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It’s getting tougher and tougher to find the time to blog, and I really wanted to get this one out. A while ago I was part of a discussion course entitled “God, Atheism and Morality” that used Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape as a back-drop, as well as Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality. Though Holloway still has some religious baggage to unload that keeps his goal of a morality that encompasses humanity out of reach, he’s a Christian (an Anglican bishop) who largely gets it. There are problems with Harris’ book as well, but as Matt Dillahunty notes he provides us with a language for discussing these issues.

I wish I had kept up with the class in my blog. Throughout the coarse my view of Harris’ book changed significantly. For instance, I agree with Massimo Pigliucci’s view that Science can not determine the values we should hold, but I think Massimo undervalues Science in evaluating the effects of values we do hold. Harris bizarrely never mentions the application of the social sciences to this evaluation, and I have a hard time seeing how a reduction of morality to the neurosciences can have anywhere near as much value as some of the work that Gregory Paul has done. But while I have mixed feelings about the contents of The Moral Landscape, Harris opened up a dialog that needed opening.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about in this entry. On the last day of class we rounded up our personal positions on morality. I expressed my disdain (the only word I can think of to use in polite company) for moral relativism, after which two other people (in addition to the one in the first class) piped up to say that they were moral relativists. And, no, one of them does label himself as a Christian.

I am going to tell you why I hold moral relativists in such low esteem. I think there are objective morals based on some pretty fundamental principles:

  • The Theory of Mind, which is (as the Wikipedia states) the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.
  • Another principle is the one of ‘fairness’, something which is inately built into pretty much every social mammalian species and well-studied in behavioral economics.
  • A third is what many would recognize as the Golden Rule, which codified the observation that people get along best when they treat others as they would have themselves treated. The Silver Rule, the negative of the Golden Rule, is actually a better formulation. This equitable treatment is predicted from Game Theory to be the most successful behavior, and it is no surprise that evolution found this strategum. Again, all social mammalian species follow this behavior to varying degrees of complexity.

These three principles will take one a long way in building an ethical system, but that is not to say that there is only one possible ethical system which will (in the vernacular used by Harris, and one I like) maximize wellbeing. I’m not going to get into a discussion of what exactly ‘wellbeing’ is, any more than (as Harris points out) I want to get into a discussion of what ‘health’ is. The point is that in none of the above principles does belief or culture come into the discussion and transcends humanity. Every culture has codified the Golden Rule as long as there has been written history. ‘Theory of Mind’ and ‘fairness’ are built into humans regardless of where they were born.

I want to point out first how ridiculous moral relativism is, and provide a possible explanation for why people delude themselves into thinking that they are moral relativists.

Why is moral relativism ridiculous? I don’t know anyone that wants to be struck in the face for no reason. Why? Because it hurts. Applying principles 1 and 3 above, we get to the conclusion that if I don’t want to have my nose flattened, it is likely that no one else will either. Let’s say I punch someone here that grew up in a Canadian household (I hesitate to say ‘culture’, since I’m not sure we really have one to speak of). I think we can predict that the recipient will be upset and find such an action to be morally lacking.

Now let’s hop a flight to the Sudan and perform the thought experiment. I think we can predict a similar level of umbrage.

What we find is the indignation at this action transcends culture. This is the same thing as saying it is ‘objective’. Now, I don’t mean that morals can be ‘objective’ in the sense that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are absolutes or properties of action. But, at least from a consequentialist point of view, I do claim that there are objective ways in which to measure the effects of actions on wellbeing and social health.

This brings me to where one of the two who claim to be moral relativists said – after I pointed out that metrics like ‘violent crime’ can be used to assess the health of a society – that we are viewing other cultures using what we in the west would value in out culture, and the other said we have no basis for saying honor killing (the example Harris gives in his book) is wrong.

I was floored. I really didn’t know what to say at the time to something so idiotic. Sorry, but I call ’em and I see ’em. This was like saying that we can’t assess the efficacy of acupuncture using western evidence-based medicine! (And, yes. There are idiots out there that make this exact claim, to which I respond “Then how can you even make the claim it does work?”) There are indeed objective methods by which we can indeed assess the positive and negative effects of values. Or are words like ‘happiness’ worthless?

