Human Morality II: Objective morality

This is the second in a series of four posts on morality. They are aimed at countering the usual religious claims for a god-given morality with current scientific understanding of how the morality of our species arose. Also, they attempt to justify a non-theist objective basis for much of the moral decisions we make. The first post (I: Religious confusion) discussed some of the problems religion has in its understanding of morality. This second post argues that there is an objective basis for human morality and no god is required for this.

Recently I was dipping into Roger Penrose’s book The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. In the first chapter he argues for an objective basis for mathematics and mathematical logic. I think that the objective basis of morality can be seen in the same way (see Where did our morals come from?). So, I was pleased to read that Penrose also believes that objective “‘existence’ could also refer to things other than mathematics, such as morality or aesthetics.”

A Platonic moral world?

platonic-worldIt’s worth considering how Penrose argues for an objective basis for mathematics and mathematical logic. He talks about the Platonic mathematical world (the figure is taken from his book).

Plato made it clear that the mathematical propositions – the things that could be regarded as unassailably true – referred not to actual physical objects (like approximate squares, triangles, circles, spheres, and cubes that might be constructed from marks in the sand, or from wood or stone) but to certain idealized entities. He envisaged that these ideal entities inhabited a different world, distinct from the physical world. Today we might refer to this world as the Platonic world of mathematical forms.”

Talking about the objectivity of mathematical truth: Penrose makes clear that this isn’t existence in a mystical sense:

“What I mean by this ‘existence’ is really just the objectivity of mathematical truth. Platonic existence, as I see it, refers to the existence of an objective external standard that is not dependent upon our individual opinions nor upon our particular culture. Such ‘existence’ could also refer to things other than mathematics, such as morality or aesthetics.”

An objective basis for morality

So, just like mathematics, we can see morality as having an objective basis. The basis for mathematical truths could be considered as the real world, the existence of objects and phenomena, or even the potential (rather than actual) existence of objects and phenomenon. So the objective basis for moral truths can be considered as the existence (or theoretical existence) of intelligent, sentient, beings. In our case, members of the human species.

Consequently, just as we can derive mathematical relationships between objects and phenomena we can also derive codes of behaviour, desired relationships, between these intelligent, sentient humans.

It’s not hard, therefore, to see that moral codes like the Golden rule can be considered as objectively based.

And just as in physics, chemistry and biology and the mathematical relationships describing relationships in these spheres, no god is required to understand morality.

I think this concept of objective moral truths, akin to objective mathematical truths, is very useful. It helps us understand that some things are right or wrong, not dependent on culture or religion. We can see that racism, slavery, sexual discrimination, etc., are objectively wrong. They were (and are) wrong even in societies and times which condoned (or still condone) them. They are wrong even if your priest or imam claims them to be ordained by Holy Scripture or their god.

So in contrast to religious concepts of morality, this non-theist concept enables us to have an objectively-based, non-relative morality.

In the next post (Human Morality III: Moral intuition) I will discuss our moral intuitions and how reliable they are.

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See Also:
Human morality I: Religious confusion
Human Morality III: Moral intuition
Human Morality IV: Role of religion

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49 responses to “Human Morality II: Objective morality

  1. Hmm, I think I see some serious problems with this approach.

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that just like we can derive objective mathematical truths by abstracting from the entities and their properties we observe in the real world to an idealized form of description located in a Platonic mathematical realm, so we can abstract from observed human behaviour to objective, moral truths.

    I would mount several objections to this:

    1.) This is only a minor point, but it should be noted that mathematical truths are only “objective” in the sense that they follow necessarily from basic axioms and certain rules of inference or deduction. However, both the axioms as well as the rules are assumed and not proven to be true and valid. Thus, it is possible that mathematical “truths”, instead of being eternally and undoubtedly correct, are actually false if the underlying axioms or procedures of inference are wrong/unreliable/incomplete.

    2.) However, my major point of criticism would be this:

    If we try to set up a similar process for the identification of objective moral truths, it would mean that we start off from basic axioms and infer/deduce moral propositions which follow necessarily from them and are thus “objective”. I reckon that this is what you have in mind when you cite “the existence (or theoretical existence) of intelligent, sentient, beings (i.e. humans)” and that this proposition is to form such a basic axiom.

    However, how do you invariably infer from this the proposition “The Golden Rule is morally right.” instead of “The Golden Rule is morally wrong.”? It seems to me that you would have to introduce additional axioms that stipulate e.g. to minimize the suffering of sentient beings as much as possible or to maximize their well-being. But these would be value judgements and not merely a description of facts. Thus, a subjective component is introduced.

    This ties in with a general problem to find a scientific, objective basis for morality: science is by definition descriptive, not prescriptive. We can describe and explain human behaviour and the origin of our moral intuitions, but this does not help us to decide whether to accept or reject them.

    Likewise, to say that humans are sentient, intelligent beings is merely stating a fact. Whether this property is a reason for assigning value to these beings, to treat them with respect, to not inflict gratuitous pain etc. is a moral decision that we have to make and which science has to remain silent about.

    Or to take your example, how do we decide what the “desired relationships” between sentient beings are without invoking subjective value judgements?

    I believe Hume was right when he stated his is/ought problem, i.e. the impossibility of deriving a prescriptive proposition solely from one or more descriptive statement(s).

    Now, this does not mean that science can not inform us, once we have set up the premises of our moral system, how to optimally achieve our goals. But I think that a “morality science” in the normative sense, which uncovers objective, indubitable, binding moral truths is unattainable.

    Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to the rest of your posts on this topic to see how you develop your concept further.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Iapetus. I appreciate you spending time on this.
    Without getting into an extensive debate on this I just want to make a few comments which might help clarify my position.

