Everything arises bottom-up

It occurs to me that, as we’ve come to understand things better, often a “top down” conception of how something arises has been replaced by a “bottom up” account.

An obvious example is political authority.  The Medieval concept of a God-appointed ruler issuing commands by divine right has been replaced by agreement that legitimate political authority arises bottom-upwards, from the consent of “we the people”.

Similarly, human rights are sometimes supposed to be absolute principles with which people are “endowed by their Creator”.  But, in reality they are collective agreements, deriving from human advocacy about how we want people to be treated, and thus resting only on their widespread acceptance.  Does that make them more insecure, more alienable?  Maybe (and perhaps that’s why some attempt to treat them as absolute and objective), but that’s all there is to it. 

It’s the same with the wider concept of morality. Many have sought to anchor morality in the solid foundation of either a divinity or objective reason.  But neither works: morality derives from human nature and human values. It bubbles up from each of us, leading to wider societal norms and expectations, rather than being imposed on us from outside. Some see that as producing only a second-rate morality, but wanting there to be an objective morality to which a supra-human authority will hold us doesn’t make such a scheme tenable. 

Likewise, principles of fairness and justice can only be rooted in human evaluations of what is fair or just.  There isn’t anything else, no objective scale against which we can read off a quantification of “justness” or “fairness”, any more than there is for moral “oughtness”. What we call “natural justice” is justice rooted in our human feelings of what is fair.  Beyond human society, nature is literally incapable of knowing or caring about concepts of “fairness”, “justice” or “morality”. These are human concepts arising from ourselves. 

And then there are concepts of meaning and purpose. Some argue that, without a God, there can be no meaning or purpose to life.  They tell us that, unless there is an afterlife, our lives are ultimately pointless. But the only forms of meaning and purpose that exists are the purposes that we create for ourselves and the meanings that we find in our lives. As thinking, feeling, sentient creatures we create purposes and we find things meaningful.  That they are local and time-limited doesn’t make them less real.  

But then sentience and consciousness also bubble up from below, forming out of patterns of non-sentient matter. These local and temporary patterns of material stuff arise as a product of evolution, that creates such patterns (“brains”) to do the job of facilitating survival and reproduction. 

It’s the same with intelligence. The top-down conception that the universe starts with intelligence, which dribbles down from there, is wrong.  Rather, intelligence bubbles up from non-intelligent precursors. Over evolutionary time, successive generations of animals developed greater capabilities to sense their environment, to process the information, and then compute a response.

Of course life itself is the same, arising out of non-life.  We’ve long ditched the dualistic notion of elan vital giving spark to inanimate matter.  Simple molecules can replicate because atoms of the same type act like each other, and so, in simple circumstances, simple collections of matter behave similarly. And it complicates from there as simple structures aggregate into complex ones. And when replicators get sufficiently complicated we call them “life”. 

The above traces social sciences into biology and into biochemistry and simple chemistry.  But maybe the same bottom-up approach also applies to physics.

Richard Feynman starts his Lectures by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis, that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

And everything builds from there. 

But even atoms are built of particles, and as for what “particles” are, well we are still pretty unclear on what the ultimate ontology is.

How about causation? It’s a fundamental concept on the macroscopic scale that thing happen at time t+1 because of how things were at time t. But even that may be an  emergent property, since causation gets less clear at the microscopic scale. Quantum indeterminacy holds that things occur for no discernible reason. A virtual particle pair can just arise, with no proximate cause. 

Maybe the concept of time is similar. Special Relativity has long destroyed the idea that there is a time that is absolute and the same for everyone.  Maybe time bubbles up and emerges so that we can only talk sensibly about “time” at a macroscopic level.  Such speculations are beyond established physics, but are being advocated by Carlo Rovelli and others.

And lastly there is space.  Again, the conception of space as an inert, static backdrop in which everything else plays out has long been overturned. Relativity tells us that space is distorted and warped by matter, such that it can no longer be thought of a separate from the matter it interacts with.  Speculative theories suggest that space itself may be created at the local, particle level from the quantum entanglement of adjacent particles.   

All of which leaves me wondering whether there is anything left for which a top-down conception is still tenable.  And, further, does the bottom-up nature of physics at the particle level necessitate that all higher-level properties are emergent bottom-up creations? 

182 thoughts on “Everything arises bottom-up

  1. Dan Steeves

    Can atheists disprove with scientific evidence the following statement?…”ALL LIVING INTELLIGENT EFFECTS MUST HAVE A LIVING INTELLIGENT CAUSE.” And the prime example of an intelligent effect is the living biological cell in all its staggering complexity with its DNA genetic code the purpose of which is to replicate the cell.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      One couldn’t provide proof that there was no hidden intelligent agent tweaking everything, but there’s also no evidence for it, and, like Laplace, we “have no need of that hypothesis”. So it falls to Occam’s razor.

    2. Brent Meeker

      Sure. The geologic and fossil records show that there was no life on Earth for the half a billion years and then about a billion and half years after that there was single-celled life. No “intelligent” cause available. And various laboratory experiments starting with Miller-Urey and the discovery of amino acids and peptides on meteorites show that spontaneous emergence of life on Earth was not just possible, but almost inevitable. Read Nick Lane’s book “The Vital Question”.

  2. Rob

    “…does the bottom-up nature of physics at the particle level necessitate that all higher-level properties are emergent bottom-up creations?”

    I don’t know. But gods are out of the question so what else could they be? Life and consciousness are the best way the universe has of creating entropy. So maybe it’s just thermodynamics. Creatures like us are the most efficient way for the universe to wind down to equilibrium and bring an end to it all.

    Reply
  3. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    I can see Feynman’s atomic theory example as being, in theory, a bottom-up explanation for:

    Political authority, rights, morality, fairness, justice, meaning, purpose, consciousness, intelligence, and life. (I have no opinion regarding causation, time, and space.)

    However, I pity whoever seeks to understand any of these based on atomic theory. Explanations for life might be most manageable but would still be stupefyingly challenging. Perhaps I misunderstood your point.

    On the other hand, existing top-down explanations are direct and revealing.

    For example, isn’t life best understood as the natural consequence of thermodynamics acting on some suitable substrate (usually atoms)?

    Aren’t political authority, rights, morality, fairness, and justice solutions to cooperation problems?

    And aren’t meaning, purpose, consciousness, intelligence best understood as products of biological evolution?

    I don’t see our choice as either top-down or bottom-up explanations. If our science is coherent, consistent explanations from both directions must be possible, at least in theory. If the two explanations are not consistent, then our science is incoherent.

    The top-down explanations are attractive and useful because they so readily explain so much superficially chaotic data. – the mark of robust scientific theories.

    Reply
  4. Rob

    Dan Stevens, can you prove that all (seemingly) intelligent effects must have an intelligent cause? Yours is just the argument from incredulity which is no argument at all.

    Reply
    1. Dan Steeves

      The 2nd law of thermodynamics and entropy are convincing evidence of a Creator. Can you give me evidence that biological cells created themselves and then came alive clearly violating the law of increasing entropy?

    2. Coel Post author

      The 2nd law of thermodynamics is purely a product of statistics and probability. It would inevitably be a feature of a universe lacking any god. Indeed, a universe *not* obeying the 2nd law would be a better candidate for a created universe.

      Also, cells evolving and arising from non-life does not violate the 2nd law. All that is needed is an input of energy, and that is provided by the sun (possibly supplemented by the earth’s radioactivity).

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Dan,
      You don’t understand thermodynamics. Entropy commonly decreases locally, there is no law against that. Indeed thermodynamics may be key to understanding the origin of life. Have a read of the following, the best explanation of the emergence of life I am aware of:
      “An MIT physicist has proposed the provocative idea that life exists because the law of increasing entropy drives matter to acquire lifelike physical properties.”
      https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-new-thermodynamics-theory-of-the-origin-of-life-20140122/

    4. Dan Steeves

      Entropy means that everything wears out, rots, desintegrates etc. Immediately after an organism dies it begins to deteriorate so there´s nothing left but dust and bones. Entropy does not permit the inanimate chemicals of the earth to organize themselves into aminoacidos and proteins and then create the awesomely complex biological cell. It´s very interesting to note what the bible states about the creation of the first man Adam in Genesis 2:7 where it shows that the Creator formed the man out of the DUST OF THE GROUND. And when the man Adam rebelled against his Creator and he was sentenced to return to the dust of the ground in death. Genesis 3:19.

      I live in Colombia where I work as a photographer and colombian emerald dealer. Once I was photographing the vaults used to bury the dead. At that moment some workers removed a corpse that had been in the burial vault for about 6 years. I took a close look at what was left of the deceased and all I saw were little piles of reddish brown dust all along the bottom of the coffin. This was the remains of the deceased. Immediately I thought about what Genesis 3:19 stated….”dust you are and to dust you will return.” This simple biblical statement confirms the law of increasing entropy in action. So it´s very clear to me that all biological matter decomposes into the original chemical elements from which it came. So scientifically speaking the bible is totally correct.

    5. Brent Meeker

      Entropy doesn’t mean what you think it means. It means that IN A CLOSED SYSTEM energy tends to become evenly distributed. The Earth, thanks to sunshine and radioactivity and cold space, is very far from closed system. It exists in huge gradient of entropy. Solar photons arrive at a temperature around 5500degK. The Earth radiates at about 225degK, so it has to radiate 20 photons for each one it receives…a 20:1 entropy ratio. And that’s why life arose spontaneously on Earth.

    6. Coel Post author

      Entropy does not permit the inanimate chemicals of the earth to organize themselves into aminoacidos and proteins and then …

      That’s not what the 2nd law says. All it says is that you need an input of energy for such things to happen. That’s why it’s a law of thermo-dynamics (= “energy movement”).

      If you want to invoke the authority of science by invoking the 2nd law, you need to apply the actual scientific version of the law.

  5. Brent Meeker

    Seeing things as “bubbling up” is one way to understand them; structures and interactions that are complex because they involve many simpler entities. This aides our understanding because we can understand the simple entities and we can understand the interactions. Even if we struggle to understand the whole, we can reassure ourselves that we’ve got a handle on it…in principle. But notice how an epistemic (not merelogical) chain goes: atoms->quantum fields->string theory->mathematics->language->intelligence->society->animals->biology->chemistry->physics->atoms->… I think of this as “the virtuous circle” of explanation. If you seek to understand something you have to work your way around the circle until you find a basis of explanation that you already understand.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Brent,
      I like the expression “the virtuous circle of explanation” of why the top-down and bottom-up perspectives will be consistent if our understanding of top-down and bottom-up source phenomena is correct. If both perspectives do not provide consistent explanations, then at least one is wrong.

  6. Rob

    Mark Sloan, I read the paper by Jeremy England a couple of years ago. It explains a lot and its why I mentioned thermodynamics in my post above. Complexity and life didn’t need gods to get going. An energy gradient and some raw materials was all that was required. I also recently read England’s book “Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things”. When he finally gets to the science it’s good but his constant harping on about the Jewish Bible made the book pretty much unreadable for me. Much better to just read the published papers.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      “An energy gradient and raw materials” generates life. I agree that is a cool insight. I’ve not read England’s book but did read he is religious. Maybe for him, it is just a preferred choice. Or maybe he thinks there is another support for the necessity of a god’s existence such as morality.

  7. Rob

    No, he’s just steeped in Judaism and tries to find resonances between thermodynamics and the Torah. I guess that’s ok if that’s what he wants to do but when writing for a scientifically literate audience he should stick to the science and save the other stuff for the synagogue.

    Reply
  8. vampyricon

    Not to dispute the main point, but

    >A virtual particle pair can just arise, with no proximate cause.

    Virtual particles are by definition not real. They are mnemonics for terms in the perturbative series of particle interactions. They can’t exist in the real world any more than the number 42 can exist in the real world.

    Not to mention the fact that they rely on perturbation theory, and cannot be applied to non-perturbative QFT, e.g. the low-energy limit of the strong force.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Well, we don’t really know the ultimate ontology underlying quantum mechanics. A “real” particle in QFT is an excitation of a quantum field; a “virtual” particle is also an excitation of a quantum field, just a less “organised” one. Further, “virtual particles” do have measureable real-world effects, e.g. the Casimir effect. So when it comes to ultimate ontology there is likely to be something that maps to “virtual” particles just as there would be something that maps to “real” particles.

    2. vampyricon

      Sure, I’ll grant that we don’t know the ultimate ontology of QM, but I think we know quite a bit about what it is not. I struggle to see a reasonable explanation of the Casimir effect through a virtual particle ontology, as it has a perfectly good explanation via waves.

      Again, it’s not about what virtual particles can explain, but about what they can’t: Virtual particles can’t explain anything that doesn’t use perturbation theory, so they can’t correspond to anything real, unless one posits a qualitative distinction between perturbative and non-perturbative interactions, which I doubt.

    3. Brent Meeker

      Real particles can arise without a proximate cause. Radioactive decay produces particles, e.g. gamma ray photons that did not exist before. And since the occurence of a decay is distributed with constant probability of decay per unit time, it is as random as logically possible.

  9. Mark Sloan

    Hi Coel,

    I’d like another bite of this apple, please.

    Science does begin with bottom-up looks at natural phenomena. Those bottom-up looks assemble the data sets to be explained by hypotheses. This is consistent with “Everything arises bottom-up”.

    However, once our hypotheses become well-accepted theories, those theories become the top-down sources (such as the gas laws) we use in science and engineering to predict and understand the behaviors of new things. We don’t try to use bottom-up quantum mechanics to understand how to optimize a new turbine engine design; we use top-down gas dynamics.

    Similarly, it is impractical to optimize cultural moral norms to best achieve shared goals based on the bottom-up sources you suggest for human rights, morality, justice, and fairness. People in disagreement can just say “My moral intuitions disagree with yours”.

