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!

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

  1. c emerson

    Addendum:
    Just to be clear, I’m not saying Coel supports any version of moral realism. To the contrary, while he is accepting that physical reality supports various multiple propositions regarding behavior for instrumental purposes, he is denying the existence of ontological moral propositions (I think; other than as concepts, of course). So propositions that reflect a “moral” direction are in fact only propositions that reflect individual evaluations (approval or disapproval or preference). The question is, is there an evolutionary direction supporting or causing the use of any specific normative propositions (by structure or adaption or random walk)?

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi c emerson,

      You summarize my position nicely!

      Your comments are in response to Coel, but I hope you will not mind me responding.

      As a lead in to the final question in your first recent post,
      The Shermer quote suggests that both he and I agree that the form of moral realism that exists in our universe is fully consistent with its innate bindingness (what one always ought to do regardless of one’s needs and preferences) being merely instrumental. Shermer’s position is perhaps that there some definition of morality that exists independently of people, but he does not know what it is. Then my contribution would be “The definition of human independent, universally moral behaviors you are looking for is (in high-level theory terms) the minimum necessary set of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.” Or in more practical terms “Cooperation strategies that do not exploit others are universally moral.”

      And then to your final question “(What) … justifies declaring modes of conduct somehow analogous to immaterial mathematical principles?”
      We can justify modes of conduct being analogous to immaterial mathematical principles by empirical observation and hypothesis confirmation by best explanation. For example, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a wonderfully effective heuristic for initiating indirect reciprocity – the most powerful cooperation strategy known. I would say the indirect reciprocity strategy is the equivalent of an immaterial mathematical principle that evolutionary processes encoded in the biology underlying our moral sense and in our cultural moral codes.

      Concerning bingindness, moral values, and normativity:
      Shermer and I agree that there is a form of moral realism whose innate bindingness is merely instrumental. However, that does not mean that the values that this moral realism implies are simply subjective or that this moral realism is not normative (at least by Gert’s definition). The values implied by “cooperation that does not exploit others” are highly constrained – but could be variable based on different implementations depending on preferences and thus partially subjective I guess? As the principle that would be put forward by all well-informed, rational people as universally moral, the principle seems normative by Gert’s definition. But I am not sure how to reconcile that normatively with the principle’s lack of innate bindingness.

      And in response to the encoding normative propositions question in the addendum:
      There is an evolutionary direction by adaptation for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups by selecting for normative propositions to be encoded in our biology as our moral sense and in our cultures as cultural moral codes. These adaptations are central to what makes us human and have enabled us to become the incredibly successful social species we are. However, some of these adaptive strategies increase the benefits of cooperation in in-groups by exploiting others (outgroups). The minimum necessary subset of these strategies (implemented as normative propositions) increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others and are universally moral.

  2. c emerson

    Thanks, Mark, for your response. I’m not sure if Coel or others have replied yet, but I want to respond to your remarks.

    On the one hand, the structure of physical reality is at issue, as a technical question. How much of the ontological side can be resolved by science, I am not so sure. On the other hand, whether science can detect whether cooperation without exploitation is a prime behaviorial element being selected naturally might be observable but I suspect only in the long run.

    As to the second point, I’m not aware of any science presently documenting cooperation without exploitation as a definitive result of natural selection. The landscape of existing species doesn’t seem to reflect any soecific favoritism toward such a behaviorial principle (even if I wished it might).

    Earlier you suggested humans represent an especially successful species, and I believe you attributed that at least in part to cooperative behavior. However, a point I made in my own paper in 1994 is that if humans lead themselves towards a general failure to survive, then our more advanced capacities for rational analysis, forecasting, language, etc, may not turn out to be an evolutionary success, in the long run.

    Still, even if we do overcome our destructive tendencies, it isn’t clear that cooperation is replacing dominance as a trait being selected for.

    The better explanation seems to me, for moral realism arguments, is our evolved capacity to mentally construct abstract systems, in general. If evolution is affecting that, it seems evolution supports a wide diversity, not just in the physical characteristics of millions of diverse species, but in behaviorial traits as well.

    Cooperation without violence might lower the likelihood of large scale failures to survive, and excessive domination of small groups within human societies, historically, seems to lead to significant pushback (eventually in modern situations) or to a weakening in the social stability, or governing stability, of large groups (throughout human history), but that doesn’t confirm any ontological preference for a particular formulation of collective behavior traits, *except for* those traits required to maintain reproductive rates (i.e., to maintain species survival itself).

    That, in fact, was one of the essential points of my 1994 paper. The physical requirements for survival shape the range of behaviorial traits (for any species) … not as a matter of any intention, but strictly as boundary constraints for an evolutionary system based on random diversification.

    But I can’t see any evidence that cooperative techniques have any claim to universality over dominating techniques. What I do see, in homo sapiens, and somewhat along your lines, is *resistance* by any form of minority against *any form* of overt and unwanted domination by monarchs, oligarchs, and also by simple majorities or complex coalitions. Humans don’t like being dominated, and when they find a way to speak out, or take action, they
    usually do.

    But that doesn’t seem to be a universal trait favored by natural selection. It seems to be just part of a distribution of schemata for survival. One of many approaches.

    Doesn’t this then suggest Coel’s position, that “morality” is really just a name for a whole slew of hypothetical imperatives (instrumental oughts)? … with an eye, however, to the fact that Nature (the world of physical forces) includes various limits on workable schemes?

    While cooperative schemes would probably bring benefits (well-being) to a wide majority of folks, as you yourself have pointed out, cooperative schemes still leave various groups on the outs.

    – c emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi c emerson,

      “…whether science can detect whether cooperation without exploitation is a prime behaviorial element being selected naturally might be observable but I suspect only in the long run.”

      Evolutionary hypotheses about evolutionary adaptations are most commonly judged by explanatory power for what exists rather than by somehow “observing” the process (which in the case of morality arguably began millions of years ago). Virtually all past and present moral norms and known aspects of our moral sense (such as our moral emotions and circumstances when moral judgments are triggered) are elements of cooperation strategies of one kind or another. These circumstances happening by chance or having another explanation is about zero. So this “morality as cooperation” hypothesis confirmation appears to be robust science.

      “As to the second point, I’m not aware of any science presently documenting cooperation without exploitation as a definitive result of natural selection. The landscape of existing species doesn’t seem to reflect any specific favoritism toward such a behaviorial principle (even if I wished it might).”

      “Cooperation without exploiting others is universally moral” is an insight that did not directly originate in empirical studies of animal behavior (including human). Rather, its origin comes from 1) recognizing the external to biology ultimate source of moral behaviors, the cooperation/exploitation dilemma which all beings must solve in order to form highly cooperative and 2) recognizing there was a minimum necessary set of strategies required to solve that dilemma. All societies that solve the cooperation exploitation dilemma must recognize this minimum set of strategies as moral or they cannot solve the dilemma. Hence these strategies that increase cooperation without exploiting others are universally moral.

      “However, a point I made in my own paper in 1994 is that if humans lead themselves towards a general failure to survive, then our more advanced capacities for rational analysis, forecasting, language, etc, may not turn out to be an evolutionary success, in the long run.”

      Again, you are quite right, acting morally by increasing the benefits of cooperation does not necessarily insure we will not, by our own actions go extinct. Remember though, there is nothing innately moral about evolution, reproductive fitness, or species survival. We may desire these things and use moral ‘means’ to increase our ability to achieve these goals. Our universe has innately moral ‘means’, but no innately moral ‘ends’. But people are natural born purpose generators, so I don’t see the lack of innate moral ends as a big problem.

      “But I can’t see any evidence that cooperative techniques have any claim to universality over dominating techniques.”

      Again, remember that there is nothing innately moral about increasing reproductive fitness. Reproductive fitness can be increased by immoral means (such as dominance and exploitation) as well as moral means. Moral behaviors are solutions to the cooperation exploitation dilemma. Evolution is just the means of encoding moral behaviors in our moral sense and cultural moral codes. Evolution just as cheerfully selects for immoral behavior as moral behavior.

      “Doesn’t this then suggest Coel’s position, that “morality” is really just a name for a whole slew of hypothetical imperatives (instrumental oughts)?”

      The hypothesis “cooperation strategies that exploit no one are universally moral” was defined with no regard or consideration of its consequences (for the goals of instrumental oughts).
      Since it is objectively true, it cannot be tailored to provide any specific consequences and I had no real choice in what it conceptually ‘is’.
      So no, “morality” is not really just a name for a whole slew of instrumental oughts. “Morality” (meaning here what is universally moral) is the minimum necessary strategy set that solves the cooperation/exploitation dilemma, the cross-species ultimate source of morality.

      Thanks for engaging with me.

  3. Rob

    Hi, Mark,

    Your “hypothesis” is that “cooperation strategies that exploit no one are universally moral” and “OBJECTIVELY” so.

    If you could prove this “hypothesis” you would have non-realist philosophers dating back to at least Hume running for cover. It would also be very helpful for us as a species because then we could stop arguing about what we ought to do.

    I would be interested to know how you might demonstrate, in a non-circular fashion, your claim that cooperation strategies that exploit no one are universally moral. How would you show that this claim is true?

    Unless you can do this the discussion, from my POV, will likely remain bogged down at the unenlightening level of conceptual analysis. That would be unfortunate because your idea is interesting. I think the problem remains your use of the word “moral” as pointed out by Coel.

    Rob

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      If Hume knew modern evolutionary theory and game theory when he read Plato’s dialog Protagoras, I expect Hume would have been the same sort of moral realist I am. Protagoras patiently explained to Socrates that the function of morality was to enable people to cooperate in groups. (No mysterious magic moral oughts required! Magic oughts were required only when people forgot what morality was and the instrumental reasons for enforcing and abiding by moral codes.)

      The morality as cooperation concept described by Protagoras was a likely common pre-civilization understanding of morality. Protagoras recited the Greek myth about Zeus giving all people a moral sense for Socrates because Socrates had asked what morality ‘was’ to be described in story form. Substituting “evolution” for the actions of Zeus in the story works entertainingly well. That is, the myth explained that we all have a moral sense because it increased our ancestors reproductive fitness by increasing cooperation.

      Unfortunately for moral philosophy, Socrates rejected Protagoras’s explanation of morality for no apparently good reasons, but perhaps because it was a common understanding and thus intellectually uninteresting.

      But sure, we can show that “cooperation that does not exploit others is universally moral” without mentioning anything to do with people or the word moral. After all, it is an objective, species independent claim! Here is an outline of that “top down” argument:

      1. Innate to our physical reality is a cooperation/exploitation dilemma – how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without future benefits being destroyed by exploitation while exploitation is the winning strategy in the short term.
      2. There is a minimum necessary subset of strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma (a subset necessary to all reciprocity cooperation strategies).
      3. That subset is “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others”.
      4. We might call the elements of these strategies “cooperation norms”. These norms are unusual in that for the cooperation strategy to be sustainable in a society, violators must be punished in some sense.
      4. All beings that form highly cooperative societies must solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.
      5. All beings that form highly cooperative societies will have this subset encoded in their biology or in their enforced cultural norms or both (as people do).
      6. Cooperation norms that are elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others will be necessarily universal. The existence and objective function of such universal cooperation norms is independent of any mysterious magic oughts.
      7. Human cooperation norms (cultural norms whose violators are punished in some sense) are called moral norms. Cooperation that exploits others is merely descriptively moral rather than universally moral.

    2. Coel Post author

      7. Human cooperation norms (cultural norms whose violators are punished in some sense) are called moral norms.

      That’s true, humans do indeed label “cooperation norms” as “moral”. What do they mean by that? It’s a term of approval; it means that in general they approve of cooperation and disapprove of selfishness. Further, it is an advocacy that people should adopt cooperation norms. That’s because the term “moral” is a label for what we want people to adopt, for what we think they ought to adopt. And we think they ought to adopt them because we approve of them.

      Notice that all of that paragraph is about human values and feelings, and thus is all about subjective things. That’s because “moral” labels are all about how we feel about things; that’s why morality is subjective.

      Up until the last two sentences I would agree with your account. But, at the point where you want to slip the word “moral” in, you are misusing the word moral.

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      My last two sentences are:
      7. Human cooperation norms (cultural norms whose violators are punished in some sense) are called moral norms. Cooperation that exploits others is merely descriptively moral rather than universally moral.

      I am using the word moral in the same sense it is used specifically in the SEP in its “morality” article and more generally in every philosophy book I have ever read.

      Emotivism (ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes) is merely one past speculation about what morality ‘is’. Indeed, now science shows that emotivism is false. Ethical sentences do express propositions. The fact that moral bindingness is subjective, on its own, does not show emotivism is true.

      Have we been arguing about the truth of emotivism?

  4. Rob

    Hi, Mark

    How and when did science show that emotivism in ethics is false? Can you point us to the research? Also, as far as I can tell by reading the SEP, emotivism is still on the table as a metaethical position, along with error theory, quasi-realism etc. Moral realism, even though it has more adherents has done nothing to prove itself or to show that the non-realist theories are false. It remains popular because most philosophers remain prey to the illusion that moral properties exist somewhere other than in our heads.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      Science shows that emotivism in ethics is false because science supports that ethical statements do support propositions relative to what ‘is’ and ‘is’ not moral. For example, “increasing cooperation without exploiting others is universally moral” appears to be a true proposition.

      It’s not just emotivism that is proved false. It also proves “not ‘true’ “ simple Utilitarianism (rule -utilitarianism still looks promising however) and Kantianism. While not strictly speaking ‘true’, both Utilitarianism and Kantianism appear to be still useful heuristics for moral behavior, in the same way that “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is a useful heuristic for moral behavior. And in the same manner we can see when following the Golden Rule would be immoral (if it decreased the benefits of cooperation) we can test when it would be objectively immoral to follow Utilitarianism and Kantianism.

      On the other hand, virtue ethics answers the question “How should I live?” rather than “How should I interact with other people?”. So virtue ethics survives mostly untouched.

      But emotivism? It’s a dead horse. But, as you may be referring to, I am talking about what I think science shows about emotivism, not what the general philosophical community thinks about it. I have time. No rush.

      Of course moral properties exist somewhere else than in our heads. What did you think we have been talking about?

      Moral properties (what is descriptively and universally moral) exist in solutions of the species independent cooperation/exploitation dilemma. They have been there since before the fusion fires of the first star lit and will still be there when the last star goes dark.

  5. Rob

    Mark,

    I think all the confusion in this thread is due to your insistence on calling a set of behaviours objectively and universally moral. They are not moral or immoral, not morally good or morally bad. They are not morally anything. They are just a natural phenomenon. Morality is all in our heads.

    Reply
  6. Rob

    Hi, Mark,

    You wrote:

    “increasing cooperation without exploiting others is universally moral” appears to be a true proposition.”

    Let’s pull that apart and see where we get.

    1.) increasing cooperation without exploiting others is universally moral
    2.) appears to be a true proposition.

    The first part, (1.), is indeed a proposition. Whether what is proposed in 1.) appears true to you I cannot dispute. Let’s grant 2.) and agree that 1.) seems true to you. However that may be, whether what is proposed in 1.) is actually true is quite another matter.

