On Michael Shermer’s defence of moral realism

“Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong?”

Yes, I would (and I don’t think I’m either a slave holder or a Nazi). That quote ends Michael Shermer’s recent defence of moral realism on his Skeptic blog.

My disagreement with Shermer comes down to what we even mean by morality being “objective” rather than “subjective”. Indeed this particular disagreement can account for a lot of people talking past each other. Shermer explains:

It is my hypothesis that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Where? In our nature.

I agree fully with Shermer that we have a human nature, and that there are objective facts about what humans want and desire, that there are facts about how to fulfill those desires, about how humans can successfully interact with each other, given our natures, and about what will lead to humans flourishing. Everyone who is not a blank-slater would surely agree. It follows that we can objectively describe human nature and human morality.

Again quoting Shermer:

Take cooperation. Over billions of years of natural history and thousands of years of human history, there has been an increasing tendency toward the playing of cooperative “nonzero” games between organisms. This tendency has allowed more nonzero gamers to survive. Thus, natural selection favored those who cooperated by playing nonzero games, thereby passing on their genes for cooperative behavior.

That segment is descriptive. But Shermer thinks we can segue from an objective and descriptive account of human morality to an objectively prescriptive one. I suggest that he is mistaken. Stripped down to the bare bones, I regard all moral “oughts” as instrumental; that is, they are of the form:

(1) We want X;
(2) In order to obtain X we have to do Y;
(3) Thus we ought to do Y.

Thus the “oughtness” of doing Y is in order to achieve X. I interpret Shermer as saying that where both statements (1) and (2) are objectively true, then (3) is also objectively true, and thus we have an objective ought. Applied to a specific implementation we have:

(1a) We want a happy and flourishing society;
(2a) We can’t have a happy and flourishing society if there is slavery;
(3a) So we ought to prohibit slavery.

If we grant that (1a) and (2a) are true then (3a) is true, and it can be rephrased as “slavery is morally wrong”. And that is how Shermer concludes that slavery is “absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong”. I hope I’m not misrepresenting him; apologies if so but this is a good-faith attempt to elucidate his argument.

And yet, to me, that does not get you objective moral prescriptions. The oughtness derives from the “we want …”. We want, and therefore we ought. But “ought” prescriptions that depend entirely on what humans want are subjective, since human wants and desires are the very epitome of things that are subjective.

Yes, the above statements (1) and (2) might be objectively true, but that doesn’t give you an objective ought, since an objective ought would be one that is entirely independent of human desires or feelings. And it doesn’t work if one omits the reference to human values and desires. The possible alternative:

(A) Slavery is incompatible with a happy and flourishing society;
(B) We ought to prohibit slavery.

… simply does not work, being one of those leaps from an “is” to an “ought” that Hume warned against. The oughts are instrumental and so necessarily derive from a human goal.

The debate over moral realism is about whether moral oughts derive from humans, from what we want and desire, or whether there is some externally derived obligation on us to act in certain ways regardless of what we humans think about that or whether we like the consequences.

In other words, if moral prescriptions and moral values are “real”, having independent existence, then it must be possible that:

(1) We want X;
(2) In order to obtain X we have to do Y;
(3) But actually, morally, we ought NOT do Y.

Or, in a specific implementation:

(1a) We want a happy and flourishing society;
(2a) We can’t have a happy and flourishing society if there is slavery;
(3a) But morally we ought to promote slavery as much as possible.

… because morality is real, it has independent existence, and is not just an instrumental account of human feelings and desires. (If you’re thinking that morality could not possibly be so out of kilter with human values, then you’re conceding that it can have no independent existence or standing, but is derived from human values and feelings, and so is subjective.)

At least that’s how I conceive of moral realism, though one thing I’ve learned when discussing morality is that plenty of people disagree even on how to define the terms. So maybe I’m wrong, and maybe by “moral realism” one means that human nature is real (which it indeed is), and human aims and desires are real (they indeed are), and that in order to attain those desires various oughts follow instrumentally. Agreed, they do. What is then “real” is human nature, and also “real” are facts about how to attain goals that are in line with our nature.

I gather that that’s the sense in which Shermer declares himself to be a moral realist. I suspect, however (though could be wrong) that most moral philosophers would not agree that that’s what “moral realism” entails. Indeed, it could be that disagreement over whether that amounts to moral realism explains much of the rather intemperate altercations between Shermer (along with Sam Harris) and philosophers.

The other problem with arriving at an objective moral scheme down this road is that, while we all have a lot of human nature in common, we are also all different. We all want different things, at least to some extent. While we can agree on vague declarations about “human flourishing”, when it came to detailed implementation we would all have somewhat different ideas of what sort of society we wanted. That’s why no moral scheme arrived at along these lines can actually be coherent and objective.

Isn’t it clearer to accept that human morality is created out of each of our sets of values, and thus that it is necessarily subjective? And that there is nothing wrong with that!

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134 thoughts on “On Michael Shermer’s defence of moral realism

  1. basicrulesoflife

    Empty talking. All human values are created by humans. Platonic world and religions are not based in evidence. They are our images. Schermer shows the main contemporary problem: nobody defines the most important, the basic moral principle and human value: human survival on a cosmic scale, or, as Carl Sagan said, Universe’s matter try to get conscious of itself.
    If we define and accept this principle as a basic human value, then we obtain answers on all our moral questions and ‘problems’. The only problem is that contemporary humans are not ready for such a radical change of their values and behavior. Because of it the current civilization is doomed. At least partly. Imants Vilks

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  3. Rob

    It’s unfortunate that well motivated public intellectuals like Michael Shermer and Sam Harris pronounce on metaethics without (seemingly) being across the subject.

    Rob

    Reply
    1. josh

      I don’t agree with Harris and Shermer on moral realism, but it’s a lazy copout to claim that they just aren’t philosophically informed enough. According to the PhilPapers survey, https://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl , more than half of surveyed philosophers subscribe to some form of moral realism. The idea that professional philosophers have some particular insight or expertise unavailable to other intellectuals who comment on philosophy needs to die.

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi josh,
      I would agree with you that many academic philosophers are no better than Harris and Shermer on this topic. Yes, they show a much better understanding of what other philosophers have written about morality, but that itself doesn’t amount to a better understanding of morality.

      I also agree that it’s wrong to think of meta-ethics as the particular domain of academic philosophers, in which they have special expertise. I think that meta-ethics is much better approached from the direction of evolutionary biology and human psychology.

      But having said that, I don’t think that Shermer and Harris are particularly good examples of non-philosophers producing insightful analysis of this topic.

    3. josh

      Hi Coel,

      I tend to agree that Shermer and Harris aren’t too illuminating on this topic. In fact, Shermer is downright unfair in his description of Utilitarianism. I just don’t think the problem is that they are unfamiliar with the debate, or haven’t read the right people. I think they’re wrong in the utterly standard way that many philosophers are wrong: they’ve got a fixed idea and they are defending it without (IMO) proper critical thought.

      Shermer references a tweet by the DailyNous that he is contributing to a “disrespect of expertise”, as though there were an expert consensus among philosophers that we should defer to. (In fact his original article has no disrespect for philosophers as a class at all.) Similarly, Pigliucci opens his critique by implying that Shermer is simply too much of an amateur to be allowed an opinion. That kind of turf-defending drives me up the wall. It’s essentially an ad-hominem/poisoning-the-well maneuver. Pigliucci then goes on to make a number of point-missing arguments against Shermer and briefly plugs his own favorite philosophical flim-flam, virtue ethics. Shermer and Harris definitely deserve pushback when they get things wrong, but I don’t want it to be left to equally wrong naysayers claiming the mantle of ‘professional philosopher’. (As it happens, I think your criticism in this article is much more on point!)

    4. Coel Post author

      Pigliucci then goes on to make a number of point-missing arguments against Shermer …

      I largely agree. Pigliucci likes to portray himself as being the insightful one because he has doctorates and a track record in both science and philosophy, and to keep that up he likes to portray others as naive (often unfairly) and often strawmans to make that task easier.

      A standard bit of advice is to first summarise someone’s argument in ways that they would accept as accurate (I tried to do that with Shermer in the OP, though may not have succeeded). I think Pigliucci fails that test very often, and most times doesn’t even try.

      As it happens, I think your criticism in this article is much more on point!

      Thanks. 🙂

    1. Coel Post author

      It’s pretty rare that I agree with Massimo Pigliucci these days! 🙂 I agree with him that Harris and Shermer are wrong on this, but I think Massimo is also wrong when he tries to attain some sort of objective “half-way” standing for ethics.

      As far as I can make out (I could be wrong) Massimo declares a moral framework (such as virtue ethics or Stoicism) and then suggests that *given* that framework, ethics then have objective status. But that hardly works if the only standing that the framework has is the subjective advocacy of people like Massimo.

      (I also think that Massimo should be less scathing about Harris and Shermer given that the majority of academic philosophers are moral realists, and thus are actually doing no better than Harris/Shermer.)

    2. Paul Braterman

      Massimo says explicitly that moralityis underdetermined, and that he has no way other than plausibility when applied to dilemmas in arguing for one position rather than another.

      I agree, and have given up on solving the conundrums of metaethics. I find virtue ethics appealing, except when I don’t, and suspect that in all real moral problems there is room for disagreement about what constitutes virtue. Likewise, I suspect, for other allegedly over-riding moral principles.

      Currently, he accuses Shermer of being ill-informed and shallow in his recent critiques of utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. I had already formed my own opinion of Shermer, and have therefore not spent time on that aspect of their debate.

    3. Coel Post author

      Massimo says explicitly that moralityis underdetermined, and that he has no way other than plausibility when applied to dilemmas in arguing for one position rather than another.

      Agreed, that’s what he says, that morality is under-determined by facts. But this whole way of thinking implies that morality “exists” in some sort of objective and independent sense, that humans are then trying to discern what is moral, and struggle to do it because facts under-determine it (so one might then try metaphysics, but that doesn’t really tell you either).

      That would make sense if morality was objective, as Massimo supposes, but I think this whole way of thinking is just wrong and misguided. It comes from treating meta-ethics as a problem in metaphysics, and thus attempting a conceptual analysis of it, when actually it’s an issue of human psychology and our biological evolutionary heritage.

      It surprises me a bit that Massimo, with his background, doesn’t attempt a more biological analysis of morality instead of thinking about it like a philosopher!

  4. Ron Murphy

    To see the simplistic metaethics fall apart, you only have to imagine a world where human evolution has taken a slightly different track than it has. If all humans lacked empathy, rather than just some of us, there would be no need for those without to play the moral games they do in order to fit in. That might beg the question of whether such an outcome could occur, or would it always be a self defeating natural selection process that results in something like the mix of humans we have now, but at least such a though experiment should end the seemingly too easy presupposition that human well-being is some necessary premise.

    To me, ‘oughts’ are no more than ‘ises’ that have been put on a pedestal by poor philosophy and (inherently poor) theology. And, in particular, moral ‘rules’ are no more than opinions we really care about – and outside some simplistic cases, not even ones we can all agree on.

    https://ronmurp.net/2015/03/03/moral-facts-and-opinions/

    Reply
  5. Brent Meeker

    I basically agree, but I think the argument is clearer if we distinguish morals and ethics and start from what individuals value…which is subjective, but it doesn’t presume some agreement about what “we” want. Even the hard sciences are based on intersubjective agreement about what the instrument reads, what the observation is. So there’s not an absolute boundary between “objective” and “subjective”. If we say individuals that certain values, then it follows that they want to satisfy or realize those values. That’s implicit in the meaning of value. In many cases that can be done by living in a society and realizing love, friendship, cooperation, etc. Man is a social animal. But there are also conflicts in values. It’s not what “we” want…It’s what “I” want. And it may not even be personal. Maybe I want universal education, because I like to live among well educated people. But you don’t want to be taxed for it. So societies come up with rules, ethics, about how to behave and how to decide who gets how much of what they want when it involves conflict between different people’s values: e.g. democracy, private property,… That’s ethics and it can be “objective” in the sense that some ethical systems better satisfy the values of the members of society that others do. Slavery satisfied some people, the slave owners, but violated the values of a lot of other people, the slaves. And I think the empirical experience of different societies show that those without slavery are better at satisfying the values of their members. Also, I think it is empirically supported that societies that limit the range of ethics, so that there is a domain of private morals that society doesn’t meddle in, are better than societies that try to dictate what is proper behavior in every detail.

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  6. c emerson

    I agree with your statement regarding hypothetical imperatives as the most fundamental form for deriving what I call rational oughts, in a law review comment I wrote in 1994, entitled “Do Survival Values Form a Sufficient Basis for an Objective Morality? A Realist’s Appraisal of the Rules of Human Conduct”, a pdf of which is now freely available at:
    https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1974&context=ndlr

    See in particular the figures on p.960 & 962 portraying the idea that the physical rules of survival lead to objective (natural) boundary constraints for highly diverse (but still natural) subjective systems of morality. This is not a scheme usually discussed in the literature … and would not be correctly classified as a form
    of moral realism. As you point out, along with several of your commenters, the things we value arise preferentially, based on our individual and collective experience … but what we generally value is influenced by what it takes to survive in a pluralistic environment and in the ecology presented. This is why I distinguish in tge paper between a rational ought (If you want X, you ought to do Y & Z) and a moral ought (a semantic and psychological mechanism for emphasizing various values).

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  7. Rob

    Coel, I agree that “that Massimo should be less scathing about Harris and Shermer given that the majority of academic philosophers are moral realists, and thus are actually doing no better than Harris/Shermer.”

    Yes, morality seems to me to be misunderstood not only by ordinary lay-people but by the majority of those who claim professional expertise in the area. Professional philosophers have spent centuries arguing for the objective reality of properties that do not seem to exist. The majority of them still do. So it’s not surprising that that non-philosophers, including many scientists, haven’t yet got their heads around what it is we are doing when we moralize. Mackie got it basically right over 40 years ago and his view has gained support from evolutionary biology but the majority of philosophers still refuse to accept what to me seems to be the truth about morality. This fact, as much as errors by people like Harris and Shermer, make it almost impossible for ordinary folk (even those interested in science and philosophy) to get their heads around morality.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Mackie got it basically right over 40 years ago and his view has gained support from evolutionary biology but the majority of philosophers still refuse to accept what to me seems to be the truth about morality.

      Agreed. And the fact that it’s not accepted is, I suggest, just because it’s counter-intuitive. (It’s also not helped by philosophers conceiving of meta-ethics as a matter for philosophy, as something distinct from science.)

      This fact, as much as errors by people like Harris and Shermer, …

      Being charitable to Shermer, if I am interpreting him correctly as summarised in the post, then it may be that he does have it right in understanding morality as it actually is, but just doesn’t talk about it in terms that mesh with how philosophers talk about it.

  8. richardwein

    Hi Coel. It’s charitable (in a way) for you to try so hard to interpret Michael Shermer as not really a moral realist. But the quote with which you began your post seems just about as uncompromisingly moral realist as you can get.

