus, the fact that human morality is basically the same worldwide is very much in line with my stance.

(4) As a fourth argument, Anthony turns to “expert testimony”, saying that “morality falls into the realm of philosophy”, and that philosophers are thus the experts on the subject, and he points to the fact that moral realists outnumber moral anti-realists among philosophers.

My response — sorry about this philosophers! — is simply to deny that philosophers are the experts on the matter. To my mind philosophers rely way too much on human intuition as primary. I consider that human intuition is very misleading on this question, and suggest that it has misled all of those philosophers.

The correct way of understanding human morality — as with most things about humans! — is in the evolutionary context. In the relevant sciences moral realism is much less prevalent, and it is taken for granted that human moral sentiments derive from evolutionary programming, which then gives us no reason to suppose that morals are objective.

(5) At this point Anthony challenges my argument head on, saying:

Professor Hellier believes that morality came about through evolutionary processes in order to facilitate human flourishing on this planet. But in his blogs he has not given any mechanism by which this could be possible. In other words, if everything can be explained by science, that is by a materialistic worldview, then we should be able to trace the physical evidence of morality through the chain of evolution to a source, or common ancestry.

I make three replies to this. A minor point is that our evolutionary programming is not about “human flourishing”. Evolution is not for the “good of the species” (that is a common misconception), rather evolution is mostly about individuals competing with their conspecifics.

But, on the mechanism for programming us with moral feelings. First, let’s consider aesthetic feelings. It is obvious that evolution would program us to like eating nutritious food such as sweet fruit, and to dislike bitter, poisonous food. An individual with reversed preferences would likely leave fewer descendants. Thus, natural selection leads us to have aesthetic preferences that align with having more descendants.

The same mechanism explains moral feelings. Suppose you’re in a small group who hunt communally and share the meat. Suppose one of your number then treacherously steals all the food and leaves you with nothing. Obviously such behaviour reduces your survival chances. Thus evolution will program you to dislike cheating, stealing and treachery, and to like fairness, loyalty and comradeship. You’ll be programmed to deter stealing and treachery by punishing it.

When that happens, any cheat might gain short-term advantage from extra meat, but risks long-term disadvantage by being expelled from the group. Thus evolution will program us with a conscience, a way of preventing us acting in ways that would get us expelled from society or killed. (In the same way, we are programmed with a fear of heights, a wariness of snakes, and a disgust at putrid meat, all to discourage actions that might harm us.) From such considerations arises the full complexity of human society.

Thus, the mechanism that Anthony asks for is standard Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Such ideas have been tested using the mathematics of “game theory” and consideration of games such as the iterated prisoners’ dilemma.

That sort of mathematical modelling shows that being nice — cooperating nicely with ones fellows — is evolutionarily favoured whenever cooperation is a good overall strategy (crudely, whenever your share of the meat when hunting communally exceeds the amount of meat you’d get by hunting alone).

The strategies that best benefit the individual are those of being fair to others, giving them what they want, so that they’ll want to cooperate with you and give you what you want. From there it is a short step to the Golden Rule. In such ways, evolutionary theorists have worked out how and why cooperation evolves, and why morality evolves to enable and police cooperation.

Anthony also requests that we be able to “trace the physical evidence of morality through the chain of evolution”. However, behaviour doesn’t fossilize, and nor do our thoughts and feelings! What evidence is being asked for, that it is reasonable to expect?

We can look at our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees who split from the human line about 8 million years ago. And, yes, chimpanzees do exhibit the basics of morality. If you watch their complex social interactions you see notions of fairness, loyalty, treachery, shame — everything that is present in humans is also present in rudimentary form in chimpanzees (indeed, more so than in the human babies that Anthony pointed to above!).

Anthony claims that “animals are not moral agents”. In one sense this is true. Human morality evolved to be about how humans treat other humans, whereas chimp morality would be about how chimps interact. These are separate moral systems; we humans would not consider a chimp a moral agent in human morality, but a chimp would indeed consider another chimp a moral agent in chimpanzee morality.

(6) The last major argument that Anthony presents is about whether any truths at all are objective. My answer is that, yes, truth is an objective concept and there are indeed objective truths. Thus it is an objective truth (something true regardless of any human opinion) that the distance between New York and San Diego is greater than the distance between New York and Philadelphia. However, I don’t see that as relevant to the question of objective moral truth.

Anthony’s argument is this:

1. If absolute truths do not exist, then objective moral truths do not exist.
2. At least some absolute truths exist.
3. Therefore, at least some objective moral truths exist.

I agree with 1 and 2, but 3 does not follow. That’s because objective moral truths (if they existed) would be a subset of all objective truths. Demonstrating members of the super-set does not demonstrate members of the sub-set. Compare:

1. If animals do not exist, then unicorns do not exist.
2. At least some animals exist.
3. Therefore, at least some unicorns exist.

While I’ll accept Anthony’s premise that truth is an objective concept, I don’t see how that helps establish objective morality. No amount of pointing to objective facts establishes that morality is objective, any more than pointing to horses and zebras establishes the existence of unicorns.

A minor part of Anthony’s argument is whether “truth” and “evil” can have degrees. Anthony says:

There is no scale by which to measure what is more true than something else.

I’m not so sure. For example, Newton’s theory of gravity is “roughly true” in the sense that it is good enough for most purposes and gives sufficiently right answers most of the time. Einstein’s theory of gravity is better, in the sense that it gives answers that are right all of the time (as far as we know). But, that’s a minor point about semantics more than anything. More relevantly, Anthony says:

. . . if we are presented with two evils it makes no sense to say that one is more or less evil than the other.

This rather surprises me. I’d have thought that most humans would readily rank immoral acts according to how heinous they considered them. Indeed, if Anthony really does think that good and bad do not have degrees, I wonder why he started his post with the example of the Holocaust, and not, say, an example of social-security fraud. But, this is a side issue.

Anthony refers to my concept of the “Absolute Shouldness Scale” and says “evil does not measure on a scale” and “to say that morality can only be objective if it can be put on a scale to be measured is simply not true”.

On that point I agree. I can grant that an objective morality might not be one that could be ranked on a scale (again, this is a side issue to me).

The point of Absolute Shouldness Scale, though, was not to rank moral acts, it was way more basic than that. The point was to get at what objective morality is even supposed to mean. As above, I don’t know what it even means! The Absolute Shouldness Scale was a satirical attempt to smoke out that meaning.

So let me finish by renewing the question. Anthony, a Christian, conceives of “a single morally perfect Being”. Now, what does that attribute “moral perfect” actually mean?

Does it mean that there is some objective standard of morality against which we can judge such a Being? And, judged against that standard, the Being scores full marks? If so, what is this standard, and by what authority is it established?

Or is it the case that whatever the nature of this Being, that gets labelled “morally perfect”? In which case “morally perfect Being” just means “Being with the nature that that Being has”. If this Being were a sadistic monster then being a sadistic monster would be moral perfection.

This, of course, is the Euthyphro dilemma again. The force of the argument has not lessened in the 2400 years since Plato, and it remains a stake through the heart of moral realism. Above all, it highlights that advocates of objective morality have still not properly explained what their claim of objective morality even means.

“Whatever God wants” is one answer, but an insufficient one, since it gives no reason for preferring “whatever God wants” over “whatever Satan wants”. To do that you’d need to rank the two of them against some objective standard, independent of either God’s or Satan’s opinion.

In contrast, subjective morality is straightforward. It is about human feelings. If someone says “Action X is immoral” what they mean is “I dislike people doing X”. This conception works, and this conception is fully in accord with our evolutionary understanding of who we are.

I grant that it is not in line with many of our intuitions, but why should we regard them as primary? With ideas such as quantum mechanics, physics has told us that the world is often highly counter-intuitive. Part of being a good physicist is to re-program ones intuition to cope with the fact that particles behave as waves. If the argument for moral realism boils down to mere intuition, then that is grossly insufficient.

Updates: See Anthony Freeland’s reply to this post, and my second post, in reply to Anthony.

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162 thoughts on “On objective moral values and duties: A reply to Anthony Freeland

  1. Patrice Ayme

    Excellent essay. However it is impossible to discuss with those who feel truly mandated by “god”. I have an out-of control commenter on my site, “sent by god”, as he self-describes, to denounce atheists as “subhumans”. One cannot go anywhere with people who feel they have a personal relationship with “god”, as if he (?) were a dog they knew well, and have to protect.

    The science known as “ethology” has been established for decades (and hinted at, mentioned, and used, for millennia). To speak of morality without speaking of ethology is impossible.

    One may well consider that what is ethological, is moral. After all, this fits the etymological meaning of “moral” (from the “mores”, what is usual behavior… precisely the meaning of ethology).
    It turns out that democratic behavior is natural: ethological studies on baboons, just published, show this. Thus, in the ethological sense, democracy is moral.

    The question of whether morality is “objective” or “subjective” is thus moot.
    Indeed, organisms, the fruit of four billion years of evolution, are, clearly, objects. Ethology says that, with these organisms, these objects, come behaviors, which are also, themselves, objects. Thus objective. Hence evolutionary given ethology, thus morality, is objective.

    Evolution, as far as organisms are concerned, provides with an effective morality.

    Naturally, organisms perceive the evolutionary-given ethology subjectively. But it’s a distinction without a difference.
    We are subjects, we are objects, evolution is god, and morality determined by four billion years, and, most particularly, the last four million years. When we judge behaviors, millions of centuries contemplate, and guide us.

    Reply
  2. Marvin Edwards

    Okay, here’s a third perspective. To the degree that what is good for us can be objectively determined, morality is objective.

    Morality seeks the best possible good and least harm for everyone. We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

    When we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we see at the bottom our basic physical survival needs. We can state OBJECTIVELY that a glass of water is good for the person dying of thirst in the desert. We can also state objectively that the same glass of water is bad for the person drowning in a swimming pool. And very few would disagree that caring for those disadvantaged by natural disasters and disease is an objectively moral thing to do.

    Unfortunately, as you move up the hierarchy of needs, things become a lot fuzzier.

    But there is a theoretical possibility that any moral issue might be resolved objectively by empirical evidence. And that is good for the Humanist position. Medical science, for example, continues to enlighten us about the dangers of smoking, eating too much, and exercising too little.

    Moral judgment comes into play every day in many issues, especially in the creation of rules (ethics). We consider alternative rules, like slave ownership versus abolition of slavery, or like marriage defined as male/female versus marriage defined by a bond of love and commitment. In every case, we can estimate the possible benefits and potential harms that might arise from this rule versus that rule. And based upon the criteria of best good for all and least harm for everyone, we make the call.

    Because we often must act upon imperfect or limited information, it is possible for two good and honest persons to disagree as to how things will work out with a new rule. In that case we take a vote to establish a working rule. Over time we may learn more from our experience with the new rule and perhaps modify or remove it.

    But the key thing is to use the best data and best estimates to OBJECTIVELY estimate the benefits and harms.

    So, morality is, at least in theory, potentially objective.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,
      You advocate for a version of utilitarianism, yet to me this still fails to produce an objective scheme of morality. The main counters are:

      Morality seeks the best possible good and least harm for everyone.

      Does it? Is that an axiom, stated by fiat, or can you justify it from other principles? Or are you just stating your opinion about morality? If it is the last of those, then that makes your scheme subjective, since it starts from your feelings on the matter. Note that others would disagree with your axiom. For example, some would regard morality as doing God’s will, regardless of whether that is “harmful” to humans here on Earth.

      Second point. How do you define “good” and “harm”? I’d suggest that you can only define these in terms of human preferences, which again makes the scheme subjective by rooting it in human feelings and values.

      Is it “harmful” to someone to give them a lethal injection which will kill them? And would it then be immoral to do that? Well, if that person were terminally ill and in great pain, and wished for death, then complying with their wishes might not be “harming” them and might not be immoral.

      A third major problem is that of aggregating across people. Suppose it were possible to cause 1 unit of “good” to twenty people by an act that inevitably caused four units of “harm” to one person. Is it then moral to perform that act? If you want an objective moral scheme then you need an objective way of answering that question. I don’t think that can be done.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      Utilitarianism says the point of morality is “happiness”. Their error is failing to realize that we have considerable flexibility in what we choose to feel happy about. The business of Religion may be summarized as “helping people to feel good about doing good and being good”. We learn what we should be happy about and what we should feel bad about. So the correct order is to first, discover what is good and second, to be happy about it. The Utilitarians have it backward.

      I make a distinction between morality and ethics. A moral person intends to do good. An ethical person intends to follow the rules. A person can be both moral and ethical, of course. (I don’t understand a lot of Kant, but one thing I agree with him about, that the only thing which is good in and of itself is a “good will”, and that good will is what I call “morality”).

      We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. This is clearest at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the needs are related to our very survival. Things get fuzzier as you move up the hierarchy. And there could be other, possibly more valid schemes for categorizing needs and distinguishing what we really need versus what we only desire. But it seems to me this is theoretically possible.

      Life itself is about needs and their fulfillment. Biological needs animate the living organism to meet the need and distinguish life from the inanimate. So this definition of “good” is well grounded.

      A “harm” would be anything that (unnecessarily) injures the living organism or is harmful to its “rights” (we can go into that later if you wish).

      The axiom “morality seeks the best possible good and least harm for everyone” is the only one that everyone can eventually agree to, including God. (For example, I noticed in the news this morning that the Episcopal church is altering its language to accommodate gay marriage).

      People will still disagree on specific issues. Moral judgments will still vary from person to person as to the benefits and harms of, say, capital punishment. But if minds are open to empirical data then issues become easier to resolve. Subjective opinions confronting the same facts are likely to move closer together rather than farther apart.

      “Suppose it were possible to cause 1 unit of “good” to twenty people by an act that inevitably caused four units of “harm” to one person. Is it then moral to perform that act?”

      I don’t think we have an objective measure yet for “1 unit” of good or harm yet. However, we do have some sense of it that depends on the specifics of the case. For example, requiring a child to be vaccinated before being allowed to attend a public school may be objectively justified. The harm of the injection is less than the harm of an extended illness to the child and those she might infect. Other ethical scenarios may present different quantities and qualities of benefit and harm.

      My position is that we are already doing this. We already consider the benefits and harms, as each person sees them subjectively, when we make moral judgments. By educating our subjective views with new and better information, they become more objective, and move toward agreement.

      And that is why, at least in theory, every moral question may have an objective answer. The idea that those answers are out there somewhere, is the basis of posing the possibility of a “perfect, objective morality”.

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,

      We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. This is clearest … where the needs are related to our very survival.

      Again, is that statement descriptive (describing human feelings), or is it an axiom declared by fiat?

      Who says that human survival is a good thing? Well, we do, perhaps, based on our feelings. But that then gives a subjective scheme since it roots it in human feelings.

      Is the survival of the smallpox virus a “moral good”? Do other species have the same moral status as we do, and if not why not in your objective scheme?

      A “harm” would be anything that (unnecessarily) injures the living organism or is harmful to its “rights” (we can go into that later if you wish).

      It sounds as though you first need to establish objective “rights” of lifeforms. I consider that equally problematic. (As I see it, “rights” are social agreements that humans make with each other, and are once again rooted in our feelings and values, and are thus subjective.)

      The axiom “morality seeks the best possible good and least harm for everyone” is the only one that everyone can eventually agree to, including God.

      So are you rooting the system in what “we” agree to? And we presumably give or withold assent based on our feelings and values? If so then that, again, makes the scheme subjective.

      Also, in “least harm for everyone”, does the “everyone” include cockroaches? If not, why not?

      My position is that we are already doing this. We already consider the benefits and harms, as each person sees them subjectively, when we make moral judgments.

      Agreed, and that is entirely in line with my stance that morals are subjective, and rooted in human feelings.

      By educating our subjective views with new and better information, they become more objective, and move toward agreement.

      No, they become better *informed*, and they may also become more *universal*. But they don’t become more “objective”, they are still, ultimately, rooted in what we want and prefer.