    It would depend on what we (not just you) mean by “moral” and on whether cooperation strategies that don’t exploit others are always objectively the best strategies for achieving what we want. Maybe (for example) there are limits to the benefits of cooperation such that, beyond a certain point, we would become like eusocial insects – mindless drones with no individuality. Would we want that? What if I happen to have or to acquire goals, aspirations, preferences that don’t align with those of the group/society/hive. Who’s to say that I’m morally wrong to pursue them?

    You are just declaring by fiat that cooperation that doesn’t exploit others is morally right simpliciter. Even if it could be shown that such a strategy would be best in instrumental terms for achieving whatever we decide we want, you have nowhere in this long thread proved that it would be the morally right strategy. That is because it cannot be proved. Nor have you shown that Mackie was wrong or that moral error theory and non-cognitivism (emotivism) are false.

    That said, I quite like your idea of judging our behaviour on cooperation and non-exploitation. However, what you have proposed is just another second order constructivist scheme rather than a first order metaethical theory of value and it is not clear why we should prefer your scheme over other consequentialist or deontological schemes or ones based in virtue ethics.

    Again, I think all the difficulties we’ve had in understanding each other in this thread are a result of your non-standard use of the word “moral”.

    Reply
    1. c emerson

      Getting to the overall scheme of things in this debate, I want to repeat some of the things said:

      Mark said: “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 … ” (emphasis added)

      Coel replied: “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”

      Rob replied: “… what you have proposed is just another second order constructivist scheme rather than a first order metaethical theory of value and it is not clear why we should prefer your scheme over other consequentialist or deontological schemes or ones based in virtue ethics.”

      In an earlier post, Mark had said this:
      “Evolutionary hypotheses about evolutionary adaptations are most commonly *judged by explanatory power* for what exists rather than by somehow “observing” the process (which in the case of morality arguably began millions of years ago).” (emphasis added).

      At that time, Rob had replied:
      “Unless you can [show demonstrate how the universal moral claim is true] the discussion, from my POV, will likely remain bogged down at the *unenlightening level of conceptual analysis*. That would be unfortunate because your idea is interesting. I think the problem remains your use of the word “moral” as pointed out by Coel.” (emphasis added).

      I think this debate can be described, not just as a debate about morality per se, but also as a debate about Reason as a source of truth or knowledge versus Science as a source of truth or knowledge.

      There is not much doubt that we use reasoning capacities as primary source for constructing hypotheses about the existence of things. But scientists generally do not declare an hypothesis, by itself, as true, or as knowledge, regardless of its potential explanatory power. Scientists today generally distinguish, as well, between hypotheses and theories. For example, evolution is considered a theory, but no longer an hypothesis, because of the large amount of empirical data supporting it. Reason was used in the formation of the original hypotheses, data was examined to analyze and assess its explanatory power, elevating aspects of the hypotheses to the level of grounded theory. Still, not all aspects of evolution are settled science (origin of life issues, for example; kin selection vs group selection, as another example).

      However, there is still another distinction to be expressed regarding this debate, unless I am misreading it. Mark is taking the position that a moral precept has some sort of ontological existence and truth status within the universe independent of even the existence of any living organisms, and that the existence and truth of such precepts is discoverable and knowable by acts of reason and / or by non-cognitivist acts of insight or intuition. Mark, is that your position?

      This isn’t a new debate, of course, since these ontological questions were already being debated in western philosophy since at least Plato on one side and Epicurus and others on the other side.

      What I haven’t seen Mark do here, yet, is to at least sketch out an argument (grounds) for the ontological existence of a moral precept, where such existence is not, in truth, merely an expression of the desires, wants or conjectures of humans, who, by their own nature, and because of the physical conditions they find themselves to be part of, have every reason to want to survive and to do so comfortably or “in good form”, especially with respect to the myriad of social interactions they almost constantly face.

      Why, for example, Mark, do you find it necessary or philosophically justified to position moral precepts as having an existence (similar to mathematics) that is separate from the desires or instrumental needs of living organisms? Wanting not to be exploited is certainly a reasonable sentiment that would be expressed by a very high percentage of living organisms, human and non-human alike. But why isn’t that best explained (to follow your notion of explanatory power) by the very nature of an innermost urge or drive to survive?

      – c emerson

    2. Mark Sloan

      Hi c. emerson,

      “However, there is still another distinction to be expressed regarding this debate, unless I am misreading it. Mark is taking the position that a moral precept has some sort of ontological existence and truth status within the universe independent of even the existence of any living organisms, and that the existence and truth of such precepts is discoverable and knowable by acts of reason and / or by non-cognitivist acts of insight or intuition. Mark, is that your position?”
      ““Why, for example, Mark, do you find it necessary or philosophically justified to position moral precepts as having an existence (similar to mathematics) that is separate from the desires or instrumental needs of living organisms? … But why isn’t that best explained (to follow your notion of explanatory power) by the very nature of an innermost urge or drive to survive?”

      Yes, the moral principle that defines what is universally moral “separate from the desires or instrumental needs of living organisms” is discoverable and exists independently of human biology or thought (or that of any other species).

      As I said earlier in the discussion:
      1. Innate to our physical reality is a cooperation/exploitation dilemma – how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without future benefits being destroyed by exploitation while exploitation is the winning strategy in the short term.
      2. There is a minimum necessary subset of strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma (a subset necessary to all reciprocity cooperation strategies).
      3. That subset is “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others”.
      4. We might call the elements of these strategies “cooperation norms”. These norms are unusual in that for the cooperation strategy to be sustainable in a society, violators must be punished in some sense.
      4. All beings that form highly cooperative societies must solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.
      5. All beings that form highly cooperative societies will have this subset encoded in their biology or in their enforced cultural norms or both (as people do) – (elsewise they cannot employ reciprocity strategies to become highly cooperative societies).
      6. Cooperation norms that are elements of cooperation strategies that do not exploit others will be necessarily universal. The existence and objective function of such universal cooperation norms is independent of the existence of any mysterious magic oughts (or human needs and preferences).
      7. Human cooperation norms (cultural norms whose violators are punished in some sense) are called moral norms. Cooperation that exploits others is merely descriptively moral rather than universally moral.

      And as I just answered Rob,

      (The universal moral principle) is universally moral since it defines the minimum strategy set needed to solve the species independent cooperation/exploitation dilemma . If beings don’t use this strategy set, beings cannot take advantage of reciprocity strategies and cannot form highly cooperative societies. This dilemma is the ultimate source of human morality and the morality of all beings that form highly cooperative societies. As I like to say, the dilemma and its universal solution (the universal moral principle) existed, in the same sense mathematics did, when the fusion fires of the first start lit and will still exist when the last star goes dark.

      I am going to have to call a break here to attend to some other matters. So I probably will not be able to respond for perhaps a week or two.

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      “You are just declaring by fiat that cooperation that doesn’t exploit others is morally right simpliciter.”

      No. I am claiming that cooperation that does not exploit others is universally moral.

      It is universally moral since it defines the minimum strategy set needed to solve the species independent cooperation/exploitation dilemma . If you don’t use this strategy set, you cannot take advantage of reciprocity strategies and cannot form highly cooperative societies. This dilemma is the ultimate source of human morality and the morality of all beings that form highly cooperative societies.

      What people do with this information, such as use it as a moral reference to refine moral codes, is up to them.

      Any biindingness of this moral principle comes only from our moral sense and cultural enforcement. There is no mind independent bindingness. Science is about what ‘is’, not what ‘ought’ to be.

      I am going to have to call a break here to attend to some other matters. So I probably will not be able to respond for perhaps a week or two..

  7. c emerson

    I want to post two links to SEP. Mark has referred several times to an SEP article by Bernard Gert (UNC, deceased) describing and distinguishing various definitions of morality (primarily a descriptive one and a normative one), but looking back I didn’t see the link in this thread. The other link is to an SEP article by William FitzPatrick (Univ of Rochester) on Evolutionary Biology and Morality. I have posted FitzPatrick’s article first, which is a good, credible review of various approaches to understanding claims made by philosphers making arguments that morality largely or completely is derived from evolutionary processes. FitzPatrick himself is a moral realist who claims biology doesn’t overcome claims of non-naturalistic moral truths which have an independent ontological basis.

    Here are the links:

    1) FitzPatrick
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-biology/

    From FitzPatrick’s entry on U of Rochester’s website:
    “Metaethics: I am interested in defending a robust form of ethical realism that involves a non-naturalistic metaphysics of ethical facts and properties as well as an external reasons theory that allows for the categoricity of moral requirements. In addition to critiquing neo-Kantian constructivism, neo-Humean theories of reasons, and naturalistic forms of realism, I also have particular interests in critiquing common appeals to natural teleology and/or evolution in metaethical or ethical arguments. I have recently focused especially on providing a realist response to evolutionary debunking arguments (and similar arguments stemming from work in cognitive science and empirical moral psychology), and on related issues in moral epistemology.”

    2) Gert
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/

    From wikipedia about Bernard Gert:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Gert
    “Gert advocates the following definition of morality:

    Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.

    “According to Gert, his theory counts as a natural law theory because he holds that all moral agents must be able to understand morality in order to count as moral agents. In other words, “moral judgments can only be made about those who know what kind of behavior morality prohibits, requires, discourages, encourages, and allows.”

    “According to Gert, harm (or “evil”) is the central moral concept. Gert believes harm is what all rational creatures seek to avoid. He advances the following five-concept account of harm:

    death
    pain
    disability
    loss of freedom
    loss of pleasure.

    “He maintains that commonsense morality is far more concerned with prohibiting (and discouraging) evil than with requiring (or encouraging) people to enhance goods or benefits.”

    My only comment about this here is that non-naturalistic, non-cognitivist or pure reason forms of discovering or identifying the ontological existence of independent *moral* truths all by definition subscribe to some view of ontology that gives meaning to *moral good* or *moral correctness* outside of the affairs of natural life forms and outside of the use of moral terms that arise from natural self-expression … that is, independent of human statements about their wants, needs and goals for physical and mental well-being.

    Don’t get me wrong here. If a moral realist meant that various codes of conduct *aimed at well-being or survival in general* can be identified as being necessitated (*for achieving* said well-being or survival) based on the naturalistic constraints we can observe, and in *that* sense are objective … I would have no objection. But I haven’t seen an argument made yet that is compelling in the least that moral precepts (universal or otherwise) have some kind of any worlds status such that mathematics and logic have. And Mark has yet to sketch such an argument out here. As Rob implies, he has taken such an ontological state of affairs as axiomatic … or known upon reflection.

    Pragmatically, and even as an objective truth, if human groups can’t avoid each other completely, and given the often at least temporarily successful strategy by groups based on domination and control, I would say that, if weaker groups wish not to be dominated and exploited, then persuading all groups to use coooerative strategies that minimize exploitation is a very rational approach … but by no means is it the only approach that might work. But the starting point is recognition of individual, and naturalistic, desires to achieve well-being, and to survive, within a naturalistic, and constraint-based, physical environment.

    If humans want to survive, for example, the had better not (rationally should not) destroy their own ecology.

    – c emerson

    Reply
    1. Rob

      Yes, c emerson, you correctly diagnose the problem when you write:

      If a moral realist meant that various codes of conduct *aimed at well-being or survival in general* can be identified as being necessitated (*for achieving* said well-being or survival) based on the naturalistic constraints we can observe, and in *that* sense are objective … I would have no objection. But I haven’t seen an argument made yet that is compelling in the least that moral precepts (universal or otherwise) have some kind of any worlds status such that mathematics and logic have. And Mark has yet to sketch such an argument out here. As Rob implies, he has taken such an ontological state of affairs as axiomatic … or known upon reflection.

  8. Rob

    Hi, Mark

    You wrote;
    “I am claiming that cooperation that does not exploit others is universally moral. It is universally moral since it defines the minimum strategy set needed to solve the species independent cooperation/exploitation dilemma.”

    But that’s not the definition of *moral* that everyone else uses. That’s why we’re talking past each other. You’re talking abut apples and everyone else is talking about oranges.

    Reply
  9. Rob

    Hi, Mark

    I was going to reiterate a lot of what Coel has been saying about the problems inherent in attempting to make morality objective but he makes those points much more clearly than I ever could so, instead, could I ask you to give us some examples of the sub-class of non-exploitative cooperation strategies (NECS) that you have in mind? You see, I’m wondering if they really exist. I mean, everything we do has all sorts of different direct and indirect effects on just about everyone and so it’s not clear to me what these NECS look like. If you could provide examples it might help us better understand exactly what you are proposing as normative bedrock and enable us to offer helpful critiques and suggestions.

    Rob

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      In group cooperation strategies such a s reciprocity, kin altruism, and mutualism that do not exploit others are universally moral. See my recent reply to Coel for some examples.

      Perhaps the best known heuristic (a usually reliable but fallible rule of thumb) for indirect reciprocity is “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. In circumstances when it is expected to increase cooperation, I argue it is universally moral.

      Is the following your perspective?

      “our moral values … seem like inexplicable givens that somehow came from somewhere on a silver platter. There are moral values that just “are” and without any known objective source or function, we must conclude that ‘morality is subjective’.”

  10. Rob

    Hi Mark

    No, I think evolution is the source of our moral values. There’s nothing mysterious about morality once we understand that. The illusion that our moral values are objective is also accounted for by evolution. Evolution came up with strategies that worked, not strategies that were morally right. Evolution is blind to moral truth. Our cooperation strategies don’t track moral truth. There’s no such thing.

    That’s not to say that nothing should matter to us. Now we understand how it all came about it’s up to us to decide what should matter. And that will be a subjective matter based on our feelings, attitudes, desires etc as it always has been. It cannot be otherwise.

    I find it interesting how people (scientists, philosophers and lay people alike) continue to tie themselves in knots trying to invent objective value and force it onto world that cannot contain it. They are still in thrall of the illusion of objectivity that evolution foisted on us to make us pursue strategies that got us through the Pleistocene.

    Reply
  11. Rob

    Addendum

    It seems that the real problem in this discussion is as follows:

    No one disputes that he non-exploitative cooperation strategies you refer to may be objectively real. That’s not the issue. It’s whether they are objectively moral that is the question.

    Reply
  12. c emerson

    To Mark, Coel, Rob et al,
    Thanks for the educational debate, which appears to be winding down; but I hope not, because it is an important debate. Mark, thanks for the link to the series of essays posted on The Evolution Institute’s website. I am reading them already. E.O. Wilson’s book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), and his book, On Human Nature (1978), had a big impact on me when they were originally published. I’ve also followed, as best I can, the debate on group selection vs kin selection, and the debate on altruism generally. My father was a Harvard PhD biologist, who spent his early career at Rice University, and his later career in medical research at UNC-Med. E.O. Wilson’s ideas, generally, and Ernst Mayr’s idea related to teleonomy, crossed with Aquinas-Aristotelian concepts of objective morality, are what led me to think through and write the article I published in the Notre Dame Law Review in 1994. As I reported earlier in this thread, I find it surprising that a wider range of professional philosophers haven’t yet incorporated evolutionary biology more fully into their moral philosophies. But I am also a bit surprised that anyone reviewing the course of evolutionary biology would view natural selection as having selected just one moral precept as a universal objective moral principle, given the very bio-diversification that is the hallmark of the evolutionary process. Perhaps, Mark, I am still misreading your position. Are there multiple universal precepts in your philosophical and scientific scheme?