This is an example of the logical fallacy known as special pleading. If these other cultures do not value lowering of murder rates, then why do these cultures have prohibitions on murder in the first place? Values have consequences not just on personal wellbeing, but on societal health as well. And these effects are measurable. Just because we are using metrics developed here does not make them invalid in assessing the effects of societal values in other cultures.

And we in the West have developed some values we hold dear and we are seeing the effects of why they are important. We value free speech and democratic government and we have watched those in places like Syria and Yemen where it is not allowed. I think we can say that such things increase wellbeing and societal health. After all, the state isn’t going to try to kill us if we raise our voices in protest. Neither freedom of speech nor democracy are easy. They’re hard. Suppression of speech by those you don’t agree with is easy. Yet western societies have clearly benefited from Enlightenment values. It is no coincidence that Hyaan Hirsi Ali makes the statement that “Islam has not had its Voltaire.” We value Enlightenment ideals because they have had a significant positive impact on society and by extension to the individual.

I won’t pretend it’s perfect. Nothing where competing goals exist can be. But the wellbeing of individuals is clearly increased over values which devalue human rights.

The good news is that I think many who call themselves ‘moral relativists’ are deluding themselves. In one breath they will tell us that we have no basis or right to judge actions in other cultures by our own value sets and in the other they will tell you that female genital mutilation is wrong. This is the case for the moral relativist I wrote of in the blog entry about our first day of this class, and if this doesn’t create cognitive dissonance, I don’t know what can.

The problem with the claim that we can not judge things like ‘honor killing’ by our own values fails when we prohibit a person who grew up in a culture that has this as a value from performing what he sees as his moral duty when he emigrates to ours. Does this mean that whether honor killing is morally obligatory, allowed or prohibited is based on geography? Honor killing clearly diminishes wellbeing whether it is committed in our culture or any other. Moral relativism of this type is simple self-contradictory and leads to nonsensical situations.

My greatest ire, though, is saved for those who claim atheists have no basis for an objective morality without realizing that not only is that false, it is they that are moral relativist. I’ve written about the absolutely idiotic nonsense spouted by the likes of William Lane Craig. For such people, obeying God’s commands is the moral imperative. I put it to you that there is nothing moral about this at all. In fact, obeying a set of rules without thinking about their consequences or even why the rule can be justified as moral is amoral, or even immoral.

In a previous blog entry I described how Craig gets to the ridiculous position that the Canaanite genocide was moral because God ordered it. Even the slaughter of their children was justified since then they would not grow up learning their parents’ wicked ways, as if adopting them into their own society wasn’t a far better option. How is God’s command to slaughter wholesale a people morally obligatory when that perpetrated by Ratko Mladić is reviled?

Asked if genocide is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, most people – believers included – would say ‘no’, and rightfully so. Change that to the specific example of the Canaanite genocide and believers will then make excuses for this heinous act (and it is heinous) to preserve the illusion of an omnibenevolent god. It is the act that is heinough. Who ordered it is irrelevant except in explaining it away post hoc.

It’s moral relativism for sure. But instead of based in culture and geography, it is based on who is giving the command to commit mass murder. I for one am very glad that the majority of believers that engage in such apologetics as a response are just deluding themselves as well. The only justifiable response to anyone commanding genocide – man or god – is “Hell, NO!”, and the vast majority would give that response.

I’ve given an explanation for the latter type of moral relativist, but I need to give one for the former. Several hundred years of colonial rule and exportation/forced acceptance of European value systems has made us in the west self-conscious about further interference in foreign cultures. I have to admit, there is something to this. But the individuals who self-identified as ‘moral relativist’ go to the opposite extreme, allowing behaviors and actions in other cultures that they would consider prohibited in their own and measurably harmful ones at that. It is this fear of being accused of bigotry that allows female genital mutilation, honor killing, stoning of adulterers, mysogyny, etc. to continue, and even legitimizes the behavior. It gives the proponents of harmful values an excuse with which to bludgeon people who hold this weak position into acquiescence. It is wrong, and measurably so.