    1: Even though I personally am convinced that there are objective moral truths it is difficult to make a case for two reasons:
    a) Argument must necessarily be abstract (and I’m always suspicious of abstract philosophical arguments – it’s so easy to get diverted into false positions; &
    b) So many diversionary arguments are used to counter such a case. for example: “Science can’t tell us what is right or wrong!” or “You can’t derive and ought from an is!” and so on. I find these are common straw man diversions – particularly used by the religiously motivated.

    2: No I am not saying “we can abstract from observed human behaviour to objective, moral truths.” Quite the opposite. As I make clear in my discussion of moral intuitions human behaviour is not a good indicator of objective moral truths.

    3: I think mathematical truths can be related to the objectively existing real world (perhaps differently at different levels hence euclidean and non-euclidean geometry) or an “objectively” existing imaginary world (complex numbers etc.). To a large extent axioms are what define the world of choice. That is – an axiom may not be wrong – just inappropriate for the world under consideration.

    4: With intelligent, sentient, beings it seems to me that we would never conclude that the Golden rule is wrong – because we are intelligent sentient beings. I guess that’s subjective – we are talking about ourselves. But I guess one could argue that (from an “outsiders perspective”) in the absence of human existence (or if we were considering a different intelligent, sentient species) we would accept minimisation of suffering, etc., as a given – an axiom, if you like.
    I know, that is “not merely a description of facts” but why should it be. I am not arguing that when we do moral judgement we are doing science.

    5: I think a science of morality could include investigation of how we determine objective moral truths (not the truths themselves) as well as how our moral intuitions evolved, how they are manifested and if they are used to do bad as well as good. Science can observe the effects of intuitions like judgement, guilt, “them vs us,” and the effects of reasoned logic, etc., and come to conclusion on their role in social harmony or social conflict.

    6: Science may not tell us what is right and wrong. But it is capable of helping us understand how we use moral intuitions and moral logic to draw our own conclusions. In doing so it must surely note that these conclusions aren’t arbitrary. That humans are capable of coming to common conclusions about moral codes. To my mind this suggests that there are, in some sense, objective moral truths that we can access. And they have nothing to do with a god.

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  3. Ken,

    Thanks for your comments and clarifications.

    Taking these and also your discussion in part III into account, I think we basically agree about

    a) the role of science regarding the question of morality; and

    b) the fact that positing a deity as a “grounding” of morality is superfluous and arbitrary.

    (As an aside, it never ceases to amaze me that theists can not (or do not want to) see the glaringly obvious fact that their “objective grounding” of morality merely consists of defining an entity having the properties they deem necessary to fulfil its desired function, followed by postulating said entity’s existence. And then to marvel at the amazing explanatory “success” they have achieved by this procedure, without realizing its completely arbitrary nature. This does not only apply to their analysis of moral questions, but also ontological and cosmological ones.)

    Having said that, it still seems unclear to me what concrete process you are suggesting to arrive at objective moral truths.

    You state in part III of your discussion that, while we have natural intuitions of morality, we can not blindly trust them. Rather, said primal intuitions must be weighted and judged in order to separate the desired from the undesired ones. But how do we do this? What criteria should be employed? And why should we believe that said criteria are objective?

    I reckon a possible answer might be found in your point 4 above, which I understand to mean that we necessarily accept certain moral principles because we are rational beings. Or in other words, our moral intuitions must be critically examined using reason.

    A somewhat similar account of morality is provided in contemporary moral theories like contractualism, which trace their roots back to the Enlightenment, especially Kant. Here, morality and rationality are seen as inseparable, i.e. to act rationally is to act in a morally right way.

    A consequence of this view is the assumption of complete moral autonomy of intelligent beings. Morality is seen as a facet of reason, located in the rational agent himself and not something that can be dictated from outside.

    If you are interested to learn more about this position, which might tie into your line of thought, a good introduction can be found here:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractualism/

    I would also recommend the book ”What we owe to each other” by T. M. Scanlon for a detailed account of this position and how it can be applied in practice.

    One last point: if we lay out a concept of morality as described above, I think we can make a good case for the universality of morality, i.e. why morality is similar and binding for every rational agent and not dependent on external factors. Furthermore, such a concept would provide a basis for declarations like those pertaining to human rights, which can be agreed upon by people of different culture, upbringing, religion etc.

    However, this is different from an objective morality, which would require the existence of “moral facts”, built into the fabric of the universe and being independent of what rational (or irrational) agents want, feel and need; an example would be the Platonic Form of the Good.

    As I see it, we have no indication that these “moral facts” exist. But even if they did, it would still be our decision whether to consider them binding or not.

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  4. However, both the axioms as well as the rules are assumed and not proven to be true and valid.

    I can’t help thinking that ‘assumed’ an ‘axioms’ don’t quite go together in the sense that ‘assumed’ often means.
    You can, of course, use inappropriate axioms, but my understanding is that axioms by their nature do not contain assumptions, as such. (Because axioms are not “reasoned” (or not, in the case of assumptions), but are self-evident statements. To be fair, I’m used to thinking of mathematical axioms.)

    My reading of your statement has you confusing axioms with higher-order statements that do have underlying reason or logic underpinning them.

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  5. “My reading of your statement has you confusing axioms with higher-order statements that do have underlying reason or logic underpinning them.”

    I did not mean to imply that axioms are the end result of any deductive/inferential process. They can not be, since axioms are per definitionem the starting point for any deduction.

    What I mean by “assume to be true” is merely that due to the fact that axioms are the place where we start any deduction of other statements from, they can not themselves proven to be true/valid. Rather, they must be presupposed.