    I’ve sketched out my own thinking (in earlier posts) as to the logic of the matter of moral systems generally, given what we know of the operation of the physical world, so I won’t go back through it in any detail. But I want to summarize what I view is potentially a useful view of objective reality, which includes a mix of objective constraints (physical rules that are not dependent on human wants, desires, needs or thought processes) and subjective moral systems (that are constructed by human agents). In essence, the physical world, the forces of which produced living (and evolving) life forms, functions according to those forces, and those forces act as constraints on the range of behavioral codes( and moral systems) that can be successfully constructed and adopted, in both the short term, and the long term, by any living organisms. I don’t think anyone here disagrees with that statement, at least not as a general statement.

    The debate, as I read it, is centered on how to semantically and ontologically identify, or name, the descriptions of the natural forces (in operation) that constrain all survival systems. Mark has a view, if I read him correctly, that the objective workings of nature include a universal moral principle involving cooperation (without exploitation). But even without attaching the adjective “moral” in the naming of that principle, it seems apparent that such an operating principle is not universally found in all successfully surviving species. So even if we resolved the debate about how best to use the word “moral”, we win’t arrive at an agreement about the universality of an objective operating rule involving cooperation. I agree with Coel and Rob here, that the word “moral” most generally connotes some notion of “correct behavior” that then entails some force or pressure to “adopt” that “correct” behavior “by an agent”. Indeed, to go a step further, the word “moral” most generally connotes the existence of an “agent” who has made an “evaluation” of operating principles and has “designated or identified” the moral worthiness of selecting some operating principles over, or in contravention of, other operating principles.

    Of course, Plato and Aristotle and many other philosophers (ancient and modern) agree with Mark that no evaluating or designating agent (that possesses intentionality) is needed … that, instead, the structure and operation of the universe itself (its physical forces) contain a set of principles that can be described as “correct”. Even if so, I agree with Coel that a modern philosopher “ought” to find a different word than “moral” to refer to any such principles. I choose, in my speculative approach, to refer instead to “objective constraints” on “subjective” moral systems. In that sense, an “objective morality” (something of a misnomer) is an objective operating principle adopted by a subjective moral evaluator (agent) in recognition of the objective constraint placed on him / her by the physical world in which the moral agent finds him or herself.

    I say it in my 1994 paper this way(on p. 960 in the hardcopy; p.69 in the pdf):
    “A. The Range of Outcomes Which Support Survival

    At the conclusion of Part IV, I gave definitions for objective and subjective moralities. As defined, an objective morality based on survival functions as a constraint or check on subjective moralities. Physical forces, including the physical forces which operate within other life forms, are a limiting factor in what we can do. Although we do not ordinarily associate the word “value” with physical forces, assume for the moment that I will be able to show the relevancy of such an association. With that proviso, I can depict the relationship between the physical world and free will schematically as in Figure 9 below.

    The larger circle in the drawing represents all possible physical outcomes in which humans would survive. The smaller circle represents the actual consequences of human value systems: …”

    https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1974&context=ndlr

    I can’t seem to be able to copy over the actual figure … but the two circles that partially intersect schematically represent Venn diagrams reflecting 1) the objective physical world (and its forces) and 2) the set of all human adopted sets of rules of conduct.

    I don’t have a problem with Mark’s emphasis on cooperation without exploitation. Later, in my own article, I spend a few pages specifically supporting cooperation through non-violence as perhaps becoming a more identifiable means for the successful survival of human groups that increasingly must interact worldwide. That is a recognition of the objective forces at work that constrain human survival functions at both the individual and small group levels. But to become in any way a universally “correct” approach, the notion would need a great deal of qualifying clauses … because the objective state of affairs (worldwide and environmentally) seems to show that no scheme of cooperation can satisfy every idea of the “best of all worlds”. That is, some folks and some groups will always lose some combination of freedoms they would prefer not to lose, in any worldwide social structure (whether built on cooperation or some form of dominant personalities). (Indeed, Plato favored philosopher-kings, not direct democracy).

    But to the degree we collectively wish to control violence and expand individual freedoms and experience, I agree we need to focus voluntary mechanisms of cooperation over physical dominance. Unless our enemies don’t agree. Because that’s the way it still is. This suggests, of course, that humans, as subjective moral agents, have to collectively work out, what kind of world we individually wish to inhabit … if we can.

    Thanks, again, to Coel and all fir a very useful debate.

    – c emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,
      ___”Are there multiple universal precepts in your philosophical and scientific scheme?”

      An almost infinite number of moral precepts are implied by the universal principle “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others are universally moral”.

      Major categories are reciprocity strategies (mostly what we mean by moral behaviors), kin altruism, and mutualism (a cooperation strategy). Then in the reciprocity strategy category are heuristics such as the Golden Rule, “Do not kill, steal, or lie”, human rights (which are also reciprocity strategies) such as ‘rights’ to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, rule of law, and money economies. All these are solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. But these major categories and the heuristics in the them are not always universally moral. They are universally moral only when they increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others. For example, science implies (in my opinion) that money economies are universally moral only when they increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others.

      ___”Of course, Plato and Aristotle and many other philosophers (ancient and modern) agree with Mark that no evaluating or designating agent (that possesses intentionality) is needed … that, instead, the structure and operation of the universe itself (its physical forces) contain a set of principles that can be described as “correct”.”

      Protagoras, in Plato’s dialog of the same name, is perhaps even more relevant since he patiently explained to Socrates that the function of morality was to increase the benefits of cooperation. Socrates rejected this view for no clear reason, perhaps because it was a common view at the time and insufficiently intellectually challenging (too obvious).

      Just FYI, I would answer no to the question “Do Survival Values Form a Sufficient Basis for an Objective Morality”. But that may be a good conversation for another day.

      Feel free to engage either on the Evolution Institute’s comments section or on my Blog on the subject https://scienceandmorality.com/

      High quality comments like yours are greatly appreciated in both places.

  13. Rob Brown

    Hi, c emerson

    You wrote:

    “… humans, as subjective moral agents, have to collectively work out, what kind of world we individually wish to inhabit …”

    I think that’s right. It’s up to us. As you say, there are constraints on what creatures like us can want, prefer, feel good about but, within those constraints we make judgements based on subjective feelings. Hopefully, these days, our feelings are increasingly informed by rationality.

    Your paper sounds interesting. I shall read it.

    Cheers

    Rob

    Reply
  14. c emerson

    Mark & Rob,
    Thanks for replying.

    Mark, you replied: “An almost infinite number of moral precepts are implied by the universal principle [about cooperation]”

    I take this to mean that you are saying tgat cooperation without exploitation [your shorthand expression] is THE penultimate universal moral proposition.

    We don’t disagree that cooperation has a variety of benefits for those who cooperate. We disagree that the structure of reality contains cooperation as the penultimate form of correct behavior.

    This is generally the basis of disagreement between moral realists and moral subjectivists: moral realists construct a scheme of reality that externalizes moral precepts, giving such precepts some form of immaterial existence (sometimes locating the source of such precepts in divine commands, and at other times locating the source in the structure of the universe itself). Moral subjectivists locate the source of such precepts in the articulations of individuals, usually for the purpose of structuring social behavior itself. But I haven’t seen any convincing argument that moral precepts should be thought of as having independent existence external to our brain functioning. To me, internalizing moral reasoning elevates the meaningfulness of human life, because it leaves in our own hands the responsibilities for and opportunities for crafting our own social structures. Externalizing moral oreceots makes us detectives, while internalizing agency majes us social creators.

    Best wishes,
    – c emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,

      ___”I take this to mean that you are saying that cooperation without exploitation [your shorthand expression] is THE penultimate universal moral proposition.”

      Right, cooperation without exploitation is the ultimate (you didn’t actually mean penultimate did you?) cross-species objective morality that is innate to our physical reality. It cannot change.

      However, I like virtue ethics as a guide for how to live (except for interactions with others) and that preference for an ethical system is subjective.

      Morality as cooperation without exploitation is silent on what ultimate ethical systems people or other beings might eventually favor and argue for. But those are ethical systems based on claims about what morality ‘ought’ to be, not what morality ‘is’. There is a big difference.

      I you have any specific questions about how morality as cooperation without exploitation exists independently of human existence, please ask.

      Here is my Evolution Institute essay on the subject
      https://evolution-institute.org/a-universal-principle-within-moralitys-ultimate-source/
      And here is my older, but more detailed essay from my blog:
      https://scienceandmorality.com/2017/02/17/a-culturally-useful-evolutionary-morality-from-moralitys-ultimate-source/

  15. c emerson

    Addendum: my apologizes for several typos. I hit the post button accidentally. I think the think the typos are decipherable. Again, apologizes.

    – c emerson

    Reply
  16. c emerson

    Mark,
    I meant either ultimate, or perhaps pinnacle, but not penultimate … thanks. The mistake may have been subconscious given the limited time I had at that moment … because your phrasing of the precept, in your own words, points to the benefits cooperation brings, suggesting cooperation is a means to an wnd, and not an end in itself … but I wasn’t intending to raise that issue at this time.

    In addition, your scheme includes a regular reference to cooperation without exploitation as being a solution to a physical dilemma … raising a different means to an end problem. In both situations I again would not have much problem with an argument suggesting cooperation without exploitation is a *rational* solution to a set of physical conditions that, in addition, brings “benefits” to users. And, further, depending on what is meant by “benefits”, I could even feel comfortable with an argument claiming cooperation might be the “best” solution for providing benefits to participants involved with making choices between cooperation strategies and non-cooperation strategies (prisoner’s dilemma, etc). However, here your argument is that cooperation without exploitation is an ontologically “correct” behavior while all other contradictory behaviors are “incorrect” … as a categorical end in itself.

    You said:
    “I[f]you have any specific questions about how morality as cooperation without exploitation exists independently of human existence, please ask.” Yes, that is exactly my question. You provided two links, so I will read your references to see how you explain / argumentatively defend the *objective existence* of a prescriptive / moral proposition (without introducing an agent). If you want to summarize such a defense or argument, it would be appreciated, but I still want to read your links.

    Thanks,
    c emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,
      Here is an updated brief outline of “how morality as cooperation without exploitation exists independently of human existence”.

      1. Innate to our physical reality is a cooperation/exploitation dilemma – how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without future benefits being destroyed by exploitation. This dilemma can be difficult to solve because exploitation is virtually always the winning strategy in the short term.
      2. There is a minimum necessary subset of strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. This subset of strategies is a necessary component of all strategies that solve the dilemma.
      3. That subset is “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others”. It is necessary to all strategies that solve the dilemma because all strategies, even those that cooperate to exploit others, must begin by sustainably cooperating in an ingroup. Sustainable cooperation in an ingroup requires cooperation strategies that do not exploit others.
      4. All beings that form highly cooperative societies must solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma and will have those strategies encoded in their biology or in their enforced cultural norms or both (as people do).
      5. All sufficiently advanced beings that form highly cooperative societies will recognize “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others” as universally moral.

  17. Rob Brown

    Hi, Mark

    I notice the discussion over at Massimo’s Blog about the paper by Curry et al. Massimo has the same worry as Coel about your notion of universal morality. He concludes his OP thus:

    [When anyone states] “that rule X is universal it is still perfectly meaningful for me to reply, yes, but is it moral?”

    We can ask the same about your concept of non-exploitative cooperation strategies and your use of the word *moral*. Don’t you think it would be better if you did not use the word *moral* in the non-standard way that you do. You could avoid a lot of confusion and direct the discussion to substantive issues by avoiding this non-standard use of the word.

    Reply
  18. c emerson

    Mark, thanks for the summary you posted. I am reading your other links, but I would like to reply to your summary, since you have kindly restated your position several times in this thread already.

    The issue we are working on, as you said (quoting from my stated concern) is this:
    ” Here is an updated brief outline of “how morality as cooperation without exploitation exists independently of human existence”. ”

    In replying, I want to focus a bit on your notion of universality, and existence independent of human existence, especially as it relates to biological life. It’s the various differences in our views of ontology that divide us, not the concerns we have about cooperation (as an operational choice).

    You say:
    “1. Innate to our physical reality is a cooperation/exploitation dilemma – how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without future benefits being destroyed by exploitation. This dilemma can be difficult to solve because exploitation is virtually always the winning strategy in the short term.”

    You and I agree that there is in existence a physical world that functions in such a way that living organisms are faced with situations requiring a selection among alternate available acts (actions). I have phrased this in a way that avoids the complex question of free will versus causal determinism (for now). The key is that the physical world operates in such a way that elements of it interact in such a way that what we call living entities follow a course of action A versus B, or B versus A, depending on X (free choice or deterministic responses or some other complicated decision mechanism).

    At this point, however, you subsume, without explication, a theory of benefits (your word). “Benefit” is a value-laden word (profit, advantage, convenience, comfort, well-being). And you subsume your theory of benefits into solving the dilemma in favor of cooperation rather than exploitation, at least in the long run over the short run. The point is, there are consequences (implied at least) to *any* set of actions taken, or action “strategies” adopted / followed, to solve the innate / intrinsic dilemma.

    You say:
    “2. There is a minimum necessary subset of strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. This subset of strategies is a necessary component of all strategies that solve the dilemma.”

    And:
    “3. That subset is “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others”. It is necessary to all strategies that solve the dilemma because all strategies, even those that cooperate to exploit others, must begin by sustainably cooperating in an ingroup. Sustainable cooperation in an ingroup requires cooperation strategies that do not exploit others.”

    At this point, Mark, I need to be careful not to read into your summary something you may not have intended. You may not have intended any value-laden connotations by your use of the word “benefits” as opposed to, say, a more neutral term, such as “consequences”.

    If you mean that the physical world functions in such a way that, under the operation of natural selection, cooperative AND non-exploitative operating techniques will eventually be selected for in the production of future generations of the various species … then you are not using “benefits” in any value-laden, or any evaluation-of-worth sense … but only in a neutral way … as in, or something like, a “necessary or inevitable or probabilistic outcome” sense.

    This latter sense is perhaps what you are conveying, since you next say this, in your summary:
    “4. All beings that form highly cooperative societies must solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma and will have those strategies encoded in their biology or in their enforced cultural norms or both (as people do).”

    There is an unfortunate ring of circularity here, in that at first you appear to be saying: beings that form cooperative societies solve the dilemma by … cooperative techniques. But I realize you are summarizing. I think I am correct in saying something a bit more detailed; namely that beings that follow cooperation strategies in solving the (main cooperation / exploitation) dilemma (presented to them or structured into physical reality), *will* have those self-same strategies encoded into their biology … or into their cultural / societal norms.