    4. Marvin Edwards

      Hey Coel,

      When I say that “we call something ‘good’ if it meets a real need we have …” I am speaking of the semantic content of the word ‘good’ whenever it is used in the context of morality. I believe it would be hard to find a use of the term ‘good’ that cannot be mapped to this meaning, at least not without raising a question as to whether the ‘good’ thing was indeed good or not. Even the phrase “Good morning” can be transformed meaningfully into “may the morning be such that all things work out well for you, that is, that at the least all of your real needs are met”. But I’m open to counter-examples.

      C: “Who says that human survival is a good thing? Well, we do, perhaps, based on our feelings. But that then gives a subjective scheme since it roots it in human feelings.”

      It is not a matter of feelings. Survival is what we objectively have in hand. And as long as it is tolerable, and produces the self-rewarding satisfaction of our needs, its benefits far outweigh its harms. Therefore it is morally judged to be a good thing.

      C: “Is the survival of the smallpox virus a “moral good”? Do other species have the same moral status as we do, and if not why not in your objective scheme?” and later “Also, in “least harm for everyone”, does the “everyone” include cockroaches? If not, why not?”

      My apologies to the dolphins, but morality is species specific. If it comes down to us or them, we choose us. But, since it is species specific, they would make a different choice. On the other hand, our experience of other species is a moral good for us, and from that, all other life forms have value in our eyes.

      C: “It sounds as though you first need to establish objective “rights” of lifeforms. I consider that equally problematic. (As I see it, “rights” are social agreements that humans make with each other, and are once again rooted in our feelings and values, and are thus subjective.) ”

      Right. All “practical” rights arise from agreements between us to respect and protect that right for each other. In absence of such an agreement, all rights become merely “rhetorical”.

      A “right” derives its meaning from “things as they ought to be”. And how ought things to be? They should be such that the best good and least harm comes to everyone. So rights are also subject to moral judgment.

      A right is secured by a rule. Rights and rules are two sides of the same coin. For example, a rule against theft protects a right to property.

      C: “So are you rooting the system in what “we” agree to? And we presumably give or withold assent based on our feelings and values? If so then that, again, makes the scheme subjective. ”

      Yes and no. To the degree that a decision is based on empirical evidence that can be confirmed independently by all parties, it is said to be “objective”. To the degree that relevant evidence is lacking or ignored, then personal beliefs and feelings may play the deciding role, and it would be called “subjective”.

      C: ” … they are still, ultimately, rooted in what we want and prefer.”

      That is more true in the fuzzier stuff above the first couple of levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. On the bottom levels, where we have survival needs, we can usually say what is objectively good for us and what is objectively bad for us.

      My thesis is that the certainty of the objectivity of good and bad at the survival level offers the theoretical possibility of an objective resolution of issues at higher levels.

      I do agree with you that the whole scheme is subjective in a different sense, in that it is specifically human needs that define what is good for us. (The human species being the subject).

    5. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,

      When I say that “we call something ‘good’ if it meets a real need we have …” I am speaking of the semantic content of the word ‘good’ whenever it is used in the context of morality.

      In other words, people label “good” the things that they like, things that are in accord with their wishes. Which, again, makes the system of morality subjective and rooted in human feelings and preferences.

      It is not a matter of feelings. Survival is what we objectively have in hand. And as long as it is tolerable, and produces the self-rewarding satisfaction of our needs, its benefits far outweigh its harms. Therefore it is morally judged to be a good thing.

      I’m really unsure what you are saying here. Yes, people like and enjoy life, they (mostly) want to go on living. People therefore — based on their feelings and desires — regard it as a “good”.

      What I don’t see is how you have arrived at an objective account of “good” that is independent of human desires.

      My apologies to the dolphins, but morality is species specific.

      Is it? On what basis — objectively — have you determined that other species matter less?

      If it comes down to us or them, we choose us.

      Exactly, we *choose*. In our *subjective* opinion, other species matter less. Yet again, this is rooting the system in our preferences and feelings.

      A “right” derives its meaning from “things as they ought to be”. And how ought things to be? They should be such that the best good and least harm comes to everyone.

      Once again, are you declaring that as an axiom? Or are you just giving your opinion? There is no *objective* way in which you can reason yourself to that statement. It is either an opinion, or an unjustified axiom.

      To the degree that a decision is based on empirical evidence that can be confirmed independently by all parties, it is said to be “objective”.

      No decision is ever based solely on evidence. Decisions are always based on evidence together with *aims*, what people want, what they are trying to achieve. And all of those latter things are subjective.

      On the bottom levels, where we have survival needs, we can usually say what is objectively good for us and what is objectively bad for us.

      No, sorry, we cannot. The very word “good” is a value judgement and is not objective. We cannot say that survival is *objectively* good for us, we can only say that survival is what *we* *value*.

      My thesis is that the certainty of the objectivity of good and bad at the survival level …

      You have not in any way established “objectivity of good and bad at the survival level”!

    6. Marvin Edwards

      Okay, in order to be more objective, let’s consider a different species. A kitten requires air, food, water, and protection from extreme temperature. Kittens don’t just “desire” these things. Kittens are not merely “fond of” these things. Kittens will die without them.

      We can therefore say objectively that sufficient air, food, water, and shelter are objectively “good” for the kitten.

      And this is remains objectively true regardless of any subjective opinion the kitten may have.

      The same may be said for animals of any other species. For that matter, the same may be said for a potted plant. We can know through biology what is objectively good and what is objectively bad for a given species of life.

      As we move up the kitten’s hierarchy of needs, thinks get furrier…I mean fuzzier. Is it in fact good for the kitten to chase the laser light across the floor? Or is there another form of exercise that is better for the kitten, that improves its quality of its life without making it neurotic?

      The fact that we can objectively know what is good for the kitten at the basic level of physiological needs suggests that, through scientific study and experience, we might find the best objective rules for meeting the cats needs without ending up with a cat that is lazy and obese.

      We call something “good” for cats if it meets a real need of the kitten, of the family of cats in our home, or of the cat species.

    7. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,

      Kittens don’t just “desire” these things. … Kittens will die without them. We can therefore say objectively that sufficient air, food, water, and shelter are objectively “good” for the kitten.

      We can say that they are objectively “good” for the kitten **if** we start from the idea that ongoing survival would be good for the kitten and that dying would be bad for the kitten.

      If, say, the kitten were riddled with cancer, in great pain, and near death, we might conclude that being put down immediately was “good” for the kitten, and that prolonging the kitten’s life was “bad”.

      Inevitably, you need to found any such system in a value judgement. It so happens that most of us like life, so it may seem obvious that life is a “good” thing, but it is only a “good thing” because we like it!

      In saying that air, food and water are “good” for the kitten we are making value judgements. Such judgements might be so obvious and automatic, that we don’t realise we’re making them.

      For example, we’d all say that the death of a one-year-old baby was horrendously bad for the mother. Yet, it is only bad because of the mother’s deep love for the baby. If — hypothetically — the mother did not care in the slightest about the baby, then the baby’s death would not be “bad” for that mother. Of course that hypothetical is so alien to human nature that the scenario seems unthinkable, but that just shows how we are making presumptions that underpin our whole thinking on such issues.

      One such presumption we make is that survival is a “good thing”. That’s because most of us do value our survival a lot! But that doesn’t change the fact that the only way in which our survival can be labelled a “good” is because we value it.

    8. Marvin Edwards

      Hi Coel, (Hope you enjoyed the kittens 🙂 )

      C: “We can say that they are objectively “good” for the kitten **if** we start from the idea that ongoing survival would be good for the kitten and that dying would be bad for the kitten.”

      Correct. We “assume” that life is objectively good.

      C: “If, say, the kitten were riddled with cancer, in great pain, and near death, we might conclude that being put down immediately was “good” for the kitten, and that prolonging the kitten’s life was “bad”. ”

      Yup. The assumption holds at least until the facts change and it no longer holds. The assumption that life is good holds only until life becomes intolerable.

      C: “Inevitably, you need to found any such system in a value judgement. It so happens that most of us like life, so it may seem obvious that life is a “good” thing, but it is only a “good thing” because we like it! ”

      The question is whether life is good for kittens or not. Can we say objectively that a kitten is better off alive than dead? And if the kitten must be “put to sleep” to stop an incurable and intolerable illness or injury, isn’t that decision also made objectively according to what is best for the kitten?

      Even a person who is allergic to kittens or someone who hates cats and wants to see them all wiped out would have to agree that the kitten itself is better off alive than dead (assuming it is not suffering intolerable and incurable pain). It is an objective judgment, not based in subjective opinion, but upon the empirical facts.

      C: “…that doesn’t change the fact that the only way in which our survival can be labelled a “good” is because we value it.”

      We value what we objectively judge to be good for us (or for the kittens). By valuing what is good for us we improve our well-being. And all of our other values derive from the assumption that life is objectively good, regardless of how we happen to be feeling today.

    9. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,

      Can we say objectively that a kitten is better off alive than dead?

      No we can’t! We have to make a value judgement. Whether something is “better off” depends on how one values different things.

      And if the kitten must be “put to sleep” to stop an incurable and intolerable illness or injury, isn’t that decision also made objectively according to what is best for the kitten?

      But it depends on how much pain is “tolerable” and all sorts of value judgements about quality of life. All of that is subjective.

      … would have to agree that the kitten itself is better off alive than dead …

      But if I look up what “better” means in the dictionary it means “more desirable”. So does this just mean that the kitten itself would desire to go on living? Yes it would, and we would agree that it is an objective fact that the kitten would desire to go on living. Yet, the value of that life still derives from the kitten’s desires, and thus from subjective feelings.

      … We value what we objectively judge to be good for us …

      That’s a nonsense phrase! All value judgements are subjective. That’s like asking whether we “objectively” prefer coffee to tea. Any such preference is the very essence of subjectivity.

  3. Phil

    Yes, another excellent essay Coel, nice work.

    Well, a discussion of objective vs. subjective morality is of course just another way of debating the god question.

    As a fundamentalist agnostic, I vote the burden of proof is on both theists and atheists to provide compelling evidence that one species on one little planet in one of billions of galaxies, a semi-suicidal species only recently living in caves, is somehow in a position to know what does or doesn’t lie at the heart of all reality, the scope of the god proposal. How could this possibly be true given that we can’t define “all of reality” in even the most basic manner??

    There is so much intelligent and articulate discussion from all sides of the theist/atheist fence. But until it addresses the burden of proof referenced above, it’s really little more than wonderful intellectual entertainment.

    To me, a more useful discussion would begin by facing the obvious fact that after thousands of years of debate by some of the best minds among us, nobody on any side has made their case. This epic failure should cause us to ask more fundamental questions, such as whether a quest for The Answer is even the right methodology.

    This ancient debate has developed a huge pile of useful evidence which could be acted on, but we don’t like what that evidence is saying, so we discard the evidence and return to doing the same thing over and and over again expecting different results, a process Einstein claimed defined insanity.

    Theists can get away with discarding evidence because most theists will admit in the end their position is ultimately based on faith. Discarding evidence is in the end consistent with their position.

    Atheists face a more fundamental problem. Unless they are willing to face the evidence provided by the largest longest debate in human history, they aren’t doing reason, and thus have nothing to put on the table.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,
      I’d tend to just give the “Russell’s Teapot” reply here. We have an entirely adequate understanding of human morality stemming from our understanding of Darwinian evolution. Yes, there may be things beyond our knowledge, but the burden of proof is on anyone arguing for them.

      I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say “this ancient debate has developed a huge pile of useful evidence”. I don’t see any much evidence for moral realism at all. Ever since Darwin, all the evidence has pointed to moral feelings simply being evolutionary programming, and not referring to any objective standard beyond that.

  4. Phil

    Hi Coel,

    We will probably never agree on this, and that’s what makes this fun.

    My feeling, restated too often perhaps, is that anyone making any assertion bears the burden of proof for their assertion. Thus, I see no difference between “there is a god/objective morality” and “there is no god/subjective morality”. Both seem faith based statements lacking even the beginnings of a proof.

    The fact that you can explain morality with evolution proves nothing about where the process of evolution might have come from. Evolution could show why god is not needed, or it could be the process by which a god manages life.

    The huge pile of evidence I was attempting (not very clearly) to point to is the fact that after thousands of years of discussion and debate, nobody on any side has proven their case to anybody but themselves. This suggests to me the need to back up and look for unexamined assumptions which may be in error.

    The leading suspect in my mind is the belief shared by both theists and atheists that the correct methodology for this inquiry is a quest for “The Answer”. Like a good atheist, I see no evidence such a methodology is working, thus I no longer believe in that methodology.

    Anyway, hope I’m not wandering too far off topic, but this conversation you’re having seems just another god debate here, so I’m back to waving the Fundamentalist Agnostic flag. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      Thus, I see no difference between “there is a god/objective morality” and “there is no god/subjective morality”.

      OK, but suppose the claim is: the system of morality that we have feelings and intuitions about is programmed by evolution, and because we understand evolution reasonably well we know that *that* system of morality is subjective. That claim is then adequately supported by evidence. Then, if someone else wants to argue for some other notion of morality that is objective, they are welcome to do so.

      Evolution … could be the process by which a god manages life.

      And, if someone wants to argue that, and present evidence for it, then they’re welcome to do so.

  5. Phil

    Hi again Coel,

    I’m sorry, but you don’t get to claim that your preferred answer is the default, and that it stands unless someone proves otherwise. That’s not how reason works.

    You are making claims: 1) There is no God. 2) Morality is subjective, and not objective, a variation of your God claim. All claims by anybody bear the burden of proof. You have not met that burden, just like theists, and everybody else. I can’t prove my claim that “nobody knows” either, so we’re all in this together.

    The alternative I’m suggesting to all these unproven claims is entirely consistent with the principles of atheism.

    You don’t believe in God because no one can provide convincing evidence of God’s existence. I don’t believe the theist/atheist debate is going anywhere because no can provide convincing evidence it’s going anywhere.

    The only difference between our perspectives is that you are applying atheist principles to a position within the debate, and I am applying atheist principles to the debate itself.

    Imagine for a moment that an astronomer was using some method in his examination of the heavens, and that methodology consistently failed to produce results over a long period of time no matter how hard the astronomer tried, and no matter how brilliant the astronomer might be. At some point the astronomer should start questioning his methodology, right?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      You are making claims: 1) There is no God.

      No, that’s not my claim. My claim is that there is no evidence for any “God” and that explanations of the world work better without invoking gods. Those statements are supported by evidence. From there, if anyone wants to invoke a god, the burden of proof is on them.

      2) Morality is subjective, and not objective, a variation of your God claim.

      No, that’s not my claim. First, it is not a variation of any claim about God. Second, what I am claiming is that the feelings we have about morality were programmed by evolution, and that as a result of our knowledge of evolution we know that *that* system (i.e. the moral feelings and intuition we have) are subjective. All of that is amply supported by evidence.

      From there, if anyone wants to argue for some sort of objective system of morality, the burden of proof is on them.

      Imagine for a moment that an astronomer was using some method in his examination of the heavens, and that methodology consistently failed to produce results over a long period of time no matter how hard the astronomer tried, …

      Our science *has* produced results in this! Back when he wrote the Origin of Species, Darwin realised that our moral sentiments were part of our evolutionary programming. Done and dusted ever since then. It’s not science’s fault if philosophers are still behind the times.

  6. Phil

    Coel,

    I’m sorry, the fact that moral sentiments are part of our evolutionary programming says nothing about whether morality has a source beyond the human mind.

    Imagine you find an abandoned car out in the woods. As a scientist you reverse engineer the car and learn how all of it’s functions operate. And then you claim that the car did not arise from an intelligent source, because you can explain the car’s functioning without reference to a creator. And then you claim to have not claimed that, to escape the burden of proof you know you bear.

    Atheism is not reason. It’s ideology. Theists are the longstanding world reigning champions of ideology, you will never beat them at their own game. It’s better to stick with what you’re good at, what you were trained for, what you make your living doing, what you already know works, reason.

    Imho, reason can open new doors in this inquiry, but it won’t lead to victory for any of the ideologists on any side.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      the fact that moral sentiments are part of our evolutionary programming says nothing about whether morality has a source beyond the human mind.