    “You can, of course, use inappropriate axioms, but my understanding is that axioms by their nature do not contain assumptions, as such. “

    This is correct, and I did not mean to imply otherwise. However, I would maintain that since axioms can not be derived from more basic statements, we can only assume that they are true/valid. Some axioms (e.g. in mathematics) may seem self-evidently true to us, but we have no guarantee that our intuition in this regard is not mistaken.

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  6. I know you may not mean to, but you’ve travelled around in a circle when you get back to “However, I would maintain that since axioms can not be derived from more basic statements, we can only assume that they are true/valid.

    From that I would guess that you don’t understand the nature of axioms (at least mathematical ones). Axioms are not and cannot be “assumed” in the usual meaning of “assume”. They inherently are what they are; that’s why they are described as “self-evident”. Self-evident in this context does not mean what it does in “common language” but has a tighter meaning.

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  7. Excellent points Iapetus, the is/ought distinction (however much theists may use it or mis-use it) is still a good one that just plainly makes sense. And I’ll just add that postulating that objective truths don’t have anything to do with a God/god, is just as arbitrary as postulating that they do.
    For the theist, there can be seen to be an analogous relationship between ‘doing morality’ (discovering God’s will/desire – to put it in religious terms) and ‘doing science’ (discovering how things work, etc.); namely that both are journeys of discovery of truths that are large enough for us to never be done exploring – and large enough that we’ll never have ‘the truth’ hunted, killed and mounted on the wall. That’s all from me at the moment :)

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  8. Heraclides

    ‘is/ought’ “distinction” doesn’t work on (true) axioms, Dale. The only way you can “make” it work on them is to “redefine” what ‘self-evident’ means (e.g., by taking the phrase out of it’s proper context).

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  9. Can you expand on that claim, Heraclides? Possibly even give an example of a (true) axiom on which the is/ought distinction doesn’t “work”?

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  10. Dale – “And I’ll just add that postulating that objective truths don’t have anything to do with a God/god, is just as arbitrary as postulating that they do.”

    That’s not the way this is usually presented. Usually the claim is made that without a god there can be no right or wrong. Then – the atheist has no basis for deciding if something is right or wrong. Then – atheists should not criticise Hitler. Then – atheists have no morality (therefore we cannot vote for them).

    My point is that we can come to a sense of objective morality, or right and wrong, of moral truths – and then a system of moral logic – without any necessity of postulating a god. Just as we can come to a sense of objective reality and logic (including mathematical logic) without postulating a god.

    This negates all those sort of claims that some theists make about people like me.

    I am disappointed that after the previous frenzy here and elsewhere on this issue none of these people (Glenn, Stuart, Bnonn, etc.) have taken me up on my arguments in this series.

    Surely they have not given up on their previously expressed claims??

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  11. Heraclides

    Dale, axioms are self-evident in the mathematical sense, that’s what the term means. It follows that there is no “questioning” them in the sense of the is/ought distinction or them “having assumptions”. Your reply makes me wonder if apologists have “redefined” ‘axiom’ along with a lot of other things that they have “conveniently” redefined (or prefer to side-step).

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  12. I think we agree about our ability to sense/discover objective moral truths.

    What I’m getting at is:

    Postulation 1) “we don’t need to postulate a God/god” is just as un-supported and arbitrary a postulation as postulation 2) “we need to postulate a God/god.

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  13. Surely if we can make the argument without postulating a god (and you seem to accept my arguments) then any postulated god is superfluous from the point of view of the moral argument. That is, someone can believe in a god, or postulate a god, but this has nothing to do with our concepts of right and wrong or objective moral truths.

    This lays a good basis for wide agreement on human morality irrespective of individuals or separate cultures and their particular religious/ideological beliefs. We can decide on moral norms without bringing those beliefs into it and diverting the discussion.

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  14. Heraclides,
    Could you give an example of such axioms? And since the post is about objective morality, how do these axioms relate to morality? How (if at all?) do we get from a mathematically self-evident axiom (example: ???) to universally binding moral instruction?

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  15. I don’t think anyone here is arguing for deriving “moral instruction” from mathematical axioms (and I don’t think I mentioned axioms in my article).

    Iapetus did bring in the word, and I think we agreed that one could take concepts like minimizing suffering or maximising well-being as perhaps being “axiomatic” to deriving objective moral laws. My point is that seems to arise from our being intelligent sentient beings.

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  16. Ken,
    two points:

    1) Like Iapetus, I’m still very keen to see how your theory about objective moral truths is worked out ( i.e. – an example of reaching a universally binding moral instruction from one of these objective moral truths). I agree with him that there’s more judgment along the way than the term ‘objective’ can handle.

    2) I actually think the word ‘moral’ here is key. If you say that something is ‘moral’ (full-stop, period), that is one thing… and if you say that something is consistent to ‘moral norms’, then that is another.

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  17. I think the paired concepts of decreasing suffering and increasing well-being are not anywhere near ‘objectively’ defined, let alone mathematically self-evident or axiomatic. One has to define ‘suffering’ (beyond obvious examples of torture, etc.) and, even harder, has to define (based on what!!??) ‘well-being’.

    And (like Iapetus seems to say?) I don’t see how the fact that we are intelligent sentient beings fits into this discussion. Lots of (presumably) intelligent and sentient beings do lots of things that are quite often thought to be immoral (and –obviously– not thought to be by others).

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  18. ((on second thought, even ‘torture’ could be pretty subjectively defined!))

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  19. @ Dale Campbell // May 22, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Thats a good topical point. And perhaps highlights one of the difficulties with coming to an objective morality. If your definition of torture is predicated on death or serious permanent physical injuries such as loss of limbs, this leaves rather a lot of unpleasant non torturous options doesn’t it.