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12 Comments

  1. Why is genocide wrong? Why is stoning of adulterers wrong? Who determines if it is wrong? If it is not relative, then what or who determines what is right or wrong? Do we, humans, determine what is moral? How can we decide what is moral? These are a few questions I have in my mind from reading your post. Thank you.

    • Why is genocide wrong? Why is stoning of adulterers wrong? Who determines if it is wrong?

      Would you want to be killed for no reason other than you belong to an identifiable group? Or at all? If not, why not? It is not any stretch to imagine that others might feel similarly. The best way to maintain social cohesion is to form social contracts based on these ideas, and we do so often without thinking about them. Empathy (another trait shared by all social mammalian species to varying degrees) is very powerful in getting us to see how consequences might be like for us if these actions were carried out on ourselves.

      As to ‘who’ determines what is right or wrong, we do so both individually and collectively. There is simply no evidence to suggest that this happens any other way.

      How can we decide what is moral?

      Ah. There is a whole field of philosophy on this called ‘normative ethics’ and where I depart from Harris. I don’t think Science has much to say about determining normative ethics. I do think that it has a lot to say on the effects of them.

      Like Harris, I am a consequentialist. I believe that it is the consequences of our actions that determine what are right and wrong actions (though I prefer the terms ‘obligatory’, ‘permissable’ and ‘prohibited’). Those actions that benefit others are usually morally obligatory (saving a drowning child for instance), benign are morally permissable and those that are harmful are morally prohibited. The grey areas arise when there are competing imperatives and obeying a set of rules is no help at all. Only understanding why something is moral or immoral can we have an informed choice in our decisions.

      I didn’t even get into the whole Euthyphro Dilemma thing which pretty much kills the religion-centered morality. To paraphrase, is something moral because God says it is? Or is it moral and God is just passing that along? In the former case morality can not be objective (while a god commanding this and that can be objective, the commandment itself is not, since it is simply God’s whim with no justification) and in the latter God is simply unnecessary since we can figure things out for ourselves.

      The massive changes in morality over time (even, or maybe especially, in societies primarily composed of Christians) may seem to make things relative, but I don’t think so. Some important principles, like those developed by the Enlightenment philosophers, required a lot of thought. The advances in ideas all seem to be directed towards increasing wellbeing, and I don’t think this is an accident.

      The main problem, and one Harris specifically does not address, is what wellbeing is. However, as he points out, there is no good definition of ‘health’, either, but that hasn’t stopped any of us from talking about it. The way to move forward is to discuss these issues in a reasoned manner. The traditional religious answer (“Because God says so”) is not just unhelpful, it stops the conversation entirely. I don’t think such “just-so” stories have anything to offer this or any other discussion. In fact, I know they don’t. Worse, it serves only as a force to maintain an antiquated, millenia-old moral zeitgeist not in keeping with current values and thereby stunting advances in ethics.

      Like you, I’m interested in why an action is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and while there are some clear-cut examples (prohibition on murder), there are a lot of interesting grey areas that some of the more intelligent TV programs like Law & Order exploit (killing someone in self-defense – what determines a justifiable homicide?).

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • “Why is genocide wrong?”

      Do you really need to be told that genocide is wrong? Is it really so hard to believe that somebody who doesn’t believe in an invisible man in the sky can see that it’s wrong without being told? Contrary to what you might think, atheists aren’t cold-hearted monsters who only refrain from committing violent crimes to avoid the legal consequences. Many atheists care. They have families, they donate to charity, they help others. And all with no expectation of any otherworldly reward after they die.

      I’m an atheist. I have a family, a wife and children, that I love dearly and that I would do anything for. I give to charity, and not because I think I’m buying access to heaven – I don’t believe we go on after we die. I do it because I care about the well-being of others. I don’t like to see other people suffer, so I try to do my part. For the most part, I have no desire to harm anybody else, let alone commit or endorse genocide of any kind. And that’s not because I fear retribution from any supernatural all-knowing being. I don’t believe any such being exists. I do it because I’m a humanist – I believe that if everybody lived by the golden rule, we will all be better off. And to that end I want to do my part – so I live by that rule. And I want to motivate others to do the same.