    That said, his rhetorical question seems odd, as he must surely be well aware that there are many people who don’t accept the idea of objective moral truth.That oddness might lead one to question whether he is really asking what he appears to be asking! But then, I found much of what I’ve read by him on this subject to be ill-considered, and frankly rather lacking in skepticism (for someone who is supposed to be a leading Skeptic).

    You’re quite right that it’s often difficult to know what people mean by “moral realism”, or just what their position is. I think that’s because, when your position is confused or incoherent, it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to describe it clearly! The same applies to much of philosophy, to varying degrees.

    I think you’re probably right that Massimo is trying to adopt some sort of half-way house, but I don’t think he’s clear about what that house is. Perhaps he is simply undecided.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Richard,

      It’s charitable (in a way) for you to try so hard to interpret Michael Shermer as not really a moral realist.

      Yes, maybe I’m being too charitable, but that’s a good direction to err in (given how much public discourse does the opposite these days!), and I’m doing my best to try to understand Shermer’s position.

      But the quote with which you began your post seems just about as uncompromisingly moral realist as you can get.

      I think that Shermer is simply misunderstanding what “moral realism” is. A lot of people do seem to think that if one can *describe* aspects of morality in objective terms, then one has a “real” morality and hence moral realism.

  9. richardwein

    “I regard all moral “oughts” as instrumental; that is, they are of the form:”

    Moral oughts are not (primarily) instrumental. Moral oughts and instrumental oughts are two different kinds of oughts (though sometimes an ought may be used in both ways at the same time).

    Suppose I say: “If you want to arrive by 3 you ought to leave now.” Typically this is intended as purely practical advice about how to meet your presumed goal (of arriving by 3). There’s nothing moral about it at all. It may start to become morally overloaded if I think you have a moral obligation to arrive at 3, and therefore a moral obligation to do what is needed to arrive by 3. if that was the case, my attitude, intonation and/or demeanour would probably be different from in the purely non-moral case.

    You and I probably agree that, of these two types of ought, only the instrumental type can be true.

    (1a) We want a happy and flourishing society;
    (2a) We can’t have a happy and flourishing society if there is slavery;
    (3a) So we ought to prohibit slavery.

    If we grant that (1a) and (2a) are true then (3a) is true, and it can be rephrased as “slavery is morally wrong”.

    First, I should say that this isn’t a valid deduction in a strict sense. Since the word “ought” (or an equivalent) does not appear in the premises. Nevertheless I think the argument is a reasonable one (albeit not a strict deduction) if the “ought” in the conclusion is an instrumental, non-moral ought. But those who fail to notice the distinction between moral and non-moral oughts will think that, by such an argument, they have justified a moral ought. In effect, they have committed a fallacy of equivocation, through conflating two different oughts. This is just what Sam Harris does in The Moral Landscape.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Moral oughts and instrumental oughts are two different kinds of oughts […] You and I probably agree that, of these two types of ought, only the instrumental type can be true.

      OK, yes, I maybe phrased that properly. To clarify, I’m saying that the only oughts are instrumental oughts. Thus the only way to make sense of “moral oughts” is that they are instrumental oughts (indeed they are a subset of instrumental oughts).

      A moral realist would, of course, not agree and would maintain that “moral oughts” are different. But I don’t regard that idea as tenable.

  10. c emerson

    coel said: “It surprises me a bit that Massimo, with his background, doesn’t attempt a more biological analysis of morality instead of thinking about it like a philosopher!”

    I realize that I am not a regular contributor but I have been following your blog fir a number of years. Thank you.

    Although I am a (retired) lawyer, my interest in moral philosophy goes back almost 60 years (into childhood). My undergraduate work was in chemistry & physics at Harvard (1971); my father was a biologist & medical researcher (Harvard PhD, Rice, then UNC).

    I, too, do not understand why academic philosophers have not pursued with any real success a straight forward naturalistic explanation for the current status of moral systems. But, the same as in any scientific or cultural trend, a change in direction generally requires varies events to take place to trigger such change. So be it.

    The naturalistic scheme that I put forth (in the non-philosophical environment of a law journal in 1994) fits the discussion being advanced here:
    1) biological entities emerged from the physics and chemistry of the cosmos
    2) living organisms maintain themselves, reproduce and survive as individuals & species; or else their species become extinct
    3) survival depends upon a multitudinous array of physical (objective, non-moral) rules (of conduct & behavior: eg, eat or die; avoid being killed by another entity or die; avoid falling too preciptiously or die; reproduce sufficiently as a soecies or die)
    4) in this sense, an animal, such as a squirrel would find an acorn valuable … in the scientific formula / numerical variable sense … i.e., instrumentally
    5) at least one species (humans) through the evolution of language capabilities, rational analytical capacity, foresight & memory abilities, and cultural developments (such as shamans, priests, overlords and early naturalists), developed methods of recognizing & characterizing rules of conduct
    6) some rules were nominalized as moral, based on utility for cultural control & survival (order) of sub-systems (social groups); and some rules were nominalized as moral, based on mythological and religious explanations
    7) some rules were collectively or differentially and individually adopted for conventional reasons, or for flourishing-based logic, or to satisfy or avoid various natural drives
    8) all of it is natural, with no need for either a supernatural nor deontological explanation
    9) that said, many combinations of these rules comply with natural boundary constraints for enlarging the likelihood of survival … both individually and collectively
    10) the remaining combinations either tend toward failures to survive OR may tend towards preferential versions of flourishing (all depending on which combination of actual participants are intended by advocates for said levels of flourishing)
    11) thus, we are left with a pluralistic mixture of objective boundary constraints for individual & species survival, with a potentially infinite array of subjective or preferential sub-systems of rukes of conduct
    12) the ‘moral’ worth, as opposed to the pragmatic utility, of any of these systems of conduct remain to be shown (and may never be shown [except by professions of faith, perhaps])
    13) regardless, there is no mystery here that I can see … just biology, environmental & ecological constraints, and the wirking out of the use of individual & collective power)

    I hope this adds to your conversation. I do not know why the above, or something like it, hasn’t become almost standard among acamedicians … but see Kitcher (Columbia) and yes, Mackie and others … see Ernst Mayr, etc

    Reply
  11. c emerson

    Btw,
    If the current combination of systems of human conduct continue as they are, the global human community might just fail to survive by failing to meet enough of nature’s objective rules for species survival (at least on its current scale) … due of course, to global warming, species eradication and other global factors, such as population size & placement, etc. If humans themselves have any moral value, or any objective value, then we should survive until we ascertain what that value is. At least, that is a major part of the thesis of my law review comment. Global warming provides a sad, but good example of the mix of objective & subjective values that I am referring to. Peace to all.

    Reply
  12. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    I will not defend Michael Shermer’s arguments, but want to have another try at a different justification for moral realism. Below is the kind of argument I wish public figures like Michael Shermer and Sam Harris would make.

    Science of the last 50 years or so supports that we can objectively identify the primary selection force for our cultural moral codes and the biology underlying our moral sense (as well as each of our sets of values).

    From our past conversations, I understand you may actually agree with me that this primary selection force is specifically the benefits of cooperation moral behaviors produce.

    I therefore argue it is factually wrong to say “morality is necessarily subjective”.

    For example, a subjective morality could be constructed on the premise that the ultimate moral value is “to preserve life”. This claim is objectively wrong.

    All subjective moralities are objectively wrong if they advocate behaviors in circumstances that will make them not be elements of cooperation strategies. We could easily list circumstances when, for instance, Kantianism and Utilitarianism are factually wrong about what moral behavior ‘is’.

    Further, understanding moral behaviors as cooperation strategies is culturally useful because it reveals what is universally moral in addition to what is merely descriptively moral.

    Descriptively moral behaviors (behaviors that are considered moral in one society but perhaps in no other) are all elements of cooperation strategies which may or may not exploit others.

    Universally moral behaviors (behaviors that are necessarily moral in all cultures based on the scientific understanding of ‘moral’) are all elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others.

    Nowhere in the above description of what is universally moral is there any claim for any innate bindingness (what we always ought to do regardless of our needs and preferences). So what?

    Science can tell us what objectively ‘is’ universally moral. That is useful just on its own.

    Can a subjective morality do that? No.

    Can a subjective view of morality reveal what morality is most likely to meet our needs and preferences? No.

    In what way does a subjective view of morality better help people flourish and meet their needs and preferences? I am genuinely puzzled by your advocacy.

    I don’t see a lack of innate bindingness as a serious drawback to a culturally useful moral system. Bindingness of a morality based on increasing cooperation without exploiting others can be expected to have no shortage of emotional and rational bindingness.

    I am about as concerned about morality’s lack of ‘magic’ oughts as I am the lack of magical unicorns in the universe.

    Coel, thanks for your engagement in the past which I hope will continue.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Science of the last 50 years or so supports that we can objectively identify the primary selection force for our cultural moral codes and the biology underlying our moral sense (as well as each of our sets of values).

      Agreed. That is why we have moral senses. Let’s warn from the outset against the naturalistic fallacy. We evolved sexual natures because it caused our ancestors to have children. That does not oblige any of us to have children.

      All subjective moralities are objectively wrong if they advocate behaviors in circumstances that will make them not be elements of cooperation strategies.

      What does the word “moral” mean to you? Does it mean “promotes cooperation”? If so then, yes, most of what you then say follows tautologically. Or, by “moral” are you connoting that we are under an obligation to act in that way? If so, why the obligation?

      Again, the fact that we evolved to be sexual being does not oblige us to have sex or to have children. The fact that we evolved emotional senses that lead to us cooperating does not oblige us to cooperate. We might *want* to have cooperate (just as we might want to have children) but there is no objective obligation to do so.

      If, however, you’re not talking about obligation but are merely describing what does and does not lead to cooperation, and using the label “moral” for things that do, then ok, but then you’re largely stating tautologies. E.g, “behaviour that limits cooperation is objectively morally wrong” just means that “behaviour that limits cooperation limits cooperation”.

      Universally moral behaviors (behaviors that are necessarily moral in all cultures based on the scientific understanding of ‘moral’) are all elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others.

      And by “moral” do you mean behaviours that promote cooperation strategies that do not exploit others? If so, the sentence becomes a tautology.

      Or are you implying that we have some obligation to act in a certain way?

      Nowhere in the above description of what is universally moral is there any claim for any innate bindingness (what we always ought to do regardless of our needs and preferences). So what?

      So what? So, (1) it makes your sentences tautological (how else are you defining “moral”?), and (2) you’re not then talking about what most people mean by “morality”, which is all about oughtness and obligation.

      Science can tell us what objectively ‘is’ universally moral.

      Define “unversally moral” in a way that does not make your claims into tautologies.

      I am about as concerned about morality’s lack of ‘magic’ oughts as I am the lack of magical unicorns in the universe.

      But unless you explain what moral “oughts” are you’re not really discussing the same thing as everyone else! All you’re doing is saying that evolution has programed us to cooperate. You’re right, it has. Now, why are you then turning to “moral” terminology and what do you mean by it?

    2. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Coel – “… What does the word “moral” mean to you? Does it mean “promotes cooperation”? If so then, yes, most of what you then say follows tautologically. Or, by “moral” are you connoting that we are under an obligation to act in that way? If so, why the obligation? …”

      I define “moral” behaviors as what science objectively reveals them to be. Descriptively moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies. Universally moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others.

      I understand you to be pointing out that the above definition is silent concerning moral philosophy’s traditional focus concerning what is “moral” – the source of our strange, sometimes irrational, feelings about morality’s innate bindingess and obligation. The source of those feelings of innate bindingness and obligation is in the biology underlying our moral sense. Evolution encoded our ability to recognize cultural norms about cooperation and, over time, to incorporate them into our moral sense. Our predecessors who did this well were better cooperators and therefore, on average, survived and had more children. Those who did not feel this same bindingness and obligation for moral norms tended to die out.

      As Michael Ruse likes to say, these strange feelings and motivations about morality’s bindingness are “… an illusion foisted on us by our genes.” Much of traditional moral philosophy’s focus on morality has been a focus on an illusion foisted on us by our biology as a component of cooperation strategies that increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors.

      Given that these feelings of moral bindingness are an illusion, what else might one mean by the question “But what makes cooperation strategies ‘moral’?” We could ask “What reasons might we have to advocate for and enforce cultural moral norms that are elements of cooperation strategies?” Societies can answer this question by determining what morality is most likely to meet shared needs and preferences (and thus advocate and enforce such norms as an instrumental ought).

      Individuals can answer this question also as an instrumental ought but based on expectations for what moral code is most likely to guide us to a satisfying life.

      Our ancestor’s lives were dependent on cooperation in groups. We evolved pleasurable emotions that rewarded us for cooperation in groups and we felt painful emotions when we were expelled or threatened with expulsion from cooperative groups. The emotion of durable happiness – a mixture of satisfaction and optimism in the cooperative company of family and friends – is most reliably triggered by sustained cooperation in groups and is important for human happiness and flourishing. The central role of durable happiness in human flourishing is, on its own, perhaps enough reason to almost always follow morality as cooperation norms, even when doing so is expected to not be in one’s best interest.

      Does that answer your question about what makes cooperation strategies ‘moral’ in the traditional philosophical sense?

      I think we are both clear about the naturalistic fallacy. I hope you don’t think I am committing it here.

      As far as my definitions of morality being tautologies, tautologies that reveal new information can be quite useful as I argue my definitions of moral behaviors are. I really do not see the problem you seem to see. It is tautologies that provide no new information that are useless. Dictionaries are just lists of tautologies, but I expect you would not dismiss dictionaries as useless.

    3. Coel Post author

      I define “moral” behaviors as what science objectively reveals them to be.

      But science does not tell us what the word “moral” means. It’s a human word, that means what we mean by it. *Given* that definition, science can then tell us about what fits that definition.

      If we consult a dictionary and ask people what they think “moral” means, then we get “concerned with principles of right and wrong behaviour”, we get “concerned with what we ought or ought not do”.

      So, the overall question is this: do the only “oughts” that exist derive instrumentally from human goals and values (in which case morality is subjective) or is there something external to humans which obligates us to act in particular ways (in which case morality would be objective)?

      It seems to me that your answer to that is the former, and thus in your scheme morality is subjective.

      Now, it is entirely true that we can then objectively describe where morality comes from, why we have feelings and goals and values, but that doesn’t change the fact that the oughtness derives from human goals and values and thus is subjective.

      Descriptively moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies.

      But if that’s your *definition* of morality then you are not using the word in the same way that everyone else is. You are thus not really arguing for an objective moral scheme, you’re arguing for something rather different. Essentially you’re arguing that our feelings and values evolved to promote cooperation. Agreed, they did. But that doesn’t tell us about the oughtness, and the oughtness is what the term “morality” is all about.

    4. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Yes, people do think of morality in terms of “concerned with principles of right and wrong behavior” and “concerned with what we ought or ought not do”.

      However due to disagreements about what is right and wrong and what we ought and ought not do, such definitions are useless for the scientific study of morality.

      A much more useful definition of moral behavior is “Behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by cultural moral norms.” (Where moral norms are norms whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment.)