      Let’s break this down into two halves. The fact that moral sentiments are part of our evolutionary programming, coupled with our understanding of evolution, tells us that our moral feelings and moral intuition are subjective.

      Now, might there be something else in addition to that? Yes there might be. And, as you say, we have no evidence about that. So we can’t say anything about it, and so we don’t. But we can still repeat the sentence above, that “… our moral feelings and moral intuition are subjective”.

      For comparison, suppose I say: “I had a letter today delivered by a postman”. And someone else says: “You had a letter today delivered by a postman accompanied by an invisible fairy”.

      I have no evidence of that invisible fairy. So I can’t assert it was there, but I can’t assert it was not there. But what I can do is simply repeat the claim I have evidence for: “I had a letter today delivered by a postman”, and then put the burden of proof on anyone claiming the accompanying invisible fairy.

      That’s exactly what I’m doing when saying that our human moral system is subjective.

      Atheism is not reason. It’s ideology.

      Spoken like a true agnostic! And yet, lacking belief in gods is entirely rational, just as lacking belief in the accompanying invisible fairy (and putting the burden of proof on the fairyists) is entirely rational.

  7. Phil

    Hi again Coel,

    As I see it, what you’re doing is starting from your faith based beliefs regarding god, and then building your arguments about morality upon that foundation, just like the theists.

    You sincerely believe evolution to be a random mechanical process, and so it seems obvious to you that morality is thus subjective. If we accept your faith based foundation, it’s a logical conclusion.

    Theists sincerely believe evolution is the hand of God, and so it seems obvious to them that morality is objective. If we accept their faith based foundation, this is a logical conclusion too.

    The problem of course is that nobody on any side can prove their faith based foundation, they can only assert it. Thus, their logic works only within their own faith based belief system.

    All anybody on any side can do is surround themselves with like minded folks who then help each other sustain the fantasy that they know something that, according to fundamentalist agnostic holy doctrine :-), they could not possibly know.

    As to your final point….

    Most atheists never give these matters much if any thought. I am willing to agree that this group “merely lacks belief in god”.

    But I’m not willing to extend that status to ideological atheists, those who consistently attempt to undermine theism. Ideological atheists are making claims all over the place, and thus bear the burden of proof like anybody else. When they claim they are not making claims, all they accomplish is undermining their own credibility.

    To be fair to you, fundamentalist agnostics are in a similar situation. I am claiming “nobody knows”, something I could not possibly know. In order to know that nobody knows, I would have to know everybody, and I would have to know what The Answer is not, a clear argument with my own position. And yet, seeing this self contradiction within my own position doesn’t change my view.

    And what would I change it to anyway?

    Maybe this….

    As an astronomer, your career is dedicated to studying the stars, galaxies, planets, the “somethings” in the night sky. This can be compared to the philosopher’s search for The Answer, a symbolic “something”.

    What I really like about atheism is it’s focus on observation of reality. And when we observe reality, we discover that the overwhelming vast majority of reality from the subatomic to cosmic level is not a “something”, but an immeasurably huge nothing.

    This may be a reality based clue that on the largest of questions, the philosopher’s search for The Answer, a symbolic “something”, may be an inappropriate methodology which is not in tune with the nature of reality. The evidence for this proposition is that the best minds of humanity on all sides of the ideological fence have been looking for The Answer to the god question for thousands of years, and have not found it.

    What if we redirected our skeptical challenging away from positions within the debate, and tried aiming it at the debate itself? What have we got to lose?

    Thanks for such an interesting blog Coel. I can never seem to not respond here.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      Hi Phil,

      We are born into a world of good, which we did not create. Not just material things, but ideals, like justice, liberty, and equality. And spiritual values, like courage, joy, and compassion.

      We benefit from what others, in good faith, have left for us. In return, we sacrifice selfish interest when necessary to preserve this good for others. For the sake of our children, and our children’s children, we seek to understand, to serve, to protect, and perhaps, humbly, to enhance this greater good.

      It is an act of faith to live by moral principle when the greedy prosper by dishonest means. It is an act of faith to stand up for right when the crowd is headed the wrong way. It is an act of faith to return good for evil.

      We have seen Hell. We have seen gang cultures whose rite of passage is an act of mayhem or murder. We have seen racial slavery, persecution, and genocide. We have seen revenge spread violence through whole communities.

      We envision Heaven, where people live in peace and every person is valued. It can only be reached when each person seeks good for himself only through means that are consistent with achieving good for all.

      If God exists, then that is His command. If God does not exist, then that is what we must command of ourselves and of each other. Either way, whether we achieve Heaven or Hell is up to us.

      The point of God is to make good sacred. We trust that, each time we put the best good for all above our own selfish interest, the world becomes a better place, for all of us, and our children, and their children.

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      You sincerely believe evolution to be a random mechanical process, and so it seems obvious to you that morality is thus subjective.

      Or rather, as I see it, the evidence suggests that evolution is a random mechanical process, and from that we deduce that evolutionarily-programmed morality is subjective.

      Ideological atheists are making claims all over the place, and thus bear the burden of proof like anybody else.

      A lot of what “ideological” atheists are claiming is that religion is harmful to society and that we’d better off without it. On that, I agree, they do take on the burden of proof. Often, “ideological” atheists are arguing against societal privileges for religion and for equal status. That is a political campaign which is not directly about whether gods exist.

      … the best minds of humanity on all sides of the ideological fence have been looking for The Answer to the god question for thousands of years, and have not found it.

      As I see it we do have an answer. That answer is that, as far as we can tell, as far as we can make out from the evidence, there is no sign of any gods. That’s likely the best answer we’ll ever get, and is likely the best answer possible about anything that doesn’t exist.

      Thanks for such an interesting blog Coel.

      You’re welcome! 🙂

  8. Phil

    PS: Regarding the fairy, someday we should debate the existence of the atheist deity 🙂 The Invisible Pink Unicorn. Seriously, a credible case can be made for it’s existence. We might be careful about what we consider to be obviously absurd.

    Reply
  9. Marvin Edwards

    C: “That’s a nonsense phrase! ”

    You’re right! What I should have said was this:
    We ought to value that which is objectively good for us.

    C: “Whether something is “better off” depends on how one values different things.”

    That’s what we’re discussing. For example, a person may value a profligate lifestyle, but he may be objectively better off by tending to his wife and family. I may value a cheese cake, but I may be objectively better off by eating food that is objectively “good” for me.

    C: “But if I look up what “better” means in the dictionary it means “more desirable”. ”

    Again, what we ought to desire is that which is objectively good for us. And we can actually change what we desire (or rather which desire is given precedence).

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I may value a cheese cake, but I may be objectively better off by eating food that is objectively “good” for me.

      You can only say that a food is “good” for you if you *first* specify a goal. For example, the goal might be good health, a trim body, and long life. *IF* you value those things, *then* it is the case that certain foods are “good” for you. Thus, once you have *subjectively* specified a goal, then one can make *objective* statements about what best fulfills that goal. But there is no alternative to starting with a subjective value.

      For example, a person may value a profligate lifestyle, but he may be objectively better off by tending to his wife and family.

      Same response. He would only be “better of” tending to his wide and family if the things that follow from tending to his wife and family are things that he values.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      Regardless of my values, regardless of my feelings, and regardless of my desires, it is objectively true that good food and exercise are better for me than smoking, drinking, and eating chocolate all day on the couch. This is not a matter of personal opinion. It is a matter of medical science.

      Objectivity is the result of empirical evidence that can be repeatedly demonstrated and confirmed by all observers.

      Biology studies life forms, and learns what supports and enhances the growth and reproduction of that life form versus what conditions, diseases, or predators damage that life form or disrupt its ability to thrive.

      We can therefore say objectively what is good for that life form and what is bad for it.

      The same is true of the human species. We can objectively identify what is likely to produce a healthy and thriving example of the species versus what habits or environmental factors produce scientifically measurable damage.

      To say that “life is good” is only a subjective opinion is highly unlikely, because those specific subjects would also likely have been pruned by evolution. The statement “life as a general condition is good” is objectively true. The statement “life for some people becomes physically, emotionally, or psychologically intolerable leading them to commit suicide” is also objectively true.

      The specific conditions under which life might no longer be considered good are matters of subjective opinion. However, it may be theoretically possible to establish with objective certainty some general categories where everyone agrees it might be better to end a life rather than prolong it. Or maybe not.

      Values may be subjective. But what is “good” for us and what is “bad” for us at the most basic level of biological needs can be objectively determined by science. And since what we value (like a good smoke) can actually be changed to adjust to empirical evidence regarding what is objectively bad for us (like smoking tobacco) our values are flexible and can (and should) adapt to what is objectively good for us.

    3. Coel Post author

      Biology studies life forms, and learns what supports and enhances the growth and reproduction of that life form versus what conditions, diseases, or predators damage that life form or disrupt its ability to thrive. We can therefore say objectively what is good for that life form and what is bad for it.

      Only if we *first* declare that “growth” and “reproduction” and “thriving” are the aims! Of course it is so obvious to us that we generally want such things that we overlook that “growth” and “reproduction” and “thriving” are only “good” because we want them!

      The Oxford English Dictionary gives basic definitions of “good” as (1) to be desired or approved of, and (2) Having the required qualities. Both directly relate the word to a *subjective* goal, one that we want.

      The statement “life as a general condition is good” is objectively true.

      No it isn’t, indeed it is a meaningless statement! “People generally like life” is objectively true. Further, “life is good” is a *subjectively* true statement (one that depends on our feelings) that follows from the *objective* fact that “people generally like life”.

      But you cannot establish a good entirely objectively from first principles. You can only establish a good from a subjective aim or desire. As above, the first words of the OED about “good” are “to be desired …”.

    4. Marvin Edwards

      But we morally judge our “desires”. And we morally judge that which we “approve” or “disapprove” of. Upon what objective reality do we hang our hat in making these subjective judgments?

      The objective reality is that we are living creatures within a real world. Our life relies upon meeting real needs within that world. This is not a matter of subjective opinion.

      The means (ethics) of meeting our real needs and our desires are what we judge to be morally good or morally bad. The best objective standard of judgment is for everyone to use only those means that are objectively consistent with everyone else being able to meet their real needs as well.

      We call a standard objective when it can be confirmed independently by all observers. Ideally, all moral judgments would be based entirely upon objective and sufficient empirical information. But it is often also affected by subjective values and opinions. The fact that we often fall short of the best answer to the objective question should not be an excuse to stop trying to find an objective answer.

      Your dictionary quote from the OED is saying what I’ve said previously. “(1) to be desired or approved of, and (2) Having the required qualities.” Something is “good” if it ought to be desired or approved of. Something is good if it is “good for” (“having the required qualities”) something.

      Something is objectively “good” if it is what we should be desiring or approving of. And the “good for” in morality is “having the required qualities” to meet our real needs by means which are consistent with everyone else meeting their real needs as well.

      Such means are objectively good, whether we subjectively like them or not. I’m sure that the plantation owners in the Old South did not like the idea of giving up the economic advantage of an enslaved labor force. But their means of profit were objectively harmful to those they enslaved. This harm was not merely a matter of subjective opinion, but was known to be objectively true in the real world.

    5. Coel Post author

      Something is objectively “good” if it is what we should be desiring or approving of.

      OK, what do you mean by “should” there? This is the problem with moral realism, it ends in a circular loop. We “should” desire what is “good”, and by “good” we mean something that we “should” desire.

      And the “good for” in morality is “having the required qualities” to meet our real needs …

      There is no objective definition of “needs”! We can only “need” something in relation to some end, some desire. For example, if we desire to screw pieces of wood together then we “need” a screwdriver. But and those ends, those desires, are subjective.

      But we morally judge our “desires”. And we morally judge that which we “approve” or “disapprove” of.

      Agreed. We have a range of desires and attitudes. And, often, we do indeed judge certain of our desires in terms of other desires we have. Thus we might both desire a large piece of cake, and also desire good health and a trim figure. We thus might judge the desire for the cake as something to be over-ruled. Everything here is still rooted in subjective preferences.

      Our life relies upon meeting real needs within that world.

      Which is only relevant if first we *value* that life.

      We call a standard objective when it can be confirmed independently by all observers.

      Well no, “objective” does not mean “universal”. If every observer confirms that chocolate tastes nice, it is still the case that the nice taste is subjective.

    6. Marvin Edwards

      About the “should” — take smoking for example. If it is objectively true that smoking is likely to cause me illness or death, then the high subjective value I place upon a nicotine fix is objectively bad for me. I should instead place a higher value upon quitting until I succeed. Because that is objectively good for me.

      If the choice is objectively good, then the “ought” of that choice is objectively moral. I’m pretty sure that’s how it is supposed to work. There is no loop.

      What is objectively good or bad for me is not subjective, because it is not based upon my feelings or my desires, but upon reasoning and fact. It is science rather than opinion.

      Science, generally speaking, deals in the objective. Subjective theories are put to objective tests, separating what is objectively true from what is merely subjectively supposed.

      C: “There is no objective definition of “needs”!”

      Certainly not all of them. But those real needs at the survival level are clearly objective.

      C: “We can only “need” something in relation to some end, some desire.”

      A “real need” should be distinguished from a mere desire. For example, we are born with a very real need for air to breathe. The need is objectively there in the cells of the organism. And it is only by our evolved internal sensors that we start feeling a desperate desire to breathe as our blood oxygen level drops.

      C: “Which is only relevant if first we *value* that life. ”

      And since we both seem to be here, it seems that value we place on life is more than a mere subjective whim. The objective fact is that we are alive. And we are unlikely to change that fact without some fairly significant and objective need to die.

      There is an objective need to live. The value of life is a presumption built into our DNA. It is a presumption expressed in our need to breathe, to drink, to eat. The value of life is not a subjective desire, which may vary from person to person, unless the person is in an end-of-life situation where there is an objective need to die.

      C: “If every observer confirms that chocolate tastes nice, it is still the case that the nice taste is subjective.”

      Sure. But the objective fact would be that all humans we checked with seem to like chocolate. However, unless by empirical evidence or reasoning from such evidence we conclude that a human objectively needs chocolate, it is not a moral issue.

      Morality, which seeks the best good and least harm for everyone, is objective to the degree that the benefits and harms can be objectively known and understood. To the degree that there is insufficient evidence to objectively establish what is good and bad for everyone, it remains subjective.

      It is likely to be a mix of subjective and objective in any complex moral issue.

    7. Coel Post author

      Hi Marvin,

      I suspect we’re not going to agree on this.

      About the “should” — take smoking for example. If it is objectively true that smoking is likely to cause me illness or death, …

      Yes, it is objectively true that smoking will cause illness or death.

      … then the high subjective value I place upon a nicotine fix is objectively bad for me.

      No, that does not follow. It would only follow if we had first established that “illness and death” were objectively bad for you. Yet, they are only bad because we *subjectively* value good health and life.

      I should instead place a higher value upon quitting until I succeed. Because that is objectively good for me.

      The trouble is you have not established any objective good. Thus “should” gets defined in terms of “objective good”, and “objective good” gets defined in terms of what you “should do”.

      … it seems that value we place on life is more than a mere subjective whim.

      You are right that it is not “mere” and not a “whim”, but it *is* subjective! It is deep, profound and intense *subjective* feeling.

      There is an objective need to live.

      No there isn’t, there is only a deep and intense *desire* to live,

      The value of life is a presumption built into our DNA.

      You mean we are programmed with subjective feelings. Yes, we are. For example, children are genetically programmed to like sweet foods. Their liking for sweet foods is still subjective (= based on their likings).

      It is indeed an objective fact that we have subjective feelings, but that doesn’t make the feelings any less “feelings” and any less subjective.

      The value of life is not a subjective desire, which may vary from person to person, …

      Yes it is a subjective desire! And whether it varies from person to person is entirely irrelevant to that! If every child in the world liked chocolate their liking for chocolate would *still* be subjective (their liking would still be a liking, a feeling, a preference). Objective does not mean “universal”, it means independent of our likings, feelings, preferences and values.