      I worry that when some people turn over their moral judgement to an imaginary being, they absolve themselves of any responsibility for their actions. They take reason out of the equation. When that happens, there is the potential for grave errors of judgement (since there is no actual judgement being made by the individual). That’s why we see things like suicide bombers, abortion terrorists, and parents denying their ailing children life-saving medical treatments. All these people believe they are doing God’s will – but any reasonable person sees that what they are doing is wrong.

  2. Hello, I certainly don’t want to be killed for any reason, but does the fact that I don’t desire it necessarily make it wrong?
    So we collectively and individually decide what is right or wrong? Does this mean I can decide that stealing and murdering is right, since it is my decision to determine it individually? And if I murder someone and get his money to feed my hungry family, am I making this action permissible since it is benefiting my family?
    My understanding of relativism is that it depends on who is perceiving it, determined by our individual views. And you are saying that we determine what is moral. But you don’t believe in moral relativism. I’m a little confused here.
    I don’t believe in moral relativism either, meaning that I don’t believe that we can determine what is moral, because if we do, then it will be relative. I like to ask the question: Is making the statement “There is no absolute truth” an absolute truth itself?
    I am just trying to understand your logic. Not trying to start a debate. Thank you for reading.

  3. So we collectively and individually decide what is right or wrong? Does this mean I can decide that stealing and murdering is right, since it is my decision to determine it individually?

    In your example you have only the individual You’re forgetting that it isn’t just the individual, but also societal. You could decide stealing and murder is right (you’d have to provide a justification for that – morals aren’t be arbitrary), but if that is not the societal norm then society will punish violations. This is exactly how it works, and why we have legal systems.

    But this is an easy example to deal with. Does not stealing (not to mention murder!) diminish the wellbeing of the recipient of the action? Can you honestly say it does not? If it does (and I think that is obvious), then the action is clearly morally prohibited, and objectively so. Arbitrarily deciding that the action is moral is ad hoc. It’s like looking at a duck and saying it’s a cow. You can do that, but it is objectively incorrect.

    The morality of slavery wasn’t even considered a valid question in biblical times. Paul clearly had no problem with it, as evidenced by returning a runaway slave to his owner demonstrates. Can I say that Paul was wrong? Damn straight I can. Slavery clearly diminishes the wellbeing of the victim (slave). I can’t see how this is arguable. Just because it was considered okay at the time doesn’t make it okay in an objective sense. I wouldn’t want to be sold into slavery, and because I’m pretty sure other humans would not want that either and I can empathize with those that are in slavery (at least to the extent that I am able), I will not own slaves. Really, I can’t make this any more clear.

    Just because a society or an individual can decide that stealing and murder are moral does not make it moral. There has to be a justification. If morals are made arbitrary, then those that do so are calling the duck a cow. Stealing and murder clearly violate the Silver Rule (I’m not a fan of the Golden Rule formulation) that all societies have recognized. If you don’t want to be murdered or stolen from, you’d better not do it to someone else. Empathy is a big help here, since it helps us understand why this is so. It causes us to map what happens to others onto ourselves and so we feel (at least somewhat) what they are probably feeling.

    My understanding of relativism is that it depends on who is perceiving it, determined by our individual views. And you are saying that we determine what is moral. But you don’t believe in moral relativism. I’m a little confused here.

    The precept “don’t do to others that which you would not have done to yourself” transcends humanity. That’s not an arguable point. Humanity is composed of individuals, but that does not change anything. I’m excluding, of course, individuals incapable of empathy. Prisons are full of sociopaths.

    I don’t believe in moral relativism either, meaning that I don’t believe that we can determine what is moral, because if we do, then it will be relative.

    I disagree. There are objective moral principles (I’ve listed some of the most important ones), and we have the ability to build upon those principles.

    Is making the statement “There is no absolute truth” an absolute truth itself?