    It is much more practical to optimize cultural moral norms based on the top-down understanding of morality, including (human rights, justice, and fairness), as elements of strategies that solve cooperation problems. This is consistent with the growing consensus that human morality (cultural moral norms and our moral sense) was selected for by the benefits of cooperation it produced.

    Adopting this top-down perspective on human morality enables people disagreeing about moral norms to reduce their arguments to a much simpler question “Which alternative will be most effective at solving cooperation problems and thereby most likely to achieve our shared goals?”

    I don’t mean to argue over word meanings or whether a top-down or a bottom-up perspective is ‘true’, but rather which perspective is most useful for a given purpose.

    Isn’t the top-down perspective of human morality as cooperation strategies much more useful for the important task of refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals?

    Finally, you asked the question “… is anything left for which a top-down conception is still tenable… does the bottom-up nature of physics at the particle level necessitate that all higher-level properties are emergent bottom-up creations?”

    Rather than the “morality as solutions to cooperation problems” property of morality being emergent, the opposite seems to be the case. The top-down mathematics of strategies that solve cooperation problems are the ultimate sources of the emergent bottom-up sources of human morality you mention.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      However, once our hypotheses become well-accepted theories, those theories become the top-down sources (such as the gas laws) we use in science and engineering …

      Yes, high-level descriptions are adopted because they are useful. The perfect gas law is much simpler to use and is thus very useful.

      Similarly, it is impractical to optimize cultural moral norms to best achieve shared goals based on the bottom-up sources you suggest for human rights, morality, justice, and fairness. People in disagreement can just say “My moral intuitions disagree with yours”.

      But people in disagreement with your scheme can equally just disagree with you.

      It is much more practical to optimize cultural moral norms based on the top-down understanding of morality, including (human rights, justice, and fairness), as elements of strategies that solve cooperation problems. This is consistent with the growing consensus that human morality (cultural moral norms and our moral sense) was selected for by the benefits of cooperation it produced.

      Yes, but all of that is an “is” statement. It doesn’t say what we “ought” to do. Similarly, human sexuality was selected for to maximise the number of descendants we leave. That does not mean we ought to have children.

      Adopting this top-down perspective on human morality enables people disagreeing about moral norms to reduce their arguments to a much simpler question “Which alternative will be most effective at solving cooperation problems and thereby most likely to achieve our shared goals?”

      No, firstly because the above carries no “oughtness”, and secondly because people do not all have the same goals. People have very different ideas about what sort of society they want. That’s why we have politics, with people seeking compromises between what different people want.

      There is no such thing as a solution, a mode of society, that would please everyone. Even if you try to develop a metric that maximises the number of people whose goals are achieved, the above “is” statements carry no implication that we “ought” to adopt that metric.

      I don’t mean to argue over word meanings or whether a top-down or a bottom-up perspective is ‘true’, but rather which perspective is most useful for a given purpose.

      But people have lots of different goals and purposes, and everyone’s goals and purposes can be different. They may overlap a lot, but there will always be differences.

      Isn’t the top-down perspective of human morality as cooperation strategies much more useful for the important task of refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals?

      We do not share all our goals.

      Even if we invented some metric that maximsed the number of goals fulfilled, there would be no sense in which we “ought” to adopt it, except that some of us might want to. Again, everything comes down to what people want. There’s no getting round that.

    2. Brent Meeker

      Sure, “everything comes down to what people want.” But it’s an objective fact that people can on the whole get more of what they want by cooperating and by adopting and enforcing various ethics (I prefer “ethics” to distinguish public oughts, from “morals” as personal oughts). And as social animals people mostly want some public ethics that they can rely on other people sharing. Are some ethics better than others? Sure, Nazism was worse than most. In broad terms you can say ethic A is better than ethic B, if people who move from B to A are happier than those that move from A to B. But that means that a lot of ethics are a wash.

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      So your thinking is that people are unlikely to prefer to use a top-down scientific view of what morality ‘is’ (cooperation strategies) to refine cultural moral norms because 1) they will prefer to use their bottom-up moral intuitions with their innate bindingness to decide what they ought to do, and 2) people will, in any event, disagree about the goals of enforcing their moral codes?

      But if our bottom-up moral intuitions about what we ought to do are only heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, rules of thumb) for cooperation strategies, then our moral intuitions cannot provide a more solid grounding for morality. Our moral intuition’s bindingness (what everyone ought to do regardless of beliefs and preferences) is just an “illusion foisted on us by our genes” as Michael Ruse seems to delight in saying. Assume people can understand their own and other people’s often confusing moral intuitions as heuristics for cooperation strategies. After that, I don’t think they could rationally prefer to try to resolve moral disputes based on arguments about whose diverse, contradictory, and bizarre moral intuitions are most correct. Why wouldn’t they prefer to go to the top-down source unobscured by illusions of bindingness and the natural diversity of heuristics?

      It is far easier to resolve differences about cooperation strategies than intuitions. And once the rational agreement for which moral norms are most effective at achieving shared goals is done, our moral sense is fully capable of supplying all the moral bindingness needed for a well-functioning society.

      What about people having different goals?

      Versions of “Do to others as you would have them do to you” are found around the world and, in the Christian Bible, Jesus is quoted as saying it summarizes morality. I’ve heard many people say it summarizes their morality. Versions of the Golden Rule are totally silent about the goals of the cooperation they advocate initiating. John Rawl’s theory of justice (which I take to be about morality) is silent about the goals of moral behavior. What the ultimate goals of moral behavior ought to be is arguably irrelevant to human morality (here referring to cultural moral norms and our moral sense).

      Our moral intuitions and past and present cultural moral norms are remarkably silent on goals. But these arguably irrelevant to human morality goals for moral behavior is a favorite topic in traditional moral philosophy. I see these goals being proposed as products of ultimately failed intellectual exercises in imposing order on human morality.

      The lack of defined ultimate goals in human morality as understood by science is an advantage, not a weakness. It is one less thing to argue about as we refine cultural moral norms to better achieve whatever our shared goals are at the time.

    4. Coel Post author

      Mark, as usual you just ignore the central point of my reply. So, here goes again:

      So your thinking is that people are unlikely to prefer to use a top-down scientific view of what morality ‘is’ (cooperation strategies) to refine cultural moral norms because …

      … because knowing what morality “is”, why it evolved, does not tell us what we ought to do. Morality evolved to enable humans to cooperate. But it does not follow that “therefore we ought to cooperate”. Nor does it follow that “therefore we ought to refine cultural norms to enhance cooperation”. This is the naturalistic fallacy. It does not follow. The “is” of why we evolved like we have done does not entail an “ought” of what we “should” do.

      In the same way, knowing that our sexuality evolved in order that we have children does not mean that we “ought” to have children.

      Similarly, knowing that male aggression evolved (in part) because conquering others and enslaving their women enabled men to leave more descendants, does not imply that we “ought” to behave like that.

      … 1) they will prefer to use their bottom-up moral intuitions with their innate bindingness to decide what they ought to do,

      There really is nothing else, other than our values, goals and desires, on which we can decide what to do.

      … and 2) people will, in any event, disagree about the goals of enforcing their moral codes?

      Yep, it is a fact that people have a range of different opinions about what sort of society they want. That’s why we have politics and perpetual disagreement, negotiation and compromise.

      But if our bottom-up moral intuitions about what we ought to do are only heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, rules of thumb) for cooperation strategies, then our moral intuitions cannot provide a more solid grounding for morality.

      You’re right, they can’t provide a “solid grounding” for morality. Nor can anything else. There is no such thing as a “solid grounding” for morality. It’s a hopeless quest.

      Our moral intuition’s bindingness (what everyone ought to do regardless of beliefs and preferences) is just an “illusion foisted on us by our genes” as Michael Ruse seems to delight in saying.

      Correct.

      Assume people can understand their own and other people’s often confusing moral intuitions as heuristics for cooperation strategies.

      So you are wanting people to leap from “our moral intuitions evolved as cooperation strategies”, to “therefore we ought to cooperate” or “therefore we ought to maximise cooperation” or “therefore … something”.

      It does not follow. It really, really, does not follow. The former is an “is” and that doesn’t entail an “ought”. It doesn’t matter how much you want that to follow, it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how much you try to make this work, it won ‘t.

      It doesn’t follow in the same way that “our sexual natures evolves so that we would have children” does not entail “therefore we ought to have children” nor “therefore we ought to maximise the number of children we have”.

      After that, I don’t think they could rationally prefer to try to resolve moral disputes based on arguments about whose diverse, contradictory, and bizarre moral intuitions are most correct.

      There is no such thing as a “correct” morality, there are no such thing as “correct” moral intuitions (any more than “correct” sexual preferences), and there is no such thing as whose moral intuitions are “most correct”. Like many people, you intuitively suppose that there must be some objective “correct” morality, and that is leading all of your reasoning astray.

      Why wouldn’t they prefer to go to the top-down source unobscured by illusions of bindingness and the natural diversity of heuristics?

      You really are leaping straight from “our moral intuitions evolved to enable cooperation” to “therefore we should work out the best way of cooperating to attain our shared goals”, correct? That is what you’re doing, agreed? But it does not follow!

      It does not follow any more than: “our sexuality evolved such that we have children, therefore we should have children”.

    5. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I apologize for not clearly addressing your central point. I know how frustrating that can be. Tell me if I am still missing the point this time.

      Is your central point that we are in no way morally obligated to solve cooperation problems just because the evolutionary function of our moral sense and cultural moral codes is solving cooperation problems?

      I have never disagreed with this statement or its variations expressing the same idea. The idea that what ‘is’ is somehow what ought to be is bizarre to me. Perhaps I was not responding as you liked because I thought we agreed on the subject while you were sure we did not.

      I argue the science of morality is useful for refining moral norms, not because it is somehow morally binding on us, but it is useful in the same sense the rest of science is useful: because it informs us how to better achieve our goals (or shared goals in the case of cultural morality).

      Am I still missing your main point?

    6. Brent Meeker

      I think it is confusing to talk about morality as if it were a thing that evolved like eyesight or digestion. There are human values that evolved and they include desire for companionship and the approval of others, for love and sex. But they are apiece with desire for security, dominance, adventure, curiosity and of other basic values. When you try to separate off some as “morals” what you are really doing is choosing the ones that you think are good ethics, i.e. ones that it is good to have public enforcement of. Different cultures choose different balances of these values. Just compare the Taliban to Denmark. You can’t get to “ought” from “is” on basic values. But you can get to “ought” for ethics in terms of ethics satisfy basic values and operationally you can measure it by which cultures people want migrate from and which to.

    7. Mark Sloan

      Hi Brendt,

      There are more than 40 years’ worth of scientific investigation into the question “Why do cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist?”.

      Below is a perhaps helpful extract of an essay I am writing laying out the different categories of things the science of morality and traditional moral philosophy study. Rather than what human morality ‘is’ (what science studies), traditional moral philosophy studies what our goals and values ‘ought’ to be by seeking answers to questions such as “How should I live?”, “What are my obligations?”, and “What is good?”.

      Extract from draft of “Moral philosophy and the science of morality study different subjects”:

      “In 1871 Charles Darwin proposed(4) that morality exists because it increases cooperation. Modern science agrees. There is a growing consensus that our moral sense and cultural moral norms exist because they were selected for by benefits of cooperation they produced(1,2,3,10). The biological and cultural evolution of human morality has made us SuperCooperators(7) and, thereby, made us such an incredibly successful social species.

      1. Axelrod, R. & Hamilton, W.D. (1981). The evolution of cooperation. Science, 211, 1390–1396
      2. Bowles, S., Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
      3. Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality. Springer.
      4. Darwin, Charles (1871) The Descent of Man, p. 159 Watts & Co., London.
      5. Harms, W., Skyrms, B. (2010). Evolution of Moral Norms. In Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Biology ed. Michael Ruse. Oxford University Press.
      6. Hume, David (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature. Section 3.1.1, ‘Moral Distinctions Not deriv’d from Reason’
      7. Nowak, M., Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Free Press.
      8. McElreath, R., Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. (2003). Shared norms and the evolution of ethnic markers. Current Anthropology,44(1), 122–130.
      9. Sloan, M. L., (2018) A Universal Principle Within Morality’s Ultimate Source. https://thisviewoflife.com/a-universal-principle-within-moralitys-ultimate-source/
      10. Tomasello, M., & Vaish, A. (2013). Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 231-255.”

    8. Brent Meeker

      That misses two of my points. First, evolution didn’t just shape our moral sense and cultural moral norms. It also shaped what might be called our “immoral norms”, i.e. our basic values of selfishness, dominance, etc. They are all of apiece. Second, “How should I live.” and “what is good” can be answered instrumentally in some cases, but ultimately they must be grounded in those evolved values, both moral and immoral.

      My point is not that Darwin was wrong, but that it’s a partial truth. It’s like saying the Mafia developed codes of cooperation because it made them more successful…therefore their codes are morals. That’s true…but it’s a very narrow view.

      And when I say “evolved” I include cultural selection as well as natural (biological) selection. Just look at how dogs were evolved from wolves by human selection. Humans are not less subject to human selection.

    9. Mark Sloan

      Hi Brendt,

      Of course, cultural ‘moral’ norms can be selected for that I hope you would find despicable. An ingroup can cooperate and benefit by exploiting outgroups such as by enforcing “Women must be submissive to men”, “Homosexuality is evil”, and perhaps even by “Eating pigs is an abomination”. It would be a worthless sort of science of morality that could not explain such exploitive moral norms.

      But science can. It is easy. For example,

      Descriptively moral norms solve cooperation problems but may exploit others.
      Universally moral norms solve cooperation problems but do not exploit others.

      Then it is up to you to choose which sort of moral norms you prefer to advocate and enforce.

      The science of morality is not complicated. It also has zero need for mysterious sources of moral bindingness.