    8. Marvin Edwards

      Morality presumes life. The dead have no concern for moral issues. All that morality can possibly be concerned with is life and its quality. That is the sphere of meaning for morality. That is its logical and semantic context.

      All statements regarding morality imply life and its quality. This is objectively true if for no other reason than that it is built into the meaning of the concept.

      Coel: “It would only follow if we had first established that “illness and death” were objectively bad for you. Yet, they are only bad because we *subjectively* value good health and life. ”

      It has been objectively established that illness and death are bad for us. This is not a matter of subjective opinion, but of objective fact.

      We do not arbitrarily value good health and life. We value good health and life because it is objectively good to be alive and well. We value it for ourselves and our family, friends, and neighbors, and even for our turtles and poodles.

      Of all living things, regardless of their own subjective opinion, we can say that their life and well being are objectively good for that specific living thing. That goes for us, our poodles and turtles, and even for our potted plants.

      Coel: “You are right that it is not “mere” and not a “whim”, but it *is* subjective! It is deep, profound and intense *subjective* feeling.”

      Regardless of my feelings about the Crepe Myrtle in my back yard, I can say that sunlight and rain are objectively good for it. After all, it never grew or bloomed until the Cherry tree that kept it in the shade passed on.

      The judgment that sunlight and rain are good for the Crepe Myrtle is not based upon my subjective feelings, nor, I presume, upon the subjective opinion of the Crepe Myrtle itself. It is an objective fact.

    9. Coel Post author

      It has been objectively established that illness and death are bad for us.

      What does that phrase “… are bad for us” actually mean as used in that sentence?

      Does it mean “… result in illness and death” (in which case, yes, the sentence is true, but rather tautological)?

      Or does it mean “… are things that we dislike” (in which case, the system is rooted in subjectivity)?

      Or, if neither, of those, what does it mean?

      I can say that sunlight and rain are objectively good for it. After all, it never grew or bloomed until the Cherry tree that kept it in the shade passed on.

      Here you are presuming that growing and blooming are “good”. How did you establish that?

    10. Marvin Edwards

      The assertion “illness and death are bad for us” is an implication of the fact that life and wellness are good for us.

      The question is whether “life and wellness are good” is objectively true, or is this merely a subjective opinion based upon personal opinions and feelings that may vary from person to person.

      Luckily, the hypothesis can be easily tested by a simple scientific experiment. If life and wellness are in fact good, then everyone who is objectively observing themselves while alive and well will elect to continue to be so. If it is merely a feeling, then those feeling that life and wellness are not good will end their lives.

      Okay, now, would everyone report back the results of your experiment? Good. Thank you. Let me tally up the results.

      Ah, here we go: It is objectively true because it is experimentally confirmed by every living witness. (No evidence to the contrary was reported back by any of the dead).

    11. Coel Post author

      The assertion “illness and death are bad for us” is an implication of the fact that life and wellness are good for us.

      OK, then I’ll repeat the question, but about the phrase “… are good for us” as used there. What does “good for us” actually *mean*?

      Does “… are good for us” mean “produces life and wellness” (in which case the sentence is just an empty tautology)? Or does it mean “… are what we like” (in which case the system is rooted in subjective preference)? Or does it mean something else, in which case what?

      If life and wellness are in fact good, then everyone who is objectively observing themselves while alive and well will elect to continue to be so.

      Sorry, but this test roots things in a human *choice*, a *preference*, what they *elect* to do, That is the total epitome of a subjective system. It depends entirely on what people *want*, how *they* feel about it.

      You can only argue for an “objective” system if you take human choice, preference, election, feelings, values, et cetera out of it.

      If it is merely a feeling, …

      There is nothing “mere” about feelings! They are of huge importance to us!

      then those feeling that life and wellness are not good will end their lives.

      And people regularly do feel that and commit suicide.

      It is objectively true because it is experimentally confirmed by every living witness.

      Even if that were true (and it wouldn’t be, there are always a minority of people feeling suicidal) it is utterly irrelevant. “Objective” does not mean “universal”. Even if everyone has the same feelings, they are still feelings! Any system rooted in human feelings is — by the very definition of the word — subjective.

    12. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “What does “good for us” actually *mean*?”

      We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. The most objectively real needs of life are air, food, water, shelter from temperature extremes, etc. Therefore we can say that It is objectively good to give a man dying of thirst a glass of water.

      Coel: “Sorry, but this test roots things in a human *choice*, a *preference*, what they *elect* to do, That is the total epitome of a subjective system. It depends entirely on what people *want*, how *they* feel about it. ”

      We can discuss human needs objectively without reference to any specific human subject. Every human benefits from having air to breathe. Every human benefits from having water to drink and food to eat. These are matters of objective fact which cannot be challenged by any subjective opinion or feeling to the contrary.

      Coel: “There is nothing “mere” about feelings! They are of huge importance to us!”

      Feelings are flexible. Objective facts are not. We can adjust our feelings in the light of new facts. But we dare not adjust our facts according to our feelings.

      Coel: “…there are always a minority of people feeling suicidal…”

      Then they are alive, but not well. We can say objectively that it would be good/better if they were well.

      Coel: ” “Objective” does not mean “universal”. ”

      Perhaps, but an objective fact commands all subjective opinions to agreement.

      Coel: “Any system rooted in human feelings is — by the very definition of the word — subjective.”

      Indeed. That is why it is so important to keep human feelings in the back seat and keep our moral judgments objective. Human feelings are the basis of all our prejudices regarding people different from us, whether the difference is race, language, sexual orientation, etc.

    13. Coel Post author

      So, in response to you stating the “fact that life and wellness are good for us”, I asked what the phrase “are good for us” actually means, as used in that sentence.

      You reply: “We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have …”, and further, if it meets one of the “… real needs of life …”.

      So “good” is what we “need” because it is necessary for life. So let’s now substitute that into the original sentence:

      “Life and wellness are what we need in order to have life and wellness”. As I suspected it is an empty tautology, nothing more,

      All you have done is declare, as an axiom, that you’re going to label with the word “good” things that are necessary for life and wellness. That is not further justified, it is just an axiom. And since “life” and good health can be established objectively, that makes “good” objective.

      The trouble is, this whole scheme is dependent on that unjustified axiom.

    14. Marvin Edwards

      A case that makes the distinction is one where a young person, feeling dejected over a lost love, kills himself or herself.

      If subjective feelings are sufficient, then there is no argument to be made against the suicide. You have your feelings. The potential suicide has his or her feelings. And that’s that.

      The only argument against the suicide is based in objective considerations. We know, from our own experience of having lived through such temporary life pains, that this suicide is unnecessary. A long happy life is likely to follow if such drastic action can be postponed long enough to view the issue objectively.

      Stepping back from the subjective feelings, and taking an objective look at one’s options, helps to make the right choice.

      Convincing everyone that there is no objective view of the problem, but only their subjective feelings and opinions, leads to bad results.

    15. Coel Post author

      Absolutely nothing about “morals are subjective feelings” says that we need to ignore objective information in coming to conclusions.

      Thus, saying that the depression could well be temporary, and that a long and happy life might follow if the person could be persuaded to hang in there, is just as valid reasoning if morals are subjective feelings.

      Stepping back from the subjective feelings, and taking an objective look at one’s options, helps to make the right choice.

      I agree 100%. Similarly, stepping back from a craving for chocolate, and looking objectively at consequences, can indeed influence our choices. That is not changed one smidgeon by desires being ultimately subjective. We can still use objective information to help us to assess and achieve our desires, and to choose between competing desires.

      Once we ditch the hang-up about morals needing to be “objective” to function, we realise that they function just as well when subjective.

    16. Marvin Edwards

      You are technically correct in that everything is ultimately subjective in some fashion.

      When I speak of morals being objective, I mean to distinguish between the practical case of morals based only in private opinion from those based in objective facts.

      Our reasoning out of moral issues can be based in prejudices, private fears, and subjective notions, or they can be based in valid empirical data that can be confirmed objectively, opening the possibility of some rules and rights that can be supported universally.

      I’ve been asking Anthony how he derives objective morality from the God concept. I’m guessing that he means to say that an omniscient God knows what the perfect set of rules would look like. However, unless God keeps us up to date on the rules du jour, that perfect set of rules remains unaccessible to us mere humans, leaving us in the same state as if God did not exist, to figure it out on our own.

    17. Coel Post author

      I’d suggest that every single subjective opinion about morals and “how things should be” is heavily influenced by objective facts. But that’s not really what the distinction between objective v subjective moral is about.

      The distinction is about normativity, the “oughtness”, the bindingness and the requirement to act in accord with those morals.

      Does that normativity derive from human feelings and preference (“you ought to do X” then meaning “I would like it if you did X and dislike it if you didn’t”), in which case morals are subjective. Or is there some normativity to morals beyond human sentiment, some objective non-human standard whose dictats we are morally bound to follow? If there is, then morals are objective, and it is that notion that I reject (and, indeed, don’t even consider meaningful).

    18. Marvin Edwards

      There are computer programs that optimize traffic light timings for specific traffic flows. Everyone is going into the city to work in the morning and heading back in the opposite direction when going home after work. It is an objective optimization problem.

      Ethics is also an objective problem within the real world. What are the best rules that work well for everyone?

      Our initial subjective intuition is to obtain every satisfaction by crying out until mother picks us up and begins feeding us. Eventually we get some push back and the original solution stops working reliably. Someone puts a spoon in our hand and expects us to feed ourselves. Then baby sister comes along and we’re expected to do everything for ourselves and help take care of her as well. Then school comes along with its rules. Then work ethics. Then marriage and family again, but now in the role of parent.

      Everyone has needs and desires. What set of rules best allows everyone to pursue their own needs in a way that does not interfere with others doing the same?

      Ethics is a real world optimization problem. It is an objective problem in that it concerns human objects and their behavior in the external world.

      There is nothing that is “beyond human sentiment”. The issue is when sentiment should be in the driver’s seat and when personal preference should take a back seat to common good. The lights programmed to expedite the flow of traffic into the city will be turning green as you approach them. The guy on the night shift who is coming home against traffic in the morning will find the lights turning red more often. Without a concern for the common good, he too is likely to turn red, cursing the lights. But if he understands the why, he can adjust his feelings to be glad for the hordes traveling expeditiously in the opposite direction.

      Wasn’t there some Catholic saying about “It is better to take the bypass than to curse the red lights”? 🙂

    19. Coel Post author

      Ethics is also an objective problem within the real world. What are the best rules that work well for everyone? […] Ethics is a real world optimization problem.

      Is that an axiom that you are declaring by fiat? Or can you justify the claim?

    20. Marvin Edwards

      It would be a reasonable description of what we both observe. What ethics are objectively required to allow automobiles to be safely driven in cities and on highways? We want to optimize expeditious travel while at the same time minimizing the risk of accidental injury and death.

      That is a problem of ethics. That is a problem of optimization. Do you observe this phenomenon of traffic regulation and automobile safety design differently?

    21. Coel Post author

      What ethics are objectively required to allow automobiles to be safely driven in cities and on highways? We want to optimize expeditious travel while at the same time minimizing the risk of accidental injury and death.

      I’ve added the emphasis. That “we want” is all important. The system is rooted in what we want, our desires, feelings and goals, and is thus — by definition — subjective.

      Given a subjective goal, then objective information can be very useful to guide as as to how to achieve our goals. But the system is still rooted in those subjective goals.

      Hence my question, are your previous statements axioms stated by fiat, as your personal preference and feelings about ethics, or do you have an actual justification of them?

    22. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Given a subjective goal, then objective information can be very useful to guide as as to how to achieve our goals.”

      Correct.

      Coel: “But the system is still rooted in those subjective goals.”

      NO. The system of ethics is rooted in the objective world. And the goals are subjective experiences of objective problems (unless the subject is insane).

      The subject himself is an object within the problem. For example, your subject is a man whose head is being held underwater. This is not a subjective problem within the mind of the subject, but an objective problem of survival for his physical body (an object in the real world). The actual cells in the body are beginning to die of asphyxia, and some part of the brain that monitors oxygen levels in the blood is causing extreme subjective fear triggering an objective dose of adrenaline so he can fight off whoever is trying to drown him.

      What is true of the need for air is also true of the need for water, and food. The problems to be solved are objective. Therefore the best means of solving the problem need to be considered objectively. We need to consider the relevant empirical data when designing, testing, and evaluating the rules of behavior that solve the problem.

      And if we have done a good job, then that rule should also solve other problems of the same nature. The rule then exists outside of the subject and even outside of the original problem. And it may be deemed an objective solution on that basis.

    23. Coel Post author

      The system of ethics is rooted in the objective world.

      True, but any system of ethics must refer to subjective goals and subjective feelings within that objective world. There is simply no way for any system of ethics to be entirely independent of all subjective goals, values and feelings.

    24. Marvin Edwards

      Okay, I’m going to subjectively chalk that up as a near win. There’s nothing new I can think of to say on the subject. And I’m pretty sure I’ve said all the old stuff more than once. Thanks for the conversation!

    25. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “Hence my question, are your previous statements axioms stated by fiat, as your personal preference and feelings about ethics, or do you have an actual justification of them?”

      Pretty sure I’ve given you actual justification several times now. Have you checked your hearing aid?

    26. Coel Post author

      Pretty sure I’ve given you actual justification several times now.

      No you haven’t. You’ve said two things (essentially):

      1) Things that help us live and thrive help us live and thrive (true but empty).

      2) That you want to label things that help us live and thrive as “moral” (this you have not justified, you’re only declaring it by fiat, or presenting it based on your feelings on the matter).

    27. Marvin Edwards

      To live and thrive is objectively good. The assertion is not empty. It is not subjective. It is an empirical observation of life as we see it in the real world. Life is the inevitable product of a deterministic universe. And life finds living to be objectively good. Otherwise, life would have already disappeared as inevitably as it appeared.

    28. Coel Post author

      To live and thrive is objectively good.

      But what does that even mean? When I’ve asked you what “objectively good” means you’ve said that it is things that lead to thriving and life. Thus your sentence becomes: “Living and thriving are things that lead to living and thriving”. Which is true but empty.

    29. Marvin Edwards

      Living and thriving are objectively good because they are the point of “good”. We call things “good” which sustain life and improve its quality.

    30. Coel Post author

      Living and thriving are objectively good because they are the point of “good”.

      And, again, is that an axiom, declared by fiat? The point of “good” is what leads to living and thriving. Says you.

      We call things “good” which sustain life and improve its quality.

      We call those things “good” because we want them. A labelling of something as “good” is a value judgement we make about something. That makes the system subjective, it derives from our preferences.

    31. Marvin Edwards

      We don’t “prefer” to breathe. We objectively “need” to breathe to sustain life. Air is objectively “good” for us because we cease to exist without it. And if you are unconscious on the operating table and losing life due to lack of oxygen, the surgeon will not be asking you how you feel about getting oxygen, because he has CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE that you OBJECTIVELY NEED it.

      And life is objectively good because we objectively cease to exist without it.
      And well-being is objectively good because we objectively deteriorate without it.

      Everything starts with life. There is no definition of “good” that does not relate to life as an objectively good thing. Even end-of-life decisions presume the goodness of life and its quality. For it is only when quality of life deteriorates to where it is no longer meaningful or no longer bearable that death is considered.

    32. Coel Post author

      We objectively “need” to breathe to sustain life.

      Agreed. Note that the sentence does not contain the word “good” or any value judgement. It says that given a goal (sustaining life) there are objective statements about what achieves that.

      Air is objectively “good” for us because we cease to exist without it.

      Which is an axiom. You have decided to attach the label “good” to things that sustain life. You are declaring that axiom by fiat.

      … the surgeon will not be asking you how you feel about getting oxygen …

      Because he is working on the presumption that you want to go on living, because that is a fair assumption for the overwhelming majority of humans.

      There is no definition of “good” that does not relate to life as an objectively good thing.

      Yes there is! “Good” is a value judgement. It is what we humans want and prefer. Thus life is a subjectively good thing in the opinion of most of us.

      Even end-of-life decisions presume the goodness of life and its quality.