      Science tells us this culturally defined category of moral behaviors can be separated into two categories: descriptively moral and universally moral behaviors as I have described and defined. Claims about what is descriptively and universaly moral that disagree with this science are objectively wrong. Due to the nature of our universe, these claims about the objective aspects of morality are cross-species universal from the beginning of time to the end of time.

      I understand you in some sense agree with the above objective aspect of morality. Do you agree with its objectivity? If not, what do you disagree with?

      But even if you agreed with the above, I understand your position is that the above objective aspect of morality is unimportant.

      Are you saying it is most culturally useful to ignore the objectivity of definitions of descriptively and universally moral behavior? If so, why?

      The most culturally useful thing to know about morality is what morality objectively, and cross-species universally, ‘is’ from the beginning of time to the end of time.

      Acceptance of the subjective natural of morality’s bindingness is a minor detail in comparison. And saying that “morality is subjective” is objectively wrong in addition to being massively confusing. What is subjective is morality’s bindingness, not its objective existence.

    5. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      However due to disagreements about what is right and wrong and what we ought and ought not do, such definitions are useless for the scientific study of morality.

      Except that if we’re studying human morality we do have to take account of how people do use the terms.

      A much more useful definition of moral behavior is “Behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by cultural moral norms.” (Where moral norms are norms whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment.)

      But isn’t there just as much disagreement about which behaviours are commonly thought to deserve punishment? Well, anyway, let’s use that definition for now.

      Science tells us this culturally defined category of moral behaviors can be separated into two categories: descriptively moral and universally moral behaviors as I have described and defined.

      But that’s not true. There are plenty of “cultural moral norms” that have nothing to do with the benefits of cooperation, as you have described them. Lots of these behaviours are to do with religion, or with arbitrary social customs. For example, drawing a picture of Mohammed is — in some cultures — a violation of a cultural moral norm considered to be worthy of punishment. But it doesn’t come under either of the categories that you have described.

      Claims about what is descriptively and universaly moral that disagree with this science are objectively wrong.

      But hold on, this contradicts your above definition. According to that, it is the case that — in some cultures — drawing a picture of Mohammed is immoral, since it is a violation of a cultural moral norm. And that’s sufficient to make it immoral under your definition.

      Are you saying it is most culturally useful to ignore the objectivity of definitions of descriptively and universally moral behavior? If so, why?

      I just don’t think that your definitions of “descriptively and universally moral behavior” are actually about “morality”, both as that term is commonly used and indeed as *you* just defined it.

  13. Mark Sloan

    Coel, I am impressed with the quality of the comments here on your post!

    But I see I am in the minority in arguing for a science based objective morality. That is, a moral system based on what morality ‘is’ without any of the troublesome ‘magic’ ought claims that most subjective/objective arguments seem to focus on and thus get short circuited.

    Perhaps some here might be interested in my recent post on the Evolutionary Institute’s website below. It was part a larger effort to survey opinions on the question “Is there a universal morality?”.

    https://evolution-institute.org/a-universal-principle-within-moralitys-ultimate-source/

    Reply
  14. Rob

    If Shermer and Harris know there are no such things as objective moral facts or properties I wish they would just say so. I think the reason they have not done so is that they so badly want there to be such objective moral facts and properties. I listened recently to a talk between Harris and Sean Carroll during which Carroll tried to persuade Harris to drop that part of his argument (which so spoils his otherwise admirable book The Moral Landscape). But Harris wouldn’t have it. Harris is a smart guy and his heart is in the right place but his desire for objective moral facts and properties trumps his ability to accept the truth about morality. After reading Shermer’s latest piece it seems that he is prey to the same wishful thinking as Harris. I agree with Coel that one cannot “segue from an objective and descriptive account of human morality to an objectively prescriptive one”. And from what I read of Massimo Pigliucci he is of the same opinion. You cannot get an objective ought from our subjective desires. But you can start with what we subjectively desire then employ prudential or instrumental oughts to argue for pursuing what we desire.

    Dropping objective moral facts and properties is no cause for nihilistic despair. Human nature and human aims and desires are all objectively real and it is with those we must begin. That’s the only place we can begin. The universe beyond our heads knows no morality. There are no gods out there to lay down objective rules, and good and bad do not exist out there in some mysterious realm independently of us. The only things that matter in the universe matter because we (and maybe other sentient creatures) make them matter. That makes us important in a way. We must be satisfied with that.

    Reply
  15. Rob

    Mark Sloan,

    I read the paper you linked to above. I agree with Russell Blackford, Massimo Pigliucci and the piece by Robert Kurzban and Peter DeScioli.

    Reply
  16. c emerson

    Looking at a few of the posts / comments, I thought I would take a shot at a naturalistic response:

    Coel says:
    “Shermer thinks we can segue from an objective and descriptive account of human morality to an objectively prescriptive one. I suggest that he is mistaken.”

    Mark Sloan says:
    “From our past conversations, I understand you may actually agree with me that this primary selection force is specifically the benefits of cooperation moral behaviors produce.” (emphasis added).

    Rob says:
    “Human nature and human aims and desires are all objectively real and it is with those we must begin. That’s the only place we can begin. The universe beyond our heads knows no morality.” (emphasis added).

    Mark’s approach (including his unquoted statements) takes cooperation without exploitation as a strong candidate for a universal objective moral statement … while Rob takes the position that human nature itself, including aims and goals are objectively real, but doesn’t ascribe any moral objects to the universe outside of our own heads.

    One of the first things I can note is that the definition of subjectivity becomes immediately important. To wit, and without equivocation, we can perhaps agree that the inside of our heads (include our neural processes and genetic material) are both subjective (describing individuals that might vary considerably) and objective, depending on the context we are exploring. In that sense, even qualia, an archetype of subjectivity is still theoretically capable of objective description (even if not displayable ala Thomas Nagel).

    Scientists (including physical and social scientists) might be able to ascertain a) that very % of folks somewhere in their nature or experience recognize (subconsciously perhaps) that cooperation without exploitation is, at the limit if its function, a near universal principle (even if it is not a principle actually practiced by even a majority … or some other number).

    A countervailing ‘force’ or principle, I suggest, is domination with exploitation. (my emphasis). Indeed, there are many principles that can be documented through history and many combinations that might arguably be shown to objectively be part of our nature (and part of the nature of other species) that work to maintain species survival, for many generations. Perhaps history can be shown to reveal a direction towards cooperation without exploitation and away from or at least mitigating the effects of domination with exploitation. I truly hope so, at least with humans … but I haven’t seen that argument forcefully made yet, at least not as an emerging factor in natural selection.

    But even if it were shown, it doesn’t establish that cooperation without exploitation is a good thing, because we don’t have a definition or agreement on what, if anything, is objectively good. There does seem to be a lot of evidence, that if given the chance, a very high % of the folks around the world would prefer at least the non-exploitation part of the equation. But, as many situations around the world have also shown, overwhelming majorities don’t necessary favor cooperation models over strong leader models. In species that can’t make analytical arguments, I don’t personally see any trend overtime towards cooperation over dominance. Any combination of techniques that continue to work over multi-generations seem secure (absent significant changes in conditions).

    For species that can analyze alternative principles and whose individual members seek various degrees of autonomy (by their nature, including a naturally developed array of preferences), then I think it is (at least) possible to argue that cooperation without exploitation would distribute opportunities for self-exploration and resources with which to undertake such explorations more effectively and perhaps more universally than models based on strong leaders. But, again, counter arguments can be made, as well as arguments that uneven distributions of opportunities and resources is morally better, or, at the least, a right possessed by all, regardless of the effects of such unevenness.

    For me, that gets to Coel’s point … whatever the objective distribution of traits, that state of affairs won’t provide grounds for prescriptive, let alone internally obligatory dictates for conduct.

    Where does that leave us? Political and cultural persuasion, I think. And to use Coel’s instrumental ought format, if one doesn’t want to live under some form of tyranny, and prefers reasonable individual autonomy, the one ought to support Y set of political and cultural principles (adjusted by future analysis). That seems to be the result of the physics and chemistry that has produced the biology we presently observe, operating within the objective constraints imposed by our ecological situation.

    Thanks again, Coel, for the opportunity to speak out here.

    – c emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi c emerson,

      Thanks for your comment (and thanks to Coel for providing this space).
      To clarify:

      My claim that cooperation which does not exploit others is universally moral is a cross-species universal claim. That is, it is objective in the sense of being independent of the details of human evolution, culture, and opinion. I don’t know how a moral principle could be any more objective.
      How can we know this moral principle is cross-species universal?

      All species that form highly cooperative societies must solve a dilemma that is innate in our physical reality. I call it the cooperation/exploitation dilemma – how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without future cooperation being destroyed by exploitation. This can be a very difficult problem to solve because exploitation of other’s cooperation efforts is virtually always the “winning” strategy in the short term and can be in the longer term.

      If intelligent species do not solve it, they cannot have highly cooperative societies which are the basis of civilizations. Intelligent, highly cooperative species with cultures will have cultural norms whose violation will be commonly thought to deserve punishment (as do all reciprocity strategies). These are what we call moral norms. All intelligent, highly cooperative species can be expected to have them, will call them something which can be translated as “morality”, and these moral norms will be elements of cooperation strategies. (Who is included in “others” who are not to be exploited is not necessarily universal.)

      But while supportive, I interpret your comments to be questioning what gives solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma the strange quality of moral bindingness we all associate with morality. Is that bindingness objective or subjective?

      I’d say morality has no innate bindingness. Emotional and rational bindingness are created within our own minds. I choose to use the above principle as a moral reference because I expect doing so will, on average and in the long term, guide to me to a good life. So this is a particular kind of instrumental ought for me. And if you want to argue its bindingness is subjective, I would not argue.

      However, that is certainly not to say that “moral behaviors” are just subjective instrumental oughts as I interpret Coel’s position. Universally moral behaviors are objectively elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others.

  17. Rob

    Hi, Mark Sloan,
    You say, ” Universally moral behaviors are objectively elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others.” But according to whom? You have posited this as a norm that ideally placed
    rational beings could agree to. What you are defending here is a sort of constructivism in ethics a la Sharon Street, T. S. Scanlon et al which, to my mind, is very far removed from what we actually do in practice as a species both within societies and as individuals. We are not so ideally
    placed or so rational as to be able to agree on this at present. The vast majority of our species is
    still in thrall to morality as laid down by primitive religions and I can’t see that changing any time soon. Constructivism in ethics is a product of western secular philosophy, an intellectual scheme that I think needlessly complicates morality and that few will ever understand. Best to start by accepting something like an error theory (Mackie, Joyce for example) combined with elements of non-cognitivist theories and the insights from evolutionary theory that together explain all that needs explaining about morality and then work out how to get the rest of the world to arrive at what seems to be the truth. If the world could get to this stage then we could talk about what we rationally ought to do in a prudential, instrumental sense. That would be far less dangerous and potentially destructive than the sort of morality that evolution instilled in us which was a quick and dirty solution to the problems faced by our ancestors but is not so good at solving problems in our globalized world.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      Regarding your “moral according to who” question:

      ”Universally moral behaviors are objectively elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others” is consistent with what the function of morality necessarily ‘is’ in all cultures of highly cooperative species, such as human beings. So it is necessarily universally moral for all highly cooperative societies because they must all solve the same cooperation exploitation dilemma.

      Also, cooperation strategies are actually exactly what past and present people have considered moral. Yes, “worship god”, “women must be submissive to men”, don’t eat pigs, don’t have homosexual sex, and don’t steal, lie, or murder are all elements of cooperation strategies.

      It appears to be empirically true that all descriptively moral behaviors (behaviors motived by our moral sense or advocated by past and present cultural moral codes) are elements of cooperation strategies. Any suggestions for counterexample past or present cultural moral norms will be gratefully received. (I take “cultural norms” to be norms whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment.)

      But what is universally moral (not just descriptively moral) are elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others. This is first a purely theoretical claim in that it defines the minimum subset of strategies necessary to solve the cross-species universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma. However, I would argue it is also empirically true for societies of mentally normal people.

      Right, I propose a moral principle that would be put forward by all well-informed rational persons as universally moral. This is essentially Bernard Gert’s definition of normative in the SEP “morality” article. (I would still argue the principle, though universally moral, has no mysterious innate bindingness regardless of it being arguably normative. Gert’s definition of normative seems to not require any ‘magic’ oughts.)

      Except for Gert’s work on normativity, I see any similarities with mainstream moral philosophy’s proposed moral universals as due, at bottom, to philosopher’s intuitions about morality as shaped by our evolutionary history. That is, my proposal is based in science, not moral philosophy in the usual sense.

      You sound much more knowledgeable about traditional moral philosophy than I am. I come at morality from the science side, so well-informed comments from the traditional philosophical perspective are greatly appreciated.

      I am claiming this moral principle is 1) objective and cross-species universal, 2) has no innate bindingness (what we all somehow ‘ought’ to do regardless of our needs and preferences), 3) is normative by Gert’s definition. This is a confusing combination of traits from the traditional moral philosophy perspective which makes it difficult to communicate.

  18. Rob

    Mark Sloan

    I hope my last post did not come across as too aggressive. I was not so meant.

    I should have added that I agree with c emerson above that the only way forward is
    “political and cultural persuasion”.
    That will need to be done gently and with sensitivity but is still likely to take a very long time.

    Reply
  19. Rob

    Hi, Mark,
    You propose to solve what you call a “cross-species universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma” by basically by getting everyone to agree not to exploit others. You also claim that this moral principle (non-exploitation) is 1) objective and … universal, 2) has no innate bindingness … and, 3) is normative…”

    I grant that your proposal might be a nice goal to work towards. But what about people who don’t like the idea of non-exploitation? Or those who don’t agree that their current system is exploitative?

    Some folks like things the way they are. Some don’t see a need for change. Most want to keep their religious morals even though by my standards they exploit and oppress others (women, sexual minorities for example). Far from wanting to change, they want to foist their religious morality on others. I’d be interested to hear how you propose to bring about change in light of these facts. Especially since you claim that there is no “inate bindingness” involved. How is everyone supposed to come around to seeing this non-exploitation principle as “normative”. What could compel them to do so?

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      Rob – “I grant that your proposal might be a nice goal to work towards. But what about people who don’t like the idea of non-exploitation? Or those who don’t agree that their current system is exploitative?”

      People who don’t like the idea of exploitation will then be acting contrary to what is objectively universally moral. Of course, they might just say they disagree about what is universally moral, but they would be factually incorrect as a matter of science.

      Rob – “Some folks like things the way they are. Some don’t see a need for change. Most want to keep their religious morals even though by my standards they exploit and oppress others (women, sexual minorities for example). Far from wanting to change, they want to foist their religious morality on others. I’d be interested to hear how you propose to bring about change in light of these facts. Especially since you claim that there is no “inate bindingness” involved. How is everyone supposed to come around to seeing this non-exploitation principle as “normative”. What could compel them to do so?”

      Many religious people I know would change virtually nothing about their moral behavior if they fully accepted and understood the universal moral principle. For instance, Christians would finally have a good justification for rejecting (reinterpreting?) what they view as their religion’s more egregious ‘moral’ norms such as “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is evil”. They also would understand why Jesus is quoted as saying the Golden Rule summarizes morality (it is a great heuristic for initiating indirect reciprocity) and when acting according to it will be immoral (when doing so decreases the benefits of cooperation).