    Not to get all post modernist on it,but surely a lot of this discussion hinges on the definition of objectivity. Even in the realm of mathematics, as previously discussed, you must derive from some fundamental axioms (no matter how self evident). I would posit that what are acceptable axioms here are related to who/what we are (Ken’s point on rational sentient being perhaps).

    In my opinion, the very definition of objective must include these fundamental axioms to have meaning. I.e If we cannot agree the fundamental building blocks and/or context of what we are discussing, then we are wasting our time as anyone can “push the reset button” (remind you of anyone?) and start warbling on about subjective reality etc…

    Given my definition of objective, then almost anything could fall into this bucket given agreement on the fundamental axioms or context in which the question is posed.

    For me, in terms of human morality this means that we should endeavour to reduce the fundamental starting points down to a level of simplicity/obviousness/commonality that would find agreement amongst the largest possible number of people, and thus, widen the “objective” nature of any conclusions we derive form those starting points.

    What would the fundamental axioms of our “objective morality” discussions include. As pointed out by other people, I don’t think these could possibly include god(s) as by their very nature as concepts (complicated, fuzzy, not shared) they would preclude reaching any conclusions objective to wider humanity.

    Finally, this might not fit with some peoples definitions of objective, but then what would? Just because we struggle to find absolutes doesn’t mean everything that is not an absolute has no meaning/value, instead it just means that we need to be able to distinguish between the graduations of meaning&value in everything.

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  20. “From that I would guess that you don’t understand the nature of axioms (at least mathematical ones). Axioms are not and cannot be “assumed” in the usual meaning of “assume”. They inherently are what they are; that’s why they are described as “self-evident”.”

    Which is why I explicitly clarified what I mean when I say “assume”, namely not that axioms are deduced/inferred in any way. In fact, I stated exactly the opposite, i.e. that they serve as starting points for any deduction/inference.

    However, if we are now getting into the business of speculating what other people may or may not understand, I have the impression that you do not correctly appreciate the epistemic status of axioms.

    Let’s take a concrete example: Euclid’s fifth postulate, pertaining to the “fact” that two straight lines crossing a third line will intersect at some point if the sum of their interior angles on the same side is <180°.

    This seems self-evidently correct and complete, right? But how would you show it to be so if I were to doubt this? The fact of the matter is that you can not do it (at least not within the framework of Euclidean geometry itself), since otherwise it would not be an axiom. All you can do is presuppose it, take it as true. In other words, you assume it to be true to get your system off the ground.

    The problem here is: the advent of non-Euclidean geometry, which modified Euclid's postulate, showed classical Euclidean geometry to be at least not the whole story. So here we have an example, one of many, how "self-evident" mathematical axioms turned out to be incorrect/incomplete.

    “Self-evident in this context does not mean what it does in “common language” but has a tighter meaning.”

    Can you clarify this statement? Are you saying that the “mathematical self-evidency” of axioms guarantees their truth/completeness, in contrast to “everyday self-evidency”?

    To get back on topic…

    I think Nick makes some very relevant points which I would like to comment on:

    1.) in my view, using the term “objective morality” can be misleading since this would imply, as I previously noted, the existence of “moral facts” in the universe which can be discovered like other facts.

    What we can try to achieve is to devise a universal moral framework which rests on basic assumptions/axioms/presuppositions that are acceptable to as many people as possible. What would be “objective” about it (or at least as objective as we can make it) are the concrete moral guidelines that follow from them, but not the assumptions/axioms/presuppositions themselves.

    2.) Positing a deity does not aid this process, because an”objective morality” is not achievable thereby (once you see through the fact that the “objectivity” is merely definitional). Rather, it erects a barrier to exclude non-believers as well as religious people adhering to different faiths.

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  21. Heraclides

    Dale,

    I have very little free time. I have already answered your question. You don’t need an example, just an understanding of what the term means.

    As for what I was referring to, go back and read my first post in this thread. I referred to a very specific context and nothing to do with the broader issue. I was just pointing out to Iapetus that you can’t question axioms themselves in the way his post implied. Unfortunately your own posts did much the same, so I pointed it out to you, too.

    Now you seem to be tying yourself in knots trying to fit ‘axiom’ to something I never wrote about! :-)

    Borrowing your word ‘torture’, I might even say your attempts to fit it into other contexts is, well, tortured ;-)

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  22. Iapetus – I am not so much arguing for objective morality as an objective basis for morality (in my words): “the objective basis for moral truths can be considered as the existence (or theoretical existence) of intelligent, sentient, beings. In our case, members of the human species.”

    Dale – you say: “Lots of (presumably) intelligent and sentient beings do lots of things that are quite often thought to be immoral (and –obviously– not thought to be by others).” This is of course true but in no way denies the existence of intelligent sentient beings as an objective basis for morality.

    I split my arguments for a secular understanding of human morality into 5 posts to maker them easier to follow. But they should be understood together.

    We can understand of lot of negative human activity as arising naturally out of intuitions, often hijacked by ideology/religion. And then, of course, there is the problem of pathological disturbed people.

    But this in no way counters the idea that we can as a group, society or collection of nations, apply our intelligence to the facts of our objective existence and come to agreement on concepts of human rights which are acceptable to all. That is until some ideology/religion wants to supplant these rights by others more narrowly defined and justified by the appeal to assumptions or supernatural entities of that ideology/religion (I am thinking of the document on Islamic Human Rights here).

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  23. Iapetus, Excellent. And always good to give concrete examples.

    Ken,
    What do you mean by “apply our intelligence to the facts of our objective existence”? How do you get from “we are sentient beings” to “therefore, action ‘x’ is objectively wrong” And why not throw in a concrete example of where you see this? I.e. take anything from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and show how we get that directly –with no judgments– from the ‘facts’ of our existence.