    No. If there are absolute truths, we have no verifiable access to them. Thus, even discussing ‘absolute truths’ is a fruitless exercise. This is standard Kant, and I can not see how he is incorrect on this.

    I think you are confusing what are morally prohibited, permissable or obligatory with some absolute “right” and “wrong”. If you are talking about morality in this sense, then I think it is non-existent. There is a common mistake made where people think an action is inherently right or wrong as if it were some property of the action as “mass” is to “matter”. (Craig falls for this mistake a lot.) This then leads them to believe that morality is then either absolute or relative, which is a false dichotomy. By ‘objective’ I do not mean ‘absolute’. I mean that the justification for why an action is moral or immoral is accessable to anyone with a sense of empathy.

    When it comes down to it, morals are about social cohesion. They have always been about that. Stealing and murder decrease social cohesion and so are actions which are shunned by the other members of the society. It is a behavior that is a direct consequence of a social survival strategy. That’s all morals are – the grease by which individuals can live in groups to the mutual benefit of all, and it’s a powerful strategy in terms of survival. Defense and labor are all shared, thus decreasing each individual’s load. Without principles to guide actions, there would be no social cohesion and we would not live in groups.

    So, if morals were then relative and arbitrary, what do you think would happen? Just because there are no absolute morals (there aren’t) does not mean that morality must then be relative. There are clearly actions which benefit the group and clearly actions which are to its detriment. There’s nothing relative about that at all. But we’ve gone far beyond this simple stuff and moved on to more advanced principles, and I generally come back to Enlightenment values as an example. And there is no way you can get to Enlightenment values from the values espoused by any religion (and religions simply adopted the values of the time they formed in, so actually have nothing to do with morality to begin with).

    But, my blog, so quid pro quo: How do you keep from goring yourself on one of the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma? Is obeying God’s whim at all moral? Or if God is only passing on what is objectively moral and we can figure it out for ourselves, how is God at all relevant to morality?

  4. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma. There is a third possible horn: that God’s moral commandments are grounded in his nature. That means they are neither arbitrary, nor an endorsement of an external system.

    The problem with suggesting there are objective moral principles (that is, principles which apply despite what we may think about them) that we’ve created is that you run into Hume’s is-ought problem: you can’t draw prescriptions from descriptions. That is, to say that rape is not conducive to social cohesion (and who says that this is ‘good’ anyway – by what standard do we judge what is good?) does not lead logically to the moral prescription that we ought to not do it. Of course, if we want social cohesion, then it makes sense, but again, who says we ought to want social cohesion. I’ve not yet seen anyone bridge the is-ought problem. Most attempts just end up as utilitarianism.

    • There is a third possible horn: that God’s moral commandments are grounded in his nature.

      No. This is just a word game and is equivalent to the first horn. It’s the same nonsense that Craig tries to pull, defining his god to be morally perfect a priori, and as I point out above, it is absurd to do so. If being morally perfect is in God’s nature, then the term is meaningless. As I also pointed out above, if one can not explain in basic terms why something is moral, then one is not being moral. In fact, I’ve already refuted this claim in the body of the entry. Morality is not a property of anything, such as “mass” is to “matter”. “Good” and “bad” are judgements based on consequences. Actions which benefit others are deemed “good”, those which are detrimental are “bad”. That’s it. Morality is not a property, so this refutation of the Euthyphro Dilemma is simply a non sequitur. No one – gods included – can be deemed moral without assessing prior acts, and future ones as they happen.

      A further problem is the incidents of genocide supposedly ordered by this deity. You have completely skipped over this problem. Is genocide deemed good under any circumstances? If you believe it is (even when ordered by God), I would ask that you stay away from me, my family and refrain from entering into any position where you might influence people. Under NO circumstances is genocide a morally-correct option. Ever. As I stated, even if I thought such a god existed it is no more deserving of my affection than Slobodan Milošević. I value my life and I value the lives of others because I can empathize like many other social mammalian species. “Because God says so” is not just insufficient, it is a nonreason for anything.