      For religious people, the origins of this universal morality coulod be interpreted as revealing how their god encoded morality into the fabric of our universe in the form of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. There is no magical source of “compelling” in morality as natural phenomena and there does not need to be for understanding it to be culturally useful.

      This bit of science about morality will be, I hope, as useful for religious people as for atheists.

    2. Mark Sloan

      Whoops, typo in my note below. I intended “People who don’t like the idea of non-exploitation will then be acting contrary to what is objectively universally moral.”

  20. Rob

    At the risk of laboring the point I’ll try to explain more simply what I think the problem is.

    At the moment, probably something like 90% of the world’s human population is still pre-rational – that is, they are still in thrall of the illusions of theism and moral realism. Until that changes they will not accept a proposal such as yours even if it were indeed what would make things go best for us all.

    They need first to be brought to rationality. That is what needs to be achieved first before any constructivist ethical scheme such as you propose could have any hope of catching on.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Rob,

      Discovery of what is universally moral (as well as what is merely descriptively moral) as a matter of science makes me hopeful for our moral futures. This understanding resolves both longstanding puzzles about morality’s strangeness and diversity (which I think everyone can appreciate) and grounds morality in a simple idea that can be explained in a few minutes. Due to our evolutionary history, it is also intuitively moral. It fits our moral sense like a key in a well-oiled lock because this key, morality as cooperation, is what shaped this lock – our moral sense.

      And as I said above “For religious people, the origins of this universal morality could be interpreted as revealing how their god encoded morality into the fabric of our universe in the form of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.”

  21. Rob

    Mark said:

    “For religious people, the origins of this universal morality could be interpreted as revealing how their god encoded morality into the fabric of our universe in the form of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.”

    Try explaining that to the likes of Osama Bin Laden or even your average Muslim or southern Baptist. They don’t even believe in evolution. They’ll hang with their preacher/imam and their scriptures. How are you going to convince them they are wrong?

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      As I said, “… could be interpreted…”. I am thinking more in terms of Episcopalians and Unitarians finding it useful rather than religious extremists. This is just science. It remains people’s choice what to do with science. Because some people will reject the science of morality is no reason not to study it and make it known to people who may find it useful.

  22. Rob

    Hi, Mark
    As I understand it, you propose a moral principle based on a scientific description of human moral behaviour, or at least the parts of it that appeal to you. You seem to be saying that non-exploitative cooperation strategies = good/moral strategies and that these are what we should promote or pursue. You say that this can be established by science. But I cannot see how. How can we go from a scientific description of human moral behavior (or at least the bits some may like) to what we morally ought to do? Science cannot tell us that. You might be able to come up with a persuasive philosophical argument for your position. Indeed, that is all you could possibly do. But that would not be to establish scientifically that we should pursue those strategies you take to be morally good. You just cannot logically go from IS to OUGHT like that. That is exactly what people like Sam Harris have tried to do and it should be clear by now that it just doesn’t work. What we ought morally to do is a philosophical question not a scientific one. Science can inform moral reasoning but it cannot tell us what we morally ought to do.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      Science shows us that innate moral bindingness (the “ought” when people talk about the very real is/ought divide) is “… an illusion foisted on us by our genes” (paraphrase of Michael Ruse).

      What is cross-species universally moral for all time (cooperation strategies that exploit no one) is an ‘is’ claim. It has no component of any such ‘ought’ claim at all. Zero.

      I implore you to recognize the illusion (foisted on us by our genes as a cooperation strategy) of thinking all claims about moral behavior are about innate bindingness. They are not. You will never understand morality until you can free your rational thinking processes from that illusion.

    2. Coel Post author

      What is cross-species universally moral for all time (cooperation strategies that exploit no one) is an ‘is’ claim. It has no component of any such ‘ought’ claim at all. Zero.

      Then you’re using the language differently from the usual. By labeling something as “moral”, as you did there, you will be taken as implying that we ought to do it. That’s simply what the word means. People call something “moral” when they think we ought to do it and call it immoral when they think we ought not do it.

      If you don’t intend this interpretation of your meaning then it would be a lot clearer if you used a different word.

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Cole,

      I think I am using the common meaning of “moral” when I say “Moral bindingness is subjective. What is universally moral is objective.”

      Suggestions for a different word are welcome. However, I can’t think of any that would not just increase confusion.

      If I were using the word “moral” in a new sense (which I do not agree I am) based on a culturally useful new understanding from science, then I’d say the common understanding of the word “moral” needs to expand to accommodate these new insights. Definitions in dictionaries are the products of a kind of vote on what a word commonly refers to. Usage changes.

    4. Coel Post author

      Suggestions for a different word are welcome.

      The problem is that you are using “moral” in a way that you say doesn’t have any oughtness or bindingness in it. But the whole point of the word “moral” is the oughtness! That’s the dictionary definition. If someone says “X is immoral” they mean “it is wrong to do X” or “we ought not do X”.

      As for suggesting some other word that you should use, well, I can’t really, since I don’t know what you mean by it!

      I think I am using the common meaning of “moral” when I say “Moral bindingness is subjective. …

      If you think that moral bindingness is subjective THEN YOU THINK THAT MORALITY IS SUBJECTIVE, since that’s what the whole debate is about, the bindingness! Because that’s what the word *means*.

      A moral realist, someone who argues that morality is objective, is asserting that there is some form of OBJECTIVE OUGHTNESS, some form of objective bindingness.

      Those who reject moral realism, arguing that morality is subjective, are saying that the only oughts there are are instrumental ones, deriving from our human desires and values.

      … What is universally moral is objective.”

      If you’re using the word like everyone else then that means: “What is universally {the thing that is binding on us such that we all ought to do it} is objective”.

      So when you say that what is “universally moral” is “cooperation strategies that exploit no one” then you are saying “{the thing that is binding on us such that we all ought to do it} is adopt cooperation strategies that exploit no one.

      If that is not what you intend to mean then don’t use the word “moral”, use other words that say what you mean. I don’t know what they are, because I still don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Could you try replacing the words in the {…} brackets with your phrasing that both explains what you mean and does not use the word “moral”?

  23. Rob

    Hi, Mark

    You wrote:

    “I implore you to recognize the illusion (foisted on us by our genes as a cooperation strategy) of thinking all claims about moral behavior are about innate bindingness. They are not. You will never understand morality until you can free your rational thinking processes from that illusion.”

    If there is nothing binding about a principle that would promote or pursue non-exploitative cooperation strategies, then why call them “moral”? And you’re not just saying they are moral for us now. You want to raise such strategies to the status of “universally moral across all time”. What does that mean if not that they should be promoted? If you are using the word “moral” in some non-standard sense, then you owe us an explanation of how you are using it and what it is supposed to mean. Otherwise we may be talking past each other and getting nowhere.

    I’m quite comfortable with the idea that moral bindingness may be an illusion. Indeed, that realization, along with the facts of evolution, lead me to error theory and non-cognitivism. So, I don’t think that’s an issue.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      From the SEP:
      Mackie’s Arguments for the Moral Error Theory
      “… The Argument from Relativity (often more perspicaciously referred to as “the Argument from Disagreement”) begins with an empirical observation: that there is an enormous amount of variation in moral views, and that moral disagreements are often characterized by an unusual degree of intractability. …
      The Argument from Queerness may be taken to refer to Mackie’s specific version or may be considered in a generic sense. In the generic sense, whenever one argues (A) that morality is centrally committed to some thesis X, and (B) that X is bizarre, ontologically profligate, or just too far-fetched to be taken seriously, etc., then one has presented a kind of Argument from Queerness. …”

      Error theory is an argument for morality being subjective that is based on ignorance. Mackie didn’t understand morality’s diversity and strangeness. Science can now fully explain morality’s relativity and ‘queerness’.

      Indeed, since science can now explain these two former mysteries, the theory of morality as cooperation’s explanatory power for error theory’s mysteries is a nice, compact argument that morality as cooperation being correct and morality thus beings objective.

      Thanks for reminding me about how Mackie’s error theory argument has been turned on its head by science. That should be useful in communicating with philosophy majors.

      How about you tell me how you define “moral” and I will show you that how I am using “moral” is just another perspective of the same thing?

    2. Coel Post author

      Mackie didn’t understand morality’s diversity and strangeness.

      I suggest that Mackie is someone who did understand morality very well. By “ontological queerness” he means what you mean by “magic oughts”, saying that if there were “magic oughts” then that would be very ontologically queer (and thus he rejected them).

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      You are correct about Mackie – my not mentioning “magic oughts” was just to be brief in my quote from the SEP. Mackie was, as you say, in part talking about the ‘queerness’ of the feeling of magic oughts.

      Now science explains the source and function of these feelings of “magic oughts” in ways that Mackie couold hardly guess at. That is just one more way that Mackie’s argument has been turned on its head and now supports morality’s objectivity.

      Since you have not liked my definitions of moral behavior, perhaps you could tell me your definition and I can tell you how my definition is consistent with it?

    4. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Since you have not liked my definitions of moral behavior, perhaps you could tell me your definition …

      My definition of “moral”:

      Moral language functions as terms of approval or disapproval. So “moral” behaviour is behaviour that the speaker approves of, that they want you to do, that they think you ought to do.

      So “giving to charity is moral behaviour” means “giving to charity is something I approve of, that I want you to do and think you ought to do”.

      Similarly, “murder is immoral behaviour” means “murder is something I disapprove of, and I don’t want people to do it and think they ought not do it”.

      Your turn?

    5. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I am using “moral”
      1. in same way the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does
      2. in the descriptive sense to refer to behaviors motivated by our moral sense or advocated by past and present cultural moral norms (or as the SEP states it: descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior).
      And 3. in the normative (universal) sense to refer to cooperation strategies that exploit no one.

      Here is Gert’s definition of what is morally normative:
      “..the term ‘morality’ can be used … normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.”
      There is nothing in Gert’s definition about magic oughts (mysterious innate bindingness).

      But sure, my definition of what is normatively moral is what one ought to do (instrumental ought) if they wish to act:
      1) consistently with what is universally moral,
      2) in ways that will feel harmonious with their moral sense and eventually emotionally binding regardless of their needs and preferences,
      And 3) in ways that arguably are most likely to lead to a satisfying life.

      We will find lots of emotional bindingness from our moral sense and from cultural enforcement for what science tells us is universally moral. The fact that such a moral norm does not have some mysterious innate binding is irrelevant to its objectivity.

      I am happy to say that what is moral is “what we ought to do” or about “right and wrong”. But the real source of the bindingness in those oughts and rightness is subjectively generated internally by our moral sense and externally by cultural enforcement.

      My definition of moral is also consistent with your definition: “Moral language functions as terms of approval or disapproval.” I would add that this approval or disapproval can have a strong (sometimes irrational) bindingness component from the biology underlying our moral sense. Further, due to our evolutionary history, moral norms that advocate cooperation without exploiting others will be unusually effective triggers for these strong feelings of bindingness.

      Finally, Mackie’s argument updated by science is now as strong an argument for moral objectivity as it was for moral subjectivity prior to science’s remarkable explanations of morality’s diversity and ‘queerness’.

    6. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      I am happy to say that what is moral is “what we ought to do” or about “right and wrong”. But the real source of the bindingness in those oughts and rightness is subjectively generated internally by our moral sense and externally by cultural enforcement.

      Well, that means that you think that morality is subjective. Because that, the oughtness and where it comes from, is what the debate is all about. Thus, the only oughtness derives instrumentally from our subjective values.

      The claim of *objective* morality is that there are objective values (i.e. values not held by humans), that there is oughtness deriving from those objective values and that we are obliged to comply regardless of how that meshes with *our* desires and values.

      The traditional answer for the source of such “oughtness” is “God” (God made us and thus we’re obligated to do as he tells us). Ever since philosophers stopped liking that answer, they’ve been casting around for an alternative form of “objective oughtness” and getting nowhere (despite constructing convoluted schemes).

      Anyhow, none of that prevents there being objective facts about human nature, about why we have certain feelings and values, and why evolution programed them into us, and about what sorts of things will lead to human contentment and flourishing. And since humans have a lot of nature in common much of this will be the same for everyone. No-one arguing that morality is subjective would deny any of that!

    7. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      One way forward would be to agree that different versions of moral realism have been proposed and thus there have been multiple kinds of objective moralities proposed.

      You propose one kind of objective morality: what everyone ought to do regardless of their needs and preferences which focuses on the reality of some undefined morality’s innate bindingness. I (and I think Shermer) have little to no interest in such a definition because we believe (as do you) that such a thing does not exist in our universe.

      I (and I think Shermer) are interested in an objective morality (and its implied moral realism) that exists independently of people but has no innate bindingness. Our interest is because we believe such a morality exists in our universe and it would be culturally useful to understand why advocating and enforcing it is the likely instrumental choice for societies and individuals.

      We define words in order to improve communication. If a definition impedes communication (particularly in a cultural harmful way) about such an important topic as morality it should be changed.

      Isn’t the simplest conclusion from your definition that “Morality is subjective”?

      The simplest conclusion from my definition is “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are universally moral”.

      Which conclusion do you think is the most culturally useful? To me, the conclusion “morality is subjective” is horribly, and culturally destructively, misleading about the nature of morality,

    8. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      I (and I think Shermer) are interested in an objective morality (and its implied moral realism) that exists independently of people but has no innate bindingness.

      The problem is that the bindingness is what “moral realism” has always been about. So is it really sensible to invent a version of moral realism that is roughly the opposite of what moral realism currently means?

      It seems that you agree that the oughtness of morality is entirely subjective. So you could, at that point, and in line with how the debate has proceeded, agree that morality is subjective.

      But it seems you want to reject that conclusion, and re-define terms such that you can declare morality to be objective. Why? Why is it important enough to you that morality be objective such that you want to redefine things such that it is?

      I would suggest that — despite you denying that your version has oughtness in it — that it’s actually the oughtness and the idea of objective oughtness that attracts you to finding some scheme in which morality is objective.

      We define words in order to improve communication.

      Agreed. But as I see it, your scheme does the opposite. All along I’ve struggled to understand what you mean by the term “moral”. Further, most people understand by it that the “moral” thing to do is the thing we “ought” to do. And yet you want a version without oughtness? That’s going to be badly misunderstood.

      The simplest conclusion from my definition is “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are universally moral”.

      This is a good example of why I don’t think your scheme helps communication, because I *still* don’t really understand what you mean by this! You regard it as a useful and important statement.

      OK, for clarity, please could you write it out again, substituting in your definitions of the word “moral”, such that the written-out statement does not contain the word “moral”?

      To me, the conclusion “morality is subjective” is horribly, and culturally destructively, misleading about the nature of morality,

      Why is it destructive?

    9. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Thanks for responding and thanks for your patience.

      I can agree with the following definition of “moral” derived from the SEP definition:
      “Moral” can descriptively refer to codes of conduct of a society or individual whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment or normatively refer to the universal code of conduct that would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings.