    10. Brent Meeker

      You describe these moral norms selected by facilitating cooperation as “despicable” and “exploitive”. On what basis? You’re simply assuming that exploitive is bad and then you turn around and say it’s just subjective. It’s up to me to select the norms I prefer. What about cows and pigs. Is it good to exploit them? Why? You’re implicit assuming (a) you know what’s good and bad and yet (b) it’s purely subjective. See the contradiction? Your theorizing and philosophizing amounts to nothing but “Don’t we agree about what’s good…really?”. It doesn’t even try to solve Hume’s is/ought dictum.

      I maintain that some cultures have objectively better ethics than others and the operational test of this is whether people with a free choice will choose to live in the better one. On this basis the USA has objectively better culture and ethics than Afghanistan. But between the USA and France it’s a wash.

    11. Mark Sloan

      Hi Brent,
      Yes, it was entirely my assumption you would find “Women must be submissive to men” and “Homosexuality is evil” are despicable. It was a prediction about what would happen, not a claim about what everyone ought to feel. If you do not find these norms despicable, then you are someone I wish to avoid.

    12. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Is your central point that we are in no way morally obligated to solve cooperation problems just because the evolutionary function of our moral sense and cultural moral codes is solving cooperation problems?

      Yes, that is my central point. Because, as I interpret you, everything you say seems to depend on making that leap.

      I have never disagreed with this statement or its variations expressing the same idea.

      In that case it is utterly unclear what you are trying to argue. Part of the reason for this is the way you use the word “moral”, in that you seem to be slipping between descriptive and normative connotations of the word “moral”. To clarify things it would be really helpful if you would write out your central argument without using the word “moral” (but instead replacing it with an explanation of what you mean at that point).

      I argue the science of morality is useful for refining moral norms, not because it is somehow morally binding on us, but it is useful in the same sense the rest of science is useful: because it informs us how to better achieve our goals (or shared goals in the case of cultural morality).

      First, if everything, at root, comes from our goals, then the whole scheme is necessarily subjective, since our “goals” are the epitome of things that are subjective, they are properties of our brain state.

      Second, let me try to re-write your argument simply. It goes: “Given our goals (and our shared goals) we can use our knowledge of the world (“science”) and our knowledge of evolved human psychology, to help us attain those goals”. Is that a fair re-statement? (Note how it does not involve the word “moral” and is, I hope, very clear in its meaning.)

      If so, then, why yes, indeed so! Hardly anyone would dispute that claim. If that’s all you’re saying then ok. Or are you saying more than that? If so, what?

    13. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Your suggestion “Given our goals (and our shared goals) we can use our knowledge of the world (“science”) and our knowledge of evolved human psychology, to help us attain those goals” is close, but I am saying more than that regarding how the science of morality is culturally useful.

      However, I cannot imagine how to talk about using the science of morality to refine cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals without using the word moral. Any ideas on that are welcome.

      Let’s build our way up to understanding the normative content of what I am claiming.

      There are cultural moral norms such as “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, “Homosexuality is evil”, and “Eating pigs is an abomination” and people’s moral sense can motivate punishing violators of any moral norm. The fact that such norms and motivations exist has zero normative implications for what everyone imperatively ought to do. Do you disagree?

      Similarly, there are zero normative implications for the science of morality showing that all these moral norms and judgments are elements of cooperation strategies.

      Based on the above, I see zero normative implications for the claim that:

      “Given our goals (and our shared goals) we can use our knowledge of the world (“science”), specifically that our moral norms and judgments are elements of cooperation strategies, to help us attain those goals.”

      Are you still finding a normative claim somewhere there?

    14. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      However, I cannot imagine how to talk about using the science of morality to refine cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals without using the word moral. Any ideas on that are welcome.

      It’s easy, you just need to know what you mean by the word “moral” (as used in that exact context). So, you decide on a phrase that tells us what you mean by the word “moral”, and then just substitute that phrase in.

      So, for example, take the claim: “John considers that legalising assisted dying is the moral thing to do”. As I see it, regarding something as “moral” amounts to expressing approval, so I could replace the sentence with: “John approves of allowing assisted dying and wants such a law to be passed”.

      “Given our goals (and our shared goals) we can use our knowledge of the world (“science”), specifically that our moral norms and judgments are elements of cooperation strategies, to help us attain those goals.”

      Can we, then, take that to be your claim? Ok, then, first, can you do the thing of replacing ” our moral norms and judgments” with a phrase that doesn’t contain the word “moral”, so that we’re clear what you mean?

      Second, different humans have lots of different moral judgements. And many of our moral judgements are *not* “elements of cooperation strategies”. So, it is not true that science tells as that each and every moral opinion held by each and every human is an element of a cooperation strategy. Further, many cooperation strategies are not, in many people’s judgment, “moral”. So, for example, communist societies impose a high degree of cooperative living (more so than in the West), but many people regard this as immoral. So, I don’t agree that science tells us what you claim it does.

      But, leaving all that aside, how about you give as a worked example of how knowing that “our moral norms and judgments are elements of cooperation strategies” would help attain our goals. As an example of a current live issue, take the US-Mexican border and Biden’s policy about immigration over that border. Talk us through how you see your maxim helping us refine policy on this. (Again, it would be helpful if any use of the word “moral” in such an exposition were accompanied by a statement of what you mean by the word in that specific usage.)

    15. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      “Given our goals (and our shared goals) we can use our knowledge of the world (“science”), specifically that our moral norms and judgments are elements of cooperation strategies, to help us attain those goals.” “Can we, then, take that to be your claim? Ok, then, first, can you do the thing of replacing ” our moral norms and judgments” with a phrase that doesn’t contain the word “moral”, so that we’re clear what you mean?”

      Are you asking me to replace “moral norms and judgments” with something that does not include the word moral because somehow you don’t know what cultural moral norms and judgments made by our moral sense are? That you don’t know what those words mean would really surprise me.

      After some thought, I have figured out how to make that substitution, but you may not like it.

      Cultural moral norms and judgments made by our moral sense could also be specified as norms and judgments whose violations are thought to deserve punishment.

      This is a fallout of the science of morality’s conclusion that cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist because they were selected for by the benefits of cooperation they produced. I expect you could still figure this out, knowing no science, starting from our feelings of moral bindingness about moral norms and moral judgments. (The feelings of moral bindingness directly produce urges to punish violators.)

      Making the substitution you requested:

      “Given our goals (and our shared goals) we can use our knowledge of the world (“science”), specifically that norms and judgments whose violations are thought to deserve punishment are elements of cooperation strategies, to help us attain those goals.”

      The first version is much clearer to me.

      You said: “Second, different humans have lots of different moral judgements. And many of our moral judgements are *not* “elements of cooperation strategies”. So, it is not true that science tells as that each and every moral opinion held by each and every human is an element of a cooperation strategy. Further, many cooperation strategies are not, in many people’s judgment, “moral”. So, for example, communist societies impose a high degree of cooperative living (more so than in the West), but many people regard this as immoral. So, I don’t agree that science tells us what you claim it does.”

      Attached is a list of references outlining the morality as cooperation viewpoint.

      Beyond that, I have been searching for many years for counterexamples of moral norms and moral judgments NOT being elements of cooperation strategies. Any candidate counterexamples will be gratefully received.

      Just FYI, cultural moral norms fall into three main categories. 1) Norms that advocate initiating cooperation or punishing moral norm violators for example versions of the Golden Rule, “Do not kill, steal, or lie”, and “An eye for an eye”. 2) Norms that exploit outgroups for the benefit of ingroups: “Women must be submissive to men” and “Homosexuality is evil”. And 3) markers of membership and commitment to groups such as “Eating pigs is an abomination” and other food and sex taboos. Leviticus provides many entertaining examples of marker strategy moral norms.

      Finally, how will knowing that “our moral norms and judgments are elements of cooperation strategies” help attain our goals?

      People commonly say that “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is important moral guidance in their lives. But cultures commonly abandon it in times of war, when dealing with criminals, and even “when tastes differ”. Why? Science tells us these are cases when this heuristic fails since the benefits of cooperation are likely to be reduced. Science can provide reasons for when and why to abandon the Golden Rule and that it can even be immoral (by morality as cooperation) to follow the Golden Rule if doing so is likely to decrease the benefits of cooperation.

      Knowing that “Do not kill” is a heuristic for a cooperation strategy reveals that forbidding abortion (as an application of “do not kill”) can be immoral when, again, doing so is likely to decrease the benefits of cooperation.

      Knowing that “Women must be submissive to men” and “Homosexuality is evil” are norms selected for the benefits of an ingroup cooperating to exploit outgroups can inform advocates of such norms that those norms are in conflict with other moral values they may have such as “exploitation is immoral”.

      Knowing that “Eating pigs is an abomination” and other food and sex taboos are merely arbitrary marker strategies that can be used to discriminate against outgroups may convince advocates of such strategies to abandon them.

      All of the above knowledge from science can be useful for refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals by increasing the benefits of cooperation.

      So what might we do regarding the US-Mexican border and Biden’s policy about immigration over that border that will increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others? I don’t know. There are no guarantees science can answer all questions we have about what we ought to do.

      I apologize for the length, but you did ask for a lot of answers.

      Some references for the science of morality:
      1. Axelrod, R. & Hamilton, W.D. (1981). The evolution of cooperation. Science, 211, 1390–1396
      2. Bowles, S., Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
      3. Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality. Springer.
      4. Darwin, Charles (1871) The Descent of Man, p. 159 Watts & Co., London.
      5. Harms, W., Skyrms, B. (2010). Evolution of Moral Norms. In Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Biology ed. Michael Ruse. Oxford University Press.
      6. Hume, David (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature. Section 3.1.1, ‘Moral Distinctions Not deriv’d from Reason’
      7. Nowak, M., Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Free Press.
      8. McElreath, R., Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. (2003). Shared norms and the evolution of ethnic markers. Current Anthropology,44(1), 122–130.
      9. Sloan, M. L., (2018) A Universal Principle Within Morality’s Ultimate Source. https://thisviewoflife.com/a-universal-principle-within-moralitys-ultimate-source/
      10. Tomasello, M., & Vaish, A. (2013). Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 231-255.”

    16. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Are you asking me to replace “moral norms and judgments” with something [else] … That you don’t know what those words mean would really surprise me.

      Yes! I certainly didn’t know what *you* mean by the word “moral”. Indeed, what the word “moral” actually means is the whole issue of meta-ethics! That why I’ve made repeated requests over several conversations that you would make that substitution.

      Cultural moral norms and judgments made by our moral sense could also be specified as norms and judgments whose violations are thought to deserve punishment.

      Thanks, that’s helpful!

      So, to you, morality is clearly subjective. That follows since what is “thought to deserve punishment” varies from person to person, and is inevitably a judgement that person makes based on their values, agreed? So some people think that a doctor performing an abortion deserves punishment, but other people don’t. Some people think that drawing a cartoon of Mohammed deserves punishment, but others don’t. Some people think that a women should cover her head and not show her hair in public, others don’t. So, since you’ve explained that “moral” norms are (to you) ones for which people think that violations deserve punishment, then it follows that morality is subjective. Agreed?

      “Given our goals (and our shared goals) we can use our knowledge of the world (“science”), specifically that norms and judgments whose violations are thought to deserve punishment are elements of cooperation strategies, to help us attain those goals.”

      I do not agree that science tells us that “norms whose violations are thought to deserve punishment are elements of cooperation strategies”. (Or, at least, only in a sense so vague that the claim becomes pretty empty.) For example, I don’t think the norm that says that women must wear a hair covering in public could sensibly be said to be an “element of a cooperation strategy”.

      But, focusing on the main point by picking one example (by the way, I’m not disputing that moral sentiments evolved as a means of enabling cooperation, nor that understanding things better might help us attain our goals — there’s no need to keep repeating either, they are not in dispute):

      Knowing that “Women must be submissive to men” and “Homosexuality is evil” are norms selected for the benefits of an ingroup cooperating to exploit outgroups can inform advocates of such norms that those norms are in conflict with other moral values they may have such as “exploitation is immoral”.

      Suppose they *don’t* have the moral value that “exploitation is immoral”. Suppose they (the in-group) say we like and approve morally of exploiting the out group, because we benefit from doing so. So we, the in-group, regard it as moral to keep the out-group as slaves. To them, slaves are behaving immorally if they don’t do as they are told (= they deserve punishment), and the slave owners are behaving entirely morally (= they do not deserve punishment for owning and oppressing slaves).

      [By the way, plenty of people in history *have” held to this moral system, so it’s not just hypothetical.]

      How would you, based on your understanding of morality (and based on your claim that science can help us refine moral norms) respond to that?

    17. Mark Sloan

      HI Coel,

      Thanks for continuing to engage. I appreciate it.

      It is true that violations of moral norms being thought to deserve punishment is a necessary aspect of human morality (cultural moral norms and judgments made by our moral sense). And these norms and judgments are famously diverse, contradictory, and even bizarre. Thus, what is considered moral can appear to be based only on what people feel or approve and disapprove of. You see these circumstances as supporting your view that “morality is subjective”.

      But science reveals this is only a superficial understanding. Human morality has other aspects that are true or false regardless of what anyone believes or feels. These aspects are what human morality objectively ‘is’ as cooperation strategies.

      In discussions about whether human morality is subjective or objective we must talk about all the defining aspects of morality, not just one.

      How about “moral normativity (what we somehow ought to do) is subjective” combined with “what human morality ‘is’ and what is universal within human morality is objective”?

      About the potential counterexamples:

      Moral norms requiring no making of images of Mohammed and women covering their hair are both marker strategies of membership and commitment to an ingroup. Focusing cooperation and moral concern on an ingroup can be a powerful means of increasing cooperation within that ingroup.

      Prohibitions against making images of Mohammed was a particularly effective marker strategy in Islam’s early years since representations of gods and their prophets connected to worship were common in the area of Saudi Arabia at the time. Women showing membership and commitment to a religious group by covering their hair is in part arbitrary. (See Leviticus for some comically arbitrary marker strategy moral norms.) However, hair covering for women may feel coherent with sex taboos and ideas about modesty that are also common markers of group membership and commitment.