    If I haven’t stretched my interpretation of your phrasings unreasonably, then you, to this point, are not making any claims that evolutionary biology has any built-in, intrinsic moral worth, nor are you claiming that any operating principle produced by the evolution of living organisms is, in itself, moral. What you have stated, thus far, is only that evolution (at least in some species) leads to the encoding of an operating principle (a strategy) that can be (fairly / reasonably) described as “cooperation without exploitation”. And, further, that a certain set of consequences will (likely, or inevitably) follow from actions produced under this operating principle. Have I misread you, Mark?

    Now we reach your 5th point in your summary:
    “5. All sufficiently advanced beings that form highly cooperative societies will recognize “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others” as universally moral.”

    Ok, in this version of your summary, this is the first time you introduce the concept of “moral” … (except that you did previously introduce the concept of “benefits” to be accrued or obtained from acting on a strategy of cooperation without exploitation).

    Still, in your wording for #5, we are back to the original debate raised by Coel and others, but with perhaps a new angle to be clarified: your use of the phrase “will be *recognized* as … universally moral.” (emphasis added).

    If you mean that species with advanced mental faculties can see that evolutionary biology, by natural selection, is driving species towards cooperative and non-exploitative strategies (as a means for survival, or as a means for a more distributed use of resources for a broader based flourishing), that is one thing. But if you mean that cooperation without exploitation has a more appropriate *evaluative* content, in and of itself, then you need (in my opinion) to further clarify how physical reality itself is making moral evaluations, or moral judgments about modes of behavior. This, of course, gets us back to Coel’s concerns about your definition of “moral”.

    I, myself, however, am more interested in how it is that the laws of physics and chemistry produced any beings at all, that have the capacity to wonder (and analyze) why one behavior might be “better” than another behavior? And as part of that wonderment, how the concept of “intrinsically better” versus “instrumentally better” even arose in the first place?

    But that may be for a different thread.

    Best to all,
    – c emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,

      …”You may not have intended any value-laden connotations by your use of the word “benefits” as opposed to, say, a more neutral term, such as “consequences”.”

      Right. “Benefit” is a value laden word which I am happy to accept as subjective and not human, or even biology, independent. What is human independent, in the same way that mathematics is human independent, are universal solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

      I have no theory of benefits somehow being better than no benefits. (I’ll leave that to Sam Harris and others!) I know of no human independent source of innate, imperative bindingness for why we ought to pursue benefits rather than no benefits. However, since people have values (and are natural born purpose and goal generators) I don’t see that as a serious drawback to the cultural utility of advocating and practicing a universal moral principle that is the most likely means for achieving those values and goals. When I say “benefits” I am thinking of fulfilling our values and achieving our goals.

      …”If you mean that the physical world functions in such a way that, under the operation of natural selection, cooperative AND non-exploitative operating techniques will eventually be selected for in the production of future generations of the various species … then you are not using “benefits” in any value-laden, or any evaluation-of-worth sense … but only in a neutral way … as in, or something like, a “necessary or inevitable or probabilistic outcome” sense.”

      We must be careful here to not get caught in the trap of thinking anything like “there is something innately moral about the evolutionary process” or, even more incoherently, “whatever increases reproductive fitness is moral”. What makes the universal principle ‘moral’ is the empirical claim that it is a universal solution to the necessary ultimate source of “moral behaviors”, referring to behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by cultural moral codes. That is, as a purely empirical claim, solutions to the dilemma are the source of all behaviors we define as descriptively moral.

      …”If I haven’t stretched my interpretation of your phrasings unreasonably, then you, to this point, are not making any claims that evolutionary biology has any built-in, intrinsic moral worth, nor are you claiming that any operating principle produced by the evolution of living organisms is, in itself, moral. What you have stated, thus far, is only that evolution (at least in some species) leads to the encoding of an operating principle (a strategy) that can be (fairly / reasonably) described as “cooperation without exploitation”. And, further, that a certain set of consequences will (likely, or inevitably) follow from actions produced under this operating principle. Have I misread you, Mark?”

      You have it. It is wonderful to feel understood!

      …”Still, in your wording for #5, we are back to the original debate raised by Coel and others, but with perhaps a new angle to be clarified: your use of the phrase “will be *recognized* as … universally moral.” (emphasis added).”

      I am still mystified by the “definition issue” raised by Cole and others. Perhaps you can help me understand. Consider the following:
      4. All beings that form highly cooperative societies must solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma and will have those strategies encoded in their biology or in their enforced cultural norms or both (as people do).
      People (or at least philosophers) call these behaviors “descriptively moral”. Point 5 is saying that all sufficiently advanced beings will understand these behaviors to be elements of cooperation strategies and that there is a subset of strategies that are necessary to all these strategies and are therefore universal. Further, this universal set of strategies is defined by “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”. Whatever aspect of these behaviors any particular species or culture (even humans!) focuses on as defining these behaviors, the conclusion is the same. How on earth does the cultural definition of moral as “defining right and wrong behavior” affect that conclusion about what is universal? It can’t. Hence my befuddlement.

      …”then you need (in my opinion) to further clarify how physical reality itself is making moral evaluations, or moral judgments about modes of behavior. This, of course, gets us back to Coel’s concerns about your definition of “moral”.”

      I think we agree that physical reality has NO innate moral evaluations. All that is innate to physical reality is the cooperation/exploitation dilemma and its universal solution.

      …”I, myself, however, am more interested in how it is that the laws of physics and chemistry produced any beings at all, that have the capacity to wonder (and analyze) why one behavior might be “better” than another behavior? And as part of that wonderment, how the concept of “intrinsically better” versus “instrumentally better” even arose in the first place?”

      We probably agree that cross-cultural universal values likely have a biological basis selected for by the reproductive fitness benefits of cooperation. On the other hand, some values – such as valuing free speech or the life of someone we will never meet – were likely culturally selected for by whatever aspect, perhaps intellectual coherence, made such values attractive to people.

      Regarding our capacity to wonder, it may be explained by the hypothesis that the principle reason we are so strangely much more intelligent that the other great apes is specifically to enable us to cooperate in groups without being exploited – to act morally. It takes a lot of brains to construct and negotiate morality.

      Perhaps you could comment over on my essay at:
      https://evolution-institute.org/a-universal-principle-within-moralitys-ultimate-source/
      Having high-quality comments like yours should encourage other quality comments and engagement.
      I have some concern we are imposing on Coel’s generosity.

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      I am still mystified by the “definition issue” raised by Cole and others. Perhaps you can help me understand.

      The best way for you to understand the issue we have is for you to do what I’ve suggested multiple times, that when you use the word “moral” in a sentence you also give an alternative where the word “moral” is replaced by your definition of moral, such that it has the same meaning without using the word.

      Thus, if a Catholic says: “Birth control is immoral”, they mean “We ought not use birth control because it’s against God’s will”.

      If I say: “theft is immoral” I mean “I dislike theft and want society to deprecate theft”.

      What do you mean when you say something like: “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral”?

      Or when you say: “All sufficiently advanced beings that form highly cooperative societies will recognize “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others” as universally moral”?

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Coel, thanks again for your patience and willingness to engage.

      …”(do) what I’ve suggested multiple times, that when you use the word “moral” in a sentence you also give an alternative where the word “moral” is replaced by your definition of moral, such that it has the same meaning without using the word.
      Thus, if a Catholic says: “Birth control is immoral”, they mean “We ought not use birth control because it’s against God’s will”.
      If I say: “theft is immoral” I mean “I dislike theft and want society to deprecate theft”.
      What do you mean when you say something like: “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral”?”

      I will try my best to do just as you ask.

      When I say “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral”, I mean all of the following: “Requiring women to be submissive is wrong”, “I dislike women being required to be submissive and want society to deprecate it”, “Forcing women to be submissive deserves punishment (but any punishment should be aimed at increasing cooperation)”, and “Requiring women to be submissive is wrong because it decreases the benefits of cooperation between men and women”.

      All of these are true. All describe different aspects of what I mean by moral. All are consistent with the explanation of the ultimate source of morality in the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

      (I am also drafting a post to Emerson about what “benefits” in morality as cooperation refers to which may be relevant.)

    4. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      When I say “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral”, I mean all of the following: “Requiring women to be submissive is wrong”, “I dislike women being required to be submissive and want society to deprecate it”, “Forcing women to be submissive deserves punishment (but any punishment should be aimed at increasing cooperation)”, and “Requiring women to be submissive is wrong because it decreases the benefits of cooperation between men and women”. All of these are true. All describe different aspects of what I mean by moral.

      First reply. If you mean so many different things at once by “moral” then it’s no wonder people have trouble following your arguments.

      Second reply. The above seems contradictory. We’re discussing what you mean by the term “*objectively* moral”. You then explain the meaning in terms of your value judgements! What you “dislike” is a value judgement made by you; what you deem “wrong” and “deserving punishment” are value judgements by you; what you think “should” happen is your value judgement. But your value judgements are subjective! So you’re explaining the meaning of the term “*objective* morality” in terms of *subjective* value judgements! This is contradictory.

      Third reply. If the above is what you mean by “objectively immoral” then your claim that what is “objectively moral” has been established by science is just wrong, because values of what is “wrong” or “right” and what “deserves punishment” are not things that science can establish, they are values, human values.

      You’ve presented your account of understanding “cooperation strategies that exploit no-one” many times, but nothing in that implies: “Forcing women to be submissive deserves punishment …”. The former is an “is” the latter an “ought”.

      So overall, sorry, but I think that more than ever you are horribly confused by what “moral” means, you are using the term in a whole mishmash of ways that is very hard to follow when someone reads you, and, as it seems to me, produces faulty arguments (where you’ve shifted from one connotation of “moral” to another, just from using the same word, in a way that doesn’t follow).

    5. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      You did not ask how I defined objectively moral. You asked how I defined moral. All my responses are correct. They are not contradictory – each defines an aspect of morality.
      So, instead of a definition of “moral”, you are asking for a definition of objectively moral? No problem.

      “Objective” commonly refers to what is mind independent. Hence: “What is objectively moral is what is universal to culturally enforced rules for interacting with others for all intelligent beings that form highly cooperative societies.” How is that not a sensible definition of what is objectively moral?

      What is your definition of objectively moral? Is it something like: “What everyone, everywhere, everywhen imperatively ought to do regardless of their needs and preferences”?

      The bindingness definition of objectively moral defines something that does not exist. My universal definition defines something which does exist. Which do you think will be most useful for refining moral codes to better meet human needs and preferences, something that doesn’t exist or something that does?

      But back to how to more effectively communicate. It may be useful for me to specifically describe why the new “universality” definition of objectively moral is so much more culturally useful than the obsolete “imperatively binding” definition.

    6. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      You did not ask how I defined objectively moral. You asked how I defined moral.

      No, I asked about the phrase “objectively moral”. My exact question was (added emphasis): “What do you mean when you say something like: “requiring women to be submissive is *objectively* immoral”?”

      You replied (added emphasis): “When I say “requiring women to be submissive is *objectively* immoral”, I mean all of the following: “Requiring women to be submissive is wrong”, “I dislike women being required to be submissive ….”.”

      But anyhow, using the definition in this comment:

      “Hence: “What is objectively moral is what is universal to culturally enforced rules for interacting with others for all intelligent beings that form highly cooperative societies.”

      OK, so when you say: “requiring women to be submissive is *objectively* immoral” you mean something like:

      “Requiring women to be submissive is not a rule that is universal among intelligent beings that form highly cooperative societies”?

      That would seem to be true, but doesn’t amount to much. Maybe you mean:

      “Requiring women to be submissive is contrary to rules that are universal among intelligent beings that form highly cooperative societies”?

      If so then it doesn’t seem to be true, since there are highly cooperative societies inhabited by intelligent people who *do* require women to be submissive (some Muslim societies for example).

      Take the other sentence I asked about:

      “All sufficiently advanced beings that form highly cooperative societies will recognize “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others” as universally moral”.

      By that you presumably mean something like:

      “All sufficiently advanced beings that form highly cooperative societies will recognize “cooperation strategies that do not exploit others” as being a universal rule for interacting with others in highly cooperative societies.”

      Agreed? Again, these conversations would go so much easier if *you* provided the translations and explanations of what you mean when you use the term “moral”.

    7. Coel Post author

      Which do you think will be most useful for refining moral codes to better meet human needs and preferences, something that doesn’t exist or something that does?

      Comparison: God as traditionally defined does not exist. But something that doesn’t exist doesn’t help us sort society’s problems. So let’s re-define “God” to mean “whatever makes us happy” or something. ‘Cos at least that exists.

      Isn’t it far clearer to say that God doesn’t exist? That in no way hinders then advocating the sort of society we want.

      It may be useful for me to specifically describe why the new “universality” definition of objectively moral is so much more culturally useful than the obsolete “imperatively binding” definition.

      Translation:

      “I want to advocate cooperation that exploits no-one as the best way for humans to flourish. Given the connotations of the word “moral” as meaning “we ought to do it” it would help me persuade people if I labelled this “moral”, or better yet, *objectively* moral. Trouble is, going by what is usually meant by “objectively moral”, it isn’t actually objectively moral. No problem, I’ll just re-define “objectively moral” such that my “cooperation that exploits no-one” is then objectively moral, and that’ll help me persuade people”.

    8. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      …”Isn’t it far clearer to say that God doesn’t exist? That in no way hinders then advocating the sort of society we want.”

      The existence of God fails as an analogy for the existence of morality. Descriptively moral behaviors (and their universal subset) are objectively solutions to the cooperation exploitation dilemma which exists independently of our beliefs. If God does not exist, there is nothing in the objective world changes. If “morality is an illusion” is true in the way I think you mean, how do you explain the continued existence of the cooperation exploitation dilemma?

      “…I want to advocate cooperation that exploits no-one as the best way for humans to flourish.”
      Right.

      …”Given the connotations of the word “moral” as meaning “we ought to do it” it would help me persuade people if I labelled this “moral”, or better yet, *objectively* moral. Trouble is, going by what is usually meant by “objectively moral”, it isn’t actually objectively moral. No problem, I’ll just re-define “objectively moral” such that my “cooperation that exploits no-one” is then objectively moral, and that’ll help me persuade people”.”

      Wrong. Cultural moral norms are norms whose violations are commonly thought to deserve punishment. Moral behaviors are natural phenomena – specifically solutions to the cooperation exploitation dilemma. The best way for human beings to flourish is, I argue, to refine cultural moral norms using what science tells us ‘is’ universally moral – what are universal solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

      So you propose I call this principle to be used to refine cultural moral codes something else than a “moral” principle. How would that benefit anyone? To me, that suggestion is socially destructive, incoherent nonsense.

      As I mentioned to Rob, Michael Ruse likes to point out that morality being what everyone imperatively ought to do regardless of anyone’s needs and preferences is “an illusion foisted on us by our genes”. I recognized this illusion many years ago and have since spent my time looking for what science can usefully tell us about morality.