      “Quality” is again subjective, being a human value judgement about their experiences. Your scheme for “objective” good doesn’t work. Either it comes down to a subjective value judgement, or it comes down to an unjustified by-fiat declaration of an axiom.

    33. Marvin Edwards

      Life is good. That’s an axiom declared by fiat by all living things, including you. It requires no justification beyond that. Whether this is a subjective judgment or an objective judgment is irrelevant. Apparently this is to you a matter of personal belief, while to me it is a matter of objective fact.

      If life is good, then the satisfaction of the requirements to sustain life are objectively good (apart from any subjective feelings about them).

      If life is good, then the quality of life (well-being) is an objectively measurable degree of that good, (apart from any subjective feelings about them).

      For example, a young person may feel suicidal despite their objective high quality of life (their health, their youth, their security, their ability to meet their daily needs of life). In that case their suicide would be objectively, morally wrong.

      Living requires meeting at least the basic physical needs of the life form, whether human or ficus. This is objective fact, not subjective opinion. Therefore, regardless of personal opinion, we can say that air, water, food, et cetera are “good” for that life form.

      And we can say that it is objectively wrong for the mother to drown or starve her kid. And it remains wrong regardless of the mother’s subjective opinion or feelings in the matter.

      There must be some objective criteria to judge between your subjective feelings about her kid and her own subjective feelings about her kid.

      The objective criteria is that the life of the child is objectively good and the unnecessary destruction of that life is objectively bad.

    34. Coel Post author

      Life is good. That’s an axiom declared by fiat by all living things, including you.

      No, it is not an axiom. They are declaring a value judgement. When people say “life is good” they mean “I like life”.

      Apparently this is to you a matter of personal belief, while to me it is a matter of objective fact.

      It is an objective fact that people like life, yes. But people’s liking for life, people’s regard life as “good”, is still subjective (by the very definition of what subjective means).

      There must be some objective criteria to judge between your subjective feelings about her kid and her own subjective feelings about her kid.

      Why must there be? Why must it be the case that moral judgements are objective?

    35. Marvin Edwards

      If there is no better morality than one’s own subjective opinions and feelings, then it is impossible to make the case that one person’s feelings are better than another’s. The woman’s feelings (it just seems right to her) that she must kill her child (I hear it had something to do with not eating the spinach) and your feelings that she ought not kill her child, because, for some reason that you cannot explain, it just “feels” wrong to you, are of equal value without some deciding criteria to judge between them.

      Coel: “No, it is not an axiom. They are declaring a value judgement. When people say “life is good” they mean “I like life”. ”

      Just like when the mother said, “I really feel good about holding this kid underwater in the bathtub. I was so angry. And now I’m not.”. Since subjective feelings change from time to time, so would what is right and wrong. And in that moment, her feelings would be presumed to govern, since morality is subjective.

      Coel: “No, it is not an axiom. They are declaring a value judgement. When people say “life is good” they mean “I like life”. ”

      Then no one else’s life is of value?

      Let me skip ahead and answer your rebuttal, “We have agreed to respect and protect a right to life for each other”. — That agreement becomes an objective standard of right and wrong. It’s called the “rule of law” as opposed to the “rule of what feels good at the moment”.

    36. Coel Post author

      If there is no better morality than one’s own subjective opinions and feelings, then it is impossible to make the case that one person’s feelings are better than another’s.

      Objectively better? Yes, you’re right. But it’s still possible to persuade someone else to your point of view. For example, if your friend doesn’t like jazz, it is possible to introduce them to it and persuade them to like it.

      [feelings] … are of equal value without some deciding criteria to judge between them.

      Which is only relevant if you want to decide between the feelings by ranking them on an objective scale. You can decide between the two by weight of human opinion — which, as it happens, is exactly how society works.

      Since subjective feelings change from time to time, so would what is right and wrong.

      No, your phrase “… what is right and wrong” is misconceived. You’re assuming that there *is* a “right and wrong” that is not human opinion. Her subjective feelings change with time, yes indeed they do. That does not mean that “what is right and wrong” changes.

      Then no one else’s life is of value?

      No, most people’s lives are of value to quite a few other people.

      That agreement becomes an objective standard of right and wrong.

      A communal agreement based on the aggregate of people’s opinions is NOT OBJECTIVE. That communal agreement derives 100% from people’s *feelings* on the matter, and is thus — by the very essence of the concept — *subjective*.

    37. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “But it’s still possible to persuade someone else to your point of view. For example, if your friend doesn’t like jazz, it is possible to introduce them to it and persuade them to like it. ”

      You mean present an objective demonstration, something separate from your subjectivity and separate from their subjectivity.

      Coel: “Her subjective feelings change with time, yes indeed they do. That does not mean that “what is right and wrong” changes.”

      Then where does right and wrong exist, if separate from her? If it only exists within her, then it is subjective opinion and feeling and changes as she changes. If it exists regardless of her thoughts and opinions, then it is objective.

      Coel: “A communal agreement based on the aggregate of people’s opinions is NOT OBJECTIVE.”

      However, the law that is agreed to becomes a separate objective standard that all must obey regardless of their private opinion or feelings. It matters not whether the people were casting their vote based upon subjective or objective reasons. The end product is an object, a law, which will become the objective criteria for judging the behavior regardless whether one subjectively agrees or disagrees with the law.

      Ethics are rules that exist as objective standards of behavior. The criteria by which these rules are objectively judged, ought to be according to how well they generally benefit all people or by how they generally reduce unnecessary harm to all people. I submit that this objective standard is what is behind a person’s subjective moral evaluations.

    38. Coel Post author

      You mean present an objective demonstration, …

      I simply mean that subjective preferences can be influenced by all sorts of things (both objective and subjective).

      Then where does right and wrong exist, if separate from her?

      Right and wrong don’t “exist”. It is liking and disliking that “exists”.

      If someone likes sugar in their tea, and then, over time, comes to prefer no sugar, that doesn’t mean that anything changes except their subjective preference. It does not mean that some abstract quantity “the niceness of sugary tea” has changed.

      However, the law that is agreed to becomes a separate objective standard that all must obey …

      There is nothing “objective” about such a standard, it derives from human preferences.

      Ethics are rules that exist as objective standards of behavior.

      The standard of behaviour is not “objective” if it derives from human preferences.

      The criteria by which these rules are objectively judged, ought to be according to how well they generally benefit all people or by how they generally reduce unnecessary harm to all people.

      There you are declaring your personal opinion about how people “ought” to judge. That’s subjective.

    39. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “The standard of behaviour is not “objective” if it derives from human preferences.”

      The lady who drowned her kid preferred to drown rather than put up with him. Are you sure you want to leave it up to her?

      Coel: “There you are declaring your personal opinion about how people “ought” to judge. That’s subjective.”

      The criteria by which rules are objectively judged, is according to how well they generally benefit all people or by how they generally reduce unnecessary harm to all people. This is the only practical way to derive a set of rules that can be agreed to by everyone.

      The rules must be separated from any one person’s opinions and feelings, and instead be based upon what can be proven to be objectively good for everyone.

      The convincing comes from the proving. The proving comes from the objective evaluation of the effects upon people. The effect is either a benefit, a harm, or no effect (not better and not worse off).

      Frankly, I don’t understand a position that instead throws ethics back into the hands of private prejudices and subjective feelings.

    40. Coel Post author

      The lady who drowned her kid preferred to drown rather than put up with him. Are you sure you want to leave it up to her?

      No, OF COURSE, I do not want to leave it up to her! What gave you that impression? How come “morality is all about human feelings and wishes” gets interpreted as “you are not allowed to have feelings and wishes”?

      OF COURSE most humans (and thus society) would have views on that woman, and would want to save the baby, and that’s why we institute laws.

      The criteria by which rules are objectively judged, is according to how well they generally benefit all people or by how they generally reduce unnecessary harm to all people.

      It’s a simple fact that people judge laws subjectively, based on their feelings and preferences. And you’re also using words such as “benefit” and “harm” that only mean anything in relation to human preferences.

      This is the only practical way to derive a set of rules that can be agreed to by everyone.

      No, the practical way to set rules is that we all have our subjective opinions, and then elect representatives to go to a legislature to debate and decide on laws.

      The rules must be separated from any one person’s opinions and feelings, …

      No, they are aggregated from *everyone’s* opinions and feelings.

      … and instead be based upon what can be proven to be objectively good for everyone.

      There again you are using meaningless phrases such as “objectively good”.

      Frankly, I don’t understand a position that instead throws ethics back into the hands of private prejudices and subjective feelings.

      Suppose a wizard came along and waved a wand and turned off everyone’s feelings about everything. So that every one of us had no more feelings, values, cares, wishes or anything similar than a rock does. Starting from there, outline your idea of “objective good” or “objective morality”. If you’re going to point to people dying then you need to explain why that matters. Ex hypothesi, it wouldn’t matter to any of us.

    41. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “, the practical way to set rules is that we all have our subjective opinions, and then elect representatives to go to a legislature to debate and decide on laws. ”

      Speaking of kicking the can down the road… ON WHAT BASIS DO LEGISLATORS DECIDE THAT ONE SUBJECTIVE OPINION IS BETTER THAN ANOTHER? More subjective opinion? Or isn’t it true that they will hold hearings to get hold of the objective facts so that they can decide the matter according to what benefits are objectively attained and what harms are avoided (or created) by the new rule?

      Take a simple problem like the highway speed limit. They want to optimize expeditious travel while minimizing the risk of accidental death and injury. That’s the objective problem. And there are records and statistics as to the likelihood of accidents at different speeds for cars and trucks of different sizes. And there are experts who analyze this data and can give their advice on the basis of objective information.

      If the problem were merely subjective, then they would not bother with that. They would simply take a poll to aggregate the public’s subjective feelings. Or they could take the Autobahn approach and leave it in the subjective judgment of each driver to choose his own speed (I just looked it up in Wiki and they also have a number of speed limits for specific vehicles types, temporary limits for weather conditions, limits for urban or accident prone areas, in addition to the open-ended speed limit for certain types of automobiles).

      Coel: “There again you are using meaningless phrases such as “objectively good”. ”

      You’re welcome. Since it is meaningful to distinguish something that is objectively good for us from what we subjectively “feel” good about, I’ll continue using the phrase.

      A lot of people were made ill a few months back after a case of the measles was spread into communities due to the subjective opinion of a few mothers that vaccinations caused autism. What is objectively good for us was clearly different from the mothers’ subjective opinion. And when an irrational fear is going around, you can’t always count on a majority to make the objectively right choice.

      Coel: “Suppose a wizard came along and waved a wand and turned off everyone’s feelings about everything.”

      Then the evolutionary response would be to provide some way to determine what is objectively good for us and what objectively harms us, and we would morally judge what is good for us as “good” and what is harmful to us as “bad”. Oh, wait, we already have that, its called a “brain”.

      Coel: “Ex hypothesi, it wouldn’t matter to any of us.”

      And that is why evolution has also provided us with objective sensations of distress whenever we lack sufficient oxygen, water, or food. However, these subjective feelings are often misleading. We have manufactured sugar, which the body objectively requires a little of, but usually gets along with other nutrients in actual food. The cravings for concentrated sweets and fats leads to obesity, heart disease, and early graves. That’s why we have brains, to determine what is objectively good for us despite our subjective feelings.

      The better morality is the objective morality, the one that is based upon what is objectively good for us, and not what merely feels good to us.

    42. Coel Post author

      ON WHAT BASIS DO LEGISLATORS DECIDE THAT ONE SUBJECTIVE OPINION IS BETTER THAN ANOTHER? More subjective opinion?

      Yes, exactly. Legislators decide on their subjective opinion, though, of course, informed by objective facts and influenced by opinions of voters. That’s why we vote either “left” or “right” to appoint someone whose subjective opinions align with ours. That’s why we don’t just appoint an accountant who can add up a utility function.

      … they can decide the matter according to what benefits are objectively attained and what harms are avoided (or created) by the new rule?

      Once again, the words “benefit” and “harm” only mean anything in relation to human preferences, which are, by the very meaning of the concept, subjective.

      They want to optimize expeditious travel while minimizing the risk of accidental death and injury.

      Both of those things, optimizing expeditious travel and minimizing the risk of death, are human desires, human preferences, and thus the *goal* of the law is *subjective* (= deriving from human feelings). I fully agree that objective information can be useful in guiding us to attaining our goals.

      If the problem were merely subjective, then they would not bother with that.

      Not at all. Once you’ve decided you goal, it makes sense to use the best objective assessment that you can about how to attain that goal.

      … it is meaningful to distinguish something that is objectively good …

      All your attempts to define “objective good” have ended either in tautology or an unjustified axiom.

      And that is why evolution has also provided us with objective sensations of distress …

      Simply adding the adjective “objective” in an attempt to make things seem objective, doesn’t actually make them objective.

      But, you didn’t really answer the question. Suppose a wizard turned off all of our feelings such that nobody cared about anything, in the same way that a rock doesn’t care about anything. In that scenario, why would all of us dying be a “bad thing”?

      Is your answer: “because I’ve declared it to be so by fiat”?

    43. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “…thus the *goal* of the law is *subjective* …”

      That’s misusing the language. A goal is always objective. Your preference for this goal or that goal is indeed subjective. But the goal itself is not within you, but rather an objective condition that you wish to achieve in the real world. Therefore, your plan to reach that goal must be objectively laid out.

      The goal of well-being, for yourself and others, is the objective goal of morality. To achieve that goal, we create a moral code, an objective set of ethical rules that we believe will enhance our ability to reach that objective goal that we subjectively desire.

      That’s the correct distinction between objective and subjective.

      Coel: “Suppose a wizard turned off all of our feelings such that nobody cared about anything, in the same way that a rock doesn’t care about anything. In that scenario, why would all of us dying be a “bad thing”? ”

      It would be a bad thing regardless of our feelings about it. It would be the end of our individual lives, the dissolution of our society, and the death of our species. These would remain objective facts regardless of our feelings. It would be a loss, even if no one felt the loss. Sort of like that tree that made the unheard “thump” when it fell in the forest. The thump is objectively real even if no one is around to hear it or name it.

      Coel: “Is your answer: “because I’ve declared it to be so by fiat”?”

      Not by fiat. But I’ve often lusted for a mazda with a Wankel rotary engine.

    44. Coel Post author

      But the goal itself is not within you, but rather an objective condition that you wish to achieve in the real world.

      Exactly! The *choice* of the goal is subjective, it is what *we* want. Laws are there as an attempt to attain what *we* want. Every law ever made derives from a *subjective* desire. It matters not one jot that objective information can be useful in guiding us towards attaining those goals, all human goals are (by definition) subjective.

      That’s the correct distinction between objective and subjective.

      No it isn’t! Any system of laws or morals that is about what *we* *want* is (ipso facto) subjective. An “objective” system would have to be one that is not in any way about what we want, something that is absolutely and in all ways independent of and regardless of what we humans want.

      It would be a bad thing regardless of our feelings about it.

      Why?

      It would be the end of our individual lives, …

      So? Who cares?

      … the dissolution of our society, …

      So? Who cares?

      … and the death of our species …

      So? Who cares? I can assure you that, say, termites would not care. I can assure you that the planet Venus would not care.

    45. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “It matters not one jot that objective information can be useful in guiding us towards attaining those goals, all human goals are (by definition) subjective. ”

      Actually, a synonym for “goal” is “objective”, as in “our goal is to …” and “our objective is to …”. From the SOED we have, “4 The object of one’s ambition or effort; a desired end or result.”

      The semantic implication is something “out there” to be reached. The “object” (a new car or physically shedding pounds) remains out there whether our subjective desires change or not.

      And the key here is that the “means” of attaining the object or goal (buying a car versus stealing a car) has moral and legal implications.

      A desire only exists within a person, making it subjective. But the goal is in the real world and the means of attaining it occurs in the real world. Ethics is about things happening in the real world (objective), apart from what is only happening in a person’s head (subjective).

      Ethical problems are optimization problems. The problems are how to maximize benefits and minimize harms for everyone (the “for everyone” is tacked on for “equity”, equity is generally required for unanimous agreement).

      The benefits are tangible, objective and measurable in some way, And so are the harms.