      You said- “Suppose they *don’t* have the moral value that “exploitation is immoral”. … To them, slaves are behaving immorally if they don’t do as they are told (= they deserve punishment), and the slave owners are behaving entirely morally (= they do not deserve punishment for owning and oppressing slaves).
      How would you, based on your understanding of morality (and based on your claim that science can help us refine moral norms) respond to that?”

      I’d say that 1) the science of morality is useful for the same reason the rest of science is – it helps us achieve our goals, whatever they are, 2) moral norms that exploit others are not universally moral within what is descriptively moral (perhaps some would prefer to act in ways that are universally moral), and 3) traditional moral philosophy might help this group establish more intellectually coherent sets of goals that do not include “exploitation is moral if it benefits my group”.

      Here, “universally moral within what is descriptively moral” refers to strategies that are components or subcomponents of all cooperation strategies. Specifically, those strategies increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others. And traditional moral philosophy’s wisdom regarding how we should live, what our obligations are, and what is good is complementary to the science of morality, not contradictory.

    18. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      In discussions about whether human morality is subjective or objective we must talk about all the defining aspects of morality, not just one.

      Then feel free to give me a statement of what *you* mean by “morality” (that is, a phrase or set of phrases that can be substituted in for the word) that encompasses all aspects of morality.

      These aspects are what human morality objectively ‘is’ as cooperation strategies.

      See, I’m not sure what you trying to say there. And I don’t agree that “human morality objectively ‘is’ … cooperation strategies”. I do, as stated, agree that human morality evolved to enable cooperation. (Those are not the same thing. For comparison, it is true that human sexuality evolved to enable reproduction, but it is not true to say that “human sexuality is reproductive strategies”, since there is a lot about sexuality that is not directly concerned with reproduction.)

      Moral norms requiring no making of images of Mohammed and women covering their hair are both marker strategies of membership and commitment to an ingroup.

      In-group marking may be a small part of those things, but I do not agree that that is the prime motivation for them.

      How about “moral normativity (what we somehow ought to do) is subjective” combined with “what human morality ‘is’ and what is universal within human morality is objective”?

      If the latter just means that there are objective facts about human morality, then yes, that’s true. Nobody would disagree. When we’re discussing whether morality is objective or subjective, we are asking whether the normativity and bindingness is subjective or objective. That’s what the discussion is all about. It seems that you agree that it is subjective, but continually recoil from straightforwardly accepting that.

      I’d say that 1) the science of morality is useful for the same reason the rest of science is – it helps us achieve our goals, whatever they are, …

      Again, you don’t need to keep stating that. Absolutely no-one disagrees. That is not what the discussion is about.

      … 2) moral norms that exploit others are not universally moral within what is descriptively moral (perhaps some would prefer to act in ways that are universally moral),

      There you use the word “moral” multiple times, as though it’s obvious to me what that sentence means, but it isn’t.

      I *think* it means something like: “whilst the slave-holders regard owning slaves as moral, some other people would not, and perhaps the slave-owners would prefer to act in ways that those others approve of?”.

      If so, then .. well, isn’t that rather weak? That’s it? And if that’s all you mean then why don’t you just say so?

      And maybe the slave owners don’t care what others think. Maybe they are quite happy as they are, getting the benefits of exploiting slaves.

      … and 3) traditional moral philosophy might help this group establish more intellectually coherent sets of goals that do not include “exploitation is moral if it benefits my group”.

      .

      Why do you say that “exploitation is moral if it benefits my group” is incoherent? Recall that you’ve defined “moral” in terms of whether someone wants to punish an act. It seems coherent and normal that someone doesn’t want something punished if it helps them. A moral code that favours ones own tribe is normal. Maybe the slave holders are quite happy favouring themselves and exploiting slaves?

      Overall you seem to have arrived at a remarkably weak set of conclusions about this situation, which seems rather at odds with the earlier suggestion that this sort of analysis would be a big help in refining moral schemes. And, again, a lot of these things could be just said a lot more straightforwardly and plainly.

    19. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      I would dearly love to be able to more straightforwardly and plainly describe how the science of morality is both intellectually useful in understanding if “Everything arises bottom-up” and culturally useful for refining cultural moral norms. I’ve both observed and found by my own experience that clear communications about the science of morality are devilishly difficult. That is why I greatly appreciate the very real help you are providing.

      What makes communications about the science of morality so difficult?

      I’d say the difficulty arises because of a lack of sensitivity to the fact that the science of morality and traditional moral philosophy study different subjects (different aspects of human morality) compounded by both fields of study sharing the same vocabulary of moral, immoral, and even universally moral. Whether claims are being made about what is descriptively moral (science’s domain) or what is normative (moral philosophy’s domain) may be ambiguous.

      For example, when you asked me to define what I mean by moral when talking about the science of morality, I initially interpreted that as a request for a normative definition of moral, which would make no sense.

      You seemed OK with my definition of what moral norms descriptively are: “norms whose violations are thought to deserve punishment”.

      Note that “norms whose violations are thought to deserve punishment” and our general sense of bindingness of moral norms that motivates this punishment are necessary aspects of cultural moral norms being cooperation strategies. Game theory shows the punishment of freeloaders and other unreliable cooperators is necessary for a cooperation strategy to be evolutionarily stable.

      If some moral norms are not elements of cooperation strategies, then why do we think violators of those norms deserve punishment? Where else could that inclination to punish and our sense of bindingness come from?

      “Exploitation is moral if it benefits my group” is commonly argued to be incoherent in traditional moral philosophy as in utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, and Rawlsian justice. That was meant as a normative claim which everyone is free to dispute. My point was that both traditional moral philosophy’s wisdom and the science of morality’s insight into the universal function of morality (why it exists) are complimentary for resolving moral disputes and refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals.

    20. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      What makes communications about the science of morality so difficult?

      It’s difficult because people do not agree on meta-ethics, they do not agree what “morality” actually is. Therefore many people proceed on an unexamined intuition about what the language they’re using actually means. Most people are intuitive moral realists (they think that there is some objective “oughtness” about morality), and therefore they are using moral language in a way that is actually misleading and mistaken.

      This is why I’ve repeatedly asked you to explain each usage of the word “moral”. You seem to presume that I understand what you mean by phases such as “descriptively moral” when I *don’t*! This is what makes the discussion frustrating!

      You seemed OK with my definition of what moral norms descriptively are: “norms whose violations are thought to deserve punishment”.

      That’s a fine definition of what moral norms are — so long as you then accept: “yes, morality is subjective, since what someone considers to deserve punishment depends on their brain state and differs from person to person”.

      If some moral norms are not elements of cooperation strategies, then why do we think violators of those norms deserve punishment? Where else could that inclination to punish and our sense of bindingness come from?

      From a desire for power and control! E.g. a king or mafia boss or slave owner thinks that refusal to cooperate or submit to his demands deserves punishment because he likes being powerful and in control.

      Thus, the prohibition on Mohammed cartoons is a desire for control over the narrative, a prohibition on criticising Islam by demanding that it be too sacred to critique.

      Your suggestion that this is about in-group markers doesn’t make sense. If the prohibition on Mohammed cartoons were an in-group marker, why would they also try to impose the prohibition also on the out-group? That’s the very opposite of what you do with an in-group marker, which you would try to restrict to the in group. Instead, it’s about power and control.

      “Exploitation is moral if it benefits my group” is commonly argued to be incoherent in traditional moral philosophy as in utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, and Rawlsian justice.

      95% of traditional moral philosophy is moral realist and thus just wrong. Philosophers have tried for eons to make moral realism work; it doesn’t.

      My point was that both traditional moral philosophy’s wisdom and the science of morality’s insight into the universal function of morality (why it exists) are complimentary for resolving moral disputes and refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals.

      Most of ” traditional moral philosophy’s wisdom” is useless for the task (it’s moral realist and therefore utterly misguided), and the “science of morality” cannot “resolve moral disputes” because moral disputes come from competing human *values*, and science cannot prescribe values (except instrumentally in the service of deeper human values).

      That’s why, in the end, your whole scheme ends up amounting to: “if slave-holders want the approval of people opposed to slavery, then they might consider not holding slaves; on the other hand they might be happy as they are”.

      Which isn’t very much to amount to.

    21. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Most of your comment is about meta-ethics as conceived of in traditional moral philosophy. As you point out, there is no agreement on which meta-ethical perspective is correct.

      However, traditional moral philosophy and the science of morality study different subjects, even different categories of things. Do you agree that, since they study different categories of things, these conclusions about traditional moral philosophy are irrelevant to the science of morality?

      By informing us what human morality’s function objectively ‘is’, the science of morality provides a mind-independent standard for refining cultural moral norms: “Is the moral norm fulfilling its function of solving cooperation problems?”

      As I described before, science’s objective reference is useful for 1) refining versions of the Golden Rule, abortion, and marker strategy norms to better meet shared goals, and 2) making whatever moral values and goals you already have coherent. I do not expect traditional moral philosophy ever to produce a comparably useful moral reference.

      Yes, some people’s moral values are coherent with their ingroup exploiting outgroups. And science may not be able to help resolve disputes about the morality of exploitation. So what? That does not diminish the science of morality’s other uses.

      Finally, marker norms for ingroups (such as not making images of Mohammed) can be more powerful when applied to outgroups as they commonly are. Two main effects increase ingroup cooperation. First, the outgroup’s violation of the ingroup norm can be seen as an attack on the ingroup. An outsider attack (either real or imaginary) on one’s ingroup is a powerful means of motivating increased ingroup cooperation. Second, the feeling that the outgroup is behaving immorally motivates, at minimum, avoiding the outgroup violators and focusing even more intensely on ingroup cooperation, which is the reason marker norms exist in the first place.

    22. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      However, traditional moral philosophy and the science of morality study different subjects, even different categories of things. Do you agree that, since they study different categories of things, these conclusions about traditional moral philosophy are irrelevant to the science of morality?

      No, I completely disagree with all of that. The philosophy of morality and the science of morality are both about the same thing: human morality, and thus the “science” and the “philosophy” of human morality should be pretty much the same thing (differing, perhaps, only in the “style” of question asking).

      By informing us what human morality’s function objectively ‘is’, the science of morality provides a mind-independent standard for refining cultural moral norms: “Is the moral norm fulfilling its function of solving cooperation problems?”

      There is no such thing as what a function “objectively is”. A “function” can only be discerned with respect to a goal, and that goal depends on the viewpoint.

      Thus, for example, from the viewpoint of evolution, human sexuality has the “function” of procreation. But, from the viewpoint of a couple who choose to remain childless, the “function” of sex would instead be companionship, bonding and enjoyment.

      You are once again slipping into the naturalistic fallacy, suggesting that since the *evolutionary* function of morality is cooperation, then that becomes a “standard” to hold people to, so people “ought” to cooperate, and “ought” to “adjust cultural norms” to “fulfil” that function. That does not follow (any more than the above childless couple “ought” to adjust their attitudes to “fulfil” the “function” of procreation).

      If you disagree, let’s stick with the example of the slave owners who like owing slaves. Please talk us through how knowing that the *evolutionary* function of morality is cooperation would “refine” their “norms”. I suggest that any answer you give would either be the naturalistic fallacy (an is/ought leap), or would be so weak and empty as to not be worth stating.

    23. Mark Sloan

      Hi Cole,

      You said “The philosophy of morality and the science of morality are both about the same thing: human morality, and thus the “science” and the “philosophy” of human morality should be pretty much the same thing (differing, perhaps, only in the “style” of question asking).”

      Traditional moral philosophy seeks answers to questions about what our values and goals somehow ‘ought’ to be. For example, “How should I live?”, “What are my obligations?” and “What is good?”. I am aware of no traditional moral philosophy work in answering the ‘is’ question the science of morality studies, “Why do cultural moral norms and our morals sense exist?”

      The two areas are different subjects with no overlap. As Hume famously proposed, the two topics are about different categories of things: what ‘is’ (science) and what ‘ought’ to be (philosophy). That they are about different aspects of human morality does not somehow make them the same category of thing.

      If you are aware of an example of moral philosophers studying why cultural moral norms and our morals sense exist, I would love to hear about it. Such an example would be a valuable addition to an essay I am drafting titled “Moral philosophy and the science of morality study different subjects”.

      You said, “A “function” can only be discerned with respect to a goal, and that goal depends on the viewpoint.”

      The principle reason something exists in a system is a more usual definition of what something’s function is. For example, the function of a heart is to pump blood. There can be objective facts about the function of hearts and human morality. What the subjective goal of a heart ‘is’ does not seem a meaningful concept.

      I actually agree with you that if “the *evolutionary* function of morality is cooperation”, then it does NOT follow that “people “ought” to cooperate, and “ought” to “adjust cultural norms” to “fulfil” that function.” Any idea that I have claimed anything like this was a misunderstanding.

      I have claimed that there are reasons why using the evolutionary function of human moral ‘is’ as a moral reference is the choice most likely to enable groups of people to achieve their shared goals.

      Sure, let’s return to the example of slave owners who like owning slaves. How might they rationally use the knowledge that the evolutionary function of morality is to solve cooperation problems?

      Rather than imagining a person of low character and questionable rationality, lets imagine an ancient Greek moral philosopher who sincerely felt that owning slaves was morally OK and even enjoyed owning slaves. How might they rationally apply this knowledge to their morality?

      First, they would recognize that even their sincerely held intuitions about slavery were not moral absolutes, but only heuristics for elements of cooperation strategies. And as necessarily fallible heuristics, their intuitions can conflict. For example, they would likely have the conflicting intuitions that slavery is OK simultaneously with “exploiting others is immoral”. Understanding the function of human morality is to solve cooperation problems would enable them to see past the conflicts between their intuitions and act in a morally coherent way as I expect would be their preference.