      Perhaps your focus on this gene based illusionary aspect of morality, to the apparent total exclusion of any other of morality’s objective natural properties, is based on a genetic difference between us. To me, morality’s innate bindingness is just one aspect of morality and certainly not a necessary aspect.

      Why are you so adamant that morality’s innate, imperative bidningess is a necessary aspect of morality to the point in which, if it is an illusion, then all other aspects of morality are an illusion?

    9. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      The existence of God fails as an analogy for the existence of morality.

      It’s a good analogy for *objective* morality!

      Why are you so adamant that morality’s innate, imperative bidningess is a necessary aspect of morality …

      Because the bindingness, the oughtness is what the concept of morality is *about*, it’s what “morality” *means*. Thus “objective” morality has to be about bindingness that is independent of human values or opinion.

      Again, this is just what the terms *mean*. If you’re using the terms very differently, as part of a rhetorical strategy, then you’re going to continually produce miscommunication.

    10. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel, Rob, and Emerson,
      Sorry for my delay in responding, but if this subject was easily resolvable, we wouldn’t all be so highly paid to work on it.
      You all have many excellent points I would like to respond to. But perhaps the most efficient way forward is to focus on Coel’s main question:
      “Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that we agree that requiring women to be submissive exploits them and is not fully cooperative. How do we get from there to it being objectively immoral?”

      I tend to lose the thread of unresolved arguments after a few days, so here is a snapshot of where I remember we left things.

      Objective science supports the following:
      There is a cross species universal dilemma – the cooperation/exploitation dilemma – that must be solved by all beings that form highly cooperative societies. (Emerson, the existence of this dilemma is innate to our universe even though it does not appear to be reducible to “chemistry” or some such. Even if we knew nothing about human history we could still predict that all intelligent, highly cooperative species would have solved this dilemma and encoded solutions to it in their enforced cultural norms – their ‘moral’ codes.)
      Descriptively moral human cultural norms advocate elements of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. (“Descriptively moral” behaviors “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”. SEP)
      There is a subset of strategies that are a necessary component of all strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. This subset is a necessary component of all descriptively moral behaviors. (In game theory terms, these are ingroup cooperation strategies which are a necessary component of all descriptively moral behaviors, even those that cooperate in ingroups to exploit or ignore outgroups.)

      Mainstream moral philosophy as defined by the SEP holds:
      “..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.”
      “Moral realists are those who think that … moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true.” The author then proceeds: “That much is the common and more or less defining ground of moral realism … although some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments … say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice … or to those facts being objective in some specified way”. (Emerson’s quotation)

      Then I was arguing that the above science about what is “universally moral” meets the above definitions of 1) normative, what all well-informed, rational people would put forward as universally moral and 2) moral realism regarding not only a true claim about what is universally moral, but a claim that is true independent of human thought and practice. And nowhere in these definitions is there any necessary requirement that normative moral norms or moral realism be defined as strangely (“queerly” as Mackie describes it) imperative obligations regardless of our needs and preferences. No magic oughts are required for moral normativity or moral realism by these SEP definitions as I understand them. Neither are any troublesome leaps from what science tells us ‘is’ to what we somehow ‘ought’ to do required or even wanted.

      Coel, do you have any mainstream moral philosophy reference for your claim (as I understand it) that any behavior that is universally moral must be imperative regardless of our needs and preferences?

      Now back to Coel’s question!
      “Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that we agree that requiring women to be submissive exploits them and is not fully cooperative. How do we get from there to it being objectively immoral?”
      The function (the primary reason they exist) of moral behaviors is to overcome the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. Behaviors that have nothing to do with solving the cooperation/exploitation dilemma are neither moral nor immoral. Exploitation behaviors that create the dilemma are objectively immoral. Exploiting women and thus decreasing the benefits of cooperation between men and women is objectively immoral because it creates the dilemma that universally moral behaviors solve, independent of human thought and practice or any ‘ought’ from ‘is’ arguments.

      I also want to respond to Coel’s comment:
      “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.”
      What my concepts of “moral” add is an understanding of what is cross-species immoral as well as why “having rules such as ‘women must be submissive’ (are) less likely to lead to human flourishing and well-being”.

    11. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      But perhaps the most efficient way forward is to focus on Coel’s main question: “Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that we agree that requiring women to be submissive exploits them and is not fully cooperative. How do we get from there to it being objectively immoral?”

      First, I still don’t know what you even mean by the claim “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral”. I’ve repeatedly asked you to substitute in the meaning of “objectively immoral” to clarify what the claim is, and you always shy away of doing so.

      Second, it’s wrong the quote the SEP as though it were settled opinion amongst philosophers. It’s generally a good introduction to the issues, but it’s not necessarily giving agreed expositions. Indeed, there is no account of morality agreed amongst philosophers. Your standard exposition quotes phrases from one SEP article, but you need to explain and defend them, not just quote them.

      Third, I think you’re misinterpreting that SEP article. The phrase “descriptively moral”, seems to mean “gets described as moral”, so is saying that “cooperation strategies” tend to get described as moral (which is true). That doesn’t alter the basic meaning of “moral” as “what we ought to do”, so this is saying that cooperation stratgies tend to get described as “what we ought to do”. Which is true. But that is *not* the same as defining “moral” as meaning “cooperation strategies”. !

      As for “normatively moral” in that SEP piece, I still have little idea what that means, and you’ve not really explained it to me. I’d like to ask the author of the piece what he means, because I don’t understand it (and we can’t just presume that other philosophers agree with him). Thus you need to defend and explain the claims, not just quote them.

      You’ve quoted that SEP article lots of times, but I don’t find it convincing. Quoting the same phrases at me repeatedly is not going to persuade me.

      Descriptively moral human cultural norms advocate elements of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

      I don’t think that’s true. It is true that cooperation strategies tend to get described as moral (ie, tend to be pointed to as “what we ought to do”) [See there how I explain what I mean by the word “moral”?], but there is no one-to-one crrespondence between “cooperation strategies” and “what we describe as moral” (ie, what we refer to as “what we ought to do”) — these are different things.

      Mainstream moral philosophy as defined by the SEP holds:
      “..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.”

      I still don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. Can you help me out by explaining it? Does it mean: “people advocate that the thing we ought to do is the thing that would be put forward by all rational people under specified circumstances”?

      Coel, do you have any mainstream moral philosophy reference for your claim (as I understand it) that any behavior that is universally moral must be imperative regardless of our needs and preferences?

      That’s not my claim. My claim was about what is *objectively* moral (not “universally” moral, whatever that is supposed to mean, which I don’t know), and I’ve not said that it is independent of our *needs* but yes it would have to be independent of our *preferences*.

      This follows from straightforward dictionary definitions: OED: “moral”: “Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour”. And “objective”: “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions”. Thus something that is “objectively moral” would have to be something that is the “right thing to do” (ie we ought to do it) regarldless of human feelings and preferences on the matter.

      The function (the primary reason they exist) of moral behaviors is to overcome the cooperation/exploitation dilemma

      That confuses two things: (1) what something “is”, and (2) where it came from and how it evolved. Those are not the same. “Moral” behaviours are those we ought to do. Evolution has programmed us with feelings about what we ought to do owing to — among other things — the need to cooperate. But, again, these are not the same thing. We need to keep the distinction clear.

      Exploiting women and thus decreasing the benefits of cooperation between men and women is objectively immoral because it creates the dilemma that universally moral behaviors solve, …

      So, if I interpret that right, the big conclusion you come to is that:

      “Exploiting women and thus decreasing the benefits of cooperation between men and women decreases the benefits of cooperation [which is what you mean by “is objectively immoral”] because it creates the dilemma [ie. decreases cooperation] that [behaviours that promote cooperation] solve”.

      Agreed? In other words, all that you’re saying is that things that decrease the benefits of cooperation decrease the benefits of cooperation and … really do decrease cooperation.

      … independent of human thought and practice or any ‘ought’ from ‘is’ arguments.

      So you’re not trying to insinuate any “and therefore we ought to do it” conclusion? Sure about that? You’re absolutely sure that you’re not trying to say that we ought not require women to be submissive?

      Because, if you are trying to say that then you’re making a is-ought leap that doesn’t follow. But if you’re not saying it then why is it so important to advocate what you’re trying to advocate?

      What my concepts of “moral” add is an understanding of what is cross-species immoral as well as …

      See, there you’re trying to explain what your concept of “moral” adds in terms of … the word “moral”. This explains nothing! To explain what your analysis adds you need to explain “moral” in terms of words that are not “moral”!

      As I’ve said repeatedly, you need to — every time you use the word “moral” — add in brackets a phrase explaining what you mean.

      So, back to the initial question, when you say that: “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral”, what phase would you substitute? Please complete the sentence such that it means the same thing, without using the words “moral” or “immoral”: “Requiring women to be submissive is …”?

    12. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      …”So, back to the initial question, when you say that: “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral”, what phase would you substitute? Please complete the sentence such that it means the same thing, without using the words “moral” or “immoral”: “Requiring women to be submissive is …”?”

      Sure, no problem.

      Requiring women to be submissive exploits women and, by this exploitation, decreases the benefits of cooperation between men and women. Therefore, “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral” since it contradicts what we know to be the function of moral behavior, solving the cooperation/exploitation dilemma (morality’s ultimate source).

      Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others are also what would be put forward by all well-informed, rational people as universally moral. “Behaviors put forward by all well-informed, rational people as universally moral” is an application of Gert’s SEP definition of normative with his “specified conditions” specified as people are well-informed and the behaviors are the ones they would put forward as universally moral. So in addition to being objectively immoral, the claim about women being submissive is normatively immoral.

      And of course, moral realists are correct as the SEP defines moral realism since these truths about morality are objective “in some specified way”, specifically as described above.

      Obviously, you are free to prefer other definitions of morality, normativity, and moral realism which are dependent on innate imperative bindingness, a quality which we agree does not exist.

      But why would you prefer those other definitions? Don’t they just come down to something like “morality is whatever we prefer it to be”? How could this impossibly vague definition be competitive for cultural utility with the highly specific “moral behaviors increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”?

    13. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Requiring women to be submissive exploits women and, by this exploitation, decreases the benefits of cooperation between men and women. Therefore, “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral” …

      OK, so you’re using the word “moral” purely as a synonym for “cooperative behaviour”. So nothing about you saying that “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral” has any implications that we should not do it. Agreed? You’re not saying that at all. All you’re doing is saying that some behaviours increase cooperation and others decrease cooperation.

      But if so, if you’re not trying to make claims about what we ought to do, then why do you conisder it to important to re-adjust our understandings along the lines that you are advocating?

      Anyhow, let me ask a question. Tom and Fred are retired neigbours and are good friends, getting on well. The both gain great enjoyment and satisfaction from their gardens. Now they could do this cooperatively, so when Fred prunes his roses he could also prune Tom’s. And when Tom weeds a flower-bed he could also weed Fred’s.

      But they don’t, they each prefer to garden their own garden. That’s because they each get great satisfaction from their garden being their own creation, a little bit of land that they maintain and take pride in. There’s not the slightest animosity between the two, they would willingly help the other out mowing the other’s lawn if he were on vacation, but still, each wants something that they can regard with pride as their own work.

      Question: — as you see it — are Tom and Fred acting immorally (compared to the alternative of them doing both gardens communally)? Your answer would seem to be “yes”, after all, they are foregoing the benefits of cooperation. Agreed? Their actions are “immoral” in the same way that requiring women to be submissive is “immoral”, since each behaviour is much less cooperative than it couold be.

      But why would you prefer those other definitions?

      Because they are what everyone else in the English-speaking world (other than you and perhaps a couple of SEP writers) means by those terms! Isn’t that a good reason for prefering a definition? Neither you nor a couple of SEP writers are free to totally redefine common-usage words.

      How could this impossibly vague definition be competitive for cultural utility with the highly specific “moral behaviors increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”?

      Now this is interesting. Why would your definition have any cultural utility or impact at all — unless you want to start claiming that your non-exploititive cooperation is “what we ought to do”? You have totally redefined “moral”, by removing any oughtness and merely using it as a synonym for cooperative behaviour. But by doing that you’re removed any import and consequence from “morality”. Only if you want to retain connotions of oughtness does your scheme matter at all. Given your scheme as above, we’d then just need to start a fresh discussion about what we want to do and what we ought to do.

    14. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Regarding the morality of Tom and Fred not cooperating in tending their gardens:

      Science tells us the BENEFITS of cooperation are the primary selection force for moral behaviors. As you describe, cooperation in their gardens is not a benefit for Tom and Fred. So, no, Tom and Fred are not acting immorally when they are not cooperating. Cooperation without benefits is morally meaningless.

      You claim I and the SEP’s “Morality” and “Moral realism” articles are using a non-standard definition of morality. I cannot follow your reasoning in this. Indeed, my definition of morality is one of the oldest ones we have in written form. It is essentially the same as the apparent understanding of the common people in Socrates time (based on the Greek myth about the origins of our moral sense used by Protagoras when he patiently explained to Socrates what moral behaviors ‘are’).

      How do my claim and comparable claims from Kantianism and Utilitarianism use the concept “moral” differently?

      Morality as cooperation: Requiring women to be submissive exploits women and, by this exploitation, decreases the benefits of cooperation between men and women. Therefore, “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral” since it contradicts what we know to be the function of moral behavior, solving the cooperation/exploitation dilemma (morality’s ultimate source).

      Kantianism: Requiring women to be submissive treats women as means to an end. Therefore, “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral” since it contradicts one form of Kant’s categorical imperatives which are (claimed to be) necessary conclusions from reason.

      Utilitarianism: Requiring women to be submissive most decreases the happiness of the most people. Therefore, “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral” since it contradicts utilitarianism’s maximization of happiness principle.

      All of the above claims, including mine, are consistent with normal definitions of “moral”.

      The idea of morality being imperatively binding is a philosophical one created (out of desperation as I see it) as a proposed criteria for what is normatively moral. No, it is not the way “most people in the English speaking world” define morality. The common experience of morality is that it is what we ought to do, but that it is not imperative – people commonly claim special circumstances exempt them.

      We, and most moral philosophers as I understand, now agree no such thing as innately imperatively binding exists. Innate imperative bindingness was, in the end, merely an unproductive, dead-end, intellectual construct. This is why the SEP’s “Morality” and “Moral realism” definitions don’t use it and modern understandings of “Moral realism” are not dependent on it.

      Why do you prefer to cling to an unproductive, obsolete, socially destructive intellectual concept of morality? There is nothing innate or necessary about the imperativeness of morality.

    15. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      As you describe, cooperation in their gardens is not a benefit for Tom and Fred. So, no, Tom and Fred are not acting immorally when they are not cooperating. Cooperation without benefits is morally meaningless.

      But whether something is a “benefit” is a subjective judgement, so this answer destroys your claim to morality being objective. Consider Pete and Paul, who are identical to Tom and Fred except that they consider gardening a bit of a chore, so they want to cooperate in their gardening because they gets it done quicker, so that’s what they do.

      So the exact same behaviour — cooperating in gardening — would be moral in the one case but not in the other, because Pete and Paul would consider the result a “benefit” whereas Tom and Fred would not. This makes your moral scheme subjective, since it is affected by whether people like the outcome or not.