      I agree that bindingness – the idea that what is moral is “what we ought to do” – is central to the way people commonly think about descriptively moral behaviors. They don’t know what is universally moral so they must rely on their feelings on the matter. We agree those feelings of bindingness are subjective.

      How important to improving human well-being is the ultimate subjectiveness of its feelings of bindingness? No morality to date has ever been objectively binding. Moralities still feel plenty emotionally binding just from our moral sense and cultural enforcement. The subjectivity of moral bindingness’s is virtually irrelevant to human well-being and would be more irrelevant if people knew what was universally moral.

      I also argue, and perhaps you agree, that in order to form highly cooperative societies, 1) all beings must solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma and 2) the minimum data set needed to solve that dilemma is “cooperation that does not exploit others” which is therefore universally moral for highly cooperative species.

      How important to improving human well-being is the ultimate objectivity of what is universally moral? Knowing what is universally moral as a matter of objective science seems, in comparison, invaluable to forming highly cooperative societies. Used as a moral reference we can refine our moral codes to much better meet human needs and preferences.

      Saying “morality is not objective” is highly confusing and destructive to human well-being because you are privileging an aspect of morality that is virtually irrelevant to human well-being over an aspect of morality that is central to human well-being – knowing
      what is universally moral.

      What ‘is’ universally moral is far more important than what most people would argue are subtle arguments about the origins of our changeable feelings on the matter.

    10. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      “Moral” can descriptively refer to codes of conduct of a society or individual whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment or normatively refer to the universal code of conduct that would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings.

      Note that in both of those morality is subjective. In the first, morality is what “is commonly thought” to deserve punishment, and so derives from human values. In the second, it’s what “would be put forward” by people, and they would put it forward owing to their values.

      But, back to this (which seems to be the central core of your scheme):

      “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are universally moral”.

      So, substituting in from above, we get:

      “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings.”

      Is that what you mean? If so, that’s a heck of a lot clearer than the usual way you phrase it, and we can then discuss whether it is true.

      Knowing what is universally moral as a matter of objective science seems, in comparison, invaluable to forming highly cooperative societies.

      Again, let’s make the substitution to make this clear:

      “Knowing what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings seems, in comparison, invaluable to forming highly cooperative societies.”

      If all such people are already putting forward such schemes then it doesn’t seem a big deal — we already know about it! I don’t see how that statement helps us much. We then just revert back to asking what sort of society we want, and thence politics as usual.

    11. Mark Sloan

      Hi Cole,

      Thanks for arranging these as follows:
      “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings.”
      “Knowing what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings seems, in comparison, invaluable to forming highly cooperative societies.”

      You have it! To me it is what I have been saying since we first started interacting.

      However, you see it as having a much clearer meaning. So thanks, I will keep your phrasing in mind.

      However, few people are well informed about “cooperation that does not exploit others is universally moral”. So that part will be new.

      But in essence, certainly it is correct to say:
      “… revert back to asking what sort of society we want” where I would insert something like “in terms of what consequences we want for enforcing a morality as cooperation moral code”.

      As I mentioned to Rob, this suggests a form of rule-utilitarianism where the rule is based on “cooperation that does not exploit others is universally moral” which immediately removes the standard problems of Utilitarianism of “over demandingness” and dissonance with our moral sense in some circumstances.

      How does a such a form of Rule-Utilitarianism sound to you? Recognizing, of course, that the Utilitarian goal is a subjective choice.

    12. Coel Post author

      You have it! To me it is what I have been saying since we first started interacting.

      Well why haven’t you said so long ago! I have time after time after time told you that I didn’t understand what you were saying, and have asked you to explain. The problem is, if you use a word such as “moral” in a way very different from how it is normally used then people will misunderstand you! So, to examine the phrases:

      “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings.”

      Well, actually, that’s only partially true. To an extent, people do indeed want a society with a large amount of cooperation. But, well-informed, rational beings put forward a whole range of behaviours, because different people have different values, and it’s their values that ultimately decide what sort of society people want. That’s why we have politics, with continual discussion about how to balance what different people want.

      It’s not true that people want to maximise cooperation. They want to balance that with an individual, private life and want a society that balances cooperative elements with the right to act as an individual and pursue one’s own ends.

      However, few people are well informed about “cooperation that does not exploit others is universally moral”. So that part will be new.

      Let’s once again make the substitution to get something I can understand. You mean: “cooperation that does not exploit others is what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings”. Or, re-phrased a bit: “Well informed, rational beings will advocate cooperation that does not exploit others”.

      But again, that’s only partially true (see above). And it’s hardly anything new. We’re all well aware that plenty of people advocate ideas for running society along those lines. It seems to me only partially correct, and not that new anyhow.

      … where I would insert something like “in terms of what consequences we want for enforcing a morality as cooperation moral code”.

      Once again you use the words “moral”, and I’m guessing that you’re doing so in a non-standard way, so once again I have to start substituting in and figuring it out, which makes it hard work!

      It would be really helpful if every time you use a sentence containing the word “moral” you also accompanied it by an alternative that didn’t use the word “moral” and instead explained what you mean.

      How does a such a form of Rule-Utilitarianism sound to you? Recognizing, of course, that the Utilitarian goal is a subjective choice.

      I don’t think that any version of utilitarianism can work. The problem is that humans want different things. There can’t be one way of organising society that perfectly suits everyone. We have to compromise with each other and balance competing goals. That’s what politics tells us. In Person A’s ideal society there will be mostly collective enterprise and lots of wealth redistribution. In Person B’s ideal society there will be mostly private enterprise and less wealth redistribution.

      Moral realists and designers of utopias have a dream that they can scheme up an ideal society that will be optimal for everyone. They can’t, there is no such thing, because people want different things.

    13. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Perhaps I can improve the primary statement’s accuracy. (I thought your version was close enough, but apparently not.)
      – “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings as universal to all codes of conduct for highly cooperative societies of intelligent beings.”

      But this phrasing is more than a bit awkward and hard to understand. So I have been saying it as “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings as universally moral”. Here making the substitution of “universally moral” which refers to “behaviors universal to all codes of conduct for highly cooperative societies of intelligent beings”.

      I see my usage of the word “moral” as the most common one. My usage is consistent with the cross-culturally common understanding of “cultural moral norms” and “moral sense” as well as the SEP morality entry.

      My proposed rule-utilitarianism defines moral ‘means’ (cooperation strategies that do not exploit others) while leaving “maximizing happiness” or “maximizing flourishing” to be defined by those doing the cooperating. So whatever people think will increase happiness and flourishing is consistent with it – differences of opinion are automatically accommodated. The important thing is to get agreement on what moral “means” are as matter of science – its sources of bindingness are almost irrelevant.

      What about emotivism (ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes) as an ethical view? As we have discussed, science shows that ethical sentences actually are propositions about elements of cooperation strategies which either do or do not exploit others (are merely descriptive or are universal).

      Since ethical sentences do express propositions, emotivism is false. If you think emotivism is still defensible, perhaps that gets to heart of your definition of ‘moral’?

    14. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation and do not exploit others are what would be put forward by all well informed, rational beings as universal to all codes of conduct for highly cooperative societies of intelligent beings.”

      OK, agreed, that’s true. There will indeed be some things that are common to all cooperative societies and cooperative codes of conduct.

      But that doesn’t seem to amount to very much. Don’t we already know it? Of course we organise society in cooperative ways. No-one today seriously suggests anything other than that. So what? Where does this get us?

      I see my usage of the word “moral” as the most common one.

      I see it as very uncommon and very confusing. That’s because you have a definition of “moral” without any oughtness in it, whereas the common concept of moral is all about oughtness — what is right or wrong, what we ought to do or ought not.

      The important thing is to get agreement on what moral “means” are as matter of science – its sources of bindingness are almost irrelevant.

      Why is that important? If there is no bindingness in it then why is it at all important to get any agreement on what are “moral means”? Morality without any bindingness is empty, it’s not even “morality”.

      Since ethical sentences do express propositions, emotivism is false.

      I entirely disagree. Emotivism is about morality-including-bindingness, what everyone else means by “morality”. And emotivism is entirely correct.

      Of course it’s not correct about *your* version of “morality”, but then it’s not *about* your version of morality, it’s about the normal version of morality which is all about oughtness and bindingness.

    15. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      “There will indeed be some things that are common to all cooperative societies and cooperative codes of conduct. … But that doesn’t seem to amount to very much. Don’t we already know it? Of course we organise society in cooperative ways. No-one today seriously suggests anything other than that. So what? Where does this get us?”

      Understanding the universal principle, its objective source, and our universe’s innate moral propositions about what is descriptively and universally moral provides insights and objective arguments as to why:
      1) The following moral norms are objectively immoral:
      “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is immoral”
      2) The objective morality of the following behaviors depends on circumstance:
      Abortion, killing, lying, and “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”
      3) Peter Singer is objectively wrong when he argues that we have the same obligations to children we will never have contact with as to our own children. (The principle also tells us what is objectively moral about between group cooperation as well as between individuals. This objectively answers many questions about what our individual moral obligations are to family, friends, and people we will never meet and our moral obligations as a nation to other nations.)
      4) Utilitarianism and Kantianism are objectively wrong when they advocate behaviors that can be expected to decrease the benefits of cooperation or exploit a subgroup.
      5) Objectively moral behaviors are, on average and in the long term, not a burden but a means to increase the benefits of cooperation.
      6) Economic systems that exploit people are objectively immoral (money economies are cooperation strategies that efficiently solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma).
      7) Laws that exploit people or reduce the benefits of cooperation are objectively immoral.

      These are just what occurs to me at the moment. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to write a post on “What is culturally useful about the universal moral principle”.
      What comparable list of objective insights does the claim “Morality is subjective” provide?
      And then how is that short list more culturally useful?

      “ you have a definition of “moral” without any oughtness in it, whereas the common concept of moral is all about oughtness — what is right or wrong, what we ought to do or ought not.”

      My proposed moral principle has more than enough mind dependent moral bindingess and oughtness without need for any magic oughts. Due to our evolutionary history, this principle arguably has more sources of innate bindingness and oughtness than all existing moral systems. These sources include emotional bindingness from the biology of our moral sense, bindingness based on rational choice (to act morally even when we expect an instance to not be in our best interest), and cultural bindingness due to cultural enforcement (such as by rule of law). However, these sources of bindingness are all generated by people and societies. As we agree, there is no innate, person independent source of bindingness.
      In general, I expect people to not even be aware that these sources of innate bindingness are mind dependent and therefore subjective. I expect the lack of mind independent sources of bindingness to be culturally irrelevant.

      “Morality without any bindingness is empty, it’s not even “morality” “.
      As I said above, the proposed universal moral principles will have no lack of bindingness, indeed, it has a better full scope of innate bindingness (though mind dependent as it is) that any moral system to date.

      “Emotivism is about morality-including-bindingness, what everyone else means by “morality”. And emotivism is entirely correct.”

      Here is a sentence about ethics: “Increasing the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others is universally ethical”. It expresses an objectively true proposition about ethics. Emotivism is false.
      And there is no lack of bindingness for morality as cooperation. It is just mind dependent bindingness and therefore subjective. Can you provide a reference that explains your apparent claim that the only kind of bindingness important for morality is mind independent?

    16. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Once again you write a comment using the word “moral” liberally, and as I’ve said it makes it very hard to discern what you’re trying to say, since you’re using the term “moral” in a very non-standard way, so one has to keep substituting in meanings and trying to figure it out … it is hard work. Please, please can you provide translations into normal language?

      For example:

      1) The following moral norms are objectively immoral: “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is immoral”

      What do you mean by “objectively immoral”? Do you mean that we ought not adopt such norms? If so, why not? Or do you just mean that such things are not elements of cooperation strategies. If so, so what? Why does this matter? Did anyone claim they *were* elements of cooperation strategies?

      [I’ll pass by the others on the list; again, trying to continually decipher them is hard work.]

      What comparable list of objective insights does the claim “Morality is subjective” provide?

      That there is no objective oughtness external to humans that obliges humans to adopt particular behaviours; instead we can work out what *we* want, what leads to the sort of society that we want to live in.

      Here is a sentence about ethics: “Increasing the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others is universally ethical”. It expresses an objectively true proposition about ethics. Emotivism is false.

      No, it doesn’t express an objectively true proposition about ethics, if by “ethical” we mean the normal meaning of “ethical”. It might be true in *your* meaning of “ethical”, but that doesn’t make emotivism false because emotivism is about normal-meaning ethics, not your-meaning ethics.

      And there is no lack of bindingness for morality as cooperation. It is just mind dependent bindingness and therefore subjective.

      Exactly. And the bindingness being subjective is what everybody (except you) means by morality being subjective, since the oughtness is what the term “moral” is about.

      Can you provide a reference that explains your apparent claim that the only kind of bindingness important for morality is mind independent?

      I never said that. I assert that the bindingess is subjective. The problem with your usage of the term “moral” is that your definition of “moral” doesn’t have any reference to bindingess and thus is not what everybody else means by “moral”.

    17. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I understand your definition of morality to be something consistent with “behaviors that are innately binding regardless of anyone’s needs, preferences, or opinions on the matter”.

      I see this definition as just one philosophical speculation about what defines morality. As I argue based on science, we can now recognize what is commonly thought of as moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies. One consequence of this scientific understanding of morality is a secondary understanding of why people in advanced civilizations might intuitively agree with this philosophical speculation.

      This philosophical definition combined with our understanding of our universe logically compels you, and the minority of philosophers who share it, to claim that “morality is subjective”.

      The majority of active philosophers who answer polls on the matter are non-theistic moral realists (morality is not purely subjective) and necessarily reject this speculation. Can you provide any references to show that your definition is what “everyone” thinks defines morality? How can you claim non-theistic moral realists could agree with your definition?

      Two counterexample philosophers among the majority who disagree with you are Bernard Gert who wrote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “morality” and Protagoras as described in Plato’s dialog of the same name. Protagoras even argues that the common people’s understanding of morality at the time as described in a Greek myth is (and as modern science confirms) to increase cooperation (meaning morality is not purely subjective).

      But I get the feeling you will continue to say what I see as culturally harmful things such as “morality is subjective” (harmful compared to recognizing morality’s objectively universal core). That is what I expect, but I do not understand it.

    18. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      I understand your definition of morality to be something consistent with “behaviors that are innately binding regardless of anyone’s needs, preferences, or opinions on the matter”.

      Well no, that would be more a definition of moral-realist morality (and I’m not a moral realist).

      If we want to define “morality” we shouldn’t stray too far from the common-language meaning as recorded in dictionaries. Thus:

      Collins dictionary: “Morality is the belief that some behaviour is right and acceptable and that other behaviour is wrong”.

      Oxford dictionary: “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.”

      M-W learners dictionary: “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior”

      To sum up, the basic meaning of “morality” has oughtness in it, as in “right” behaviour (that one ought to do) and “wrong” behaviour (that one ought not to do).

      If we depart too far from that basic meaning then we’re not talking about morality (and that includes academic philosophers who are casting around trying to find some way in which morality can be regarded as objective!).

      I see this definition as just one philosophical speculation about what defines morality.