      Could understanding what the function of human morality ‘is’ tell them what they somehow imperatively ‘ought’ to do? Of course not. It’s just science, not magic.

    24. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Traditional moral philosophy seeks answers to questions about what our values and goals somehow ‘ought’ to be. For example, “How should I live?”, “What are my obligations?” and “What is good?”. I am aware of no traditional moral philosophy work in answering the ‘is’ question the science of morality studies, …

      Philosophy also attempts “is” questions. E.g., is there objective oughtness? (i.e. is moral realism true?), if so, what is the source and nature of it? Etc.

      And science addresses *instrumental* oughts (ones deriving from our values and goals), so for example “we want to reduce climate change, what should we do to achieve that?”.

      The reason science does not deal with *objective* oughts is that they don’t exist, otherwise they would be part of science’s remit. So, overall, no, I don’t accept the distinction between science and philosophy that you draw.

      The principle reason something exists in a system is a more usual definition of what something’s function is.

      No, I don’t agree with that. For example, take a chamberpot now being used as a flowerpot. It’s current function (as a flowerpot) is not the “principle reason [it] exists”.

      But anyway, stripping a lengthy exposition to essentials:

      Sure, let’s return to the example of slave owners who like owning slaves. […] they would likely have the conflicting intuitions that slavery is OK simultaneously with “exploiting others is immoral”. […] [and could] act in a morally coherent way as I expect would be their preference.

      So you’re saying that *if* they had all three values:

      1) I like exploiting slaves, and
      2) I should not exploit others, and
      3) I prefer my values to be mutually consistent,

      … then they might want to drop one of the three, and might drop (1). Or they could drop (2). Or (3).

      As ever, your actual conclusion, when it comes down to it, is trite and obvious. You don’t need any of your analysis, any of your “science of morality” or understanding of the evolutionary purpose of morality — all you’re pointing to is an obvious point following from basic logic.

      So, again, the reason people are interpreting you as basing everything on the naturalistic fallacy is that, without that, you’re not actually saying anything much at all.

    25. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      Though I was disappointed in parts of it, I overall must thank you for your response.

      It prompted a new perspective for me on the evolutionary function of human morality. (Here, “function” refers to the principle reason something exists in a system, and “human morality” refers to past and present cultural moral norms and our moral sense.)

      Consistent with the relevant literature, I’ve been presenting that function as solving cooperation problems. You pointed out, and I agree, that whether a behavior is consistent with or contradicts this function is ambiguous as a moral reference regarding the morality of slaveholding. A slaveholder might still argue that an ingroup cooperating to maintain slavery is consistent with solving cooperation problems and, by wisely organizing the slave labor, slaveholding can solve some cooperation problems and thereby increase net benefits.

      Your points made me think again about the ultimate causes of these cooperation problems that human morality solves. All these cooperation problems arise from exploitation (harming or unfairness that benefits the exploiter). These problems arise since exploitation is virtually always the short-term winning strategy (as in one-off interactions) and can be a long-term winning strategy (as with slaveholding).

      However, we can also describe the evolutionary function of human morality as suppressing exploitation. This is not a contradiction to the function of human morality being solving cooperation problems. Instead, it is just a different, arguably more helpful, higher-level perspective that explains the same data.

      Assume a group decides to adopt the moral reference: “A behavior is moral if it is consistent with human morality’s evolutionary function of suppressing exploitation”. Further, adopting this moral reference is justified by their expectation that it will best enable them to achieve their shared goals.

      The slaveholder might still argue he was acting morally in some other sense, but could not claim he was acting morally in the scientific understanding of morality.

      This perspective also has implications for “Everything arises bottom-up”. Human nature and human values, including moral intuitions, are not the ultimate sources of morality. Instead, strategies for suppressing exploitation (and thereby solving cooperation problems) are the ultimate sources of human morality. Our moral intuitions and feelings of approval and disapproval are just the collection of elements of cooperation strategies (some self-serving) that we (and our ancestors) happened to chance across and encode in our moral sense.

    26. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      It prompted a new perspective for me on the evolutionary function of human morality.

      The *evolutionary* function of morality is irrelevant here, *unless* you are adopting the naturalistic fallacy that humans “ought” to align their values with that evolutionary function. And that does not follow.

      Assume a group decides to adopt the moral reference: “A behavior is moral if it is consistent with human morality’s evolutionary function of suppressing exploitation”.

      So your scheme amounts to this:

      “Assume that a group decides that exploiting slaves is immoral. As a result, they might conclude that exploiting slaves is immoral”.

      Again, your whole scheme either rests on the naturalistic fallacy, or is utterly empty.

      Further, adopting this moral reference is justified by their expectation that it will best enable them to achieve their shared goals.

      But the slave owners don’t share their goals with the slaves! Indeed, the slave owners will share goals and cooperate with *each* *other*, with the express aim of exploiting the slaves.

      Evolution programs us with a tensioned mix of cooperative and individualistic instincts, it leads us to cooperate, where that might advance *our* goals, and it leads us to act for self interest where *that* might advance our goals.

      So, no, you are wrong to regard the: “evolutionary function of human morality as suppressing exploitation”. The evolutionary function of morality is to enable cooperation where that advances our individual interests!

      Because, at root, evolution is about *competition* between members of the same species (competition for fraction of ones descendants in succeeding generations). You seem to be presuming that the “evolutionary function” of morality is about cooperating equally with each and every human. It’s not, that’s a complete misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution is not about “good of the species”, it’s about individuals competing for share of descendants.

    27. Mark Sloan

      Coel,

      To make any progress in our discussion, it may be necessary to clarify the differences in the intellectual frameworks we appear to be using to interpret claims about morality. Perhaps that will reduce what I see as miscommunications regarding our conflicting claims about “Everything arises bottom up” regarding morality.

      I understand you to be using something close to a traditional moral philosophy (TMP) framework for interpreting conclusions from the science of morality. TMP focuses on what our goals and values somehow ought to be by seeking answers to questions such as “What is good?”, “How should I live?”, and “What are my obligations?”. And within this framework, I expect we agree that TMP’s answers, such as utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantianism are subjective speculations with no fact of the matter involved regarding innate bindingness. Expressions of what our goals and values somehow “ought to be” are essentially expressions of approval and disapproval. Hence moral claims about goals and values are subjective, not objective. As you suggest, what moral goals and virtues ought to be can be understood as arising from the bottom up based on what we approve and disapprove of. Finally, the science of morality cannot provide any significant help in understanding what our goals and values ought to be because the science of morality is about a different category of thing – what ‘is’ as natural phenomena.

      Are you aware that, so far as I know, we essentially agree on all the above points? My intellectual framework regarding morality includes the above specifics within the TMP framework.

      However, I add the science of morality framework that is required for making sense of the question “Why does human morality exist?” (Here, “human morality” is the data set of everything we know about cultural moral norms and our moral sense.) Note that “everything we know” about our moral sense includes the approval and disapproval intuitions that you identify as the bottom-up sources of morality in your essay. Right?

      Where we start to differ is that I see those bottom-up approval and disapproval intuitions as merely the proximate, not the ultimate, source of human morality.

      I have been arguing that the ultimate source of human morality is cooperation strategies that are innate to our physical universe – a top-down view of human morality. You correctly point out that the diverse and contradictory scope of human morality includes approval of exploitation strategies that advocate cooperating in an ingroup to exploit outgroups. I concur. “Cooperation strategies” do include cooperating in an ingroup to exploit outgroups just as we observe. Human morality does include the exploitation of outgroups.

      I then claim that using the function of human morality as a moral reference is culturally useful for refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals. You object.

      But consider why two groups of people who either 1) approve of exploitation of outgroups or 2) disapprove of exploitation will both disagree with you.

      First, the group that approves of exploitation of outgroups will cheerfully use something like “moral behaviors are elements of strategies to solve cooperation problems” to refine their cultural moral norms (heuristics for solving cooperation problems) to increase the benefits of cooperation for their ingroups.

      Second, the group that disapproves of exploitation may cheerfully use something like “moral behaviors are elements of strategies that increase cooperation by suppressing exploitation” – a specific ‘means’ of solving cooperation problems that classifies exploitation as immoral.

      Do you see any progress here at all, or does our discussion just seem a waste of your time?

    28. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      I understand you to be using something close to a traditional moral philosophy (TMP) framework …

      No, not really, I come at morality very much from a scientific and evolutionary perspective of why we evolved moral intuitions.

      However, I add the science of morality framework that is required for making sense of the question “Why does human morality exist?”

      And I’ve stated multiple times that I agree that we evolved moral intuitions (aka, likes and dislikes about human behaviour) to enable us to cooperate.

      I then claim that using the function of human morality as a moral reference is culturally useful for refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals. You object.

      Correct, I object. I object because it sounds like the naturalistic fallacy. We would we adopt the evolutionary function of morality as a “moral reference” unless we’ve fallen for the naturalistic fallacy (“now that we know the evolutionary purpose of morality, we ought to align our goals with that purpose” — which does not follow).

      I also note that you’ve used the word “moral” three times in that sentence. As I’ve said multiple times, I don’t understand what you mean by the words! I also don’t think that you understand what you mean by them! (but are instead proceeding on an un-examined intuition about their meaning, which leads you into the naturalistic fallacy).

      As I’ve also said multiple times, the way forward is your you to state exactly what you mean by the word “moral” each time you use it in such a sentence, by putting in brackets an alternative phrasing (not including the word “moral”) that amounts to your intended meaning.

      If doing such a substitution is not near-automatic in how you think about such statements, then you are not thinking clearly enough about what you are saying.

      Do you see any progress here at all, …

      I see no progress here, since you just retreat into your stock phrasings, which serve only to confuse yourself. To be honest, I’ve long concluded that you have only the naturalistic fallacy, or else a retreat to the obvious (“a better understanding can help us attain shared goals”, just as, if your goal is a more fuel-efficient car, then science can help you do it), or a retreat to the empty (“people with a moral code saying they shouldn’t exploit people might decide it’s wrong to exploit slaves”). If you had anything better than that you’d have said it long ago.

      As I’ve said again and again, the way for you to make progress is for you to translate your central claims into language that doesn’t include the word “moral” (or, at least, accompanies each usage of “moral” with, in brackets, an equivalent phrase stating the meaning).

    29. Brent Meeker

      I think it would help a lot to stop talking about “moral” as if were related to punishment. I agree with Sartre, “Getting out of bed in the morning is a moral decision.” Much clearer if you talk about values and satisfying values. The morals are about personal rules for achieving that. Ethics are about public rules for facilitating it for citizens. Sure, punishment, especially shame, avoidance, and approbation, can facilitate satisfying values…but so can lots of other things.

    30. Rob

      Hi, Brent

      You said
      “So which Hume dictum do you think applies? The point of the paper is that human values are facts and must necessarily be the source of human ethics. So if you can’t get “ought” from “is” you must either deny the “is” that humans have values. Or you must deny that satisfying human values is an ought…”

      Firstly, I disagree that that is the point of the paper. The paper is about getting clear on what is being asked when the naturalist fallacy is invoked. And that’s fine. The paper ends with the following: “the failure of Humean-Darwinian ethics to provide justification of moral values may come to be seen as a strength rather than a weakness.” Perhaps, but this amounts to a recognition that asserting what “is” provides no ultimate justification for values. And neither does saying that what is “better” is what the majority may choose.

      It seems to me that you run foul in relation to Curry’s second version of the naturalistic fallacy. You are “moving from facts to values”. You equate morally “better” with the fact of what a majority might prefer. This is problematic.

      No one can deny the fact that human values exist. Their existence is not in question. Nor could anyone deny that humans feel they “aught” to act in a way that accords with their values. Neither the existence of human values nor their seeming “bindingness” is in question. But human values vary and what is in question is whether we can say objectively that one set of values is morally “better” than another. Firstly, we need to know what you mean by “better”. You opt for an operational definition: That which the majority might choose if free to do so is “better”. No doubt such a majority would consider their choice the morally “better” option. But what does that prove? It certainly does not prove that their choice is “morally” better. It is just a description of what a group of people think. It is neither an explanation of the nature and ontological status of moral values nor a satisfying justification for any particular set of moral values.

    31. Brent Meeker

      Then you must be insisting that there is a God who says what it better regardless of what people value. I think that’s nonsense. There is no other standard for what is better for people than what they think is better. You keep jumping past values which are more fundamental than moral rules or ethics. Values are personal and subjective, which is why they can be taken as fundamental facts. Moral and ethical rules are social constructs. But they can be better or worse as measured by how they satisfy people’s values. So the values of Tom, Dick, and Harry are facts. From all the people interacting in a society and the rules of that society the individuals like Tom, Dick, and Harry experience some degree of satisfaction. Oughts are social rules that make all the realized values more instead of less.

      To take your example, most humans value the pleasure of sex. Does that mean they should morally have kids? No it doesn’t necessarily mean that. Maybe they should or or maybe not…it depends on whether they would value having kids vs giving up some other things. But it’s the wrong question. The question is should society have ethical rules about having kids and if so what. To answer this is to say what rules would result in people being most satisfied. Well, maybe it would be good if they didn’t have kids before they were mature, say 20yrs old. And we’re pretty sure it’s not good to have kids just because sex is fun. So the ethical thing to do is forbid/discourage marriage under 18 and to provide sex education and free birth control. Did that decide some moral “ought”? It decided an ethical ought. But having society decide person by person day by day whether they should have sex or children or anything else is already bad ethics…humans value autonomy. My view is that morals or personal. If you want to be celibate…fine. That’s your morals. If you want to be a pedophile…that’s not fine. That’s affecting other people so society defines ethics regarding how young a person you can have sex with.

      You will no doubt bring up the serial killer. The serial killer personally values killing people. Fine, that’s his value. But society values personal security, i.e. not being murdered. So society says he ought not do that and sets up institutions to hunt down serial killers.

