Tag Archives: morality

Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring.

Rosenberg argues — and I entirely agree — that our moral senses are part of our human nature. We have a “core morality” programmed into us by evolution to enable us to interact socially and so exploit a cooperative evolutionary niche. Of course evolution doesn’t care about the morality itself, it only cares (metaphorically “cares” of course) about what leads to us leaving more descendants. It follows that (page 286): “there are no facts of the matter about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad”. But it also follows, since humans are highly similar genetically, that “most people naturally buy into the same core morality that makes us tolerably nice to each other”.

Rosenberg then argues, and again I agree, that the fact that we now understand human morality in such terms does not necessarily alter our moral feelings. Understanding why we have such feelings does not revoke those feelings or negate them. That might seem an obvious point, but many people argue that if there is no objective morality, if it really does come down “merely” to human feelings, then “there is no reason why we shouldn’t commit murder or torture children”. But yes, there is a reason, that reason is human feelings!

Quoting Rosenberg (p292):

Scientism is nihilistic, but we are not. The Darwinian process that got us here included steps that selected for a pretty strong commitment to core morality. Even scientism can’t shake our emotions or the moral judgments that they produce. Knowing that morality is only good for our reproductive fitness, and sometimes not so good for us, can’t make us give it up. We are still committed to being nice.

But then comes the argument where I part company with Rosenberg.

But when you combine core morality with scientism, you get some serious consequences, especially for politics. In particular, you get a fairly left-wing agenda.

Rosenberg’s argument is based on determinism. None of us have “free will” in the dualistic, contra-causal sense, we are all products of the past and of our environment. Whether we were born into a rich family or a poor one, whether we are born with genes that make us talented or not, whether we grow up in an environment that helps us prosper, are all things that we could not choose. Whether we are a millionaire at age 30, or whether we are stuck in a minimum-wage job, is thus largely a lottery of birth.

Rosenberg then asserts that “core morality tells us that important advantages in life should be distributed in accordance with desert; inequalities should be deserved”. He argues that “core morality” requires that “deserving” acts must result from “free will” (and so cannot be acts determined by the prior state), and thence, since there is no such thing, there cannot be any “morally deserving” acts. Therefore there cannot be any justification for inequalities, and thus they are immoral. Hence the left-wing agenda requiring a much more even distribution of wealth.

I think that this argument is faulty. I think that it fails to distinguish between actual “core morality” and commentary about core morality. Rosenberg and I are agreed that “core morality” is the set of notions programmed into us by evolution to enable cooperative living. But evolutionarily-programmed morality will be feelings about how people act, because it is actions by other people that affect whether we leave descendants. Evolutionarily-programmed morality cannot be about metaphysical notions such as dualism or contra-casual free will, because evolution has no traction on such notions.

If a band of comrades agree to share the proceeds of a hunt, and then one member betrays the group by taking it all, then we have been programmed to have feelings about that act, because it is that act that affects whether the others can feed their children. It matters not to those feelings whether the act was determined, or whether it resulted from dualistic free will. Indeed, since Rosenberg is correct about determinism and the absence of dualistic free will, evolution will have programmed us to have feelings about the treachery even though that treachery was determined!

That follows from Rosenberg’s own logic. Our evolutionarily-programmed, “core morality” feelings must be about actions in a deterministic universe. We have such feelings about how other people act, even though those acts were determined. We thus cannot just decide: “well, since we now understand that the traitor’s actions were determined by prior circumstances, we don’t blame him and don’t feel at all angry”. We are programmed to feel that way about determined acts whether we like it or not. That’s what “core morality” is — it is about a deterministic universe. And, quoting Rosenberg again, we have evolved to have: “. . . a pretty strong commitment to core morality. Even scientism can’t shake our emotions or the moral judgments that they produce”.

The ideas that we have about dualistic free will and the notion that “moral desert” depends on dualistic free will are then commentaries about human morality, they are interpretations that we have developed based on our previous (and wrong) understanding. They are not core morality itself. If we now understand that there is no such thing as dualistic free will then we change the commentary, but we do not radically change core morality. To do the latter would take genetic engineering.

Of course all of our genetic programming plays out through our development and upbringing, and the end product of our genetic recipe is heavily influenced by that environmental interaction. Thus scientific advances can certainly inform and influence our morals and how we feel. There is nothing “set” about core morality, it can indeed be heavily influenced — and obviously has been, if we think about how societal moral codes have changed over the centuries.

But it is not the case that accepting determinism will automatically lead to the radical changes in how people feel that Rosenberg suggests; people who accept determinism don’t automatically vote far left and ask for radical wealth redistribution. Indeed, compared to religiose America, lots of Europeans have accepted many of these ideas. But they tend to vote centrist or soft-left as much as hard left. People seem to be comfortable with a footballer earning much more than they do, even if they believe that his footballing ability is largely a genetic accident of birth. People don’t begrudge a successful entrepreneur getting rich, even if they think that his personality and ability are not “free will” acts. People are content that a lazy person or a spendthrift has little money, even if they think that his nature is not a “free will choice”, but is how he is. People really are making moral judgements about how people act — just as the evolutionary perspective would suggest — and the commentary about “free will” or whatever is secondary to that.