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  24. Dale – why do you exclude judgement? Obviously judgement can have negative connotations and is a moral intuition which is easily hijacked. But it seems to me normal that intelligent sentient beings will seek to minimize suffering and maximise well-being. They therefore my be judging possible actions with these criteria. But this is surely a good thing. Why seek to exclude it? And don’t we all do it?

    Surely it’s not hard to derive things like “the right to life” starting from our objective basis and using these principles?

    Sure, we may as a society or collection of societies have to consider specific situations where we might abandon such rights – but that is done collectively and using moral logic.

    No-one has said such specific complicated moral decisions will necessarily be easy (or not subject to plenty of subjective and malicious input). But that is life. I think that, as a species, we are getter better at it.

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  25. Ken,
    I’m not arguing for excluding judgment. Indeed, I think judgment is an essential thing that we can and should do well. I’m just hoping that you will agree that the movement from ‘facts’ of our existence (sentience, etc.) to things like ‘right to life’ necessarily involve them (judgments). The question is not ‘do we judge’, but what values/principles/etc. are our judgments based on?

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  26. Heraclides

    Dale // May 23, 2009 at 10:28 am:

    but what values/principles/etc. are our judgments based on?

    Maybe, but there is no need for a “god” part of how you define these. As I see it, gods only amount to a (self-)justification for values/principles/etc. chosen by other means (e.g. arbitrarily, to impose power/control, etc.)

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  27. It seems to me that judgement of actions according to minimising suffering and maximising well-being, and incorporating others into that scheme, arise quite naturally from the objective existence of intelligent sentient beings. We may have to see empathy as part of that – although I suspect that could well be a natural outcome of our objective existence – especially if this implies that we are also social. I think empathy would have to be wired into such beings.

    I don’t see that it is necessary to drag in anything else to arrive at this. Certainly no need to drag in a “supernatural” being as is claimed by people like Glenn, Stuart and Bnonn.

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  28. Might be getting to the ‘just leave it’ stage here, but I’ll just say that I’m still keen to see how we arrive at our concept of ‘suffering’ and ‘well-being’, and also a concrete example of the moral logic by which we see actions arising ‘quite naturally’ from the specific fact that we are intelligent (so are many inflicters of ideologically-motivated violence?) sentient (so are rats?) beings.

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  29. A simple example of use of intelligence is every time the person making an action or decision thinks past the immediate consequences, e.g. to think of larger or later possible outcomes.

    People make decisions of this kind everyday within referring to gods, etc., etc.

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  30. yes, Skeptical, that’s a good example of intelligence, but a definition of intelligence doesn’t distinguish between a moral intelligent (thinking-past-immediate-consequences) action, and an immoral intelligent (thinking-past-immediate-consequences) action.

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  31. ((i.e. – there was a great deal of ‘intelligence’ behind the planning/execution/design of the experiments conducted at Nazi concentration camps… which we all agree are inhumane))

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  32. Certainly no need to drag in a “supernatural” being as is claimed by people like Glenn, Stuart and Bnonn.

    Asking where we get our morality from is an interesting question.
    Saying “goddidit” however, is not an interesting answer.
    It doesn’t work for lightning in the sky and it doesn’t work for morality.
    Dragging Zeus or Thor into it answers nothing.

    Atheist Morality

    Hitchens – The Morals of an Atheist 1 0f 2

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  33. Dale – re suffering and well being. I think these concepts must be inbuilt as part of being intelligent and sentient beings. I don’t see how we can have evolved otherwise. Especially as we are also social (which probably goes with being intelligent sentient beings) and therefore empathetic. It’s wired in.

    With this objective basis I think intelligent rational consideration of our situation, applying moral logic, would not bring us to ideologically motivated violence, Nazi concentration camps, religious inquisitions, flying planes into buildings, etc.

    However, we are also a rationalising rather than a rational species – and we have spontaneous moral responses based on intuitions which often lead to behaviour inconsistent with intelligently applied moral logic. We rationalise justifications for some quite evil behaviour and ideology/religion often are used here.

    I am not sure if you are specifically trying to make a case against moral logic or applying intelligence to moral situations. However, I think you are nit-picking things off in isolation. I have tried in the series of posts to outline different aspects of human morality – covering subjective intuitions as well as an objective basis, and the role that religion has played in the codifying (rather than origin) of moral teachings.

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  34. Ken,
    Saying our concepts are ‘inbuilt’ or ‘wired in’ doesn’t distinguish between concepts which lead people to inflict suffering or those who seek to protect against it.

    One can be ‘intelligent and rational’ on their way to ideologically motivated violence, as much as they can on their way to ideologically motivated surrender, or ideologically motivated violent action to protect from violence (or ideologically motivated indifference, for that matter).

    I also have absolutely no idea what you mean by (or what reasoning you have behind) your claim that “we are a rationalising rather than a rational species”. I don’t even see what that claim achieves. Surely we would agree that we need to try to be as rational as possible?

    I’m not trying to make a case against moral logic or applying intelligence. I’m trying to clarify that value-judgments are a necessary part of that process. No matter how ‘objective’ we think our moral logic is, we will reach different conclusions if we have different values.

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  35. I think I have answered most of your points in my original posts and comments (although perhaps not clearly enough). So I will only deal with the rationalising vs rational aspect now. It’s important and I think I use the terms a lot, but perhaps I should have explained.

    It’s easy to think that because we are an intelligent species we are therefore also rational. However, research has shown that we usually are not rational. In fact that irrational thinking/perception seems also to be built in, to be adaptive.