    32. Rob

      Hi, Brent

      I think it should be clear by now that I believe gods are out of the question. I agree that the only standard we have is what people feel is better, what they prefer. But that is not saying much. What is important, and still hard for most to accept, is that there is no other, ultimate grounding for moral values. Neither gods nor science can provide that ultimate ground. Science can answer properly pose questions about morality but it cannot provide and absolute goodness scale against which to judge which of the often competing/conflicting moral values are the right ones. Once gods are out of the equation, and once we accept that science cannot provide an ultimate grounding for values, we see that it’s up to us to argue as convincingly, with the best reasoning we are capable of, for those that we prefer.

    33. Brent Meeker

      Good, we’re converging. “… it’s up to us to argue as convincingly, with the best reasoning we are capable of, for those that we prefer.” on what basis can we argue? The only possible basis I see is to say that you should agree on that we as a society should enforce this rule because on the whole you will be more satisfied in the long run. The argument will cite empirical observations of various societies and especially the experience of people who live in different ones and compared them. That’s my operational definition of better v. worse. Without operational definitions to connect with empirical facts there can be no science…only speculations.

    34. Rob

      Brent said: “Good, we’re converging. “… it’s up to us to argue as convincingly, with the best reasoning we are capable of, for those that we prefer.” on what basis can we argue?
      The only possible basis I see is to say that you should agree on that we as a society should enforce this rule because on the whole you will be more satisfied in the long run. The argument will cite empirical observations of various societies and especially the experience of people who live in different ones and compared them. That’s my operational definition of better v. worse.”

      Brent, it seems we agree on more than was clear to me when we started. I guess it was your use of the terms “better” and “majority” that threw me. I took you to mean “morally” better when, in fact, you were not addressing the nature or ontological status of moral values at all. It seems we would agree that that there are no such entities as moral facts or natural properties like good and bad. There are just Hume’s “passions”. They are the starting point.

      “Without operational definitions to connect with empirical facts there can be no science…only speculations.”

      Agreed. But the chances of persuading/convincing people, especially those still in thrall of religion, that the values of other countries/cultures are better than theirs, seem slim, whatever the “empirical facts” presented to them. When it comes to moral values they are not interested in science. But that’s another question.

    35. Brent Meeker

      Just what a group of people think IS the ontological status of moral rules. Do you think it’s written in stone somewhere? Do you think it’s independent of what people think? What possible ontological status do you imagine it could have?

  10. Rob

    Yes, morality is a quagmire of unanchored and conflicting aughts, The best we will ever be able to do is to attempt to convince others that our aughts are the best aughts. Morality is not some weird law of nature imposed from above that acts top-down. It “arises bottom-up” from us and it varies because we vary.

    Reply
  11. Rob

    Mark Sloan said:

    “Our moral intuition’s bindingness (what everyone ought to do regardless of beliefs and preferences) is just an “illusion foisted on us by our genes” as Michael Ruse seems to delight in saying.”

    Well, yes. Why is that so difficult to come to terms with? We now understand that many things are not as they seem. The earth is not flat. The sun doesn’t go round the earth. Those who hanker for an objective morality just can’t get past how things seem to them. So they continue to fall back on the naturalistic fallacy and arguments from incredulity.

    Reply
  12. Rob

    But it’s not possible to prove that those who freely choose not to live under an American style ethical scheme are wrong. It’s not possible to show that because more people would freely choose one style of society over another that they are right or wrong. Majorities can be wrong.

    Mark Sloan and Brent Meeker, you are both are making the old mistake of jumping from “is” to “aught”. It can’t be done logically.

    Reply
    1. Brent Meeker

      I’m not saying they are right or wrong. I’m saying that if a lot more people freely choose to live in culture X over culture Y that is an operational definition of culture X being better, more satisfying of more people’s values. I’m not judging their values at all. I’m simply take them to be given and subjective.

    2. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      The mistake about is and ought is one you are making, not me.

      Science is only about what is even when it answers the question “Why do cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist?” The science of morality and “morality as cooperation” has zero innate normativity. So there is no claim of deriving an ought from an is.

      The science of morality is useful, not because it is somehow normative, but for the same reason the rest of science is useful: it informs us how to achieve our goals.

  13. Brent Meeker

    Try reading this paper: Evolutionary Psychology
    human-nature.com/ep – 2006. 4: 234-247
    ����������������������������
    Original Article
    Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy?
    Oliver Curry, Centre Research Associate, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of
    Economics, UK WC2A 2AE, UK; Email: o.s.curry@lse.ac.uk.
    Abstract: David Hume argued that values are the projections of natural human desires, and that
    moral values are the projections of desires that aim at the common good of society. Recent
    developments in game theory, evolutionary biology, animal behaviour and neuroscience explain
    why humans have such desires, and hence provide support for a Humean approach to moral
    psychology and moral philosophy. However, few philosophers have been willing to pursue this
    naturalistic approach to ethics for fear that it commits something called ‘the naturalistic fallacy’.
    This paper reviews several versions of the fallacy, and demonstrates that none of them present an
    obstacle to this updated, evolutionary version of Humean ethical naturalism.

    Reply
    1. Rob

      “…if a lot more people freely choose to live in culture X over culture Y that is an operational definition of culture X being better…”

      All it would demonstrate is that more people prefer that culture and not that it is better.

    2. Brent Meeker

      You keep missing the point. It’s a way to DEFINE better. There is no other meaning, unless there’s a God who decreee “better” (c.f. Euthyphro). We’re the only judges of whether our values are satisfied and that defines “better”.

    3. Rob

      Ok. So, all you want is an “operational” definition of “better” based on what the majority would choose if they could. Sure. Why not? So, if a majority of Germans preferred Hitler’s vision of a good society should we agree that their preference was the better one? Or let’s imagine that the majority of humanity decides that it’s better not to worry about climate change. Would that be, operationally, the better choice? But perhaps, as you say, I’m missing the point.

      You ” maintain that some cultures have objectively better ethics than others and the operational test of this is whether people with a free choice will choose to live in the better one.”

      See what you did there? You equated “better” with “better” and hoped no one would notice the logical leap.

      And then you say:

      On this basis the USA has objectively better culture and ethics than Afghanistan.

      I prefer the culture of the USA to that of Afghanistan and maybe the majority of humanity would, too, but I can’t show objectively that those who would not so choose are wrong just because they may be in the minority. A US like society may seem better for you and me but that’s not showing objectively that such a society is “better”.

    4. Rob

      Brent, As Coel Said in response to Mark Sloan,

      “Even if you try to develop a metric that maximises the number of people whose goals are achieved, the above “is” statements carry no implication that we “ought” to adopt that metric.”

      Similarly, even if we develop a metric that maximizes the ability of people to chose the sort of moral society that a majority of them may prefer, a statement about what “is’ the majority preference will carry no implication that people “aught” to opt for the sort of society the majority prefer or that that sort of society is morally better. I happen to believe that the best sort of society is a liberal democratic socialist one in which we try to maximise the wellbeing of all. But there’s no way I can demonstrate definitively that such a system is morally better than any other. All I can do is say that that is what I prefer and try to convince others of its merits. If they don’t agree I can’t show that they are wrong to disagree by simply saying that the majority agree with me.

      Sam Harris tried unsuccessfully to bridge the “is/aught gap” in this way in “The Moral Landscape”. No one ever will succeed in proving what we objectively aught to do based on what is. You can’t get logically from from description to prescription. That is all Hume was saying and nothing in the Curry paper bridges this gap.

    5. Brent Meeker

      The problem with your counter examples is that you left off the part about moving to a different culuture. Jews would (and did) leave Hitler’s Germany and found it was better elsewhere. And the Germans who stayed and supported Hitler discover there was a big downside to conquering other countries. So it is an example, but not a counter example.

      You mock the idea of an operational definition. But operational definitions are essential to science. Otherwise arguments are just semantics. If you try to convince others of your ethics and they agreed, suppose everyone who lives in your culture agrees it is better than others they have tried, does that mean nothing about those ethics? They are just arbitrary and there’s no such thing as better and worse?

      Did you read?: Evolutionary Psychology human-nature.com/ep – 2006. 4: 234-247
      Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy?
      Oliver Curry, Centre Research Associate, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of
      Economics, UK WC2A 2AE, UK; Email: o.s.curry@lse.ac.uk.

      Abstract: David Hume argued that values are the projections of natural human desires, and that
      moral values are the projections of desires that aim at the common good of society. Recent
      developments in game theory, evolutionary biology, animal behaviour and neuroscience explain
      why humans have such desires, and hence provide support for a Humean approach to moral
      psychology and moral philosophy. However, few philosophers have been willing to pursue this
      naturalistic approach to ethics for fear that it commits something called ‘the naturalistic fallacy’.
      This paper reviews several versions of the fallacy, and demonstrates that none of them present an obstacle to this updated, evolutionary version of Humean ethical naturalism

    1. Brent Meeker

      “The naturalistic fallacy, by contrast, seems to have become something of a superstition. It
      is dimly understood and widely feared, and its ritual incantation is an obligatory part of the
      apprenticeship of moral philosophers and biologists alike. But if the arguments presented above
      are correct, then it is surely time to dispense with this superstition. To that end I make the
      following recommendation: Whenever someone uses the term “naturalistic fallacy”, ask them
      “Which one?”, and insist that they explain the arguments behind their accusation. It is only by
      bringing the ‘fallacy’ out into the open that we can break the mysterious spell that it continues to
      cast over ethics.”
      So which Hume dictum do you think applies? The point of the paper is that human values are facts and must necessarily be the source of human ethics. So if you can’t get “ought” from “is” you must either deny the “is” that humans have values. Or you must deny that satisfying human values is an ought…perhaps holding that only God can make an ought or there is some other extra-human source of values. But then you need to say why humans should act to satisfy THOSE non-human values.

  14. Rob

    No ‘is” one puts up is ever going to get us logically to an “aught”. The best we can do is try to persuade others to adopt our point of view with evidence of what “is”. In your case, the evidence is an appeal to what the majority might choose if they could. I fail to see how this solves the philosophical problem.

    Reply
  15. Rob

    Oh, and by the way, I was not mocking the idea of an “operational; definition” and I am sorry if that is how you read what I said.

    Reply
  16. Rob

    I think Coel’s analysis is the correct way to see morality. It is bottom up. It arises from us, from our brain states and, at a lower level, from the state of all our particles. Many people don’t like this. They either want a morality imposed from above by gods or they want an objective morality dictated by, say, evolution that tells us what we ought to do based on facts such as humans are programmed by evolution to cooperate to some extent. But neither are to be had. There are no gods, and whilst evolution is responsible for our feeling that moral values are binding, it is not a fact that they are binding unless we chose to be bound by them. We can say, yes, evolution programmed us to want to cooperate. But does that mean we should cooperate? Is that to say that not cooperating would be immoral? Evolution programmed us to want sex so that we would produce offspring but does that mean that we morally ought to have kids? This is jumping from what “is” to what we “ought’ morally to do. This is one form of the naturalistic fallacy that Hume rightly found objectionable. We just have to accept that our values stem from our feelings and that there is no further justification available. But that’s ok. We can get by with that. And must do so whether we like it or not.

    Reply
  17. Rob

    As Coel explains, human morality arises bottom-up. But it is hard, if not impossible, for many people to accept this. Of course, those still hobbled by religion will never accept that our values derive bottom-up from us. What is more difficult to understand is how people who profess atheism still hanker for an objective basis for morality. They have looked everywhere. And they have posited the most outlandish second-order schemes to anchor morality – contorted schemes for maximising utility (consequentialist ethics), duty-based schemes with contrived “categorical imperatives” (deontological conceits), virtue ethics, etc. And more recently they have been looking to science , to evolutionary biology, to find some sort of absolute scale against which our values can be justified.

    However, they all suffer from the same problem, they are looking for something that is not there. The only metaethical theory that makes any sense to me is Mackie’s error theory which recognises that the “something” all the others are looking for, an absolute scale, does not exist. But it seems harder, even for a lot of scientifically literate people, and even today, to accept this than it was for people a few centuries ago to accept that the earth went round the sun. Well, we might say, their mistake was understandable because it looks like the earth goes round the sun. But people today are making the same sort of mistake with ethics. It just feels like our moral values are based in something more fundamental than our preferences, innate or otherwise. Sure, evolution programmed us to feel like our values were objectively real. But evolution also built us in such a way that it looked to us as though the earth went round the sun. But the way things look and feel are not necessarily the way they are. I think that is one of the most important insights that science has given us. This insight, if we accept it, helps us not to fool ourselves and it’s a shame the scientifically literate do not take it on board and make use of it in relation to metaethics.

    I thank Coel for his efforts to enlighten folks about morality/ethics.

    Reply
  18. Rob

    Hi, Coel

    Thanks for posting a very interesting topic for discussion.

    I would not argue against the idea that everything arises bottom up. No phenomena can arise without fundamental particles and forces being in a certain arrangement and so I’m not sure how it could be argued that any phenomenon arises top down. However, I’d like to ask you whether you agree that there can be practical value in top-down explanations and perhaps even whether, in certain circumstances, bottom-up explanations can be entirely useless. I’m not a scientist, but take, for example, temperature, which, as I understand it, is a measure of the kinetic energy of particles. If a person has a fever, we want to know how high her temperature is, and we want to know what is causing it so we can decide what treatment is in order. Saying that the person’s high temperature is the result of a certain level of kinetic energy of her particles would be entirely unhelpful in this regard. We would need an explanation that starts at a higher level of description in order to diagnose and treat the patient with a fever. She may have a bacterial infection and so we’d want to know what the infective agent was so that an appropriate antibiotic could be prescribed. So, we’d start at the level of microbial life which is at a higher level of description than the quarks that make up the particles that are arranged in the right way to form a bacterium. In fact, we start with the fever, at a lower level we find a bacterium and we prescribe a treatment that will upset the particles of a bacterium such that it is destroyed and the fever is cured. We go from top down. Would you agree that bottom-up descriptions of phenomena may not be appropriate, or even irrelevant, in these and many other circumstances we encounter in life? In other words, would you not agree that, in certain circumstances, top-down description can provide answers where bottom-up descriptions might be useless.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Rob,

      I’d like to ask you whether you agree that there can be practical value in top-down explanations and perhaps even whether, in certain circumstances, bottom-up explanations can be entirely useless.