      Coel: “An “objective” system would have to be one that is not in any way about what we want, something that is absolutely and in all ways independent of and regardless of what we humans want.”

      The moral question is what we “ought” to desire, regardless of what we do desire. What we ought to desire is what is objectively good for us and everyone.

      Coel: “I can assure you that, say, termites would not care. I can assure you that the planet Venus would not care.”

      I agree that neither Venus nor the termite would care. However, if termites on Venus had evolved the same neurological thinking machine that we possess, and had engaged in the study of other species on other planets, such as us, then they could, over time, learn enough to say objectively what is good for us and what is bad for us. Pretty much like the botanist and the potted plant.

  10. Phil

    Wow Coel, this is fun. Thanks for the time you are investing here. In reply…

    Yes, we can agree that evolution is a random mechanical process. But understanding the mechanical nature of evolution says nothing about the existence or non-existence of some form of higher intelligence. Evolution could demonstrate that gods are not necessary, or evolution could be the the automated method by which a lazy god manages life. Understanding how evolution works tells us nothing about evolution’s source, and thus nothing about whether morality has a non-human source.

    As to your other point, here’s an example from your own field. Before Hubble, there was no evidence of 99% of the universe that we now know exists. Our lack of evidence for hundreds of billions of galaxies wasn’t proof those galaxies didn’t exist. That lack of evidence proved only the profound state of our ignorance prior to Hubble’s discoveries.

    Finally, here are valid atheist principles, applied to atheism itself. This is a required procedure if an atheist is to remain loyal to reason, and not just ideology.

    Where is the compelling evidence that the “reason rule book” invented by a single semi-suicidal species only recently living in caves on one little planet in one of billions of galaxies is binding upon all of reality, an arena we can’t define in even the most basic manner?

    Valid atheist principles of skeptical questioning can be applied not only to positions within the debate, but to the debate itself, and to reason and thought as well.

    It’s clear beyond doubt that reason is very useful for very many things, but that does not automatically equal it being qualified to address everything in all of reality, the scope of the god proposal.

    Thanks again, and happy stargazing!

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      Evolution is about survival, Phil. Variations may be randomly introduced, but only those that are consistent with life surviving actually survive.

      As to whether God exists or not, that is ultimately a matter of faith. Both the -ism’s the one at the end of theism and atheism mean “belief”. One believes that at least one god exists and the other believes no gods exist.

      There are no “absolute” proofs of anything, so we generally believe what seems most reasonable to us given the evidence available. If an apple falls from the tree once, I have a bit of evidence about gravity. If I own an apple orchard, I have a lot of evidence that apples fall downward rather than floating upward. But I have not seen every apple fall down, so there remains a theoretical possibility that gravity might not always hold. Still I feel I have sufficient evidence to support my gravity-ism.

      A belief may also be sustained by its utility and relevance. Most Christians believe that God has the power to heal. Yet most Christians also take their children to the doctor when ill. Both the believer and the non-believer behave the same in the real world, relying upon medical science rather than prayer alone.

      To the degree that Christianity helps people to be better people, I’m all for it. To the degree that it makes people less humane or prejudiced, then it may introduce harm.

      All of the evidence regarding God’s existence or non-existence may be indirect and based more in assumptions than in empirical data. To say that something has piles of evidence one way or the other may only be saying that a lot of people have expressed the same subjective interpretations of the same insufficient data according to their own assumptions.

    2. Coel Post author

      Both the -ism’s the one at the end of theism and atheism mean “belief”. One believes that at least one god exists and the other believes no gods exist.

      Most atheists regard “atheism” as a-{theism} and not {a-the}-ism. Atheism is thus the absence of an -ism, in this case theism. It is not an assertion of non-existence, it’s an absence of belief.

    3. Coel Post author

      But understanding the mechanical nature of evolution says nothing about the existence or non-existence of some form of higher intelligence.

      But so what? Suppose I make the statement that “this car was made in a Japanese factory”. That statement also says nothing about whether gods exists or where the factory came from. Regardless of that, the statement remains true, and we know enough about the car to know that it was made in a Japanese factory.

      In the same way, we know enough to know that our evolutionarily programmed moral system is subjective. We don’t need to know about or make claims about gods or whatever to know that that is a true statement.

  11. Pingback: Do Objective Moral Values and Duties Exist? (Debate) Affirmative 2nd Post | Truth, Interrupted

  12. Philosopher Eric

    Gosh Coel, I can see a Christian debating a Christian on morals, or atheist versus atheist, but you debating a Christian? I just don’t see how that could work! One of the two of you must clearly be beginning from a very flawed premise that should be far more pertinent than any simple “morals” issue. You and I could debate the idea, except of course that I think we already agree. Nevertheless I’ve sensed that we are not entirely on the same page in at least some ways. Let’s see if you have any problems with this:

    I very much dislike using the “moral” term — it’s such a humanly fabricated notion, or even social tool from which to shame others into accepting norms. Regardless there’s nothing about it which should enter the realm of “objective reality,” or at least through standard definitions that I know of.

    I instead like to use the concept of “good/bad.” If existence is utterly inconsequential for your telephone, though not for you, then here we must have a concept that doesn’t fluctuate along with human beliefs. What most essentially do you have, but your phone does not, that causes your existence to be consequential for you? Or what essentially is it about you that would need to be removed in order for your existence to be just as inconsequential as it presumably is for a phone? Here I see that you use the term “feelings,” while I favor the term “sensations,” though I think we can each settle upon “qualia” as the definition of good/bad for the conscious entity. Furthermore qualia is well known to inherently be subjective — you can’t directly feel my pain and I can’t do so for yours.

    But is there nothing at all objective about this good/bad idea? If it’s given that one conscious entity is suffering under horrible qualia, while another is being rewarded through very positive qualia, can we not objectively say that for the moment existence is bad for the one but good for the other? Yes I do believe that there IS objectivity at least in this regard, or that ultimate good/bad does indeed exist. So do we agree?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Yes I do believe that there IS objectivity at least in this regard, or that ultimate good/bad does indeed exist. So do we agree?

      No, we don’t. The very concept of “good” means (OED) “to be desired or approved of”. Whether something is “good” is *always* a subjective judgement deriving from our values and judgements.

      can we not objectively say that for the moment existence is bad for the one but good for the other?

      No we can’t. We can say that one is liking living and the other is disliking living. We can observe the situation and say that if we were in that state then we would either like or dislike life. And we can also express our subjective opinion about whether that life is “good”. But the idea of an objective “good” is nonsensical.

  13. Philosopher Eric

    Damn you OED! I do as much as I can to keep this “morals” crap out of my work, and then this dictionary makes sure to put it back in. It doesnt matter however since I do know that its quite right to concede your point. In fact the single greatest reason for the failure of utilitarianism, I think, is that our side hasn’t been as careful as you are about asserting the perfect subjectivity of positive/negative existence. Subjects must ALWAYS be identified, and note that this will be temporal — something can be good for me now but bad for me later. Thus if we take my positive qualia minus my negative qualia over time, this should define my welfare over that period. Furthermore there must be such a thing as the social subject here as well — the positive minus negative qualia of two or more conscious entities will define its welfare over a given period. I’ll also mention that I doubt Christianity changes any of this. Here we can just say that God created us this way. Furthermore what we do to bring the eternal bliss of Heaven may not always be good for us instantaneously, but will be immeasurably good for us in the long run.

    I do now promise you that I’ll never again mistakenly phrase the concept of welfare in objective terms!

    Reply
  14. Phil

    First, ideological atheism is not a lack of belief. It’s a belief system which competes with theism (see below).

    Saying atheism is a lack of belief in god is like saying Hinduism is a lack of belief in Jesus, or Christianity is a lack of belief in Thor. Such conceptions are misleading at the least, delusional or deceptive at the worst. The only atheists who could perhaps fairly claim they “merely lack a belief” are those who rarely if ever give such matters a thought, but then those atheists aren’t making this claim, or any other claims either. It’s only ideological atheists who make the “merely lack of belief” claim, the very people for whom the claim least applies.

    Atheism is the belief that a species only recently living in caves, with thousands of launch on warning nuclear bombs aimed down it’s own throat (a perpetually imminent self extinction event it rarely finds interesting enough to discuss) on one little planet in one of billions of galaxies, a species relentlessly destroying it’s own environment, is smart enough to determine what doesn’t exist at the heart of all reality, an arena it can not begin to define in even the most basic manner.

    Certainly anyone is entitled to hold, share and sell such a belief, but they can’t credibly claim such a huge belief to be a lack of belief. It’s much simpler and clearer to simply call it what it actually is, a huge unproven belief.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      First, ideological atheism is not a lack of belief. It’s a belief system …

      Kind of the agnostics to tell us what atheism is! Most atheists disagree with you, and regard it as the absence of any belief in God or gods (though they may assert non-existence with varying degrees of confidence depending on what sort of god is being talked about).

      Atheism is the belief that a species only recently living in caves … is smart enough to determine what doesn’t exist at the heart of all reality …

      Really? So how come I’ve never been told about this belief that I’m supposed to have??

  15. Phil

    Coel,

    What if some form of hyper-intelligence created evolution? What if evolution was intended from the start to produce morality in intelligent species? Wouldn’t morality then be objective?

    The logical difficulty with your argument is that you wish to declare your preferred position (there is no god) as the default. Like most atheists you are declaring you are right unless someone proves you wrong. That’s not reason, that’s ideology.

    A reasoned position would be, we don’t know if there are galaxies other than our own unless someone proves there are or aren’t. “We don’t know” is the default.

    Thus, unless you can prove there is no god, you can’t prove morality is subjective. You don’t automatically win the argument just because the other party has failed to make their case. You could both be wrong, or maybe both be right too. Here’s an example from your own field to back that last statement up.

    Does the space between the Earth and Moon exist, or not? Yes, or no?
    It’s a nonsensical question, because space is both clearly there AND it’s defined as an empty void. Space can be reasonably said to both exist AND not exist.

    As an atheist and a scientist, I draw your attention to the most important foundation of your personal and professional methodology, observation of reality. When we observe reality we see that the overwhelming vast majority of reality from the subatomic to cosmic level is space.

    The fact that the largest part of reality by far can be reasonably said to both exist AND not exist suggests the “exist or not exist” nature of the god debate may be more a function of the dualistic nature of the human mind than an accurate model of reality.

    I respectfully suggest to you that when all positions within the debate (including mine) can be ripped to shreds in the right hands, it’s time to shift our challenging from positions within the debate, to the debate itself.

    A record of failure going back thousands of years suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the methodology we are using. There is no evidence that continuing to pursue that methodology will ever deliver anything more than endlessly more of the same.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      Phil,

      Upon what basis do you go from the existence of a God to morality being objective? I’m pretty sure I’ve sufficiently laid out the basis of an objective morality that does not rely upon the existence of God.

      From my Humanist perspective, God is a creation of the human mind, and everything God has “said” has been what humans are asserting. We are the ultimate causes of what we like and what we don’t like in the Bible. And we are the ultimate authors of our own ethics.

      Ethics are rules that arise from our own experience, from our own trial and error experimentations beginning way back in prehistoric times. The ethics of a given community or culture become its norms. And if they have created a priesthood and god(s), then these spiritually reinforce those norms. (Spiritual refers to the thought/feeling pairings, sort of like “attitude”).

      And when you say “There is no evidence that continuing to pursue that methodology will ever deliver anything more than endlessly more of the same” I’d like to point out that we ended slavery, empowered women, and now gays can marry. That’s objective evidence of moral progress.

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      What if some form of hyper-intelligence created evolution? … Wouldn’t morality then be objective?

      No, or at least, not necessarily. If that moral system was just the subjective opinion of that lifeform, then it would be no more objective than if it were human opinion.

      The logical difficulty with your argument is that you wish to declare your preferred position (there is no god) as the default.

      No I’m not! My argument doesn’t assume anything at all about where evolution came from. As above, that does not change the argument!

      All I’m saying is that we know that our evolutionarily programmed *feelings* about morality are subjective in the sense of being *feelings*. When *we* opine on matters of morals, we are doing so subjectively based on our *feelings*.

  16. Phil

    Hi again Coel,

    You stated…

    “Evolution, being a “blind watchmaker” with no insight or foresight, would have no way of knowing about that objective morality.”

    An automobile engine is a purely mechanical device with no knowledge of it’s own existence or purpose, and yet it was created by an intelligent agent for a specific purpose. Thus, the fact that evolution is a “blind watchmaker” doesn’t really tell us anything.

    You stated….

    “Alternatively, one might suggest that something is “objectively” wrong if it is the opinion, not of humans, but of a god. But that simply substitutes the subjective opinion of one entity for that of another….”

    God, as usually defined, is not just another life form but rather the source of all reality. If morality were to arise from the very source of everything, wouldn’t it then be fairly labeled objective?

    There are deeper problems here, which perhaps you might consider tackling in a future article.

    I would enjoy seeing you take a few steps back to investigate the qualifications of human logic to address questions about the ultimate nature of everything, the scope addressed by God claims.

    We appear to both be assuming that our human reasoning is relevant to questions of that scale. I’m not sure how we could know such a thing, or why we should assume it to be true given how incredibly small we are in comparison to what we are discussing, the fundamental nature of all reality.

    I agree with the atheist/scientific principle of questioning everything, and would like to see the methodology we are using subjected to the same critical examination as arguments within the debate.

    We may be suffering from what I call “tool bias”. It seems we were both born to do logic calculations, and so it’s understandable that would be our focus. But our personal situation doesn’t automatically equal logic being qualified for every job, or the most appropriate tool for every task. It could be that we’re doing logic together mostly because we enjoy logic.

    Ok, I’m officially off topic now, so I’ll leave it there. A suggestion for a future article topic perhaps.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      Phil, I don’t know if Anthony will get to this issue or not. But since you’ve step in it perhaps you will address it.

      Phil: “God, as usually defined, is not just another life form but rather the source of all reality. If morality were to arise from the very source of everything, wouldn’t it then be fairly labeled objective?”

      The creation appears to be morally neutral, or rather a source of both moral harm and moral good. We have sun and flowers for sure. But we also have earthquakes, tornadoes, civilizations killed mercilessly by cataclysmic volcanic eruption, human and animal suffering from disease, famine, drought, and flood.

      Morality is not about creation. Morality is about what we do with it. If you believe God has an objective, perfect moral code, then how shall we access it? Ethical rules vary from religion to religion. Within Christianity itself, the rules of the Old Testament for animal sacrifice, circumcision, and diet were all changed by Paul in the New Testament.

      If you want to discuss objective morality, show me yours and I’ll show you mine.

      Phil: “I would enjoy seeing you take a few steps back to investigate the qualifications of human logic to address questions about the ultimate nature of everything, the scope addressed by God claims.”

      Logic sucks. It is often filled with assumptions in the place of empirical evidence. It is often based in a priori definitions that are in dispute (consider all the crap about the non-existent “conflict” between determinism and free will) . The safest thing is to use it sparingly.

      Reality, on the other hand, is staring us in the face. Morality is about how to choose the best means to accomplish the best good for everyone. We make judgment calls every day. And we do it best when we minimize the abstract and maximize empirical experience.

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      God, as usually defined, is not just another life form but rather the source of all reality. If morality were to arise from the very source of everything, wouldn’t it then be fairly labeled objective?

      Well no, it wouldn’t. If this “morality” were just the feelings and opinions of that god, then, no, that in itself does not produce an “objective” morality (whatever that is supposed to mean).

      We appear to both be assuming that our human reasoning is relevant to questions of that scale.

      Well no, we’re not presuming that our reasoning is omni-competent and final. All we’re doing is making the best judgements we can on the information and evidence that we have. Yes, there may indeed be things (indeed there *will* be things) beyond our current knowledge and understanding. If anyone wants to make claims about such things, the onus is on them to justify them.

  17. Phil

    Coel,

    You said, “Kind of the agnostics to tell us what atheism is!”