Rosenberg, I suggest, fails to follow his own logic. He never considers how notions of free will and morality would be interpreted in a deterministic world. He starts, correctly, by insisting that our moral senses and feelings are innate and evolved, and that they evolved in a deterministic universe. But then he leaps to the idea that “moral desert” requires dualistic, contra-causal free will. This is utterly at odds with the preceding sentence! This leads him to write (p294): “once you adopt determinism, you have to rethink the de-meritocracy; you can’t treat lawbreakers as morally bad or worthy of punishment”. But this only follows given a notion of “morally bad” derived from dualistic free will. And that’s a theological notion. To atheists and scientismists such as Rosenberg and myself, moral feelings derive from a deterministic world and so are about a deterministic world and apply to a deterministic world! They don’t change when we accept determinism.

On Stephen Law on Scientism

scientism It’s good to see philosophers taking scientism seriously, and not just using the term as a bogey word. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry are editing a forthcoming volume on scientism (Total Science, University of Chicago Press) and some of the essays are appearing on the internet.

I’ll discuss here the draft chapter by Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London) who writes, discussing the proper scope of science: Continue reading

Hume’s subjective morality: Making value judgements about value judgements

One theme of this blog has been my arguments — as a disciple of Hume — that morality is subjective, thus rejecting that idea that moral claims can be assigned truth values and that they are independent of human judgement on the matter. (For example, see my posts: Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense and Science can answer morality questions.)

This idea, though, often meets strong intuitive resistance. A common complaint is that, if moral claims are “merely” people’s opinions, then one cannot say that the morals of a virtuous man, living a blameless life and esteemed by his fellows, are any better than those of a delinquent mass murderer.

The suggestion is that, if morals are human sentiments, rather than being objective statements of fact, then we must value everyone’s sentiments and morals equally.

This, however, is a non-sequitur. There is nothing to stop us making value judgements about value judgements. Indeed we commonly do so. There is nothing at all preventing us from respecting and lauding someone we regard as a moral paragon, or from deprecating someone we regard as a delinquent.

Stated like this the point is perhaps obvious, yet many objections to the idea that morality is subjective amount to the idea that one needs permission to make value judgements, permission that can only come from a reference to an objective standard, and that in the absence of such a standard one must regard everyone’s opinion as “equally valid”. Continue reading

There is nothing wrong with morality being subjective!

Whenever I argue that morality is subjective I encounter people who regard that idea as so unpalatable that they are determined that we must find a scheme — somehow, anyhow — in which morality can be regarded as objective. The term “subjective” has such negative connotations. I argue here that such connotations are not justified.

If we ask what morality actually is, the only plausible answer is that morality is about the feelings that humans have about how we act, particularly about how we treat each other. This was proposed by the greatest ever scientist, Charles Darwin, who in Chapter 3 of his Descent of Man stated that that “moral faculties of man have been gradually evolved” and added that “the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts”.

He explains that in social animals such instincts would take the form that in each individual:

… an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other.

The world’s greatest philosopher, David Hume, had earlier arrived at the same conclusion. In his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Hume explained that “morality is determined by sentiment”, saying that “in moral deliberations” the “approbation or blame … cannot be the work of the judgement”, but is instead “an active feeling or sentiment”.

Hume continues:

In these sentiments then, not in a discovery of relations of any kind, do all moral determinations consist. . . .

… we must at last acknowledge, that the crime or immorality is no particular fact or relation, which can be the object of the understanding, but arises entirely from the sentiment of disapprobation, which, by the structure of human nature, we unavoidably feel on the apprehension of barbarity or treachery.

No-one has ever suggested any alternative account of morals that makes the slightest sense. The main alternative suggestion is that morality is about the values and feelings of gods, rather than of humans, but we have neither hide nor hair of any gods, whereas we know that humans exist and evolved.

Given our evolutionary past in a highly social and cooperative ecological niche, we will inevitably have been programmed with moral feelings (feelings about how we act towards each other). Thus morals are rooted in human values and in what we like and dislike. That makes morals, at root, subjective, since the term “subjective” means “based on or influenced by personal feelings, values and opinions”.

Whether an act is regarded as “morally good” or “morally bad” must, in the end, be a statement about how humans feel about the matter. No viable alternative has ever been proposed. Continue reading

Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

This post continues my debate with the Christian blogger Anthony Freeland over whether moral values and duties are objective (independent of human opinion) or subjective (being reports of human opinion). See Anthony’s first post, my first reply, and then Anthony’s second post.

Was the Holocaust evil?

Anthony feels that I hadn’t properly answered his question: Was the Holocaust an act of evil? He also complains that “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”.

It’s clear that Anthony and I interpret the word “evil” differently. I had considered that my statement: “most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever” answered the question. Yes, subjectively, most people feel the Holocaust to be evil. But Anthony is presumably asking something different. Continue reading

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

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

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

The Sam Harris Moral Landscape Challenge: Part 2

Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge had a 1000-word limit, and thus to accompany my entry I’ve written this additional (and rather longer) piece, essentially a response to Harris’s Response to Critics article. This piece is best read after my first part and is intended to clarify where I agree and disagree with Harris. Indeed I do agree with Harris on much, probably more so than many of his critics. However, I consider that Harris goes wrong in hankering over the label “objective” to stamp on his account of morals, and that this gets him into a mire while gaining little. Continue reading