      That is, to say that rape is not conducive to social cohesion (and who says that this is ‘good’ anyway – by what standard do we judge what is good?) does not lead logically to the moral prescription that we ought to not do it. Of course, if we want social cohesion, then it makes sense, but again, who says we ought to want social cohesion.

      Again, this is where Harris gets it right. It comes down to wellbeing. If we want happy, enriched lives, then rape will not be part of that. I think this is self-evident. Do you want to be murdered? Let’s presume you don’t. There is obvious value in living in a society- distribution of labor, specialization, etc. We are social animals. If you think this is not a human value try being a hermit. There are many examples of people being isolated becoming literally insane from lack of human contact. That’s as objective as it gets. Would you rather be happy or in fear for your life constantly? Would you rather be healthy or constantly ill? The vast majority of people have extremely similar views on these points, and this is not accidental. Thus we make tacit social contracts between individuals within society to help attain these goals. Honestly, I just don’t see why those who believe (wrongly) that there is an absolute morality can’t grasp such a simple concept. History has clearly shown how societal values have changed (which is itself a refutation of a nonexistent absolute morality). Even the meaning of the commandment to not murder has significantly changed over time.

      “Because God says so” (or even “morality is part of god’s nature”) doesn’t do it for me, and is the ultimate in moral relativism.

  5. Hope this wasn’t covered by any of the comments as I only skimmed them. I completley agree with most of what you say (although I don’t buy into consequentialism; I prefer morality as care for the Other). I also think that morality can be objective by having a simple rule that applies to all. An example of such a rule is ‘Any creature capable of feeling pain, wishes to avoid feeling pain.’ And if that stands, then it’s goin to be immoral to cause them pain. You pretty much covered that, but I felt like adding my two cents.

    The objection I have, perhaps not to moral relativism itself, but certainly to a moral relativist holding the position that we can’t intervene in other cultures is because their argument is self-defeating.

    Moral Absolutist: We should do something about people in x hurting each other.
    Moral Relativist: We can’t because their beliefs on morality are different to ours (or whatever).
    MA: Well, by that logic, you can’t tell me not to intervene because the morality of my culture dictates that I should.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Philo. I think what needs to be done is to define ‘objective’. If we are using the word in the sense that everyone viewing the same situation will make the same moral judgement, then I don’t think objective morals exist. We can largely agree, but I could see an alien civilization that has a different moral system. But I’ll settle for objective morality as ‘values transcending humanity’. I stress ‘transcendent’ becuase many things are indeed cultural, but there are some values that all cultures share and I think that those are what we need to focus on. A lot of the culturally-dependent morality is benign, but those that violate transcendent values (like honor killing, stoning adulterers, discriminating against gays or – dare I say it – atheists) such as the Golden Rule require we intervene. Not only in our own societies, but in others as well. That’s not to say, though, that we should go all Team America and run roughshod over diplomacy, but pressure should be applied where it is due.

      The interesting thing is that many values that Christians share with us nonbelievers – individual freedoms, human rights, etc. – that have been demonstrated to support human flourishing can only be arrived at via secular reasoning. No religion on Earth has ever come to those values. I get a lot of “John Locke was a Christian therefor Enlightenment values are Christian values”, but that’s so much bullshit. Guilt by association is not a good argument. Besides, Locke came to his theories in spite of his belief, not because of it. I find values developed the secular means to be vastly superior to “because god says so”, which is actually a good reason (barring the ability to get to that value via secular means) in itself to reject it.

      I don’t know if you’ve read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, but I think he’s on the right path in terms of using well being as the yardstick to what is moral, but I’m not a total consequentialist myself. In fact, I can’t pin my system down to a single philosophy. Often it is the consequences that matter. Other times, even if the consequences are good, the means by which they are obtained can be iffy or bad. There are a lot of variables to consider, and I don’t see how any one system can possibly take them all into account. I do disagree with Harris on two major points: his presumption that science is able to invent values (the realm of normative ethics) and how he completely ignores the social sciences (opting for overly-reductive neuroscience instead). Science is great at descriptive ethics, and I think it is totally underutilized in studying the effects of values on society. Opting for fMRI, etc. in determining the effects of values ignores that morality is not about the individual, but about how individuals interact in a social setting. Social sciences has been excellent at seeing the effects of religiosity on society for instance (google Gregory Paul or Paul Zuckerman), and religion is definitely not good for society or even individual well being. But I don’t see how Harris’ position can get us to Enlightenment values. I think only philosophy can get us there.