      Similarly, given your answer, ISIS could argue that requiring women to be submissive is *not* immoral, since — despite the fact that it reduces cooperation — they would not see the effect of such cooperation as a “benefit”, and since such cooperation does not produce a benefit (as they evaluate it) it is not — according to you — immoral to disdain such cooperation.

      How do my claim and comparable claims from Kantianism and Utilitarianism use the concept “moral” differently?

      Kantianism and Utilitarianism have a concept of “moral” that includes “we ought to do it” (so does nearly everyone else), whereas you do not.

      it contradicts one form of Kant’s categorical imperatives which …

      An “imperative” is a “we ought to do it” instruction. It is at the heart of Kantian ethics. It argues for an objective “we ought to do it” instruction, and that makes it moral realist.

      … since it contradicts utilitarianism’s maximization of happiness principle.

      Similarly, utilitarianism declares “we ought to maximise” some utility function. Again, that “objectively, we ought to …” that is at the heart of utilitarianism makes it moral realist.

      No, it is not the way “most people in the English speaking world” define morality.

      Yes it is, it’s what the dictionaries say.

      The common experience of morality is that it is what we ought to do, …

      Exactly, without any connotation of “we ought to do it” it is not “morality”.

      We, and most moral philosophers as I understand, now agree no such thing as innately imperatively binding exists.

      No, most philosophers do not agree, since most moral philosophers are moral realists (Bourgiet & Chalmers survey). And that is exactly what the debate about morality being objective versus subjective is about.

      Why do you prefer to cling to an unproductive, obsolete, socially destructive intellectual concept of morality?

      Because it is not unproductive, not obsolete, not socially destructive — and indeed because it’s what everyone else means by the term.

      There is nothing innate or necessary about the imperativeness of morality.

      Yes there is, that’s how the word “morality” is defined. Without that, you’re not talking about morality.

    16. Mark Sloan

      Hi Cole,

      Once again, I want to express my appreciation for your admirable patience and willingness to continue to engage even when you strongly disagree.

      I also appreciate the many helpful insights our discussions have revealed to me about how to best present my case for “morality being objective”.

      For example, you have made me realize it should improve communications to say more specifically that:

      1) There are three main aspects of moral behaviors that can be almost independently characterized as “objective” and “subjective”: innate imperative bindingness and what moral goals and moral ‘means’ ‘are’.
      2) Science, which is about what ‘is’ rather than what ‘ought’ to be, is silent on innate imperative bindingness and what ultimate “moral goals” ought to be. At best, science can justify instrumental oughts such as “What moral code ought (instrumental) we advocate and enforce in order to be most likely to meet shared common goals?”
      3) On the other hand, objective science can tell us what descriptively moral ‘means’ are – elements of cooperation strategies and, more importantly, what universally moral means are – cooperation strategies that exploit no one.

      Then, based only on the relevant science, innate imperative bindingness and ultimate moral goals are subjective, but universally moral ‘means’ are objective.

      Is it possible we could substantially agree on the above?

      Perhaps the clearest way to talk about morality’s objectivity or subjectivity is specifically in terms of the above three main aspects of moral behavior. It is thus only proper to talk about “morality being subjective or objective” if we specify which of the three aspects are being referred to.

      As always, I am happy to answer any of the specific points you made, but hoped this summary might best move the discussion forward.

    17. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Perhaps the clearest way to talk about morality’s objectivity or subjectivity is specifically in terms of the above three main aspects of moral behavior.

      If there are three “aspects” to what you are calling “morality”, it would be vastly clearer to use three different words for them. Using one word for three distinct concepts is a recipe for confusion (in ones own mind as much as anything) and miscommunication.

      To everyone else, the debate over whether morality is objective or subjective is over whether or not there is objective oughtness that objectively obliges us to act in particular ways. That’s because the primary meaning of “moral” is about “the right thing to do”, what “we ought to do”.

      Is it possible we could substantially agree on the above?

      Well no, because I don’t agree with your claim about what the one “aspect” that you claim is objective, namely:

      3) On the other hand, objective science can tell us what descriptively moral ‘means’ are – elements of cooperation strategies and, more importantly, what universally moral means are – cooperation strategies that exploit no one.

      Again, I don’t know what this claim means because I don’t properly understand how you’re using the word “moral” here.

      At times, you use the word “moral” as a synonym for “cooperation strategies”. Thus “descriptively moral ‘means’ are elements of cooperation strategies” would translate to “cooperation strategy ‘means’ are elements of cooperation strategies”, which is true but empty.

      So perhaps you’re using the “what we ought to do” meaning of “moral”, such that: “descriptively moral ‘means’ are elements of cooperation strategies” translates to: “the things that people describe as what we ought to do are elements of cooperation strategies”.

      But that claim is not true. At least, there is indeed a lot of overlap between “what people describe as what we ought to do” and “cooperation strategies”. But they are not the same thing.

      My example of garderers Tom and Fred, who do not want to cooperate (for entirely valid and sensible reasons) illustrates this. In general, people do not want to maximise cooperation; humans do not really like communism. What humans want and what leads to humans prospering is some balance between cooperation and individual endeavour.

      Further, as my example of the gardeners illustrates — unless you’re going to assert a totalitarian “people ought to maximise cooperation whether they like it or not” — which behaviours are “moral” depends on how people evaluate the outcomes, and thus there is no path to saying which behaviours are *objectively* moral, there will always be a subjective judgement in there.

      As always, I am happy to answer any of the specific points you made, but hoped this summary might best move the discussion forward.

      You seem to always shy away from actually engaging with my replies, instead retreating to once again repeating stock sentences derived from the SEP, namely the ones (3) quoted above. As I’ve said, I find them totally unconvincing, I don’t think they’re true, and I don’t even fully know what they’re supposed to mean. Doing little but quoting them at me repeatedly is not going to convince me and is not going to move the conversation forward.

      As I’ve said, I think you’re confused in your own mind about what words such as “moral” mean, and the way to sort that is to, whenever you use the word “moral”, also put in brackets a phrase explaining what you mean by it. Thus, what would that quote (3) look like if you did that?

    18. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I apologize for addressing you as “Cole” last time. I had a cousin who spelled his name Cole and I tend to default to that when I am thinking hard about what I am trying to get across.

      So far as I know, I use “moral” consistent with standard usage in moral philosophy, including as used in multiple SEP articles. That usage includes definitions such as “Rules defining right and wrong”, “Cultural norms about what everyone ought to do”, and the SEP definitions of what is descriptively and normatively moral and how moral realism is defined.

      When the question is asked “How do you define morality?” a utilitarian, virtue ethicist, and Kantianist will have answers which specifically describe their moral system. Their answers would not lead you to claim they are “Using a non-standard definition of morality”. Why are you saying I am using a non-standard definition when I do the equivalent regarding morality as cooperation?

      And, no, I don’t see it as useful to use another word than “moral” any more than a utilitarian, virtue ethicist, and Kantianist would see it as useful to stop using the word moral and coin a new word.

      My puzzle is that you seem to think morality has only one meaning, something like “what we all imperatively ought to do”. This is only one meaning. And this one meaning forces the misleading and socially unproductive conclusions that “morality is subjective” and moral anti-realism are true.

      But you rightly point out that majorities of philosophers say they are “moral realists”. If they are moral realists, then they cannot, so far as I know, sensibly be using your imperative ought definition of morality. Virtue ethicists explicitly do not use your definition. Rather, these moral realists are using definitions of morality consistent with the SEP as am I.

      I don’t see it as me who is using a non-standard definition of moral. Can you provide any references supporting your extremely narrow definition of “moral”?

      In any event, I take it to heart that at least some knowledgeable, well-intentioned people do support your narrow definition.

      I will keep that in mind in figuring out how to present morality as solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

    19. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      When the question is asked “How do you define morality?” a utilitarian, virtue ethicist, and Kantianist will have answers which specifically describe their moral system. Their answers would not lead you to claim they are “Using a non-standard definition of morality”.

      They would all have the same basic definition of morality as “the right thing to do; what we ought to do”. They would then give different accounts of what it is we ought to do.

      Why are you saying I am using a non-standard definition when I do the equivalent regarding morality as cooperation?

      Because everyone else is using a meaning of morality as “the right thing to do; what we ought to do”, whereas you are not.

      But you rightly point out that majorities of philosophers say they are “moral realists”. If they are moral realists, then they cannot, so far as I know, sensibly be using your imperative ought definition of morality.

      Yes they do. They think there is objective oughtness; so do the majority of people.

      Virtue ethicists explicitly do not use your definition.

      Yes they do. To a moral-realist virtue ethicist, what we ought to do is act in line with certain virtues. No ethical system is even an ethical system unless we “ought to do it”! In what sense would it be an “ethical system” if there were no suggestion that we ought to adopt it?

    20. Mark Sloan

      I see in my adjacent post that I miss-spoke, I meant to say about Utilitarianism:
      Utilitarianism: Requiring women to be submissive decreases the net happiness of people. Therefore, “requiring women to be submissive is objectively immoral” since it contradicts utilitarianism’s maximization of happiness principle.

    21. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,

      How about this for a definition of “benefits” in “universally moral behaviors increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”?

      “Benefits” refer to whatever circumstances we desire that are permissible by our moral values. Thus what these benefits are is subjective but constrained by what is universally moral.

      Committing to adopt, practice, and advocate morality as cooperation is a matter of preference since no morality is innately, imperatively binding. Committing to act according to what objectively is universally moral includes committing to our moral values that are consistent with it.

  19. c emerson

    Mark,
    I think we are the point where we can now look at *ways of looking at morality itself*.

    For that you may want to read through an SEP article entitled “Moral Realism”:
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/ . The brief summary of G E Moore’s “Open Question” analysis (source of the modern phrase, “the naturalistic fallacy”) (1903) and the even briefer reference to Hume’s earlier analysis regarding the logic fallacy known as the “is-ought” dichotomy, is helpful, along with the article’s overall discussion of what might constitute fact statements than can evaluated for truth or falsity.

    For our purposes here, I feel we have agreed that the physical world which produced living organisms includes examples of behavior by some living organisms that can be described as strategies consisting of cooperation without exploitation. But … strategies consisting of cooperation with exploitation, dominance with exploitation, and even dominance without exploitation are also observable.

    Next, any claim that strategies consisting of cooperation without exploitation … over the other three observable strategies … are being selected for by evolution, or by cultural processes, or by some combination of evolution and cultural processes, would be testable scientific claims (at least testable in theory).

    But, what is not testable, is whether any of the 4 strategic approaches is the morally correct approach. Depending on how we define “moral”, we might be able to agree that all 4 strategies could be properly described as “moral systems” … but what can’t be shown by scientific testing is which of the 4 approaches is THE morally “correct” system. To prioritize the 4 systems we have to have *a priori* criteria for what constitutes “correct” moral behavior.

    Your appeal to universality doesn’t resolve the *a priori* criteria problem. Either all 4 approaches might be viewed as “universals” (depending on how universal properties are defined) OR we need *a priori* criteria for judging which of the 4 approaches is the universally moral approach. But as soon as anyone advances criteria for determining what is “correct” or “universal” moral behavior, someone else can ask G E Moore’s question, why is THAT the correct criteria?

    The usual (or at least typical) response to that objection (and the one used by Moore himself) is that we know the correct criteria intuitively, or non-cognitively. But that almost always leads to the counter-objection that “not in my sense of intuition, or not according to my conscience, it doesn’t”. Or, here in the 21st century, the counter-objection is now likely to be more along the lines that any majority consensus of moral criteria is itself just an evolutionary (natural selection) development. While that approach might suggest that biological evolution produces THE correct (ultimate) moral precept, that line of argument can’t stop the potential infinite regress: “why is the biologically produced behavior the morally “correct” behavior … especially, of course, given the wide diversity of behaviors actually produced through the biological history of life?

    In contradiction to this regression, why isn’t the better explanation for moral positioning based in the recognition that life forms strive to survive, and … beyond survival … to attempt to flourish, but our interests conflict with those around us … so, to avoid the risk of losses, we strive to cooperate … but where we accept or merely enjoy the risks, we strive to dominate … or to physically defend against those who do risk aggressive moves … until all of this reaching some firm of power balancing? But, given all the frustration and anxiety these processes generate, rationally we just might conclude that some form of cooperation, with minimizing exploitation, or some other expressions for balanced sacrificing, would be successful as a solution to our dilemmas without cyclical violent destruction of other members of our species, or of other species?

    Doesn’t this suggest that morality isn’t based on external “moral” facts, but that our moral systems are internally generated as rules for social interaction and personal behavior designed to achieve our most basic natural goals?

    Best to all
    – c emerson

    Reply
  20. c emerson

    Addendum: sorry, I missed a crucial set of typos … on my phone’s tiny screen … so I am editing a bit and posting my last two paragraphs if my previous post:

    EDITED:
    In contradiction to the troubling regression in “why is this the right criteria for determing the correct morality?”, why isn’t the better explanation for moral positioning, by humans, based in the recognition that i) all life forms strive to survive, and … ii) beyond survival … they attempt to flourish, but iii) our interests conflict with those around us … so, iv) to avoid the risk of losses (painful or otherwise), we strive to cooperate … but v) where we accept or even enjoy the risks of violence, vi) we strive to dominate (rather than cooperate) … or vii) we choose, or are forced, to physically defend against those around us who decide to risk aggressive moves towards us or towards others … until viii) all of this activity reaches some form of balancing of power (or elimination of some of the actors or some of the conflicts)? But, ix) given all the frustration and anxiety these activities and processes generate, x) rationally or intuitively, xi) we just might conclude xii) that some form of cooperation, with minimizing exploitation, or some other expressions for balanced sacrificing, xiii) would be successful as a solution to our physical dilemmas xiv) without continued cyclical violent destruction xv) of other members of our species, or xvi) of other species (or our ecology)?

    Doesn’t this suggest that morality isn’t based on external “moral facts”, but instead that our moral systems are internally generated as rules we adopt (with and without detailed consideration) for regulating or guiding our social interactions and personal behavior, all designed (at least in theory) to achieve our most basic natural goals or idealistic inclinations (or, if for nothing else, to relieve our frustrations and anxieties)?
    —–
    I hope that editing improves my conclusions here.
    – c emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,

      I see three central points about morality as cooperation that we must clear up. The first two describe misunderstandings about it (based on your last reply) and the third, the most important, is the correct key understanding about morality as cooperation.