      Yes, agreed on both. High-level accounts are hugely useful, and they are useful because they gloss over the vast amount of irrelevant information in a low-level account, and reduce it to a short and pithy explanation that we can then use.

      Low level accounts can be useless, as you say. For example , take the question: “why did lots of people vote for Trump?”. The answer could be: “well, the universe was in a state where [list every particle], and if you iterate that to time t+1, then it’s then in the state [list every particle] …”, and that would be in some sense “correct”, but it would be too unwieldy to even assimilate, let alone use.

      In other words, would you not agree that, in certain circumstances, top-down description can provide answers where bottom-up descriptions might be useless.

      Yes, though I’d go further and say “nearly all the time”, not just in certain circumstances. Our brains have evolved to winnow vast amounts of information into high-level heuristic explanations, since that’s what is useful for making decisions.

  19. Rob

    Thanks Coel.

    Yes, thinking about the way all the particles in the universe had to be for Trump to be elected would do one’s head in.

    This topic reminded me of this by Arthur Eddington where he talks about using the wrong level of description:

    “I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second round the sun—a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet, head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence…

    Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.”

    Aether notwitstanding, it’s a great bit of writing.

    Reply
  20. Rob

    “[T]he ultimate source of human morality is cooperation strategies that are innate to our physical universe.”

    Mark, I’d like to understand your top-down conception of morality but I’m left scratching my head as to the meaning of the sentence above. What do you mean by the phrase, “innate in our universe”? Do you mean that the cooperation strategies you talk about are an integral part of the universe like gravity and matter? You say “human morality is cooperation strategies” whose “ultimate source” is … What? The universe? If so, then your conception of human morality would seem to explain everything and nothing. But, as I said, I’m probably not understanding what you’ve written. Could you please explain it in simple everyday language?

    You also “claim that using the function of human morality as a moral reference is culturally useful for refining cultural moral norms to better meet shared goals.”

    Again, I don’t understand the meaning of this sentence. The “function” of human morality seems to have been to help us leave descendants. How can you use the evolved trait of morality as a moral reference? Could you explain what you mean in simple terms?

    I’ve read all of the correspondence between you and Coel. Coel’s analysis is very clear, but I just can’t figure out what you mean. I don’t understand your conception of human morality as a top-down phenomenon.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      A bit late, but here is my reply to the important questions you asked.

      The first sense in which these cooperation problems and their solutions are innate to the universe is that all species must solve them to obtain the available benefits of cooperation. In addition, they are as innate to our universe as the simple mathematics that describes them. (See Martin Novak’s paper Five rules for the evolution of cooperation, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3279745/ and his book SuperCooperators https://www.amazon.com/s?k=SuperCooperators&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss.)

      Yes, I see these cooperation problems and their solutions as innate to our universe as gravity.

      You asked, “The “function” of human morality seems to have been to help us leave descendants. How can you use the evolved trait of morality as a moral reference? Could you explain what you mean in simple terms?”

      The biology underlying our moral sense was indeed selected for by the reproductive benefits of the behaviors it motivated. But the “function” of human morality is NOT defined by its ability to help us leave descendants. Inclinations to greed and pleasure in physically dominating others also increased our ancestor’s reproductive fitness, but no one confuses them with moral behavior. The function of human morality (cultural moral norms and our moral sense) is to solve cooperation problems.

      As I noted above, the reproductive benefits of moral behavior did select for the biology underlying our moral sense. But that tells us only that increasing reproductive fitness was the means that encoded morality (solutions to cooperation problems) in the biology underlying our moral sense. (Our cultural moral norms were selected for by whatever benefits of cooperation people found attractive.)

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      As usual, you use the word “moral” as if people know what you mean by it. In particular, this paragraph is interesting:

      But the “function” of human morality is NOT defined by its ability to help us leave descendants. Inclinations to greed and pleasure in physically dominating others also increased our ancestor’s reproductive fitness, but no one confuses them with moral behavior. The function of human morality (cultural moral norms and our moral sense) is to solve cooperation problems.

      When you say “… no one confuses them with moral behavior”, what do you mean by “moral” behaviour? “behaviour that … what?”.

      I suspect that you might be defining “moral” as “promotes cooperation” or similar. Are you? Though that would then make your claim tautological.

    3. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      When I said “… no one confuses them (greed and pleasure in physically dominating others) with moral behavior” the topic was correcting the too common misunderstanding that the evolutionary function (the principle reason it exists) of human morality is to increase reproductive fitness. So, the “moral behavior” in this sentence refers to behavior motivated by our moral sense or advocated by past and present cultural moral norms.

      I could have phrased it as … no one confuses them with behaviors whose violations are commonly thought to deserve punishment (descriptively moral behaviors). Would that be better?

      Let’s go back to basics.

      The science of morality and all its conclusions are about what is descriptively moral (behaviors motivated by our moral sense or advocated by past and present cultural moral norms). Claims about what is normative in the sense of “what everyone must do regardless of their beliefs and preferences” are a different category of thing. Normative claims, including any claim that “morality is subjective”, have no effect on the truth of the science of morality’s claims which are only descriptive.

      So if I were to add “(descriptive)” or “(normative)” after each use of the word “moral” it would be pretty boring. All would be labeled “(descriptive)”. None would be labeled “(normative)”. For example:

      1) Descriptively moral behaviors solve cooperation problems but may exploit others (descriptive).
      2) A subset of descriptively moral behaviors solves cooperation problems and does not exploit others (descriptive).

      So no, I am not DEFINING “moral” as “promotes cooperation”. (Please forgive the caps visual shouting effect. I wanted to use italics to show emphasis but can’t figure out how to do that in the reply box.)

      I am repeating a growing scientific consensus about what ‘is’: that our moral sense and cultural moral norms “promote cooperation” as elements of strategies that solve cooperation problems. Further, I argue this knowledge is uniquely useful as a moral reference (descriptive) based on its expected ability to refine moral norms to better meet shared goals.

      Here, “uniquely useful” refers to this moral reference (descriptive) being more useful than any available alternative for achieving those shared goals. Also, given this is an instrumental choice based on the goal of achieving shared goals, there is NO normative claim here about what everyone is somehow obligated to do. The naturalistic fallacy has nothing to do with claims that have no innate normativity.

      Any suggestions as to how to present conclusions from the science of morality as culturally useful for refining moral norms to achieve instrumental goals would be appreciated.

    4. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      I could have phrased it as … no one confuses them with behaviors whose violations are commonly thought to deserve punishment (descriptively moral behaviors). Would that be better?

      Yes, far, far, better!

      So now your claim is: “Inclinations to greed and pleasure in physically dominating others also increased our ancestor’s reproductive fitness, but no one confuses them with [behavior that should be lauded and not punished]”.

      Or, put more simply: “Inclinations to greed and pleasure in physically dominating others also increased our ancestor’s reproductive fitness, but no one regards such behavior as laudable”.

      Well, there you are just wrong. Take, for example, the Bible (of the most influential books of all, and still regarded as a moral lodestar by millions). The Old Testament clearly lauds the conquering and subjugation of others, the killing of all their men, and the taking of their women as sex slaves. So you’re wrong. Lots of other groups (American South slave holders; vikings, mongol hordes, etc) have regarded such behaviour as laudable and heroic, and did not regard it as meriting punishment.

      See, now that you’ve explicitly stated what you meant, we can see that your claim is wrong.

      Let’s go back to basics.

      By which you mean, let’s once again repeat all your stock phrases containing the word “moral” while avoiding explaining what you mean.

      So if I were to add “(descriptive)” or “(normative)” after each use of the word “moral” it would be pretty boring.

      But I’m not asking you to add those words. I’m asking you to replace the word “moral”!

      “Descriptively moral” is one of those phrases that is very unclear. **Who** is describing it as “moral”? E.g., Some people regard abortion as utterly immoral, others regard it as moral.

      Any suggestions as to how to present conclusions from the science of morality as culturally useful for refining moral norms to achieve instrumental goals would be appreciated.

      I’ve given you my suggestion again and again: write it out without using the word “moral”!. Do so by using wording that *you* think amounts to the same thing.

    5. Mark Sloan

      Hi Coel,

      You have 1) asked me to rewrite, without using the word moral, my arguments supporting “morality arises top-down” and “the science of morality is culturally useful as a moral reference” and 2) said you thought I was committing the naturalistic fallacy.

      This greatly puzzled me because everything in the science of morality, including its conclusions, is purely descriptive. Nothing about the science of morality, including our moral intuitions and the behaviors they motivate, has any quality of ‘magic oughts’, referring to “what everyone ought to do regardless of beliefs and preferences”. How could I be committing the naturalistic fallacy if I make no claim about what everyone somehow ought to do?

      Conclusions from the science of morality are instrumentally useful as a moral reference for the same reason the rest of science is useful, it helps us achieve our goals. No magic oughts needed or even wanted.

      To honor your request though, I’d define moral in the descriptive sense (the only sense relevant to the science of morality) as “behavior consistent with codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion) whose violations are thought to deserve punishment”. This definition is based on Gert’s in the SEP plus a bit of game theory about cooperation strategies. I could put this awkward 25-word conglomeration in place of every instance of the word “moral” but I don’t see that as helpful.

      My main point here is that I am using the word “moral” in the same sense everywhere when the topic is the science of morality. There is no point where I suddenly switch from what ‘is’ to claims of what ‘ought’ to be. So, the naturalistic fallacy is not being committed. Like the rest of science, the science of morality is 100% ‘is’ claims.

    6. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      How could I be committing the naturalistic fallacy if I make no claim about what everyone somehow ought to do?

      Well, as I explained: “That assumes that the group’s goals and/or the individual’s goals either do or should align with the evolutionary function. That right there is the naturalistic fallacy.”

      You have 1) asked me to rewrite … my arguments … “the science of morality is culturally useful as a moral reference” …

      So, by “moral” you are referring to cultural codes about what behaviour is laudable and what behaviour should be punished.

      OK, so what do you mean by a “moral reference”? Are you suggesting that knowing the evolutionary purpose provides some standard or reference point, such that humans might or should align their own codes with that evolutionary purpose?

      Because if you’re suggesting that then that’s the naturalistic fallacy. If you’re not suggesting that then in what way is it a “useful … moral reference”?

      You see, despite me asking you to re-write that sentence, and despite your reply with sort-of aims to address the point, you still have not re-written that sentence (without using the word “moral”) in a way that I can actually understand. Write it out! Explicitly!

    7. Coel Post author

      Forgot to say:

      .. the topic was correcting the too common misunderstanding that the evolutionary function (the principle reason it exists) of human morality is to increase reproductive fitness..

      That is not a misunderstanding, it is true. The function of all evolved adaptations is to increase reproductive fitness.

      Now, it may also be true that one can point to a proximate function, that then contributes to the increase in reproductive fitness. So, one can say: “the function of the heart is to pump blood, thus increasing the organism’s fitness”, and one can say: “the function of moral intuitions is to enable cooperation in ways that increase reproductive fitness”, but your claim that the last is a “misunderstanding” is false.

    8. Mark Sloan

      Hi Cole,

      It is true that biological adaptations as a class of things exist because they increased reproductive fitness in our ancestors. That is implicit in the definition of biological adaptations as the product of evolutionary processes.

      But saying something like “the function of a product of evolutionary processes is increasing reproductive fitness” is redundant with it being an evolutionary process. You have not added any additional information. On the other hand, saying “the function of product X of evolutionary processes is defined by its primary selection force Y” does add useful information.

      Here are some examples of the confusion that has been or could be caused by thinking of our moral sense’s function as “Increasing reproductive fitness”.

      1) Social Darwinists (the ignorant and illogical variety) concluding something like “whatever increases reproductive fitness is moral”.

      2) Sharon Street’s and other’s evolutionary debunking arguments. These arguments commonly rely on the idea that the evaluative judgments made by our moral sense can be best understood as promoting reproductive success (the function of morality you suggest). If instead, Street had focused on understanding the evaluative judgments made by our moral sense as promoting solving cooperation problems (the function of morality I suggest), I expect she would have come to the opposite conclusion. That conclusion being that the evolutionary processes that created our moral sense do track mind-independent moral truths.

      3) The science of morality shows us that cultural moral norms and our moral sense have the same function, solving cooperation problems. Claiming the function of our moral sense is increased reproductive fitness is then just confusing.

      To limit such errors and confusions, I define the function of a product of evolutionary processes based on its primary selection force.

    9. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      Here are some examples of the confusion that has been or could be caused by thinking of our moral sense’s function as “Increasing reproductive fitness”.

      The statement is true, and not at all confusing. Any going wrong would be caused by adding in the naturalistic fallacy.

      To limit such errors and confusions, I define the function of a product of evolutionary processes based on its primary selection force.

      On what basis are you labelling one function the “primary” one? Is it just because you want to point to one function, but not the other, so invent a reason to do so? Your whole scheme is arguing for a pre-conceived conclusion.

      The fact is that it’s just as true and insightful to say that moral instincts evolved to increase reproductive fitness, as that they evolved to enable cooperation.