      That speculation is not about what *defines* morality (it’s a common-language word defined by it’s common usage), it’s a speculation about how to *explain* morality, a *theory* *of* morality (which is not at all the same as the basic definition of the word).

      As I argue based on science, we can now recognize what is commonly thought of as moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies.

      We can indeed recognise *why* we have feelings about whether behaviour is “right” or “wrong” (that is, whether we think people ought or ought not do it). This is not changing the *definition* of morality, it is instead recognising the source of our moral feelings.

      Can you provide any references to show that your definition is what “everyone” thinks defines morality?

      I’ve just quoted three dictionaries for the basic, underlying, common-language meaning of the term.

    19. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      The three common language dictionary definitions of morality you list represent what morality appears to be from a scientifically naïve cultural perspective.

      The only use I have for such superficial cultural definitions is as data that must be explained by any hypothesis about morality’s origin and function. Meaning proposed hypotheses must robustly explain these cultural definitions.

      Do I agree with the three dictionary definitions? Of course. Where we differ is in how useful they are.

      My definitions are necessarily consistent with these naive definitions. That is, consistent in the sense that my definitions explain why these definitions are what they are, while at the same time explaining virtually everything else we know about morality.

      When you were asking for definitions, I assumed you were asking about definitions based on the scientific hypothesis that EXPLAINS morality, not some naïve, superficial cultural definitions.

      Are we more likely to come to correct conclusions about morality if we use 1) superficial cultural definitions of what moral behaviors appear to be or 2) definitions based on morality’s ultimate source and characteristics based on science which define what morality actually ‘is’?

      I’ll go with definitions based on what morality actually ‘is’, not what morality naively appears to be.

    20. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      The three common language dictionary definitions of morality you list represent what morality appears to be from a scientifically naïve cultural perspective.

      I now think that you’re confusing two different things, a *definition* of something and an *explanation* or theory that accounts for that thing. The former is fixed! It’s fixed by common-language usage as being the thing we are discussing.

      Let’s make a comparison with the concept “anger”. The definition of “anger” is “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility”. We can then go on to give an explanation and account of why people get angry. But, by definition, “anger” has a strongly emotional aspect to it.

      What we can’t do is re-define “anger” in a way that is emotionally neutral, we can’t say that we’ll replace the naive cultural definition of “anger” with a “scientific” definition in which, actually, anger doesn’t have any emotional component in it. Because if we tried that we would not be talking about anger, we’d be talking about something else. That something else might be worth discussing, but we would not be discussing or defining “anger”.

      That’s what you seem to be trying to do with “morality”, when you say:

      When you were asking for definitions, I assumed you were asking about definitions based on the scientific hypothesis that EXPLAINS morality, not some naïve, superficial cultural definitions.

      No, the meaning of the word “moral” is fixed by the common-usage meaning among English-language speakers. You can no more define “moral” without any oughtness in it than you can redefine “anger” without any intense emotion in it. If you try you’re no longer talking about “morality”.

      I suggest that the reason you’re trying to do that is that you: (1) arrive, correctly, at the conclusion that all actual oughtness is instrumental, deriving from our values and aims, and is thus subjective; and thus that morality is actually subjective; (2) then consider that there is something very wrong with that, that it’s a conclusion you need to reject; and (3) then redefine “morality” into something that is no longer “morality” in order that you can indeed reject the conclusion and arrive at something that is objective.

      But, in doing that, you’re no longer talking about morality. To be fair, a large number of academic philosophers have tried something similar. The idea that morality just *must* be objective seems to be so powerful that philosophers will adopt it as a rigid axiom, and reason from there, even at the need of having to redefine “morality” into something else. That is, as I see it, what you’re doing.

    21. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      If I asked a Utilitarian, Kantian, virtue ethicist, or any philosopher how they defined moral I would be astonished if they said “the belief that some behaviour is right and acceptable and that other behaviour is wrong”. Apparently, you would tell them they were wrong if they said anything else. We differ there in what makes for sensible communications about morality. Glad to have that cleared up.

      Back to what our discussion is actually about:
      Solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma objectively define moral behavior in our universe in its cross species independent form (which I understand you may actually not disagree with). This definition of moral behavior also explains the human dictionary definition of moral behavior. That definition’s implied innate bindingness is, as Michael Ruse likes to say, “an illusion foisted on us by our genes” to make us better cooperators.

      When claiming “morality is subjective”, you are talking about the Illusion foisted on humans by our genes. When I say “morality is objective”, I am talking about the morality for all species in our universe as is innate in solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.
      Is this your understanding also?

      If it is, and our understandings of these two aspects of morality are ‘true’ (as I believe they are and perhaps you do also) then the question before us is not “How do you define ‘moral’ “.

      The question before us is: Is it more culturally useful to focus on morality’s illusionary aspect for humans and say “morality is subjective”, or to focus on morality’s objective cross species universal function and universally moral core and say “morality is objective”.

      To me, it is obvious it is more culturally useful for refining moral codes to focus on morality’s objective cross species universal function. Also, this objective aspect of morality is fully consistent with morality’s innate imperative bindingness aspect being an illusion and subjective.
      Your choosing to focus on the illusory aspect of morality provides comparatively no help in refining moral codes compared to choosing to focus on what morality’s function objective is and how morality works to increase human well-being.

      Choosing to focus on morality’s illusory aspect and saying “morality is subjective” is to me a terribly culturally harmful choice. And it is a choice that has nothing to do with “How do you define ‘moral’” or any intuitions that “morality is innately binding”.

      I assure you, as I have many times before, that I see no problem at all with understanding that morality’s innate bindingness is subjective.

      Indeed, my position that “morality is objective” explains why morality’s innate bindingness is subjective.

      So please stop claiming I somehow reject that morality’s bindingness is subjective. That is not the main question we are dealing with.

    22. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      If I asked a Utilitarian, Kantian, virtue ethicist, or any philosopher how they defined moral I would be astonished if they said “the belief that some behaviour is right and acceptable and that other behaviour is wrong”.

      Then prepare to be astonished! (Though they maybe wouldn’t use quite that phrasing, which differs from the three dictionary definitions I gave).

      Utilitarianism: “Utilitarianism is one of the best known and most influential moral theories. Like other forms of consequentialism, its core idea is that whether actions are morally right or wrong depends on their effects.” (link). So it’s all to do with what behaviour is right or wrong, what we ought or ought not do.

      Kant: his “categorical imperative” is an instruction, telling you what is the right thing to do, what you ought to do. That’s why it’s an “imperative”.

      Back to what our discussion is actually about:

      The above is exactly what the discussion is about and always has been. I have time after time said that you’re misusing the concept “morality”, and I still think that. What you are talking about is not morality, it is something else.

      When claiming “morality is subjective”, you are talking about the Illusion foisted on humans by our genes.

      No, the *illusion* is that morality is objective (that’s what most people, wrongly, think). The underlying truth is that morality is subjective.

      So please stop claiming I somehow reject that morality’s bindingness is subjective.

      Then you’re accepting an anti-realist position in which morality is subjective (because that’s what the concepts “moral anti-realism” and “morality is subjective” *mean*).

      That is not the main question we are dealing with.

      It is indeed the main question when we’re discussing moral realism versus anti-realism and whether morality objective or subjective.

    23. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I am happy to agree, as I expect all philosopher’s would, that the common cultural definition of morality is “what behaviour is right or wrong, what we ought or ought not do.”

      That is obvious to everyone. It also in no way implies that the most revealing definition of morality is the common cultural one. When you asked “how do you define morality?” I have tried to answer (as I expect all philosopher’s would) with what I thought was the most useful definition – not the naive, simple minded cultural one.

      What I have been trying to discuss is whether it is more culturally useful to 1) focus on morality’s illusory aspect, its innate bindingess, and advocate for a “morality is subjective” meme or 2) focus on morality’s objectively cross-species universal aspect and advocate for a “morality is objective” meme. I don’t see anything confusing about the question or understand your apparent fascination with naive, simplistic cultural definitions of moral.

      The human moral sense and enforced cultural moral codes exist as solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma independently of any definition of the word moral. Definitions of moral arise from the existence of our moral sense and cultural moral codes, not the other way around which is what you seem to be implying. Surely you are not trying to claim morality is purely an intellectual construct dependent on we define “moral”!

    24. Coel Post author

      It also in no way implies that the most revealing definition of morality is the common cultural one.

      If you define “morality” in ways different from the common meaning, then you are not talking about morality, you’re talking about something else.

      If I defined “elephant” to be “small rodent that likes cheese and features in Tom and Jerry cartoons” then I’d be at liberty to use language that way if I wished but I would not be talking about elephants I’d be talking about mice.

      To make this as stark as possible:

      Utilitarian: Yes, the “moral” thing is the thing we ought to do, that’s what morality means.

      Kantian: Yes, agreed, the “moral” thing is the thing we ought to do.

      Virtue ethicist: Yes, agreed, the “moral” thing is the thing we ought to do.

      Moral subjectivist: Yes, agreed, the “moral” thing is the thing we ought to do.

      Everyone agrees. Where they disagree comes next:

      Utilitarian: What we ought to do is maximise some utility function.

      Kantian: What we ought to do is act in accordance with the categorical imperative.

      Virtue ethicist: What we ought to do is act in accordance with various virtues.

      Subjectivist: What we ought to do follows instrumentally from our feelings, aims and desires.

    25. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I have already agreed with you what the cultural definition of moral is.

      My proposal for the objective aspect of morality does not contradict this definition and, in fact, would predict it is likely common among insufficiently advanced intelligent species (such as ours) from the beginning of time to the end of time.

      Why do you keep insisting that I am “talking about a different subject than morality”? My proposal about the objective nature of morality is fully consistent with the common cultural definition.

    26. Mark Sloan

      Addendum;

      I agree with the following definition and generally agree that it is ‘true’ claim:
      Subjectivist: What we ought to do follows instrumentally from our feelings, aims and desires

      My only hesitancy about its truth is based on Gert’s definition of normative perhaps providing a counter-example. But that is a quibble here.

      My objection is that advocating a “morality is subjective” meme is both not logically necessary and is culturally destructive. We can also choose, and justify, advocating “morality is objective” referring to the morality’s cross-species universal aspect.

    27. Coel Post author

      My objection is that advocating a “morality is subjective” meme is both not logically necessary and is culturally destructive.

      It is necessary if: (1) the “moral” thing to do is what we “ought” to do, and (2) you agree that “What we ought to do follows instrumentally from our feelings, aims and desires”.

      I don’t see it as socially destructive. Indeed it focuses attention on humanity, on what *we* want, on what would lead to us having the lives we want.

      Nothing about that negates the fact that human nature is not arbitrary, and that there are lots of objective facts about human nature and about what we want and about what will lead to us having the lives we want.

    28. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      “I don’t see it as socially destructive. Indeed it focuses attention on humanity, on what *we* want, on what would lead to us having the lives we want.”

      You previously did not understand the basis for the following objective claims about morality. How could you? You think “morality is subjective”.

      To understand these claims you must understand the cross-species universal aspects of morality. But then that is talking about an aspect of morality that is objective, which you seem to reject for reasons I do not understand (since the objectivity claim has nothing to do with innate bindingness). I can explain why each of the following is objectively true, but I don’t see that will get to the heart of our discussion.

      Not understanding why the following are objectively true is destructive to cooperative societies.

      The cross-species objectivity of what is universally moral is a separate claim from that morality being somehow innately binding. Do you disagree? If so, why?

      Then as I previously wrote,

      1) The following moral norms are objectively immoral:
      “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is immoral”
      2) The objective morality of the following behaviors depends on circumstance:
      Abortion, killing, lying, and “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”
      3) Peter Singer is objectively wrong when he argues that we have the same obligations to children we will never have contact with as to our own children. (The principle also tells us what is objectively moral about between group cooperation as well as between individuals. This objectively answers many questions about what our individual moral obligations are to family, friends, and people we will never meet and our moral obligations as a nation to other nations.)
      4) Utilitarianism and Kantianism are objectively wrong when they advocate behaviors that can be expected to decrease the benefits of cooperation or exploit a subgroup.
      5) Objectively moral behaviors are, on average and in the long term, not a burden but a means to increase the benefits of cooperation.
      6) Economic systems that exploit people are objectively immoral (money economies are cooperation strategies that efficiently solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma).
      7) Laws that exploit people or reduce the benefits of cooperation are objectively immoral.

    29. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      The cross-species objectivity of what is universally moral is a separate claim from that morality being somehow innately binding. Do you disagree? If so, why?

      Yes, I disagree. Because to me the phrase “what is universally moral” means “what is universally binding on us” and thus the sentence becomes: “what is universally binding on us is a separate claim from that morality being somehow innately binding”, which makes no sense.

      Then as I previously wrote, 1) The following moral norms are objectively immoral: “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is immoral”

      But, as I replied, I have little idea what you are saying there. As I’ve asked several times please could you accompany such statements with versions where instead of the words “moral” or “immoral” you substitute in what you mean by those terms? This might lead to unweildy sentences, which is fine, but it would mean that I can then figure out what you’re trying to say.

      Are you saying that we should not have rules such as “women much be submissive”? And that it’s an objective fact we ought not have such rules? If so, how on earth can the bindingness be a separate question?

      If you’re *not* saying that we shouldn’t have such rules, then why should we care about this? Does this mean you’re entirely ok with having such rules?

      Ditto for all the other statements.

    30. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I agree the cultural definition of morality as “rules about what we ought to do” describes a necessary, defining aspect of morality.

      But sources for the bindingness of this “ought’ include instrumental, emotional, and cultural as well as that philosophical obsession, innately imperative. All moral norms are binding in one or more ways. In which way a moral norm is binding is a fully separable question from what might be objectively universally moral as a matter of science. What is objectively universally moral as a matter of science could be instrumentally, emotionally, and culturally binding and still be fully consistent with the cultural definition of moral. The cultural definition of moral does NOT require that a moral norm be innately imperatively binding.

      Do you agree that which way a moral principle is binding is a separable question from its objective existence as a matter of science?

      “Are you saying that we should not have rules such as “women much be submissive”? And that it’s an objective fact we ought not have such rules? If so, how on earth can the bindingness be a separate question?”

      Right, it is an objective fact that we ought (instrumental) not have moral rules exploiting women if we prefer to act according to what ‘is’ objectively universally moral. Why might we prefer to act according to what is objectively universally moral? (Where “moral” refers, as always, to rules about what we ought and ought not do.) Because acting according to what is universally moral is arguably the moral system most likely to produce human flourishing and well-being.

      I understand your position to be that focusing on morality’s lack of innate imperative bindingness by advocating the meme “morality is subjective” clears the way for us to research and advocate for whatever moral code is most likely to result in (something like) human flourishing and well-being. But I have not heard you define what that moral system is.

      My point has been that, due to the nature of our physical reality and our evolutionary history, 1) the moral system you are seeking is defined by what ‘is’ objectively universally moral (but binding only by non-innately imperative means) and 2) the most effective way to enable people to understand that purely science based moral system is by advocating for the meme “morality is objective”.