      1. Morality as cooperation (and what is universally moral) exists independently of biological or cultural evolution. Biological and cultural evolution are merely the means by which cooperation strategies are encoded in our biology and cultures. The process of evolution itself, reproductive fitness specifically, and thus “what is selected for by evolution” are value free and tell us nothing about what is or is not moral. (Perhaps contrary to your expectation for my argument?)
      2. Morality as cooperation makes no claim about what morality ‘ought’ to be either as moral ‘means’ or moral ‘ends’. Thus, the standard “How do we derive an ought from an ‘is’?” question is irrelevant. Morality as cooperation’s claims are about what descriptively moral means ‘are’ and what universally moral means ‘are’ are “fact statements than can evaluated for (scientific) truth or falsity”. (Again, perhaps contrary to your expectation for my argument?)
      3. Morality as cooperation first tells us that descriptively moral behaviors are solutions to the cooperation exploitation dilemma. This is an empirical claim justified by behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by cultural moral codes (the common understanding of what defines moral behavior) all being identifiable elements of cooperation strategies. And universally moral behaviors are simply the subset of descriptively moral behaviors that are necessary components of all descriptively moral behaviors (including those that cooperate in an ingroup in order to exploit an outgroup). No ‘ought’ arguments or superior reproductive fitness arguments are required or wanted.

      Further, since what is universally moral depends only on the mathematical nature of solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma (depends only on what is universal to all the dilemma’s solutions), what morality as cooperation tells us is universally moral is independent of our intuitions, any majority consensus about intuitions, and even the existence of intuitions. (However, morality as cooperation can do a wonderful job of explaining why we have the moral intuitions we have, including our moral intuitions that motivate behavior that may be common but are not universally moral by morality as cooperation.)

      So in answer to the question “why is the biologically produced behavior the morally “correct” behavior … especially, of course, given the wide diversity of behaviors actually produced through the biological history of life?” I can reply that what morality as cooperation tells us is universally moral is independent of biology. What is universally moral is dependent only on the aspects of reality that produce the cooperation/exploitation dilemma and the strategies from game theory that solve it. No reference to biology required.

      Then once again, what makes these strategies ‘moral’? They are universal solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma which, as empirical truth, is the ultimate source of all descriptively moral behaviors.

      You suggest as an alternative we might adopt, practice, and advocate a morality based on “moral systems … internally generated as rules we adopt (with and without detailed consideration) for regulating or guiding our social interactions and personal behavior, all designed (at least in theory) to achieve our most basic natural goals or idealistic inclinations (or, if for nothing else, to relieve our frustrations and anxieties).”

      I have no problem with doing just that. However, I am confident you will find that the moral principle most likely (due to our evolutionary history) to fulfill all those goals is “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”.

      If you have a suggestion for what moral principle or system will be more likely to fulfill those goals, please let me know. If that hypothetical system actually is more likely to fulfill those goals, I will be happy to adopt, practice, and advocate it.

      As I have said before, the science of morality is relatively easy to do, explaining that science in a way that is culturally useful for refining moral codes seems to be incredibly difficult. I see the root of that difficulty in the incredible weight of the emotional baggage and incoherent intellectual baggage connected to any use of the word “moral”.

      Am I getting any closer to a clear explanation, or is it just hopeless?

  21. Rob Brown

    In an earlier post Mark asked:

    “How on earth does the cultural definition of moral as “defining right and wrong behavior” affect that conclusion about what is universal?”

    It doesn’t effect your conclusion about what is universal. It’s only when you say it’s universally *moral* that there is a problem.

    Your NECS are a subset of cooperation strategies that (putatively) are taken universally (across cultures) to be *moral*. As a description of what different cultures take to be moral that statement may well be true. Whether we *ought* to take them to be morally right can be argued for but cannot be deduced from the descriptive facts of what people actually take to be moral. Not under the ordinary definition of moral anyway.

    Mark asks later:

    “Then once again, what makes these strategies ‘moral’?”

    His answer is:

    “They are universal solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma which, as empirical truth, is the ultimate source of all descriptively moral behaviors.”

    But this has a circular or tautologous ring to it. It says they are moral because they are the source of morals.

    Wouldn’t it be better to say, look, here is my theory of the source of moral behaviour in humans (evolution by natural selection) that has resulted in certain behaviours- cooperation strategies. Then argue that there is a certain subset of these behaviours (NECS) we could arguably/plausibly/possibly use to ground what we ought to think of as moral today. Put this way the argument might go through. But just declaring by fiat that NECS are universally moral for all time just invites the question “According to whom?” Just because these behaviours evolved or because they are based in game theory does not and cannot make them morally right.

    Does that make sense to you, Mark?

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      Science is silent about what moral ‘means’ and goals imperatively ‘ought’ to be. So I have made no claims about what moral ‘means’ and goals imperatively ought to be, and will not make any.

      As you suggest though, I can, and have, made claims about what moral ‘means’ we instrumentally ought to use to ground morality with in order to be most likely to fulfill common human values and preferences.

      Certainly, if you have another moral principle or moral system you think we instrumentally ought to prefer, or somehow imperatively ought to follow, let’s hear it!

      However, due to the way our evolutionary origins shaped our values and preferences, it is extremely unlikely – I expect impossible – for any other definition of moral ‘means’ to instrumentally better meet human values and preferences. And I have no reason to believe there is any moral principle that we somehow innately, imperatively ought to follow (as Mackie said, that would be very strange).

      Perhaps it would help to more specifically state that what science reveals to be universal moral ‘means’ have no innate imperative oughts connected to them. All science can offer on the subject of morality is instrumental oughts.

      So your suggested “here is my theory of the source of moral behaviour in humans (evolution by natural selection) that has resulted in certain behaviours- cooperation strategies. Then argue that there is a certain subset of these behaviours (NECS) we could arguably/plausibly/possibly use to ground what we ought to think of as moral today” is approximately correct with the clarification that the “ought” is only instrumental.

      I don’t see any way to avoid the phrases like “what universally moral ‘means’ ‘are’” but can emphasize, even more than I have, that any oughts connected to these moral ‘means’ are only instrumental, not imperative. Might that help?

  22. Rob Brown

    Hi, Mark

    I have no normative theory of my own. I agree with pretty much everything you say about the likely genealogy of our moral judgements and associated behaviour. In terms of moral philosophy, I think the facts of evolution support an error theory and non-cognitivism. As Coel says, morality evolved because it facilitated cooperation which provided benefits that got us through the Pleistocene. It didn’t need to track moral rightness. It only needed to work. It enhanced our fitness and got out genes passed on and so morality was a successful adaptation from an evolutionary POV.

    But the environment in which it developed is vastly different to that in which many of us live today and so whether the actual moral judgements we are inclined to make are adaptive today (in terms of getting out genes out there) and whether they are in fact morally right are different questions. We would need to consider whether, under the influence of culture, morality has evolved into something different to what it was on the savanna. As philosopher Julian Baggini puts it, “Explaining how benevolence and altruism [and xenophobia] emerged in the past is not the same as explaining how they function today.

    In principle, though, advocating a morality based on non-exploitative cooperation strategies sounds fine to me because that particular subset of strategies doesn’t seem to have a lot of rough edges that people could object to. The difficulties would be practical ones. I mentioned in an earlier post that everything we do affects everyone else directly or indirectly and so I worry that the data and the calculations necessary for deciding whether a particular behaviour was exploitative or not would render such a scheme unwieldly and very difficult in practice. It might have the same problems as consequentialist theories like utilitarianism. But maybe not. That would, I imagine, need to be thought through thoroughly and argued for philosophically.

    Rob

    Reply
  23. Rob Brown

    Addendum

    Mark said:

    “I don’t see any way to avoid phrases like “what universally moral ‘means’ ‘are’” .

    Why not just say “universal *means* or *strategies* that don’t exploit any one”?

    You don’t need the word *moral*. Including it confuses everyone because it means “what one *ought* to do. Because that’s what the word *moral* means people then want to ask “Why ought I do it? Who says? Science? Evolution?” And you say “Because it’s universally moral” and were back to the stumbling point yet again.

    So best to ditch the word altogether unless you use it according to it’s standard meaning.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      In the science of cooperation and altruism literature, it has typical to talk about means and strategies even when it was obvious the subject was morality. How much benefit has this work been in refining cultural moral? None. How many people now understand why people have thought that eating shrimp and having homosexual sex were immoral? Almost none.

      This has to change. I think the world desperately needs help in refining our moral codes and the best source for that help is science.

      In order for this science to be culturally useful for refining moral codes, we have to identify it as being about what this science really is about – morality. There is no way I will stop trying to figure out how to communicate that truth.

      My parallel response to Coel includes a definition of objectively moral based on universality of ‘means’ rather than innate imperative bindingness (Coel’s apparent preferred definition). Perhaps emphasizing that universality definition and contrasting it with the old imperative binding definition will help.

      New definition: “What is objectively moral is what is universal to culturally enforced rules for interacting with others for all intelligent beings that form highly cooperative societies.” – Useful because it defines objectively moral in terms of what does exist.

      Old definition: “What is objectively moral is what everyone, everywhere, everywhen imperatively ought to do regardless of their needs and preferences”? – Almost useless because it defines objectively moral in terms of what almost certainly does not exist.

  24. c emerson

    Mark, thanks for replying.

    I actually did expect your response, but I had hoped my naturalistic approach for explaining the development of moral language and human-based moral concepts would persuade you that there may not be any universal moral precept existing independently and outside of human thought.

    Before I track your first point, I want to put forth this statement from the Introductory section of the SEP article, “Moral Realism” which I previously linked to:

    “Moral realists are those who think that … moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true.”

    The author then proceeds:
    “That much is the common and more or less defining ground of moral realism … although some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments … say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice … or to those facts being objective in some specified way”.

    Your first point said this:
    “1. Morality as cooperation (and what is universally moral) exists independently of biological or cultural evolution. Biological and cultural evolution are merely the means by which cooperation strategies are encoded in our biology and cultures. The process of evolution itself, reproductive fitness specifically … [is] … value free and tell us nothing about what is or is not moral.”

    In other words, as a moral realist, your claim is this: i) there are universal moral propositions that are true, ii) the *source* of these true moral propositions is not found in human thought, iii) nor are they the product of naturalistic physical or cultural evolution, iv) the source is found within the domain of the immaterial structure of the universe (or existence itself).

    Given that set up (if true to what reality “is”) it would follow that: a) if these true and indeoendent moral precepts are seen within the emerging physical or cultural evolution of humans (and other living organisms), then what is seen emerging is either a reflection (so to speak) of those true and independent precepts, or they correspond to or embody in some way those true abd independent precepts, and b) (in your philosophical view) these true and independent moral precepts do not, of themselves, exert any obligatory or normative *pressure* on living organisms. That is, they are descriptive of the correct way to function (behaviorial) but are not causal.

    Given all of that (if true to reality), it would follow that humans, who have naturally developed faculties for both perceiving the structure of reality and for constructing their own versions of morality, such humans have the opportunity for adopting the universally true moral precepts, or not.

    At this point we can’t go much further, because my naturalistic approach has no need for independently existing moral truths (universal or otherwise). In my view of reality, any living organisms that fail to develop a set of operating rules, that at least minimally meet the constraints for survival, will disappear from the physical world. Cooperation without exploitation is not a necessary part of any set of such minimal trquirements. After *mere* survival (if there is such a thing) has been achieved, living organisms will naturalistically proceed to explore (or at least experience) the opportunities for cushioning their survival through notions such as well-being or flourishing. At this stage, living organisms can construct (by planning or happen chance) a wide variety of behaviorial rules. Once again, cooperation without exploitation is not necessarily THE universally correct mode, although at least now folks could begin to argue (based on benefits to be derived) that cooperation without exploitation might be the logical choice of modes *to be preferred* … provided folks actually want the presupposed benefits.

    The difference between the two philosophic (ontological) approaches is potentially profound … although the realistic outcomes might come close to coalescing, they also might not. In the naturalistic approach, moral precepts are expressions of how folks choose to relate to each other (make our own future as we see fit) … while in the moral realism approach, folks are faced with the idea that there is a “correct” behaviorial standard external to their own thought processes and desires.

    The implications seem significant. But the common ground might end up being found in the nature of “emerging properties”. That is, evolutionary processes seem ti produce a wide variety, but not unlimited variety, of behaviorial patterns. Are humans able to create new patterns? Or are they only able to churn through (and experience) a predetermined but finitely limited number of behavioral patterns?

    The problem with moral realism may not be the implication that there are a finite set of predetermined behavioral patterns that can be expressed, but the position that there might, judgmentally, be one correct one.

    – c emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,

      …”In other words, as a moral realist, your claim is…”

      Right, I have no problem with SEP’s definition of moral realism and by that definition I am a moral realist. I should point out that the “specified way” I propose moral facts are objective is by their mind independent universality, not by their innate, imperative bindingness, the most common traditional approach.

      …”as a moral realist, your claim is … there are universal moral propositions .. (that are not) the product of naturalistic physical or cultural evolution …”

      That is not quite right. The proximate source of these universal moral propositions is obviously naturalistic biological and cultural evolution. It is their ultimate source (where evolution got them) that is “found within the domain of the immaterial structure of the universe”. (What an impressive, and correct, turn of phrase! Can I use it?)

      …”(in your philosophical view) these true and independent moral precepts do not, of themselves, exert any obligatory or normative *pressure* on living organisms. That is, they are descriptive of the correct way to function (behaviorial) but are not causal.”

      I don’t know what you mean by “are not causal”. I would say “are not innately, imperatively binding”. Or I could say, I am proposing what ‘is’ universally moral as a matter of science not what ‘ought’ to be moral which I see as outside the domain of science.

      …”humans have the opportunity for adopting the universally true moral precepts, or not.”

      Yes, humans have the opportunity to adopt, practice, and advocate for the universally true moral precepts as an instrumental choice.

      …”cooperation without exploitation might be the logical choice of modes *to be preferred* … provided folks actually want the presupposed benefits.”

      Yes, I have touched on why groups would find “cooperation without exploitation” will be the likely preferred moral precept by groups, but that remains an instrumental choice. Briefly, due to our evolutionary history, it is the precept that will 1) be most harmonious with our moral sense, 2) reliably trigger the emotional state of “durable happiness” (from sustained cooperative company of family and friends), and 3) maximize the benefits of living in cooperative societies.

      …”In the naturalistic approach, moral precepts are expressions of how folks choose to relate to each other (make our own future as we see fit) … while in the moral realism approach, folks are faced with the idea that there is a “correct” behaviorial standard external to their own thought processes and desires…. The problem with moral realism may not be the implication that there are a finite set of predetermined behavioral patterns that can be expressed, but the position that there might, judgmentally, be one correct one.”

      Humm. To me, what science tells is universally moral is the most profound evidence we have for moral naturalism. (Where moral naturalism holds moral properties exist and are ordinary garden-variety natural properties.) For morality as cooperation, the properties of these strategies that make them universally moral are that they are necessary (universal) components of all solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

      A quick google search shows at least David Copp has a paper describing the compatibility of moral realism and moral naturalism.

      Do you think my view of moral realism is incompatible with moral naturalism? To me, moral naturalism can be compatible with the “one correct” understanding of what is universally moral. I defer to your experience that this is not the common view. But I don’t see the “is compatible” view is forbidden by the standard definition of moral naturalism.

  25. Rob Brown

    Hi, Mark

    You wrote:

    “How many people now understand why people have thought that eating shrimp and having homosexual sex were immoral? Almost none.
    This has to change. I think the world desperately needs help in refining our moral codes and the best source for that help is science.”