    1: We are not reliable witnesses as we rely on preconceived patterns, We have a picture of what is out there and if something we don’t expect arises we often just do not see it. There is the classic experiment where people watch a video of two small teams (3 each) playing with a basket ball. They are asked to see how many times each team (black or white shirts) possess the ball. However, during the video a man in a gorilla suit walks in front of the players. Most of the observers just don’t see him, at least during the first viewing and before they are told what happened.

    2: We try to fit incoming information into our pre-concieved beliefs. Some time ago I was interviewed by a reporter (of greenie bent) about some of our research which showed that phosphatic fertiliser did not kill off soil life (bacteria/fungi/eartthworms, etc.) She just couldn’t get the message. She wanted to believe that fertiliser was harmful to soil life and kept reinterpreting everything I said.

    3: Take the fine-tuning argument. Some people want to believe that all the physical constants are fine tuned. So they will make claims such as the cosmological constant cannot be altered more than 1 part in 10^120. This is just not true. They have taken a separate bit of information and used it opportunistically to support their bias. And they will argue vehemently for it even though it is wrong.

    I could go on with lots of other examples but you get the picture. It is just natural for us to rationalise – to excuse or ignore out behaviour, to support our biases, to defend our emotionally valued beliefs, etc. It is a real problem when we try to get an objective picture of reality. The scientific method and social organisation of scientific research provides mechanisms for overcoming this rationalising tendency.

    If we were simply a rational (rather than rationalising) species we would not ahve these problems.

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  36. Ken,
    First, it is an utter non sequitur to say that just because we are sometimes irrational, therefore we are justly labeled as rationalising and not rational.

    For example, what you’ve just done is provide an account of 3 examples of human ‘rationalising’ activity. But no doubt you’re trying to present an account that is rational, and not merely rationalised.

    Offering a rational account of human rationalising activity doesn’t at all show that humans aren’t rational, but rather shows that we sometimes aren’t rational enough.

    And (again), this whole ‘rationalising-not-rational’ distinction achieves nothing that we didn’t already know: namely that we should be as rational and reasonable as we can be.

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  37. Dale – I have just tried to describe how rationalising comes naturally to us. And probably because we evolved that way. Setting up and recognising patterns, even though details may have been wrong, would have helped our survival. The rational thinking process required for a proper understanding our reality would have been no use in the face of imminent danger.

    Of course we should always try to apply intelligence and rational thought – and this usually takes a lot more than individual introspection. But the fact remains that rationalising comes naturally to us and is very often used.

    Our intuitions of purity, disgust, them and us, lead to some pretty spontaneous reactions which we can see (when looked at rationally) are bad. Racism, sexism, attitudes towards homosexuals, xenophobia, inter-religious hatred, etc., etc. But these can and often do arise spontaneously, they comprise our moral intuitions. And when asked why – we rationalise. We make up stories to “explain” why.

    I think that is well established experimentally.

    I can see how easy it was for Germans in the 1930s and 1940s to “justify” (rationalise) their government’s policies on eugenics, race, homosexuality, etc. But if individuals were capable (and some obviously were) of starting from an objective basis of humans as intelligent, empathetic, sentient beings and applying intelligent moral logic they would have come to the conclusion that the government’s policies were wrong.

    That is why individuals who may have spontaneous moral intuitions of disgust to specific sexual practices (heterosexual as well as homosexual) can still apply rational thinking and come to a moral conclusion which over-rides their spontaneous reactions. Then there are others who “go with” their spontaneous reactions – and then “after the event” rationalise their behaviour. They invent stories to “explain” why they think certain ways. “It’s not natural,” “It’s against God’s commands,” “It’s not permitted by the bible,” etc. etc. I guess the more honest just say “It’s disgusting.”

    But moral instincts or intuitions are not necessarily a reliable basis for a moral code in today’s world – any more than they are for dietary purposes. Yet they are used by many (if not most) people.

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  38. But if individuals were capable (and some obviously were) of starting from an objective basis of humans as intelligent, empathetic, sentient beings and applying intelligent moral logic they would have come to the conclusion that the government’s policies were wrong.

    I note you added ‘emphathetic’ to the list. Empathy –> en-pathos (‘in’ ‘feeling’). But the point (again…) is that the bare/naked ‘fact’ that humans exist as having intelligence, sentience and empathy does not directly lead to sponsoring either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ actions. A value-judgment is needed. ((I’m sure the Nazi’s were aware of the bare ‘fact’ that humans were such a species))

    I do not hesitate to agree that we have ‘spontateous moral intuitions (I assume you mean feelings?) of disgust. That’s obvious. And it is obvious that these feelings/intuitions are not objective indicators of moral action/response. But it is also true and obvious that just because we have a spontaneous moral intuition that ‘x’ is wrong, therefore ‘x’ must actually be right. In sum – we don’t know a priori whether to follow our intuitions or not. Hence the need to be as rational as possible. We should not shun emotions (as if they were always false), nor be led totally by them (as if they were infallible).

    All this about emotions/intuitions is merely in response to your notion that we are a rationalising-not-rational species. I still don’t think you’ve shown anything that implies that we cannot at times be rational. But I’m still seeing as missing from your picture is how –given your theory of moral logic– moral value-judgments (which are unavoidable) are made.

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  39. oops

    But it is also true and obvious that just because we have a spontaneous moral intuition that ‘x’ is wrong, therefore this doesn’t mean that ‘x’ must actually automatically be right.

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  40. (1) To say we are a rationalising species (I think a claim well supported by empirical evidence) does not deny the capability of applying rational analysis to situations. But surely you are aware that most (if not all) of us spontaneously rationalise things. No one (and surely not me) is arguing against applying rational thought – far from it.