      Assume for a moment that the purely science based universal moral principle “cooperation that does not exploit others” really does define the moral system that is most likely to produce human flourishing and well-being. If that is the case, advocacy for which meme to you think will enable people to understand that purely science based moral code – saying that “morality is subjective” or that “morality is objective”?

    31. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Do you agree that which way a moral principle is binding is a separable question from its objective existence as a matter of science?

      No I don’t agree, since to me the “oughtness” is a central aspect of what is “moral”, and not a separate issue at all.

      I also don’t think that there are any “moral principles” that have “objective existence as a matter of science” since to me moral principles are declarations of our values and feelings, and thus are subjective.

      Because acting according to what is universally moral is arguably the moral system most likely to produce human flourishing and well-being.

      So, if I elide all the extraneous stuff, what you’re trying to say is: “having rules such as “women must be submissive” is less likely to lead to human flourishing and well-being”, agreed? Well why don’t you just say so! That is *vastly* clearer! And unless you’re trying to sneak in some “oughtness” that isn’t actually there, you don’t need your concepts of “moral”, they don’t add anything.

      … advocating the meme “morality is subjective” clears the way for us to research and advocate for whatever moral code is most likely to result in (something like) human flourishing and well-being. But I have not heard you define what that moral system is.

      Well, what moral code would most lead to human flourishing and well-being is an empirical matter that we need to work out given our understanding of human nature. I don’t think that there is any simple set of statements that would cover it.

      1) the moral system you are seeking is defined by what ‘is’ objectively universally moral (but binding only by non-innately imperative means)

      See, to me, that is just nonsense, a mis-use of terms. What “is” objectively and universally moral would be what is objectively and universally binding. And I don’t accept that there is anything such.

      If that is the case, advocacy for which meme to you think will enable people to understand that purely science based moral code – saying that “morality is subjective” or that “morality is objective”?

      The former, saying that morality is subjective. Since that implies that we can choose the “flourishing” and “well-being” criteria based on our values, and aim for the sort of society that we want, that satisfies us.

    32. Mark Sloan

      Hi Cole,

      All our moral values are products of what morality ‘is’ – cooperation strategies. Some moral values that favor in-groups (such as family and friends) exploit out groups (which has often been a winning strategy in our evolutionary history). You are advocating basing moral norms on an ad hoc basis depending on what our intuitions about our moral values are. That approach is essentially the current secular approach. That approach leaves secular people with such an ineffective, chaotic mess that moral theists commonly imagine secular people have no morality.

      I am proposing we look not directly to the chaos and subjectivity of our moral values for guidance, but to the ultimate source of those moral values, the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. The simplicity of the universal solution to that dilemma – cooperation strategies that do not exploit others – provides an objective basis for refining moral codes that is most likely to be consistent with both our moral values and human flourishing.

      Do you agree that the cooperation/exploitation dilemma is the ultimate source of our moral values? If so, I don’t understand why you want to focus on the chaos of our perceptions of our moral values. Why not go to those values’ simple, purely science based source?

      It would be a huge advantage for secular ethics to be based on a purely science based universal moral principle. If a theist were to ask me what morality I advocate, I can easily explain that it is moral norms based on cooperation strategies that do not exploit others.

      The existing secular moral system, which I cannot see how you are improving on, is comparably, an incoherent mess.

      Let’s put aside for a moment if we ought to advocate morality is objective or subjective memes.

      What secular moral system do you advocate?

      Whatever it is, why do you think it will better match human moral values (or increase flourishing or whatever) than a moral system based on “cooperation that does not exploit others” – which is the universal core of what has actually selected for, and is the ultimate source of, of those moral values and much of the experience we perceive as flourishing?

    33. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      All our moral values are products of what morality ‘is’ – cooperation strategies.

      I don’t agree that that’s what morality “is”. To me, morality “is” the range of feelings we humans have over how we behave and act towards each other.

      You are advocating basing moral norms on an ad hoc basis depending on what our intuitions about our moral values are.

      The presumes that there is something that moral valuies “are”, and that we humans have intuitions about that reality. This is a moral-realist presumption that there are objective values. I don’t agree; the only values are human ones.

      That approach leaves secular people with such an ineffective, chaotic mess …

      It’s clear that you think your scheme has big implications for how we “should” arrange society. Why? Is it because you think we “ought” to adopt certain idea because they are “moral”? If so, the oughtness is a core part of the scheme, not a seperate issue.

      Or are you just declaring that you think society will flourish better if we adopt certain ideas? If so, that’s mainly a political programme, and the “moral” language is largely a distraction.

      You seem to be doing what many people try: decide what you think best from *your* subjective values (“cooperation strategies that exploit no-one” doesn’t come from science, it comes from *you*, from *your* values), and then try to construct a scheme in which that has objective backing.

      Why not go to those values’ simple, purely science based source?

      Science does not have values; evolution does not have values; there are no objective values for us to use as an oracle; the only values are human ones.

    34. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      ___”I don’t agree that that (cooperation strategies) is what morality “is”. To me, morality “is” the range of feelings we humans have over how we behave and act towards each other.” (This is my attempt at indicating that I am quoting you. Suggestions for better ways are welcome.)

      I agree with you that “morality “is” the range of feelings we humans have over how we behave and act towards each other”. I am puzzled you thought I would not agree. The hypothesis that morality ‘is’ cooperation strategies is confirmed as a matter of science based on its explanatory power specifically for “the range of feelings we humans have over how we behave and act towards each other”. Science shows us that this range of feelings (as defined by our moral sense and cultural moral codes) are virtually all elements of known cooperation strategies.

      I had no more choice in which hypothesis best explained the data (explained it far better than any other hypothesis) than I would have in which theory of gravity best fit what we know about gravity. It is objective science that “the range of feelings we humans have over how we behave and act towards each other” are virtually all elements of cooperation strategies. (I say virtually because there are extreme versions of female genital mutilation on young girls that remain unexplainable as cooperation strategies, but some claim are moral norms.)

      So, morality as cooperation is NOT my “choice” for an objective moral system. It is an objective part of science and I had no choice in the matter. But yes, I expect such as understanding could provide an objective moral reference that would be a large force for good in refining cultural moral codes to better meet human needs and preferences.

      And of course I agree that science has no values. Science is about what is, not what our goals ought to be or what we are obligated to do. The power of science is that it can explain the specific selection forces for human moral values (including all their diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness). Human moral values were selected for by the benefits of cooperation they produced. Human moral values are elements of cooperation strategies.

    35. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      I agree with you that “morality “is” the range of feelings we humans have over how we behave and act towards each other”. I am puzzled you thought I would not agree. The hypothesis that morality ‘is’ cooperation strategies is confirmed as a matter of science …

      You can’t have both! They’re not the same! Evolution will not have programmed us with pure cooperation strategies. Human nature is *partly* cooperative and *partly* about acting as an individual or family. From evolutionary theory (the concept of an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy) we’ll have some tensioned balance of the two. This is why communism does not work in humans, it’s not in our nature. It would work in other species such as eusocial insects. Further, where morality *comes* *from* is not the same as what morality “is”.

      So yes, there will be a good deal of overlap between: “the range of feelings we humans have over how we behave and act towards each other” and “cooperation strategies that exploit no-one”, but there will also be big differences. Morality can’t “be” both of those.

      The idea that morality actually “is” cooperation strategies that exploit no-one is not coming from science, it is coming from you. It’s an advocacy based on *your* values, *your* suggestion of how you want science to be. And the reason you want to label it “moral”, and especially “objectively” moral, is because you want to suggest that we “morally ought” to adopt such strategies — that’s the whole agenda of your scheme. But if so then the “oughtness” is central, not some separate issue.

      As I’ve said all along, I think you’re badsly confused over how you’re using the word “moral” and are not using it with a clear and consistent meaning. One symptom of this is that I keep asking you to translate sentences containing “moral” into alternatives that explain what you mean by them. If you had a clear and consistent meaning of “moral” then you could do that straightforwardly, yet you never do. I suggest that you don’t because doing so would reveal the muddle and inconsistencies over how you’re using “moral” — which is exactly why I keep asking you to do it.

    36. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Actually, biological evolution did encode the elements of cooperation strategies as “moral values” in the biology underlying our moral sense. And cultural evolution encoded elements of cooperation strategies as the “moral values” in past and present moral codes.

      Without the above understanding, our moral values may seem like inexplicable givens that somehow came from somewhere on a silver platter. Our moral values just “are” and without any known objective source or function, we must conclude that “morality is subjective”. Is this still your perspective?

      However, with the above understanding, morality’s mysteries vanish. It becomes obvious why perceptions of the word “moral” refer to “rules for right and wrong behavior” and “morality ‘is’ the range of feelings we humans have over how we behave and act towards each other”. Both are direct products of moral behaviors objectively being elements of cooperation strategies. So once again, I assure you that I agree with both definitions of “moral” but recognize them as only naively describing aspects of moral behavior and in no way being sufficient definitions.

      I don’t see I am confused about definitions of “moral” at all. I see your view of the definitions of “moral” as, to be blunt, naïve in light of the science of the last few decades regarding morality.

      Is there any evidence I can present that might convince you our moral values and moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies?

      Hope springs eternal. Here is a brief summary of the kind of evidence there is for the science of morality as cooperation.

      The main strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma are reciprocity (both direct and indirect), kin altruism, and mutualism.

      All our moral values are elements of these strategies. If you have any suggestions for potential counterexamples to this claim, please let me know.

      For example;

      Our moral values about harm/helping, fairness, loyalty, sacred objects, and respect for authority (Haidt’s 5 moral foundations) are elements of reciprocity strategies. Harm/helping and fairness values motivate initiating and maintaining cooperation. Loyalty, sacred objects, and respect for authority are elements of reciprocity strategies in that they enable distinguishing a favored in-group from out-groups. Due to our evolutionary history in small groups whose survival required cooperation, violation of our values about loyalty, sacred objects, and respect for authority can strongly motivate punishment.

      Our moral emotions include empathy and gratitude, anger, guilt, and shame. Empathy and gratitude motivate initiating and maintaining cooperative behaviors. Anger motivates punishing other people for exploitation. Punishment of exploitation is a critical element of reciprocity strategies. Guilt and shame punish ourselves for our own violations of moral norms. (Guilt and shame are highly effective elements of cooperation strategies because they do not risk disruptive cycles of violence that can be caused by external punishments of exploitation.)

      Our moral values about the well-being of our children are elements of kin altruism cooperation.

      Our moral values about loyalty to friends and our group are elements of reciprocity strategies.

      Again, suggestions for counter example moral values would be appreciated.

    37. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Actually, biological evolution did encode the elements of cooperation strategies as “moral values” in the biology underlying our moral sense.

      Yes, agreed, and other things (things other than cooperation strategies) have ALSO been encoded into what we call out moral senses. Because our human evolution has been not only about cooperation, but also about individual action and families and all sorts of other things. Evolution has given us a complex psychology, and that results from a whole slew of things, not just “cooperation strategies”.

      Without the above understanding, our moral values may seem like inexplicable givens …

      I’m not disputing any of that. Human psychology and human nature (including our moral senses) does of course derive from our evolutionary past, including our living and interacting as social animals.

      Our moral values just “are” and without any known objective source or function, we must conclude that “morality is subjective”. Is this still your perspective?

      Nope, not at all. *Of* *course* human nature derives from our evolutionary heritage. But, “morality is subjective” because: (1) morality is about oughtness; (2) the only oughtness derives instrumentally from our human values and desires; and (3) human values and desires are subjective (meaning they are generated by our brains).

      That is what everyone means by “morality is subjective”, that oughtness is what the whole subjective/objective debate always has been about. It is not about whether there are facts about human psychology and human nature; of course there are!

      So once again, I assure you that I agree with both definitions of “moral” but recognize them as only naively describing aspects of moral behavior and in no way being sufficient definitions.

      I think you’re mis-understanding the concept “definition”. A “definition” is just a brief statement of what me mean by a word, something one looks up in a dictionary. (Thus the definition of “moral” is about “what we ought to do; what is the right thing to do”.) A definition is not an explanation of the thing or an account of where something comes from or how it came into existence.

      I see your view of the definitions of “moral” as, to be blunt, naïve in light of the science of the last few decades regarding morality.

      Again, you’re misusing the term “definition”. Science provides as with explanations and understandings of morality, it does not change the definition. The *definition* of morality is set by its common-language everyday usage (which, as stated, is about what we ought or ought not do. <– and that's it, that's where the *definition* stops).

      Is there any evidence I can present that might convince you our moral values and moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies?

      OF COURSE it is the case that SOME ASPECTS of our moral senses and moral values are explained as elements of cooperation strategies (though the overall set of moral values will be more complex than that, since human psychology is more complex than that).

      Again, I really am not disagreeing that a lot of human psychology, including our moral values, derives from our evolutionary history as social and cooperating mammals. What I’m disagreeing with you about is how you use the concept “moral”.

    38. Coel Post author

      Let’s make a comparison about your definition of morality in terms of cooperation strategies.

      Let’s compare to the terms “delicious” and “disgusting” as applied to food. “Delicious” means “I like eating it” and “disgusting” means “I really don’t want to eat it”.

      Nowadays we understand that evolution will have programmed us to find delicious foods that are generally healthy and nutritious, and to find disgusting foods that are likely to be harmful (e.g. rotten meat).

      But, understanding that does not mean we redefine “delicious” to mean “nutritious”. We still retain the meaning of “delicious” as “I enjoy eating it” and use the concept “nutritious” when we mean “nutritious”.

      Afterall, it may be that we find delicious some foods that are not nutritious (e.g. herbs of little nutritional value). It may be that someone finds disgusting foods that are actually nutritious and healthy (e.g. broccoli).

      You seem to be saying that “moral values” derived from our evolutionary heritage and social and cooperating animals (agreed, they did), and then wanting to redefine moral to *mean* “cooperation strategies”. This is as misguided as redefining “delicious” to mean “nutritious”.

      “Moral” actually means judgements about “it’s the right thing to do; we ought to do it”. No amount of understanding why we have those attitudes, in terms of our evolutionary past, is going to change that. In the same way, no amount of understanding why we enjoy eating some foods but not others is going to change the definition of “delicious” to mean “nutritious”.

      So why are you so keen to slap the label “objectively moral” onto cooperation strategies? As I see it you’re doing what many people do: arriving at *your* opinion of how you want society to be, and then trying to get objective backing for that. Thus the “we ought to adopt it” connotations of “objectively moral” is exactly the reason you want to redefine “moral” this way — you wouldn’t care about the word otherwise — but that means that the oughtness is *not* a separate issue, it’s the very heart of the issue.

    39. Mark Sloan

      Namuhs and their peculiar larom behaviors

      Hi Coel,

      Our conversation seems go completely off the rails anytime I use the “m” word. So I will try to explain the objective/subjective nature of the peculiar behaviors that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without actually saying the “m” word or mentioning human behavior at all.