    Mark, science can be useful but cannot make morality objective. And you don’t need morality to be objective to successfully advocate for non-exploitative cooperation strategies (NECS). And simply labelling NECSs “objectively moral” is not going to convince anyone that NECS are in fact objectively moral. No behaviour or strategy or means can be shown to be objectively moral and nothing, not even gods or science, can make them objectively moral. What we see as moral is subjective and we have to argue for it from our subjective POV in our attempts to influence the subjective POV of others. There certainly are reasons why NECSs might appeal to rational people as desirable/useful/laudable etc. strategies and it is on those reasons that you could focus when trying to influence people’s subjective attitudes about what we should subjectively regard as moral.

    Objectivity in morals is a chimera. For thousands of years really smart people have searched for it. But, despite what Sayer-McCord says in the SEP entry on Moral Realism, no one has come close to grounding morals in anything objective. That’s because morality is not in the objectivity business. In that respect morality is like aesthetics which is another area in which there are no objectively right answers. We don’t throw our hands up in despair because aesthetics is subjective. Because aesthetic value is not objective doesn’t mean our valuing is useless. Why should we despair of aesthetics simply because we cannot say that Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is objectively better than Van Gogh’s self-portrait? Well, we shouldn’t, and we don’t. We’re in a similar situation with ethics. I can’t prove to anyone that it is wrong to oppress women or right to allow gays to marry even though I advocate for both propositions. Evidence that morality does not deal in absolute, objective facts is that people’s moral views can change. Recently here in Australia we had a plebiscite which overwhelmingly supported the legalization of same sex marriage. Fifty years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Change didn’t happen because someone proved objectively that same sex marriage was moral. Advocates convinced the population at large with reasons for why their initial subjective opposition to it was unreasonable and why fears they had about it were unfounded. Thus, although the moral zeitgeist changed no one needed to be proved objectively right or wrong. We didn’t need moral objectivity to get change. Which is just as well because we can never have it.

    If it’s true that there is a subset of cooperation strategies that we can benefit from whilst exploiting no one that would be great and it would be useful in helping to convince people why a particular behaviour that harms no one should be judged morally ok and why behaviours which harm others should not be morally ok. Harm is measurable and so science can help us here but it cannot, by itself, tell us what is morally right or wrong.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      By “… science … cannot, by itself, tell us what is right and wrong”, I take it you mean science cannot tell us what everyone imperatively ought to do regardless of anyone’s needs and preferences. I agree. Such a definition of behaviors does not exist in our universe. Our universe does not work that way. You can be assured, once again, I agree with this.

      Due to science’s inability to tell us what is “right and wrong” in the imperative sense, my interest many years ago moved (and I can’t fathom why yours apparently does not) to what science can objectively tell us that will be culturally useful for refining moral codes.

      Science can objectively tell us what are universally right and wrong ‘means’ for accomplishing our goals.

      Do you think an intuition(?) based “harm is wrong” is more culturally useful for refining moral codes and resolving moral disputes than science’s objective revelation about what is universally moral and immoral?

      Indeed, “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others are universally moral” appears to be the source, in objective science, for the common intuition “harm is immoral”. A large part of the power of any moral system’s to increase the benefits of cooperation, is that it is uniformly accepted. What makes you think that the intuition(?) “harm is immoral” will be more uniformly accepted and interpreted than the objective principle from science that produced this intuition?

      Our feeling that “morality is what everyone imperatively ought to do regardless of anyone’s needs and preferences” is, as Michael Ruse likes to say, “an illusion foisted on us by our genes”. Perhaps people differ in that genetic makeup and thus feel differently about how central to morality that illusion is.

      To me that illusion is not central to what morality ‘is’. Perhaps the reason I simply don’t care, or see the relevance of that illusion, is genetic.

      I doubtless should not have mentioned the possibility of a genetic difference between us accounting for our communication problems. It is likely just a red herring but is indicative of my desperation in trying to understand those difficulties.

      What I really want to know is, given that neither is innately, imperatively binding, why would you prefer something like “harm is immoral” to the scientific understanding of what is universal about morality and is the objective source of that intuition?

    2. Coel Post author

      … accounting for our communication problems. It is likely just a red herring but is indicative of my desperation in trying to understand those difficulties.

      I’ve several times pointed to the route resolving communication problems. You say that your analysis leads to important conclusions, such as that “requiring women to be submissive is *objectively* immoral”. I sill don’t know what you mean by that, nor how that conclusion follows from your analysis. Can you explain? (Preferably by translating the claim into a form that does not use the word “moral”.)

      Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that we agree that requiring women to be submissive exploits them and is not fully cooperative. How do we get from there to it being objectively immoral?

  26. c emerson

    Mark,
    I want to ask you how you arrived at your understanding of the concept of universals? In a reply to Rob you said:

    “”Objective” commonly refers to what is mind independent. Hence: “What is objectively moral is what is universal to culturally enforced rules for interacting with others for all intelligent beings that form highly cooperative societies.” How is that not a sensible definition of what is objectively moral?”

    If I read you right (including other comments you made), you find, sociologically speaking at least, that a cooperation ethos, and more particularly perhaps, a cooperation without exploitation strategy is a key element in the (actual) moral codes of all societies that appear to be successfully dealing with what you call the cooperation / exploitation dilemma.

    I’ve noted before (as has Rob, I think) that this has a ring of circularity .. or tautology … but I now think you mean something different than a mere tautology in naming: that is, I think you are suggesting that a sociological survey of species that have some central indicators of socialization (as opposed to lone wolf indicators) all display various degrees of “cooperation without exploitation” encoded in their physical and cultural behavior patterns … what we would generally refer to as their “moral”
    codes … to whatever degree we might apply the term “moral” even to non-human social species.

    Parsing this out of the way you use your semantics for terms like moral, cooperation, cooperative societies, etc, is, as Rob and Coel have suggested, somewhat difficult. But, a sociologist / philosopher of biology such as Philip Kitcher, Columbia, who wrote “The Ethical Project” (2011) and “Living With Darwin” (2007) might support the ‘extraction’ or ‘abstraction’ of a centralizing, if not universalizing, property or element tying the behavior of social species (or even human tribes) together … where such centralizing property or element might include specific norms aimed at non-exploitative social cooperation, at least towards group / tribal members.

    Whew. That is a bit of a complicated way of saying that your approach to finding and defending the “universalist” character of “cooperation without exploitation” is based on sociological (and anthropological) examination of the actual normative behavior of multiple social species, or multiple human social groups (tribal and perhaps even ethnic, nationalistic or local sub-groups within any of these).

    One can find common traits or properties across all kinds of sets of natural objects … from objects like apples or trees or chairs or human tribes or wolf packs or schools of fish.

    Now, however, comes the ontological leap (or refusal to leap): what should we make of that set of properties that we believe successfully characterizes the essential identifying marks for inclusion of members under a generic name … such as apple, or chair, or social species?

    This, of course, is the essence of the universal vs particular addressed by both Plato and Aristotle, setting off centuries of debate as to the ontological status for any “form” identified as the “universal” objectification for any group of “particulars” — what makes an apple an apple; and does the “universal” for apple exist independently from all particular instances of physical / material apples?

    If this is how you are treating the “objective and universal” status of the “cooperation without exploitation” social norm, then I can better understand the continued confusion being expressed by all of here regarding the “moral-ness” of what you describe as an “objective universal”.

    Put simply, few naturalists can visualize a social norm as having independent existence (as a universal or otherwise) … but instead will treat all such propositions instead as mental abstractions or analytical conceptions.

    This may be the divide moral realists and moral subjectivists find impossible to cross. Moral realists are able to locate a normative precept as an universal that has actual mind-independent ontological existence (like a Platonic Form) (as an actual statement of a correct behavior), while moral subjectivists locate all such propositions as mind-dependent statements of personal preference (as propositions to be pitched to others who might disagree as to their utility or normative value).

    Cheers,
    – c emerson

    Reply
  27. c emerson

    Addendum:
    As complicated as my previous post became, let me summarize it by saying this. If you, Mark, view the structure of the universe as including the existence of propositions or principles dealing with morality, or justice, or inherent rights, etc, and if such an ontological situation is true, then you might reasonably argue that we humans might be able to discover these principles by extracting them from evolutionary and cultural patterns we observe, without those patterns being the source of those principles, but instead being the embodiment of those principles.

    But this is going to be a tough sell to most naturalists, unless, perhaps, some of these principles can be shown to be the inevitable product of natural forces expressed in the chemistry and physics that produced all the divergent biological organisms.

    Answering this question is what I believe the sociobiologists (evolutionary psychologists) should strive for IF they can find their way around Aristotle’s teleology.

    Cheers, again
    – c emerson

    Reply
  28. Rob Brown

    Hi, Mark

    You wrote:

    “What I really want to know is, given that neither is innately, imperatively binding, why would you prefer something like “harm is immoral” to the scientific understanding of what is universal about morality and is the objective source of that intuition?”

    Mark, I did not say harm is *immoral*. I said it was measurable. There is something objective about the concept *harm* that makes it scientifically tractable. We can detect it, we have good reasons to avoid it, it is causal in that it can affect actual things in the physical world, it is reducible. We can therefore be justified in accepting it ontologically. There is nothing about the concepts *moral* and *immoral* that makes them real in this way.

    I can say that, when it serves no greater purpose, I don’t like harm, I can say with certainty that it can be awful, undesirable and ascribe to it a host of other ‘thick’ moral terms which are normative and all of which can be objectively true. I can find out that other people also don’t like harm by asking them or looking at their reactions to harm when they see it inflicted. The concept *harm* is not ontologically or epistemologically problematic. What I cannot do is prove that harm is objectively immoral.

    It’s not objectively morally right or wrong. It’s not morally anything. Objective morality is an almost universal illusion even if the objective source of the illusion stems from evolution which, of course, is real.

    Cooperation strategies are also objectively real in the way I outlined above for harm. They are a useful way of behaving because they can make things go better for us for us than not cooperating. I have no problem with their existence or even their universality. The problem is in calling them *objectively moral*.

    I would like to ask you the same question that Coel asked:

    “Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that we agree that requiring women to be submissive exploits them and is not fully cooperative. How do we get from there to it being objectively immoral?”

    Reply
  29. Rob Brown

    Addendum;

    Mark, you mentioned Michael Ruse. I have his book “Darwinism and its Discontents” (2008, CUP). In chapter 10, “Philosophy”, he has a subsection entitled “Metaethics”. Let me quote Ruse at length because I think he points very clearly to the problem you are having justifying your use of the term *moral*:

    “The Darwinian’s answer to the question of justification is that ethics … has no justification (Mackie 1979; Murphy 1982). This is not to deny that we humans think it has justification – that we think it is objective – but this is part of its adaptive nature. If we thought that ethics were simply emotion [which it is], it would soon break down as people realized that it had no binding and started to cheat. So natural selection leads us to think that we ought to do things, not just from emotion or desire, but because they are “really and truly right.” But in fact, substantive ethics has no referent. It is a bunch of fancy emotions. In this sense, ethics is an illusion – an adaptation put in place by our genes to make us cooperators. Substantive ethics as such is not illusory, but the belief that it is objective is illusory.” p255

    So, you can have a non-illusory substantive ethics (which might be anything from rape to NECS) but it is not going to be based on anything objectively real. Cooperation strategies are real but moral right and wrong are not.

    Reply
  30. c emerson

    Mark & Coel,

    Given Coel’s comments (correct, I think) about SEP not being a statement of any single orthodox position, I wanted to throw this SEP article into our discussion:

    “Biological Altruism”
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/

    Scientifically the issue of altruism is still unsettled, but the article does show the possibility that cooperation (self-sacrifice) as opposed to dominance (unchecked exploitation) might be *naturally* selected for, as a *natural* group survival technique.

    Back on May 26 to May 29 we exchanged some views on naturalism as sufficient for explaining the hows and why cooperation as a “moral” proposition might have arisen in human societies. You still held that cooperation without exploitation was the “universal moral” precept independent of both biology and cultural processes.

    I tried to indicate that the ontology of natural forces (chemistry and physics) MIGHT be so structured that all emerging biological life would inevitably be faced with competitive struggle for resources (for survival and flourishing). If so, cooperation would LOGICALLY become a strategy for reducing that competition … or for reducing the pain, suffering and potential for extinction CAUSED by such competition.

    I don’t think there is any disagreement here on that formulation. IF by THAT you mean that cooperation as a “moral” (so named) solution to competitive (exploitive) behavior would then be *a priori* to the actual formation of biological life, I could, and probably would, agree.

    BUT even if such competition is “built-in” to the ontology of the universe, cooperation, under your thesis, would still have to be shown to be THE “morally correct” solution. You would have to show, for example, that “benevolent domination” is NOT a “morally correct” alternative.

    I don’t think that can be done without appealling to yet some higher “moral” principle FROM WHICH cooperation over benevolent domination would have its NECESSARY derivation.

    But that leads to the regression I brought up in my May 26 (edited) comment.

    What MAY BE observable, is that human societies built on unchecked aggressive behavior MIGHT BE LESS PREFERRED by the large majority of actual humans, IF those humans are given the chance to express their preferences (informed, or perhaps just instinctual, or learned, or all 3).

    Best wishes,
    – Emerson

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Emerson,

      …”IF by THAT you mean that cooperation as a “moral” (so named) solution to competitive (exploitive) behavior would then be *a priori* to the actual formation of biological life, I could, and probably would, agree.”

      Right. Evolution encoded in our culture and in our biology strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. However, cooperation is more than just a means of “reducing competition”. (Indeed, cooperation in groups enhances between group competition.) Cooperation can produce many more benefits than individual competition. See Plato’s dialog Protagoras for an entertaining description of how the benefits of cooperation saved people from extinction. The myth Protagoras relates works wonderfully well if you substitute “evolution” for the actions of Zeus.

      …”BUT even if such competition is “built-in” to the ontology of the universe, cooperation, under your thesis, would still have to be shown to be THE “morally correct” solution. You would have to show, for example, that “benevolent domination” is NOT a “morally correct” alternative.”

      I don’t agree. In order for the work to be culturally useful (my goal), all I have to show is that the science based universal moral principle is the instrumentally preferred option compared to known alternatives. I see no requirement that I show that my principle is somehow the most preferred alternative or, even more unlikely, that it is what morality imperatively ought to be.

      I think we agree that science can only tell us what descriptively moral behaviors ‘are’ and the subset of them that is universal to all. And science is silent on what morality ‘ought’ to be. So in the end, the morality a culture, or an individual, advocates for, enforces, and follows is a matter of preference (an instrumental choice) as far as science is concerned.

      That said, what science tells us is universally moral (about what morality ‘is’) provides a moral principle that, so far as I can discern, is far preferable to all known competition regarding the morality of interactions between people.

      It is always possible some clever philosopher will think up a moral principle or moral system defining what morality ‘ought’ to be rather than what morality ‘is’ and everyone will prefer, or somehow feel obligated to follow, that moral system. That is no problem for science or any claim I have made.

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