    (2) I have not claimed that the fact of our objective existence as empathetic, sentient, intelligent beings leads inevitably to a good morality. Obviously that is not the case. However, it provides an objective basis for a good morality. I have described why I think that doesn’t always happen.

    (3) You refer to a value judgement – Do you think this has an objective basis (as I argue) or do you think it arises magically, via authority or by divine command?

    (4) Your reference to x being right or wrong – I can’t see the relevance. It seems so obvious it’s superfluous, surely.

    (5) How are moral judgements made? I think I have explained this – spontaneously based on intuitions and (if necessary) rationalised after the event. By careful consideration after reflection. Whether we admit this or not I think in most cases this must be based on a (admitted or not) objective starting point (our existence as empathetic, intelligent, sentient beings). Some claim (and maybe correctly) they base their morality on authority, divine command. Personally I think such “morality” is not personalised and is dangerous. It is basically moral relativism.

    (6) But I have advanced my ideas at length. You are obviously not happy with them. So how do you explain our morality? Is there and objective basis. And can one be good without god?

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  41. Ken,
    1) If we are capable (as you agree), in some measure, of applying rational analysis (etc.), then of what use is your claim that we are not a rational species? The opposite claim, by the way (that we are a rational species) does not, of course, mean that we are always rational.

    2) You say that our existence as sentient/intelligent/empathetic beings “provides an objective basis for a good morality”, but I’d want to say that it only gives us the ability to do moral reasoning (with either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ results). What do you mean be “objective basis”?

    3) I’d be just as nervous as you about some isolated examples of ‘god told me’, etc.; I’ve certainly never heard an audible voice from God, but I think there are certain truths that are self-evident, which can rightly be said to have their origin/source in God. I would also want to add that even these ‘self-evident’ truths can be questioned and wrestled with, etc. and need not be just taken uncritically.

    4) I was just saying that simply because a moral intuition/feeling is spontaneous (not rationally evaluated) doesn’t mean that it automatically is wrong or right. For the theist, both intuition and reason are appropriate and useful tools (when used properly) for discerning truth and moral action.

    5) You say moral judgments are made both “spontaneouslybased on intuitions and (if necessary) rationalised after the event.” I’d say that rather than moral ‘judgments’ being made this way, we act/behave according to a) an un-examined (spontaneous) pattern of behaviour or b) based on an intentionally developed (reasoned) pattern of behaviour. The moral judgment(s) can be either (both) momentary or (and) a continual thing, which shapes/guides our patterns of acting.
    It is this moral judgment/reasoning which I don’t see in your framework.

    6) I think one can behave morally without acknowledging God, but I think that person will struggle demonstrating why their actions (rather than another action) are truly moral. You could say that the theist would have just as much struggle, but the theist interprets/’works-out’ his/her moral judgments and actions based on a view that things don’t merely ‘exist’, but that they have a ‘purpose’/function/’telos’ (goal, end, etc.) – that there is a way in which things are intended to function, and a way in which they are not. Any such ‘purpose’/function/goal/end/telos will be found through means other than empirical. Empirical methodology is metreical in nature, in that it measures objects and their activity (this many revolutions per period of time, this long, this dense, this affect on this substance, this weight, this reaction, this region of the brain firing under these conditions, etc.). Empiricism cannot comment on what something is truly (ultimately) ‘for’. Feet might ‘function’ in the process of both walking and kicking, and empiricism cannot judge whether the walking or kicking is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

    Now I can hear you saying “well religion can’t tell us either!” But I’d say –in the most general sense of the word ‘religion’– that when we engage in making these value judgments and discerning how things should or should not function, we’re doing a ‘religious’ activity. Science helps immensely, shedding the light of detail and precision upon our moral choices, but gives no direction either way as to how the choice should be made. We’re all religious. We all ‘work-at’ our morality according to values that are nearly universally accepted (except for in those tragic examples we all know of) utterly and assumed.

    this is becoming a book – I’m stopping. :)

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  42. Re rationalising vs rational: I may do a post on this some time. It’s something I have picked up from my readings and, as I said, there is good emprirical evidence for it. I think it is an important point if we are to understand how things are, rather than how people think things are.

    “there are certain truths that are self-evident, which can rightly be said to have their origin/source in God.” - well they aren’t self evident to me! It’s easy to make such a claim but where is the evidence?

    “For the theist, both intuition and reason are appropriate and useful tools (when used properly) for discerning truth and moral action.” It’s always dangerous to attribute such things to a whole class of people who are defined (by the word theist) in a very minimal way. The fact is people like Matt (M&M) don’t seem to see any objective basis for morality – simply inuition and “scripture and theological tradition.” A very dangerous approach to morality – basically a relativist approach which has been used to “justify” slavery, racism, Nazism, etc., etc. It in no way explains how humanity can come to common agreement on so many moral questions – something that implies an objective basis accessible to all. (After all reason can get us to completely different conclusions if we have different starting points).

    I suspect the major reason you appear to be unwilling to consider the points I have made in this series is that an objective basis for morality (along the lines I describe) really does make gods superfluous in this area. That is why you say that a non-theist “will struggle demonstrating why their actions (rather than another action) are truly moral. “ But look at the empirical evidence. How many non-theists do you find “struggling”? Do they predominate in prison populations, etc. I just reject your claim.

    You should appreciate that comments like these seem blind and arrogant to so many of the public after exposures such as the treatment pf children by the Catholic Church in Ireland. I would think that relgious people should exhibit a bit of humility on moral questions these days. Yet we still have Catholic Archbishops declaring that atheism is the worst evil and attacking people like Richard Dawkins!!

    And why be so desperate to claim “We’re all religious.” That’s just playing with words. As you say “We all ‘work-at’ our morality according to values that are nearly universally accepted” Surely that is a strong indicator of an objective basis for morality. If it relied on relgions we would just have complete moral relativism because, after all, aren’t the scriptures and theological traditions of different relgions basically different? And in many parts quite inappropriate for our times.