      It is objectively true that:
      1. The cooperation/exploitation dilemma is innate to our physical reality and must be solved all beings that form highly cooperative societies.
      2. All strategies that solve the dilemma necessarily include cooperation in an in-group that does not exploit others in the in-group, even when that cooperation’s ultimate benefit’s come from exploiting or even exterminating out-groups.
      3. Behaviors that increase cooperation without exploiting others are a necessary universal component of all solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

      Assume a hypothetical, long extinct, civilization of 8 ft tall, exoskeleton intelligent beings named namuhs that lived 50 million years ago in the Andromeda galaxy. I imagine scarab beetles standing upright with big heads and dexterous hands.

      In order for their ancestors to have formed highly cooperative societies, the benefits of cooperation selected for their biology that motivated and their cultural norms that advocated elements of cooperation strategies. Namuh mathematicians and scientists have examined this set of behaviors, which the namuh refer to as “larom”, and confirmed these are elements of known cooperation strategies, specifically reciprocity strategies, kin altruism, and mutualism.

      The namuhs most commonly referenced heuristic for larom guidance (larom norm) advocates initiating indirect reciprocity – the most powerful cooperation strategy they know. Though different versions are emphasized in different cultures, the most common form is “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

      Wise namuhs pondering the origins and function of larom behaviors recognized that at least some of the strategies they represent will necessarily be shared by all highly cooperative species. Further, behaviors that increase cooperation without exploiting others are cross-species universal to larom behaviors. These cross-species universally larom cooperation strategies exist independently of the existence of, or opinion of, any mind.

      Since these cooperation strategies that do not exploit others are universally larom for all species that form highly cooperative societies, larom behavior’s ‘means’ (strategies) are objective. However, there is nothing innate to our universe about the ultimate goals of larom behavior, nor is there any strange source of bindingness or obligation to act laromly.

      However, in contrast to the reality of objective larom ‘means’, the ultimate goals of and any innate bindingess for larom behavior is mind dependent and therefore subjective.

      So universal larom ‘means’ are objective, but larom goals and bindingness are subjective.

      How could they (and we in our turn 50 million years later) conclude anything else?

    40. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      So I will try to explain the objective/subjective nature of the peculiar behaviors that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without actually saying the “m” word …

      If you think I would disagree with anything in that post then you’ve not understood the disagreement. Yes, there are objective facts about cooperation strategies. Agreed. What is or is not a cooperation strategy is an objective issue.

      Further, if you choose to define “larom” in terms of cooperation strategies then larom is objective. Since larom is your word you can define it how you like.

      But “moral” is not your word, it is a communal word, and its meaning is as English-language speakers use it. The definition of “moral” is not “cooperation strategies”, the definition — as can be looked up in a dictionary — is to do with “what we ought to do”. Given that, what is “moral” is not objective, it is subjective, since the only oughtness derives instrumentally from our values and desires.

      So, “larom” (defined in terms of cooperation strategies) is objective; whereas “moral” (defined in terms of what we ought to do) is subjective.

      All along you’ve been talking about larom. But you can’t claim that that’s the same thing as what is “moral”; it isn’t. You’re simply not talking about the same thing as everyone else.

    41. Coel Post author

      An addendum:

      … saying that “morality is subjective” or that “morality is objective”?

      There is, perhaps, a suggestion that saying that “morality is subjective” amounts to saying that morality is arbitrary, or that it doesn’t matter, or that any moral system will be just as good as another. Actually, “subjective” means none of these things. Saying that morality is subjective only means that what we ought to do derives from our values and goals. (Where those values and goals are “human nature”, which is definitely a real and non-arbitrary thing.)

      I’m not even suggesting that saying that “morality is subjective” is the best way of communicating with the public at large (who may misunderstand this). Saying that “morality is subjective” is aimed at philosophers and others who have thought about it, who should therefore correctly interpret it.

    42. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      “Saying that morality is subjective only means that what we ought to do derives from our values and goals. (Where those values and goals are “human nature”, which is definitely a real and non-arbitrary thing.)”

      Right, I have no problem with setting the goal of morality as whatever we want, such as meeting human need and preferences in accordance with our values. But I don’t see how that really helps the current chaotic case of secular morality – among philosophers perhaps even more so than among the general secular public. So far as I know, what you are proposing for morality’s goal is the existing consensus.

      “I’m not even suggesting that saying that “morality is subjective” is the best way of communicating with the public at large (who may misunderstand this). Saying that “morality is subjective” is aimed at philosophers and others who have thought about it, who should therefore correctly interpret it.”

      We profoundly disagree about how to most effectively present the science to moral philosophers. In my experience, the mainstream position is that morality is an intellectual construct dependent on human thought. Advocating the meme “morality is subjective” will be counterproductive to getting across the idea that the ultimate source of moral ‘means’ is objective and innate to our physical reality.

    43. Mark Sloan

      Addendum:
      In my previous post I referred to moral ‘means’ as objective (they are species independent cooperation strategies) and am happy to add that moral ‘ends’ and moral “bindingness” are subjective. Could this be a helpful way of presenting what morality is?

    44. Coel Post author

      So far as I know, what you are proposing for morality’s goal is the existing consensus.

      “Morality” doesn’t have a goal, any more than evolution has a goal. There are no objective goals. Only humans have goals.

    45. Mark Sloan

      Hi Cole,

      “Morality doesn’t have a goal, any more than evolution has a goal. There are no objective goals. Only humans have goals.”

      I agree. I am puzzled you thought I did not. When I mentioned “what you are proposing for morality’s goal is the existing consensus”, I was referring to the subjective goal of fulfilling our needs and preferences consistent with our values. Are you proposing something else?

      Perhaps one of my previous related replies got lost in the mix. I am interested in what you think about that comment:

      “In my previous post I referred to moral ‘means’ as objective (they are species independent cooperation strategies) and am happy to add that moral ‘ends’ and moral ‘bindingness’ are subjective. Could this be a helpful way of presenting things?”

    46. Mark Sloan

      Hi Cole,
      I’ve started drafting an essay titled “Morality’s objective ‘means’, subjective ‘ends’, and subjective bindingness” which might clarify some of the issues we have been discussing.

    47. Coel Post author

      An addendum:

      I’ll go with definitions based on what morality actually ‘is’, not what morality naively appears to be.

      We can only ask “what X actually is” if we’re first agreed on the description or definition of X, such that we can then ask what it is.

    48. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      It is objectively true that all humans have a moral sense and all cultures have cultural moral codes. Our moral sense and cultural moral codes exist independently of any definition or lack of a definition of “moral”.

      If you disagree, please explain why all mentally normal people have a moral sense and all cultures have cultural moral codes.

    49. Coel Post author

      Our moral sense and cultural moral codes exist independently of any definition or lack of a definition of “moral”.

      Agreed, just as our anger would exist independently of whether we used the word “anger” to label it (indeed non-English speakers do use different words, and yet they still have anger).

      But, by convention, English speakers use the word “anger” to describe an intense emotion.

      Suppose someone came along and said, well actually, that’s only a naive definition of “anger”, we have now established “scientifically” that anger is emotionally neutral, and contains no emotion at all.

      Would you reply, well, whatever you’re talking about, it’s not “anger”?

    50. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      “Suppose someone came along and said, well actually, that’s only a naive definition of “anger”, we have now established “scientifically” that anger is emotionally neutral, and contains no emotion at all.

      Would you reply, well, whatever you’re talking about, it’s not “anger”?”

      No, absolutely not. I would say someone is doing bad science because whatever their hypothesis is, it is contracted by known facts.

      My hypothesis about morality is consistent with known facts including cultural definitions of “moral”.

      Cultural definitions of words do not limit what science investigates or concludes. To assume it does would be assuming before you start what science is going to conclude. The main goal of science is to reveal what is new, such as what we previously did not know about morality.

    51. Coel Post author

      Just a couple of addendums to my main reply to this comment:

      But sure, my definition of what is normatively moral is what one ought to do (instrumental ought) if they wish to act:
      1) consistently with what is universally moral, …

      You quite often explain what you mean by “moral” using a sentence containing the word “moral”. This makes it recursive and difficult to discern the meaning, since one has to try substituting in meanings.

      Finally, Mackie’s argument updated by science is now as strong an argument for moral objectivity as it was for moral subjectivity prior to science’s remarkable explanations of morality’s diversity and ‘queerness’.

      I still think you’re misinterpreting Mackie. Mackie was saying that there is no “queerness” about morality. He was saying that there would be queerness, if there were “objective values” (what you call “magic oughts”), but that since there aren’t there is no queerness. So we don’t need an explanation for Mackie’s queerness.

  24. Rob

    We posted at exactly the same time.

    But you still owe us an explanation of what you mean by “moral”.

    Reply
  25. c emerson

    My view is that Mark is making a claim along these lines: cooperation without exploitation among living organisms is
    1) a correct form of conduct, ergo “moral”
    2) evidenced by scientific analysis

    I believe he is arguing that this form of conduct, as a universal principle, has an ontological and immaterial existence independent of actual material existence of any particular living organism. I take it he analogizes such ontological existence of a moral principle to the immaterial existence of a mathematical or logical proposition or principle.

    If there were such an ontology, then it would be separate questions as to whether any living organism (a) should adopt the principle as guidance for conduct or (b) has any obligation (of some kind) to act in accordance with the principle.

    I take this to be one way of expressing what moral realism consists of.

    The problem, of course, is to (i) to explain what is “correct” about this principle as opposed to, say, the “incorrectness” of dominating conduct that is coupled with explotation, or even cooperative conduct that is coupled with explotation, and (ii) what are the scientific tests, observations and theory that show correctness.

    In this situation, if “moral” is being defined without reference to some scale of worth, or to some element or degree of obligation, then Mark is free to say living organisms are, in essence, free to act subjectively with respect to this ontological principle of cooperation without exploitation … but then this would be fundamentally different, would it not, from living organisms acting subjectively with respect to, say, gravity, or mathematics?

    In other words, gravity just is … 2 + 2 = 4 just is … in what sense can it be said “cooperation without exploitation” just is? and if that can be shown, what makes it a, or the, “correct form of conduct”?

    – Emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,

      Despite Coel’s, Rob’s, and my best efforts, it seems we three are still talking past each other. Thanks for adding your perspective. Perhaps an additional perspective will productively shift the discussion.

      A couple of corrections though,
      … cooperation without exploitation among living organisms
      1) universally fulfills the primary evolutionary function (the primary reason they exist) of our moral sense and cultural moral codes, hence is universally “moral” as a purely scientific claim
      2) and is evidenced by scientific analysis of the evolutionary function of our moral sense and cultural moral codes (including the origin of these behaviors in the minimum necessary set of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma which is innate to our physical reality).

      That is, the science about what is universal in our moral sense and cultural moral codes comes first. Any claims (subjective or otherwise) about what anyone ‘ought’ to do comes after we establish that a moral principle universally fulfills the primary evolutionary function of descriptively moral behaviors.

      Right, this universal moral principle is innate to our universe in the same way 2 + 2 = 4 is and just as objective. As with 2 +2 = 4, there is no mysterious innate obligation to act on this information.

      In answer to your question, what would make the principle a “correct form of conduct” is:
      1) a society deciding, as an instrumental choice, to use it as a reference to refine their moral codes to reduce exploitation and/or
      2) an individual deciding, as an instrumental choice, to almost always follow it, even when doing so appears to not be in their best interest.

      This moral principle’s bindingness is subjective. It existence is objective and independent of what any person thinks.

    2. Mark Sloan

      Addendum:
      While I think it is sufficient to show that this moral principle is the best instrumental choice for societies and mentally normal people, Bernard Gert’s definition of normative in the SEP arguably categorizes it as normative – what everyone ought to do.

      From the SEP “..the term ‘morality’ can be used … normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.” It seems to me that the principle fulfills this definition. But for now, I’ll leave it to other people to argue how the moral principle can be normative. I am satisfied just arguing it is the best instrumental choice.

  26. Rob

    Mark wrote:

    ” I think it is sufficient to show that this moral principle is the best instrumental choice for societies and mentally normal people.”

    And it would still be the case that it would not be OBJECTIVELY true that we MORALLY ought to pursue or promote strategy X even though it may be objectively true that pursuing or promoting strategy X would be instrumental in producing outcome Y.

    So, is it the case that if people, for moral reasons, chose not to pursue or promote strategy X they would not be mentally normal?

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,
      Rational psychopaths have a defective moral sense and because of this will not find the same innate emotional rewards for acting morally that mentally normal people do. So I must exclude them from the group of people who are likely to find the universal moral principle to be their instrumental choice – the principle most likely to enable them to achieve their needs and preferences. Even rational psychopaths would likely still find some version of cooperation morality their best instrumental choice, but I am not sure what that principle would look like.

  27. Rob

    I think the first sentence is Mackie’s book, ‘Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong’ is still basically correct. “There are no objective moral values.”

    Reply
  28. c emerson

    In Coel’s OP, analyzing what moral realism might be advancing, Coel offerred 2 approaches. First: “if moral prescriptions and moral values are “real”, moral prescriptions and moral values are “real”, having independent existence, then it must be possible that:

    (1) We want X;
    (2) In order to obtain X we have to do Y;
    (3) But actually, morally, we ought NOT do Y.

    Or, in a specific implementation:

    (1a) We want a happy and flourishing society;
    (2a) We can’t have a happy and flourishing society if there is slavery;
    (3a) But morally we ought to promote slavery as much as possible.

    … because morality is real, it has independent existence, and is not just an instrumental account of human feelings and desires …. At least that’s how I conceive of moral realism…. ”

    Second, Coel offers this: ” … maybe I’m wrong, and maybe by “moral realism” one means that human nature is real (which it indeed is), and human aims and desires are real (they indeed are), and that in order to attain those desires various oughts follow instrumentally. Agreed, they do. What is then “real” is human nature, and also “real” are facts about how to attain goals that are in line with our nature.”

    Mark commits to part of both of Coel’s approaches. Mark says: “Right, this universal moral principle [cooperation with no exploitation] is innate to our universe in the same way 2 + 2 = 4 is and just as objective. As with 2 +2 = 4, there is no mysterious innate obligation to act on this information.”

    Second, Mark says we know this through the scientific analysis of evolutionary functions. He says: “… the science about what is universal in our moral sense and cultural moral codes comes first. Any claims (subjective or otherwise) about what anyone ‘ought’ to do comes after we establish that a moral principle universally fulfills the primary evolutionary function of descriptively moral behaviors.”

    More particularly, Mark says the universal moral principle of cooperation without exploitation “… is evidenced by scientific analysis of the evolutionary function of our moral sense and cultural moral codes (including the origin of these behaviors in the minimum necessary set of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma which is innate to our physical reality).”

    In all cases, the issue is what constitutes an accurate statement of the ontology of moral systems. Are statements of correct behavior similar to statements of mathematics and logic, but discoverable by scientific examination of our physical reality? (even where the scientific analysis is directed, in part, towards what Mark refers to as our “moral sense”?)

    We seem to agree here that living organisms come with, and display, a wide variety of conduct, and values. But is there anything, within our examination of either human nature (eg, evidence of a built-in moral sense) or our examination of evolutionary techniques for survival (or flourishing as opposed to “mere” survival) that justifies declaring modes of conduct somehow analogous to immaterial mathematical principles?

    – c emerson

    Reply

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