      Of course, I wouldn’t care if religion were good for the individual or society. I only care whether my beliefs are true, and how I come to the conclusion that they are true. The oft heard argument that religion makes for better people (even if I thought it were true, and I strongly reject this), it is irrelevant. Getting people to believe in something that is not true (itself a violation of the freedom of the individual to believe as they wish) is acting badly via deontology. But it’s also acting badly because the consequences have been shown empirically to be less than beneficial anyway.

      Any way one looks at it (except through god goggles), ethics is a quagmire. Religion doesn’t give us any good answers, but it does give easy ones, which is exactly why so many fall for it.

  6. Only a few points:

    It’s probably a good idea you clarified that believing it is right to intervene doesn’t entail a ‘Team America’ style intervention. I probably should have made that clear myself.

    I think Anglo-American-Aussie philosophy has failed us when it comes to morality. Consequentialism and deontology are far too abstract to be adequate moral systems. They all appear distinct from the self-other relation that we hold in life. I don’t think we should be focusing on consequences or duty; we should be focusing on our care for others. I don’t do a good thing because it will have far-reaching benefits (although it might) nor do I do a good thing because I have a duty to do so (although I might); I do a good thing because I care about what I am doing and to whom I am doing it. Whether this objection also works against virtue ethicists, I don’t know, but I’d be inclined to say that it does. Having said all that, this is only one stance on morality I’ve had of many and probably not my final one.

    Now, an alien may have a completely different moral system but I don’t think they’d be able to violate ‘Any creature that can feel pain, will wish to avoid feeling pain’ rule. Of course, they may just decide that there is no normative command there (I suppose there isn’t) but in doing so they’d reject morality. If morality is a normative guide in how to live, then, for it to be adequate, it must outline how to live with others. One obvious principle for how to live with others is to not force others into unnecessary things they wish to avoid. If all pain-capable creatures wish to avoid pain then it is immoral to cause them pain (unnecessarily).

    Why be moral in the first place? Well, I suppose that’s the question really. Best I can offer is pragmatic reasons but they’re never very satisfying.

    I haven’t read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape because I’ve been told of the very same objections you have to it. To be honest, I don’t much like what I hear from Sam Harris. Most of it is hearsay, so perhaps I’m being unfair and should take time out to read his works (although I’ve read End of Faith), but I find his ideas to be a bit blinkered and short-sighted.

  7. The question “Why be moreal in the first place?” always seems to involve a bit of post hoc rationalization of our moral decision making process. (The ‘trolley problems’ come immediately to mind.) We evolved to be a species which relied on a social survival strategy and morality is a consequence of that. An alien species which was not a social species would not see the principle of “pain causing is bad” because empathy (a necessary trait for such a concept to even occur to a conscious being) would not likely have evolved under those circumstances, which is why I am careful to define objective in terms of human transcendence. The base reason for being moral in the first place is that it is by doing so that our species has survived.

    Given the basic traits and abilities such as empathy, theory of mind, etc., we can build something far better and optimize human flourishing or well being than the rather limited version of our ancestors. And that’s what we’ve been doing for the past several millennia, and will continue to do so for some time. This becomes a new level in answering the question of why we should be moral. We can argue amongst ourselvestill the cows come home about what constitutes well being and human fourishing, but I think we would largely agree over what that would be regardless of our religious beliefs.

    This is good stuff. It gets me thinking, so thanks.

  8. No problem. It’s nice to discuss ideas with a like-minded individual! It gets me thinking too. Be sure to tell me any of your thoughts on any of my future posts. I will need continued debate to help with my studies (although, unfortunately, there will be very little God debate).


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