    As for purpose, etc. I realise this is important for you and should be discussed. But as expressed it is just airy fairy to me. I am always suspicious of claims that important things are discovered by “means other than empirical.” To me that lays the field wide open for some very horrible inhuman propositions and violations of logic and reason.

    But, if you can come down to earth and explain these points in a logical, reasoned (non-metaphorical) way I might have soemthing to get my head around.

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  43. The point of us being rational is not that we never are irrational, but that we engage (to whatever extent) in rational enquiry. Sure we could do so more consistently and more often, but it remains that we are rational beings. What kind of ‘empirical evidence’ could there be that we are not rational? You don’t need empirical methodology to know that people do irrational things.

    The self-evident truths are ones which you almost certainly affirm/assume, because if someone violated them, you would instantly try to stop them. Things like child (or any kind of) rape, molestation, murder, burning a forest for fun, stealing food from starving people, that kind of thing. There isn’t even the slightest shred of empirical basis for these being wrong, and the bare ‘fact’ that humans are intelligent, sentient, etc. in and of itself doesn’t even begin to make them wrong either. The ‘is’ of our human abilities/capacities do not get us to an ‘ought’ or ‘ought not’ of ethical action. Yet we all know (self-evidently) that these are wrong.

    The person who sees no goal/telos/purpose/function to things can at best produce some half-baked reasoning that “well we’ve figured out that we survive better when we don’t rape children”, which says nothing at all about rape actually and truly being wrong. For rape to actually be wrong (and not just ‘inconsistent with what we have learned about how me might like to behave’), some ‘airy fairy’ things like freedom and human value and dignity need to be more than just ‘things we all currently agree on’. Was racism a-OK until we reached a majority vote? Is slavery OK in places where the majority of people accept that it is a normal thing?

    To make it even muddier. Why is butchering a cow and eating it permissable and merely shoving someone to the ground not? Surely not because of some ‘airy fairy’ notion like cows having a different telos/purpose/end/function than humans! How anthropocentric! Surely not because off some ‘pie in the sky’ notion like ‘respect’. How unprovable!

    Morals are based on values, and (whether or not you or I are comfortable with it – and whether or not it ‘throws open the door to nonsense’, etc.) values are expressions of an assumption about how things should work.

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  44. The person who sees no goal/telos/purpose/function to things can at best produce some half-baked reasoning…

    As opposed to what?
    Saying “goddidit”?
    That’s not even reasoning. That’s just nonsense.

    Rejecting something for being half-baked is fine.
    If their argument doesn’t work then it doesn’t work.

    However, that doesn’t mean you should just then go off and embrace nonsense.

    For example:
    A:Where does lighting come from?
    B: Don’t know. Maybe it’s got something to do with invisible rocks?
    A: I reject that answer. Therefore thordidit.

    A:Where do we get our morals from?
    B: Don’t know. Perhaps it’s got something to do with philosophy and social behaviour of animals?
    A: I reject that answer. Therefore flyingspaggettimonsterdidit.

    Doesn’t work.

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  45. Dale – I think it’s interesting you have such a problem with the idea that humans are a rationalising species. If you want to see some discussion of the scientific evidence a place to start may be Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis” (Chapter The Fault of Others) [just because I read it recently] or Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works.”

    In this series of posts I tried to cover an objective basis for morality, moral instincts, the role of religion, the current problems of religion in this area and the concept of a secular conscience. I obviously haven’t got through to you as you are still dealing with straw men, eg.:

    “The ‘is’ of our human abilities/capacities do not get us to an ‘ought’ or ‘ought not’ of ethical action.”

    “The person who sees no goal/telos/purpose/function to things can at best produce some half-baked reasoning that “well we’ve figured out that we survive better when we don’t rape children”, which says nothing at all about rape actually and truly being wrong.”

    “freedom and human value and dignity need to be more than just ‘things we all currently agree on’. Was racism a-OK until we reached a majority vote? Is slavery OK in places where the majority of people accept that it is a normal thing? “

    I never suggested these ideas. The fact that these are straw men should be obvious from what I have written in these 5 posts.

    To come back to the issue of rationalising: I think the problem may arise from different mind sets. Personally I see the scientific approach as very much a rational one. Sure, scientists are just as prone as others to rationalise a defence for a pet idea – but in the end reality keeps us honest. Ideas must be mapped against reality. This produces a trend toward humility and honesty in the scientific ethos. And scientific ideas are ideas rather than “beliefs” to be defended at all costs.

    I see the theological approach as very much a rationalising one. Beliefs are strongly defended (at all costs) by rationalising. By using logical thought/argument to protect a dearly held “belief”. Whereas in science we find that most ideas are wrong (proven by mapping against reality) in theology “beliefs” are never mapped against reality and therefore never found wrong.

    So I can understand why your react against the idea that this rationalising aspect of humans (which is perfectly “natural” and adaptive) is not a good way of understanding reality, of knowing.

    Perhaps this is just an inherent and fundamental difference between religion and science.

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  46. Ken,
    Unfortunately I cannot give this the time it needs. I’ve got some key assignments I need to work on.

    Maybe some day this Hamiltonian and this Aucklander will sit at the same coffee table and shoot the breeze… :)

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  47. Pingback: NZ entries in science blog awards « Open Parachute

  48. Pingback: Can science answer moral questions? « Open Parachute

  49. Regards for composing “Human Morality II: Objective morality |
    Open Parachute”. I reallymight absolutely wind up
    being back again for much more browsing and writing comments
    soon enough. Thanks a lot, Janette

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