    You’re welcome! 🙂

    Seriously, the vast majority of atheists I’ve met sincerely have no clue that a lack of belief in god, or anything else, is itself built upon a belief system. The reason they sincerely don’t see it is because they take their own foundational beliefs, belief in the qualifications of human reason to address infinitely large questions, to be an obvious given.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      Seriously, the vast majority of atheists I’ve met sincerely have no clue that a lack of belief in god, or anything else, is itself built upon a belief system.

      Well, a *lack* of such belief is *not* a faith position or built upon a belief system. All it is is finding the claims of theism unconvincing. And vast numbers of atheists are aware of this issue, because they get told it repeatedly by every single theist and every single agnostic in the entire world (I exaggerate, but only slightly!).

      But those theists and agnostics are all wrong, atheism is not a faith position, and you don’t need “faith” to find claims unconvincing and to lack belief in them.

  18. Alex SL

    Good essay! I agree with everything except it sounds as if you may perhaps overestimate the degree to which morals can be evolved. A fundamental sense of fairness, tit-for-tat, dislike of cheaters and suchlike appear to be evolved, but more specific things are perhaps more likely learned. Here you could add a role for something like cultural evolution, in the sense that only some sets of rules make for a functioning society. For example, a rule like “stealing is bad” is unlikely to be evolved because there simply were no possessions until very recently on an evolutionary time scale, but a society with the rule “stealing is virtuous” would not be functional.

    And of course that still doesn’t make for objective foundations, because all one has to do is ask why a society should be functional. Shoulds are turtles all the way down, just like you wrote.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      Alex: “but a society with the rule “stealing is virtuous” would not be functional.”

      ‘Cept maybe for the pirates and Vikings, but then, they only stole from non-stealers who produced the goods.

      Alex: “Shoulds are turtles all the way down…”

      However, a biologist can state what is objectively good for the turtle and what is objectively bad for it. The reasonable presumption of all objective moral statements is that life and its quality are the objective business of morality. Therefore, any prescribed or proscribed behaviors can be objectively evaluated according to how they improve (or harm) life or its quality. After all, the turtle is only concerned about what is good and bad while he is a living turtle. After he dies there is little left but a shell.

    2. Alex SL

      Yes, of course rules apply only to whoever is considered to be a member of the group; to some the group is their tribe, to others it is every sentient being they might identify as such.

      I think the discussion above went over the “what is objectively good for us” issue several times already. Of course one could redefine ethics to be about what is good for us, but then again I can redefine the colour blue to be called pink and then “win” a discussion about whether the sky is pink. Originally philosophers did NOT try to figure out what is conveniently good for us but whether there is a way to reason towards a universal set of moral imperatives. That there are objective facts about what is good for the average is not relevant to that question.

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Alex,
      Yes, I agree that culture has a huge influence on our morals. But, I’m not sure I’d agree that “stealing is bad” is unlikely to be evolved. A fair share of meat from a communal hunt would have been a “possession” in our evolutionary past, and unfairly taking that is “theft”. Indeed, we see concepts of fair and unfair shares of food in chimpanzee society — they know what stealing is.

      Shoulds are turtles all the way down, just like you wrote.

      I wouldn’t go for turtles all the way down, I would end the loop by interpreting “You should do X” as an expression of “I would like it if you did X”.

    4. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “I would end the loop by interpreting “You should do X” as an expression of “I would like it if you did X”.

      And if someone asks you “Why would you like it if he does X?” how do you answer? If you ask yourself “why?” a few times you’ll get to the moral question of “Why should I like it if he does X?”

    5. Coel Post author

      And if someone asks you “Why would you like it if he does X?” how do you answer?

      I would answer that it is my nature, because of the way my brain is, and that my brain is the way it is owing to a whole lot of genetic programming and environmental contingency.

      If you ask yourself “why?” a few times you’ll get to the moral question of “Why should I like it if he does X?”

      No! I would not! The “why” question there is a question about why my brain (and the wider universe) is in the state that it is. That is a scientific and historical question about where humans came from. It is not a “should” question.

    6. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “I would answer that it is my nature, because of the way my brain is, and that my brain is the way it is owing to a whole lot of genetic programming and environmental contingency. ”

      Nonsense. You would give objective reasons as to why you believed he ought to do what you felt was right for him to do.

  19. Phil

    Hi again Coel,

    Respectfully, you and all those other atheists are, well, incorrect.

    Yes, you find theist claims unconvincing. I surely agree with that.

    However, in order to come to any opinion on the matter, you first have to believe in the qualifications of the methodology you are using to address the question. Your disbelief has a source, it is built upon a foundation, it doesn’t just arise out of thin air.

    As example, if you were required to use tarot cards as your methodology, this would not result in any opinion on the matter, as you have no confidence in tarot cards. You wouldn’t say “The tarot cards indicate XYZ, therefore my opinion is XYZ.” You could only build an opinion from tarot cards if you believed them qualified to deliver meaningful conclusions on whatever question you were attempting to address.

    The theist comes to their position by referencing their chosen authority, often a holy book, or perhaps personal experience. Their belief in God is built upon their confidence in these methodologies.

    Atheists have a chosen authority too, human reason.

    As a raving Fundie Agnostic, my position is that neither holy books, personal experience _or human reason_ have been proven to be methodologies qualified to address issues the ENORMOUS scope of the god claim, questions about the fundamental nature of all reality.

    I would welcome the offering of such proof, but it is quite rare to find an atheist who will even try. Consider the theist who will entertain no questions about the qualifications of the Bible, and instead just keeps quoting Bible verses as if that settles the matter. That’s your typical ideological atheist. They will challenge everything with logic all day long, and often quite skillfully, but usually they will never challenge logic itself. We are supposed to accept the qualifications of reason as a matter of unexamined faith, just as they do.

    Sometimes this is just ideological gamesmanship, but more often I think most atheists sincerely consider the infinite reach of human reason to be an obvious given, a settled matter of fact beyond dispute, and thus a matter which requires no inspection.

    Imagine a theist who believes in the Bible so thoroughly, so deeply, so unquestionably, with such commitment and faith, that when we challenge the Bible’s authority they become sincerely baffled and reply, “Huh??? What are you talking about??”, because it’s never dawned on them that the Bible might not be right. Like that.

    I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but the typical atheist has far more faith in their chosen authority than the typical theist has in theirs.

    In both the atheist and theist cases, such faith is entirely understandable, given that both holy books and human reason have proven incredibly useful to us on a human scale. However, until proven, it is a huge unwarranted (and usually unexamined) leap to reason that because something is useful on the local scale it is therefore also qualified to address what might be called the “infinite scale”, questions about the ultimate most fundamental nature of everything.

    If you should decide to challenge your own chosen authority with the same vigor and rigor that you reasonably challenge theist authorities, you will soon see the entire theist vs. atheist debate come quickly tumbling to the ground like the house of cards it truly is.

    My position is that it’s only when what has been proven not to work for thousands of years comes to an end will there be an opportunity for something new.

    To this end, the challenging procedures of atheism can be very useful, if they are applied equally in all directions, if they are truly reason. If they are applied in only one direction, then they are merely ideology, and it is my belief that atheists will never defeat theists on that battlefield.

    Finally, it is clear beyond all doubt that whoever types the most words wins. 🙂 Or so I must I believe. Thank you for your ongoing patience and good cheer, appreciated.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      I know what you’re talking about Phil. I was raised by Christians and didn’t question my beliefs until my father, a Salvation Army captain, died after committing murder and suicide. Confronting the issue of Hell became personal. I reached the conclusion that there was nothing anyone could do in a finite time on Earth that could justify being tormented for eternity. Such a God could not, or rather must not, exist.

      Except for that glitch, Christianity had been a wholesome and worthwhile thing for me. So I didn’t want to throw out the good with the bad.

      I sometimes refer to myself as a “God-fearing Christian Atheist”. Atheist, because I believe that it is most probable that God does not actually exist. Christian, because those are the values I grew up with. And God-fearing because, heck, I could be wrong!

      For me, atheism is a belief, but one which I suspect is better supported by the facts of reality than belief in a supernatural creator. (I’m friendly though to some other concepts of God, but only of the non-supernatural kind, I try not to believe in ghosts).

    2. Alex SL

      Phil,

      Inductive reasoning from evidence is a heuristic; it does not need to be proved because nobody makes the same claim of certainty as one would make for deductive reasoning from true premises. Quite the opposite: all knowledge derived from this heuristic is tentative, and deliberately so. Applying the criterion of 100% proven reliability to induction and science is a category error.

      That being said, I cannot imagine how a world would look like in which inductive reasoning would not work (as a good heuristic). It would have to contain no patterns and regularities whatsoever, not even statistical ones (which even all cause-and-effect in our world may ultimately reduce to), and such a world would surely not support any beings that could even ask the question. In fact I doubt such a world is technically possible in the first place.

      holy books … have proven incredibly useful to us on a human scale

      Are you serious about this? I am pretty sure that the overall scale of human misery would have been an order of magnitude smaller if none of those had ever been written. People don’t need holy books to figure out that being kind to each other leads to better outcomes in the long run, illiterate societies included. But as long as you have a holy book that says “stone the gays”, “kill the unbeliever” and similar niceties, there remains the possibility that your gentle and peaceful religion will be turned into a nightmare by a new generation that has been told that this is god’s word and now wants to prove that they are better believers than their more liberal parents by following this word to the letter.

  20. Phil

    Coel, you said…

    “Yes, there may indeed be things (indeed there *will* be things) beyond our current knowledge and understanding. If anyone wants to make claims about such things, the onus is on them to justify them.”

    The main burden both parties bear is to demonstrate that their chosen authority, their preferred methodology, is qualified to deliver meaningful credible answers on the issues they are attempting to address. If they can not do so, then all arguments derived by reference to that authority can be dismissed. As example…

    1) Bible verses prove nothing until the Bible believer demonstrates the Bible is qualified to address the questions under discussion.

    2) Logic calculations prove nothing until the logic believer demonstrates human reason is qualified to address the questions under discussion.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      Phil: “Bible verses prove nothing until the Bible believer demonstrates the Bible is qualified to address the questions under discussion.”

      Bible verses “prove” only in the fashion that a philosopher’s writings “prove” things. They are examples of someone’s thoughts on the issue. One can either agree that those thoughts are helpful and useful to a better life, or disagree. There is no need to “demonstrate the Bible is qualified to address the questions”. There is only the need to discover the best answer to the question and compare it to the opinion in the verse.

    2. Coel Post author

      Logic calculations prove nothing until the logic believer demonstrates human reason is qualified to address the questions under discussion.

      The fact that science, maths and logic “work”, at least to some good standard sufficient for many purposes, is demonstrated by things like the ability to predict solar eclipses, and then successfully verify such predictions.

  21. Marvin Edwards

    Alex: “Of course one could redefine ethics to be about what is good for us, but then again I can redefine the colour blue to be called pink and then “win” a discussion about whether the sky is pink. Originally philosophers did NOT try to figure out what is conveniently good for us but whether there is a way to reason towards a universal set of moral imperatives. That there are objective facts about what is good for the average is not relevant to that question.”

    And why would philosophers care whether there is a way to reason towards a universal set of moral imperatives? What is the ultimate goal of that exercise? What is the point of moral imperatives?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      And why would philosophers care whether there is a way to reason towards a universal set of moral imperatives?

      Well, if there *were* a set of universal moral imperatives, then we’d be morally obliged to follow them! That is the point of asking that question and asking what these imperatives are. But, the answer to the question (as I see it) is that the whole concept of “objective” morals is misconceived and nonsensical.

      All that matters to us is what matters to us.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “But, the answer to the question (as I see it) is that the whole concept of “objective” morals is misconceived and nonsensical. ”

      The practical implication of morality be objective versus subjective is critical. If morals are entirely subjective, then there can never be any agreement as to what is right and what is wrong. Slavery would still exist, because the issue would be only a matter of private opinions.

      If morals are objective, then a person may be presented with evidence that can change his subjective thinking and his subjective feelings. Slavery can be ended (and was ended) by people being convinced it was morally wrong.

    3. Coel Post author

      If morals are entirely subjective, then there can never be any agreement as to what is right and what is wrong.

      There could be wide-enough agreement. If 80% agree then they can impose that rule on society. Indeed, that is exactly how society works.

      Slavery would still exist, because the issue would be only a matter of private opinions.

      Noooo! Saying that morality is *subjective* is *not* saying it is “only a matter of private opinion”. Humans have opinions about how they want society to be. They try to influence society in that direction. Indeed, that’s exactly what humans do all the time. And if the majority of humans dislike slavery and want to outlaw it then they can do exactly that.

      If morals are objective, then a person may be presented with evidence that can change his subjective thinking and his subjective feelings.

      You can also seek to persuade people if morality is subjective!

  22. Marvin Edwards

    Coel: “Humans have opinions about how they want society to be. They try to influence society in that direction.”

    Interesting. How does one person convince another to change how they feel about something?

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      In all sorts of ways. For a case study, look at the opinion in America about gay marriage. Over twenty years it has gone from about 30% support to about 60% support, with significant numbers having changed how they feel about the issue. I don’t think there was any one simple factor in that change, but rather a whole range of factors, including people trying to persuade each other.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      Coel: “For a case study, look at the opinion in America about gay marriage. Over twenty years it has gone from about 30% support to about 60% support, with significant numbers having changed how they feel about the issue. I don’t think there was any one simple factor in that change, but rather a whole range of factors, including people trying to persuade each other.”

      People are persuaded by new information. If they trust that the information is objectively true, rather than merely someone else’s subjective opinion, then they are more likely to change their own thinking and feelings on the matter.

      That’s how it works. Like racial integration in the schools, gays started coming out, giving a true picture of themselves to counter the prejudice and myths. The APA dropped homosexuality from its diagnostic manual ages ago. Arguments in court educated the legal profession. Positive roles on TV and in movies did the same thing for gays that it did for black men and women earlier.

      The arguments for the old rule, opposite sex marriage only, versus the new rule, marriage for same or opposite gender couples, were based in objectively improving the lives and rights of gay people.

    3. Coel Post author

      I have no disagreement with the idea that objective information is one of the things that can change our subjective feelings on a matter.

  23. Phil

    Wow, what a conversation, nice work guys. Let’s see….

    Alex, yes, serious about holy books. They’ve brought comfort and meaning to billions of people for thousands of years. I agree they are a mixed bag, because anything as old and large as theism inevitably is.

    Let us not forget that atheism has been a mixed bag as well, on one hand providing a much needed critique of religion, on the other hand leading to the slaughter of millions at the hands of explicitly atheist regimes.

    Also, please recall there is more to religion and holy books than god claims. Those holy books that have lasted for thousands of years have done so for a reason, they make useful observations on the human condition. Too big a subject to address here.

    As to the reach of reason, we seem to always forget what human reason actually is, the very poorly developed ability of a single young species on a single planet in one of billions of galaxies. It seems fully within the principles of atheism to be skeptical of any far reaching claims we may make about our own abilities.

    Coel, regarding predicting solar eclipses etc, as usual I will ask, what is your sample size? What is the relationship between what we can observe, and all that is? Given that we have not a clue, I see no rush to come to huge sweeping conclusions about the fundamental nature of all reality. Further, I would argue that the persistent ignoring of the sample size issue across atheist culture is evidence that vocal atheism is not reason, but ideology.

    Aiming back towards the topic…

    Coel makes an intelligent articulate argument for the practical value of morality in assisting human survival and well being etc. Let’s grant his premise that morality is subjective, a product of evolution. Now what? Should we replace the teachings of say, the Bible, with Coel’s article?

    Where is the evidence that an intellectual explanation of morality is sufficient to motivate the widespread moral behavior that is needed to achieve the stated goals of morality? What happens to morality _in the real world_ if we strip out the dramatic story lines, the colorful characters, fear of punishment, the objective source claims, the music, rituals and costumes, the cultural authority of ancient institutions and texts etc?

    While Coel argues convincingly that evolution is the source of morality, we should recall that evolution has also generated religion and the concept of an objective source for morality, and introduced these factors in to almost every corner of the world over a period of thousands of years. This does not prove there is an objective source for morality of course, but it is significant evidence that such factors are a necessary part of moral systems, in the real world.