  21. Rob

    Mark, you need to clarify concepts such as “moral”, “morality”, “cooperation strategies” …
    They are very good English words but in your prose they are amorphous, without semantic ‘shape’. And that’s why we are left scratching our heads and thinking “what’s he trying to say here? If you were to analyze the concepts so that it is clear in your mind what they mean you would then be able clarify your whole argument for us and we could judge it on it’s merits. As it stands, it is not clear what your thesis is.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,
      The science of morality tells us why descriptively moral behaviors exist and is silent regarding what morality ‘ought’ to be (what is normatively moral, or as the SEP puts it, the code of behavior that would be put forward by all rational persons). My response today to Coel explains what I mean by morality. Let me know what you think.
      I am only been describing how it can be culturally useful for refining moral norms to know what human morality (cultural moral norms and our moral sense) ‘is’ and why it exists. Therefore, I have been puzzled by any assumption that I have somehow lept to answering what “code of behavior that would be put forward by all rational persons” or some other definition of what is normatively moral.

  22. Rob

    And, Mark, I say the above because reading your arguments is like reading the article in ‘Postmodern Cultural Studies’ that lead to the Sokal Affair. Full of meaningful sounding words and complex syntax but, apparently, meaningless. Rather than having your writing relegated to such ignominy, why not do a bit of clear-headed conceptual analysis so that your thesis becomes comprehensible to everyone?

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      I have never read any articles in the ‘Postmodern Cultural Studies’ field, but imagine it an unpleasant experience. I apologize that my writing brings it to mind.

      I would be grateful for any suggestions as to how to clarify “A scientific understanding of why cultural moral norms and our moral sense exists can be useful for groups seeking to refine their morality to better meet shared goals”.

  23. Rob

    Mark, you seem to be confusing and conflating normative ethics with metaethics (and falling prey to the naturalistic fallacy along the way) and trying to tie it all up with evolutionary science. It’s a mish-mash of ideas not coherently woven into a comprehensible thesis. You need to go back to first principles in philosophy and science and start from there.

    You seem to want to base everything on so called “cooperation strategies”. But what do you mean by cooperation strategies? What are they? How did they come into existence? Give some examples of cooperation strategies. They seem to be fundamental concepts for but you need to clarify them from the outset if what you have to say is to make any sense to well informed readers or readers in general. I would suggest that a couple of courses in metaethics
    and evolutionary biology would be a good place for you to start to get a hold of the basic concepts you would need to be clear about if you were going to be able to explain your ideas about human morality to anyone else.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      Rather than answering your points here, I will refer you to my responses to your two later comments. Of course, feel free to reask any questions you don’t think I have addressed. My preference is for single rather than multiple thread conversations.

      Once again, I want to assure you I find your comments interesting and useful.

  24. Rob

    Could you give a potted version of your theory in a paragraph? If a theory is coherent this should be possible. For example, take the theory of plate tectonics. It states that the continents were once joined and provides evidence (shape of continents, magnetic alignment of rock crystals on spreading seafloor plates, etc) to back that up. Or take the theory of evolution by natural selection and evidence supporting it. It can be simply stated in a few sentences. So, in a paragraph, what is your theory of human morality and what evidence do you offer in support of it? If you could do that then we might begin to understand your thesis.

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      My topic is science, not moral philosophy. As I describe in my other responses, I have not been emphasizing that enough.

      I am happy to go back to first principles in science. In moral philosophy, mostly what I see are speculations. Perhaps you have a different view of what first principles in moral philosophy refer to.

      “Could you give a potted version of your theory in a paragraph?”

      Yes, thanks for the invitation. However, it will have to be three paragraphs. The three paragraphs describe 1) why morality’s ultimate source is innate to our physical universe, 2) how evolutionary processes encoded morality in our moral sense and cultural moral norms, and 3) how morality as cooperation strategies provides a uniquely useful moral reference for achieving commonly shared goals.

      As a matter of science, not moral philosophy:

      In our universe, the benefits of cooperation are commonly available for living beings, whether they are bacteria or people. However, initiating cooperation (such as helping behaviors) exposes the initiator to exploitation (unfairness or harm that benefits the exploiter). Exploitation is virtually always the winning strategy in the short term (as in one-off interactions) and can be long-term (as by slaveholding). Unfortunately, exploitation discourages future cooperation. This sets up a cooperation/exploitation dilemma that is innate to our universe. Descriptively moral behaviors such as those motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral norms are elements of strategies that solve the cooperation problems that arise from this cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

      Kin altruism is the first cooperation strategy adopted by animals because it does not require rational thought, though the ability to recognize close kin can help make it evolutionarily stable. Human intelligence enables us to use more complex and powerful cooperation strategies such as direct and indirect reciprocity. Evolutionary processes, driven by the cooperation benefits they produce, encode the elements of these strategies in our moral sense and cultural moral norms. These elements of reciprocity strategies include 1) motivation to punish moral norm violators (the source of morality’s strange bindingness), 2) markers of membership and commitment to an ingroup such as “eating pigs is an abomination”, and 3) preferences for ingroup members (expressed as loyalty and respect for group authority).

      This science reminds us that the function of moral norms such as versions of the Golden Rule, “do not kill, steal, or lie”, and “eating pigs is an abomination” is to increase the benefits of cooperation for the group. In circumstances when these fallible heuristics for cooperation strategies will predictably fail to fulfill that function, groups have an objective reason for modifying how they enforce (or if they enforce) them. Understanding “do not kill” as a fallible heuristic for indirect reciprocity has very different implications for enforcing moral norms about euthanasia and abortion than understanding “do not kill” as some mysterious moral absolute. This science is uniquely helpful in refining cultural moral norms to achieve shared goals because it refines moral norms to increase the benefits of cooperation. Increasing the benefits of cooperation is the most effective social means we have for attaining commonly shared goals. Proposed ethical principles from moral philosophy such as variations of utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantianism are not competitive as references for refining cultural moral norms to achieve commonly shared goals.

    2. Coel Post author

      Hi Mark,

      This science reminds us that the [evolutionary] function of moral norms … is to increase the benefits of cooperation for the group. […] This science is uniquely helpful in refining cultural moral norms to achieve shared goals because it refines moral norms to increase the benefits of cooperation

      That assumes that the group’s goals and/or the individual’s goals either do or should align with the evolutionary function. That right there is the naturalistic fallacy.

      You are effectively saying: “since we know that the reason evolution has programmed us with moral intuitions is to enhance the benefits of cooperation, we should adjust and refine our moral norms to enhance the benefits of cooperation”. That right there is the naturalistic fallacy.

      Now, if instead, all you are saying is: “we can best attain shared goals by cooperating to attain those goals, and a good way of doing that is to adjust our moral norms to that end” then we can decide to do that regardless of the evolutionary function of those moral intuitions.

      This is why your scheme, basing things on the *evolutionary* function, is either irrelevant and a red herring, or the naturalistic fallacy.

  25. Rob

    Mark, your sentence

    “I would be grateful for any suggestions as to how to clarify “A scientific understanding of why cultural moral norms and our moral sense exists can be useful for groups seeking to refine their morality to better meet shared goals””.

    I don’t understand this sentence. But can YOU tell ME “why cultural moral norms and our moral sense exists can be useful for groups seeking to refine their morality to better meet shared goals”?

    Your sentence doesn’t make sense and therefore neither does the question that I drew from it.

    I think you are trying to say something like: The reason for the existence of cultural moral norms and our moral sense can help groups refine their morality with a view to better meeting their shared goals. That sentence is at least grammatical. But what is the reason for the existence of cultural and moral norms and our moral sense? And how would knowing this (which we already do) help groups refine their morality to better meet their shared goals? Can morality be deliberately refined? And which groups are you talking about? And what would be their shared goals? And how would “refining their morality (whatever that means) help?

    I’m at a loss to understand you writing. Your prose is tortured and your argument (if that’s what it could be called) is a dogs breakfast. Unless you can think and write more clearly no one will ever take what you have to say seriously. The first person you have to make your argument clear to is yourself. Like I said above, go back to first principles and think it through. That is the only suggestion I can offer. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

    Reply
  26. Rob

    EDIT:

    I think you are trying to say something like: An understanding of the reason for the existence of cultural moral norms and our moral sense can help groups refine their morality with a view to better meeting their shared goals. That sentence is at least grammatical. But what is the reason for the existence of cultural and moral norms and our moral sense? And how would knowing this (which we already do) help groups refine their morality to better meet their shared goals? Can morality be deliberately refined? And which groups are you talking about? And what would be their shared goals? And how would “refining their morality (whatever that means) help?

    Reply
    1. Mark Sloan

      Hi Rob,

      Replying both to this and your immediately prior comment:

      I am presenting science-based claims about why cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist and how that knowledge can be uniquely culturally useful. (Here, “uniquely useful” refers to this moral reference being more useful – for reasons we can get into – than any available alternative for achieving those shared goals.) If the intellectual framework you are using to understand them is science, my arguments should not be difficult to follow.

      If the intellectual framework you are using to understand them is moral philosophy, I sympathize with your difficulty. My tortured prose is, in part, due to the devilishly difficult task I’ve set myself of trying to address both intellectual frameworks at the same time.

      Perhaps the best way forward is to repeatedly emphasize that the topic (our moral sense and cultural moral norms) is about science and any question from moral philosophy’s intellectual framework concerning what somehow ought to be moral is about a different subject.

      For example, the following is a claim based on a growing consensus within the science of morality (the study of the origins and function of our moral sense and past and present cultural moral norms):
      “A scientific understanding of why cultural moral norms and our moral sense exists can be useful for groups seeking to refine their moral norms to better meet shared goals.”

      And, of course, I can explain:

      “… what is the reason for the existence of cultural and moral norms and our moral sense? And how would knowing this (which we already do) help groups refine their morality to better meet their shared goals? Can morality be deliberately refined? And which groups are you talking about? And what would be their shared goals? And how would “refining their morality (whatever that means) help?”

      Further, I can provide reasons why this scientific understanding is uniquely more useful as a moral reference for refining cultural moral norms to meet shared goals than any available alternative.

      It is just science about what ‘is’. No metaethical conclusion can have the slightest effect on its truth.

      But from your reaction “Your sentence doesn’t make sense”, I expect you are trying to make sense within traditional moral philosophy’s intellectual framework. Traditional moral philosophy is not the subject, science is.

      Be assured, your response is helpful and appreciated. This subject matter is not easy.

      As I said to Coel, any suggestions as to how to present conclusions from the science of morality as culturally useful for refining moral norms to achieve instrumental goals would be appreciated.

  27. Rob

    Hi, Mark,

    There are a number of ways of approaching human morality. Firstly, there is the layman’s approach – a simple folkish conception of right and wrong (largely informed by religion and tradition). Then there’s the philosophical approach whereby human morality has traditionally been dealt with at three levels: metaethics (lately informed by evolutionary science), normative ethics and practical ethics . Philosophy is complex, prolix and difficult for the ordinary reader to get to grips with. You do not seem to have come to grips with philosophical ethics but use terms commonly used in philosophical ethics. Then there is a newer, scientific approach which, although informed by philosophy, looks at metaethics from the POV of evolution by natural selection. It says little or nothing about normative ethics or practical ethics. You have mixed all these up – layman’s ethics, the three levels of philosophical ethics, and science – and made a dogs breakfast of it because you haven’t put in the work needed to understand them and synthesize them into a coherent thesis.

    You seem to use the word “moral” to mean “right”, “good”, that which we “ought” to do. This is the ordinary everyday folk meaning of the word “moral”. This usage is at the level of everyday folkish ethics. You imagine that, when discussing ethics with a philosophically literate audience, that they will know what you mean and accept that this is what we are taking about when morality is discussed. But this expectation is misguided. When talking about morality in forums like Coel’s, a good number of respondents will be approaching morality from the philosophical and scientific standpoints.

    In your most recent post addressed to Coel you state:

    “Normative claims, including any claim that “morality is subjective”, have no effect on the truth of the science of morality’s claims which are only descriptive.”

    But, Mark, the claim that morality is subjective is not a normative claim. It is a claim that morality is not objective, which is a metaethical claim. Do you understand the difference between normative ethics and metaethics? Apparently not.

    If you don’t want to engage with the philosophy then why use the philosophical jargon? You often quote the SEP but nothing you write indicates that you have understood what is available there.

    Reply
  28. Rob

    Hi, Mark

    If your topic is pure science then why not ditch the philosophical jargon that you clearly do not understand. Stick to science.

    Thanks for the three paragraph potted version of your thesis. I need to read it more closely but I seem to be ok with the first paragraph except the claim that cooperation strategies are innate to our universe. Whatever it is that you are calling cooperation strategies, they are emergent, not bottom-up phenomena, and may, or may not, have come about had a particle or two not been as they were by chance. It could easily have been otherwise. You cooperation strategies are not innate to of our universe like matter and gravity. They are contingent.

    On a cursory reading, the second paragraph sounds ok. But I need to read it more closely.

    The third paragraph about the usefulness of your ‘scientific’ view of morality in refining cultural moral norms to achieve shared goals I find unsatisfying for reasons already mentioned. How would such an understanding help? Our morality is in-born, subjective, and not greatly susceptible to rational deliberation – especially not by the vast majority of humans still in thrall to ancient religious and cultural ways of thinking about morality. Those billions would first need what you and I understand as a liberal education. And, even with that education, many cannot accept the truth about the origins of human morality.

    So, on a first reading, I would say that you need to think more about the first and third paragraphs of your potted thesis.

    Thanks for replying.

    Reply
  29. Brent Meeker

    I think it would be instructive to drop down a few levels instead of being stuck in questions of human morality. For example, there are cooperative animal societies, like lions for example, that do things to enhance the survival of their genes…but not of the species. Dawkins had a point about the selfish gene.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Yes, exactly, evolution is all about a competition for “market share”, that is, whether your genes become a larger or smaller share of the “gene pool” of succeeding generations. Evolution will program us with ideas such as “moral intuitions”, but only to enable us to cooperate with some of our conspecifics, in order to out-compete others of our conspecifics, and thus increase our reproductive success relative to others.

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