    A great irony of the theist/atheist debate may be that, very generally speaking, it is the theists who are the realists about the human condition, while atheists are the dreamy idealists.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      Let us not forget that atheism has been a mixed bag as well . . . leading to the slaughter of millions at the hands of explicitly atheist regimes.

      Well, no it has not. People are motivated by ideas that they do hold, not by ideas that they do not hold. Not-theism denotes a view that someone does not hold. The regimes you refer to were motivated by views they did hold, namely totalitarian communism. They were not motivated by “not being theist” any more than they were motivated by “not being vegetarian” or “not being Canadian”.

      Given that we have not a clue, I see no rush to come to huge sweeping conclusions about the fundamental nature of all reality.

      And once again, we atheists and scientists are NOT coming to “huge sweeping conclusions about the fundamental nature of all reality”, we are making sensible and properly justified conclusions about aspects of reality that we do have evidence about, based on that evidence.

      If anyone wants to making sweeping assertions about the “nature of all reality” that go beyond the evidence, then the onus is on *them* to present their justification.

  24. Shawn the Humanist

    There is a new term I heard on a recent episode of Atheistically Speaking: Intersubjectivity. I was not familiar with this and I think it’s a lesser used term that may help delineate some of the differences between subjective and objective. I have not had time to really get a good grasp on it yet. Have you looked in to this term?

    Also, you use the term genetic at times when I think the term biological would be better. Biological factors that affect us are more than just our inherited/mutated genes from our parents. Consider when you say the following:

    I entirely agree with Anthony on this and reject the “blank slate” idea. I maintain that vast swathes of human nature are the product of both genetic programming and upbringing and environmental influences.

    Assuming you mean ‘upbringing and environmental influences’ to be social, there is a gap between that and the genes. For example, evo-devo and epigenetics. Both of which have non-zero effects on the expression of our genes but are not genetic. In a sense, this includes physical environmental circumstances (like fetal alcohol syndrome) that are separate from social environmental influences (like having your parent lock you in the closet for days at a time).

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Shawn, yes “intersubjectivity” might be a good word for our morality. It is not just personal to us, morals are definitely things we work out communally with each other. In that sense, a community’ “morals” are akin to a community’s “politics”.

      It is rather weird, we are all used to politics, and none of us think that there must be an “objectively right” way of running the country, we all accept that it is a trade off between competing “goods”, and that the trade-off comes down to personal feelings and values, and hence we all get a vote on it. Not since the Divine Right of Kings have people thought that there was an “objectively right” version of politics.

      Our morals were the same, worked out by social agreement, again rooted in all our feelings and values, and yet people hanker after an “objective” version which tells us what we “should” do.

  25. Phil

    Hi again Coel,

    How can it possibly be true that you are doing all this writing, writing, writing for years on these topics, making case after case in article after article, and yet still claim you “merely lack belief”? Honestly, I find this to be the least credible part of atheism, and just not up to your usual high standards. It’s more persuasive to just declare one’s beliefs and then make the case for them. Speaking of which…

    The parts of atheism I really like are the call to reason, and observation of reality. I sincerely feel these two aspects of atheism form the foundation of a real alternative to religion. To me, atheists are most credible when they are trying to meet the needs _of theists_ by some method other than theism. We should explore this more.

    Sigh… The totalitarian communism of Stalin and Mao was explicitly atheist. The philosophical foundation for their crimes was their belief that there is no objective morality, no higher authority beyond themselves. If Stalin had been a Catholic, with Catholic beliefs, leading an explicitly Catholic regime, I am convinced beyond any doubt that ideological atheists would be blaming his crimes on Catholicism. Do we really have to debate this on your blog?

    Finally, you have concluded there is not a form of intelligence at the heart of reality. You have concluded reality is a collection of random mechanical forces. You have concluded human reason can deliver meaningful conclusions about all of reality. These are a huge sweeping conclusions about the fundamental nature of all reality.

    And because you don’t even know what “all of reality” refers to, they are faith based conclusions, and not a reason based position.

    Like all ideological atheists, you continually refer to evidence, while ignoring any evidence which is inconvenient. That’s not reason, that’s ideology. Imho, it’s crucial for atheists to be clear about the difference.

    There is no evidence the theist/atheist debate will ever go anywhere. There’s thousands of years of evidence that debate is a merry-go-round to nowhere, offering the illusion of movement, while actually being a stationary object eternally going round and round in a very small circle.

    There is no evidence that anybody is in a position to know what does or doesn’t lie at the heart of all reality, an arena no one can define in even the most basic manner.

    There is no evidence you will ever defeat theists, the longstanding proven masters of faith based ideology, with just another faith based ideology. You have no compelling story line, no charismatic characters, no sweeping promises or threats, no costumes, ceremonies or rituals, no ancient texts, no tools of the trade beyond dry intellectual speeches. If you insist on confronting ideologists who have thousands of years of experience on their own turf as a competing ideology, you will lose.

    Again, I sincerely support the atheist’s call to reason, and when I challenge them it’s only because I believe they have abandoned reason for ideology. What atheists may see as an attack, I see as calling them home to a deeper loyalty to their own chosen methodology.

    Reason, and observation of reality. If we were to take both of these core premises of atheism seriously we have a plan.

    Reply
    1. Shawn the Humanist

      🙂 Hello Phil,

      My name is Shawn. I’m pleased to meet you. I have shared some of Coel’s articles to my friends. One in particular noticed the relentlessness of your posting on several of Coel’s articles. Given that you are a militant an agnostic, and yet so pathologically enthusiastically driven to discuss such thing I find it incredibly ironic to read you say that someone without an ideological position could never be strident and passionate on such an issue. Specifically, when you say the following:

      How can it possibly be true that you are doing all this writing, writing, writing for years on these topics, making case after case in article after article, and yet still claim you “merely lack belief”? Honestly, I find this to be the least credible part of atheism, and just not up to your usual high standards.

      I only discovered Coel this week. I know nearly nothing about him. However, I can give you just one reason he might be passionate or driven. For some it might the the intellectual thrill of debate, for others it might be the jarring sense that so many people are (what he and I consider) wrong (if we are right). Or maybe, just maybe, there are reasons to be emotional when you don’t believe something is true when so many other people think it is true:

      To summarize, she said that perhaps there is good reason to be angry. And if angre doesn’t drive people to be passionate, I don’t know what would.

      Have a good night, Phil! 🙂

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      … and yet still claim you “merely lack belief”?

      Well, I might make various claims of the likelihood of various gods, as far as we can tell, given the evidence we have, depending on the nature of the god postulated.

      However, let’s make an analogy.

      Suppose a self-declared prophet came along and declared that in ten years the world would be attacked by an alien invasion fleet. And half the world believed him, to the extent that half the world’s GDP went to building defence forces against this threat.

      But, others said, there is no actual evidence of this invasion threat, so it’s not sense to divert half the world’s resources to it.

      Would people like you come along and say, no, no, you silly skeptics, you have to give 100% proof that there is *no* alien invasion fleet before criticising! Don’t you realise that even though there is no *evidence* of such a fleet, you can’t rule out the possibility, can you? And therefore you are just as bad as the believers in your assertion that we should not spend half the world’s resources this way!

      The totalitarian communism of Stalin and Mao was explicitly atheist.

      Yes, because the totalitarian nature of their ideology could not accept competing loyalties, and religion was a competing loyalty. But the *motivation* was still the totalitarian communism. The atheism was a*product* of that, not a driver.

      The philosophical foundation for their crimes was their belief that there is no objective morality, no higher authority beyond themselves.

      No, not really, it is more that they regarded communism as a moral imperative.

      … ideological atheists would be blaming his crimes on Catholicism.

      Catholicism is an ideology. Communism is an ideology. Lack-of-theism is a lack of an ideology. People are motivated by the ideologies that they do hold, not the ones that they don’t hold.

      Finally, you have concluded there is not a form of intelligence at the heart of reality.

      It’s more that I lack belief in anything such, owing to seeing no evidence of any “intelligence at the heart of reality” — in the same way that I lack belief in the alien invasion fleet that will attack us within a decade.

  26. Phil

    Coel, might you consider addressing this?

    1) Evolution created morality.

    2) Evolution also created religion, the largest cultural event in human history, which usually (not always) proposes morality has an objective source.

    Evolution seems to have determined that at least the illusion of an objective source of morality is an important part of making morality work on a large scale.

    An example of a useful illusion might be the sense each of has that we aren’t going to die. Intellectually we know we will, but emotionally we continue investing huge amounts of energy in projects that will someday quite soon all be swept away. An illusion of permanence seems necessary for us to function normally. Are you perhaps assuming without questioning that illusion is always bad?

    If we accept your premise that an objective source of morality is an illusion, you still face the challenge of making the case that such an illusion should be removed.

    Reply
  27. Phil

    Hi Shawn,

    You need not have striked out “militant” and “pathologically” as both are likely true. I am after all, a self described Fundamentalist Agnostic. I will now introduce you to another word you need not strike out “typoholic”. 🙂

    I’ve not objected to passion, I endorse it. I endorse passion for reason, and passion for observation of reality. I endorse the most fundamental atheist principles rather passionately, and would suggest them to anyone.

    Reply
    1. Shawn the Humanist

      Then why would you suggest that atheists who are passionate on the topic of religion are somehow dishonest when they say they simply see no rational justification for the beliefs of most of the world’s population?

      Back in the day I was a moderator of an atheist messages board on the internet. There were many length debates, discussion and flame wars against theists (believers). However, on it the most fierce debates were between people like Coel and I who simply lacked belief and the ‘positive claim’ atheists who asserted that there were no gods. That one simple fact shows how wrong the idea simply lacking belief can not inspire Coel’s level of passion and dedication.

      As an aside, you should reply to the individual comments by clicking the reply button, rather than going to the bottom to reply. It makes you conversations hard to read as they are not grouped together.

    2. Marvin Edwards

      Shawn, I’ve noticed that there is sometimes a Reply selection with the comment and sometimes there isn’t. I’m not sure what controls that in WordPress. But I’ve had a similar problem in not finding a Reply selection on the comment I wanted to address.

    3. Shawn the Humanist

      Good morning Marvin. You are completely right that WordPress is a little confusing. I’ve only been commenting on WordPress for a few weeks, and it took me more effort than it should have to figure it out.

      The first and most obvious way to reply in a single comment thread is to click the reply button in the email if you get email notification. That’s how I am replying to this one and it brought me right to the reply box.

      The other way is the normal way, and it’s far more complicated, and could be fixed easily by WordPress.com: What you need to do is scroll up in the comment thread until you reach the first comment in that sub thread. In this case it’s the one where Phil is talking about striking out words. And under that first comment in this thread you will see the reply button.

      So for every ‘main’ comment, there is a reply button. If you want to reply to a discussion in a thread from a main comment, you have to scroll up to the first comment in that thread and click reply there.

      I was shocked to see this was the case. (Actually, this might be a WordPress theme issue, and not a WordPress commenting system issue, now that I think about it.)

    4. Marvin Edwards

      Shawn: “you have to scroll up to the first comment in that thread and click reply there.”

      But there might be other replies under that one already, and you may want to reply to one of those.

      The Reply at the bottom of the e-mail notification works for me most of the time. It brings up the comment box with the title “Leave a Reply to ” and the name of the person you’re replying to.

      But over at Anthony Freeland’s site there is a problem with that feature because the color of the font is very close to the background color giving a “white on white” effect.

    5. Shawn the Humanist

      I know it looks weird to have it at the top, but trust me, it works. I just did it here, yet notice when I post this comment it will appear under you last response talking about the replies under it. Unintuitive, I know. But that’s how it’s working.

    6. Coel Post author

      WordPress allows the blog to set the number of comment “levels”. It is currently set at 1 level. Thus every main comment allows one level of replies to that. How many levels is best is rather a matter of personal preference.

  28. Phil

    First, yes, we should be using forum software if we’re going to have this many people commenting to this degree. Blog software is primarily about one person giving a speech, not facilitating extended group conversations. But that’s another subject.

    Shawn, my claim (stated in the thread above) is that most atheists sincerely don’t understand that their apparent “lack of belief” is actually built upon a belief system which competes with theism. If an atheist does understand that, but still claims that they “merely lack belief” I suppose we could then label them dishonest.

    I apologize if I’ve been over enthusiastic in making the point. What often happens is that I find myself explaining this for the _billionth_ time to an atheist who is perhaps considering it for the first time, and so I may not bring sufficient patience to the conversation. To the degree that may be true, it’s my problem, not anyone else’s.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      And there are at least two different kinds of atheist. I’m an example of one raised in a fundamentalist Christian religion who ran into the concept of Hell from my father’s personal experience, and ended up rejecting that God. I’ve still got habits of thought running around in my head from that upbringing. There are other atheists who were not exposed to all of that, and were raised by parents who were atheists, and have had no special interest in religion other than to avoid it. Then there are atheists out attacking religion because it is creating problems, like instilling prejudice against gays, or making their kids say “one nation under God” in the pledge, or not allowing nonbelievers to participate in the Boy Scouts, etc.

    2. Shawn the Humanist

      No one is claiming that atheists only have one thought in their head, and it’s a lack of belief in deities. We are talking about believing in God. Yes, there are many other beliefs. But no, those are not atheist beliefs. For example, I don’t believe in an afterlife. But believing in an after life and believing in deities are completely separate. Some believe in one and not the other, or the other and not the first. Some believe in both. Some believe in neither.

      Phil, you are conflating issues that should not be conflated. So yes, of course we don’t agree with you. Atheist is one thing. There are other issues involved in many religious discussions, but which issues depend on which religion and what discussion.

    3. Coel Post author

      What often happens is that I find myself explaining this for the _billionth_ time to an atheist who is perhaps considering it for the first time, …

      It would be very rare for an atheist to encounter this point for the first time. Afterall, the world’s billion theists and agnostics each trot this out a billion times.

      And the world’s billion theists and agnostics are the ones in the wrong! You do not need a faith-system to *lack* *belief*. Nor do you need anything more than *lack* of belief to argue against theists! See my alien-invasion analogy above!

  29. Phil

    Hi Marvin,

    Here’s another way one might categorize the atheist community. An over simplification, but perhaps still useful.

    1) Those atheists who rarely if ever think about these issues.

    2) Those atheists who think about these issues all the time.

    The theist community can likely be divided in a similar manner.

    Agnostics too. Fundamentalist Agnostics like myself are of course by definition typoholic fanatics. 🙂

    As best I can tell, the theist/atheist debate takes place at the fringes of these communities, among the minority in all camps who spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. If true, then it can perhaps be said that the debate greatly exaggerates the cultural conflict being discussed by the enthusiasts.

    Reply
    1. Marvin Edwards

      I know what you mean, Phil. There are some who seem at war with religion. As a UU I view any person who professes to be moral as an ally in social progress. People can disagree about whether God exists and still pursue a better world here on Earth.

  30. Phil

    Shawn,

    Belief, or lack of belief, comes from somewhere, is based on something. These positions don’t just pop in to our heads out of thin air.

    For theists, their belief arises from confidence in the qualifications of holy books to address these questions. For atheists, their lack of belief arises from confidence in the qualifications of human reason to address these questions.

    Two different authorities, offering two different conclusions. Both authorities and the conclusions they offer can be subject to challenge.

    Reasoned atheism will challenge both authorities and both conclusions in a fair even handed manner. Ideological atheism will challenge only one authority and one conclusion.

    Reason is interested in advancing the inquiry. Ideology is interested in victory.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Reasoned atheism will challenge both authorities and both conclusions in a fair even handed manner.

      Absolutely. Now, what would the reasonable person say about my alien-invasion-fleet scenario? See up thread.

    2. Shawn the Humanist

      To add to Coel’s sufficient response: Reasoned atheist? I agree with you there.

      To say the follow is I think technically inaccurate:

      For atheists, their lack of belief arises from confidence in the qualifications of human reason to address these questions.

      Not always. There are good reasons and bad reasons. But among the good reasons I’d like to point out that not having confidence in holy books does not mean they do have confidence in the human endeavour. You can despairingly believe that both are a fool’s errand.

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