Philosophical justifications for morality

I will use this post to answer some of the more philosophical questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version. (Open Parachute@SciBlogs). Last time in Answering questions on morality I responded to some specific questions from a critical religious apologist.

One outline of my approach is in Foundations of human morality but I have discussed these ideas in many other posts.

Once again I thank all those who have critiqued my ideas – I have found the input valuable. And I welcome further criticisms

Are philosophical justifications required for morality?

John Wilkins says yes in his comment:

“If you argue for a position – such as a particular course of action being right or wrong – then no matter what you give as a reason for thinking it is right or wrong, the moment you introduce a prescription, a normative element, you need some irreducible missing premise to the effect that ‘you should [or should not] do X’. . . . To justify a course of action, you must, rationally, have a bridging principle of justification that is non-factual.”

John does not disagree with a scientific explanation of morality but says this:

“neither justifies nor has any moral force upon the actions of agents unless you introduce that “thou shalt” prescription.” Then one needs a “prescriptive premise.”

Alonzo Fyfe  at the Atheist Ethicist argues for an “external standard”: What [our intuitions or morality] should be is determined by their conformity to this external standard.”

I think this approach is related to the is vs ought concept. It implies there is an objective, external, ought. And that we can not determine this ought, this prescription, from the facts of a situation. Personally I would find that approach more convincing if the proponents actually indicated where they get their “external standard” from, what the prescriptions are. But they never seems to. (No – “god did it” explanations don’t work – they never do).

We experience moral prescriptions

I think our automatic moral reactions, our designation of things being right and wrong, is very much prescriptive. Yet no conscious philosophy is required. No-one thinks of “normative elements” or “irreducible premises.”

We experience our morality prescriptively – and largely unconsciously. Even when we rationalise to explain our reactions very few people are going to use these words or give a philosophical analysis. All this goes on in our brain and largely unconsciously. So at what stage during our unconscious moral reactions or our conscious moral deliberations do we refer to this “external standard” or use prescriptive premises? Some people may refer to such prescriptions during conscious moral discussions – but there is no evidence these exist objectively, separate from the individual or her culture.

Consider also the very different “moral” behaviours of different species. The females of some insects will kill and eat the male after coitus – our species doesn’t (although some men may feel there is a psychological parallel). Doesn’t this suggest that morality is at least species specific, perhaps not objective. Perhaps more to do with the actual organism or group of organisms.

Part of the motivation for desired “external standards”, “prescriptive justifications”, absolute or objective moral truths is the fact that our intuitions of right and wrong are so strong. They feel so real. But that doesn’t make them real, external or objective.

Maybe there is also a cultural pressure to think about external standards or prescriptions. PZ Myers raised this issue when he acknowledged that he had critiqued Harris’s book with mistaken interpretation of the is-ought argument (see Craig brings some clarity to morality?). As he puts it these issues are “getting all twisted up in philosophical head-games based on misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.”

Then perhaps, related to both these influences, there is a common feeling that morality is just too important an issue to be determined by individuals. That there must be external standards or prescriptions.

Infinite regression of “external standards”

I have also noticed another a common interpretation of Sam Harris’s arguments is that the “external standard” or moral prescriptions can be determined by science. (This is not exactly helped by him using the subtitle “How science can Determine Human Values”). But quite a few reviewers have pointed out this simple transference of “external standards” or prescriptions from gods to science does nothing to solve the basic problem.  That whatever external standard is used, one will be caught in the infinite regression or requiring a further external standard to justify the chosen standard.

Both Fyfe and Kenan Malik (in Test-tube Truths) illustrate this by extending the  Euthyphro dilemma. This argues, in its modified form: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” Which we can extend to any “external standard” as Fyfe does when he says:

“The answer to the Euthyphro argument in both cases is to argue that morality is to be found somewhere outside of God, or outside of  ‘”human instincts and intuitions’.”

And I add – or outside of any other external standard. Hence the infinite regression.

I think Malik has the answer:

“The desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values is a desire to set moral values in ethical concrete. It is a yearning for moral certainty, a fear that without external authority, humans will fall into the morass of moral relativism. But just as we do not need the false certainty of a divinely sanctified moral code, neither do we need the false certainty of a morality rooted in science.”

“Unless we wish to believe that values are simply plucked out of the sky, then we must accept that there is some relationship between the kinds of values that we hold, the kinds of beings that we are, and the kind of world in which we live. But while values can never be entirely wrenched apart from facts, neither can they be collapsed into facts. Humans are the bridge between facts and values. The significance of the Euthyphro dilemma is that it embodies a deeper claim: that concepts such as goodness, happiness and wellbeing only have meaning in a world in which conscious, rational, moral agents exist that themselves are capable of defining moral right and wrong and acting upon it. It is the existence of humans as autonomous moral agents that allows us to act as the bridge between facts and values.” [my empahsis].

I think this is the answer to the problematic “external standard” of Fyfe and the “bridging principle of justification that is non-factual” of Wilkins. In one sense our problems have arisen because we have overestimated the importance of moral certainty. We therefore find it difficult to accept that our morality may not rest on external “truths.” Sometimes our moral decisions may not be obvious or may be “fuzzy.” Perhaps, in fact, our standard is internal. And it arises from our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent social and empathetic beings.

But what about our negative intuitions?

This does need an answer. After all, history does show that sometimes our intuitions based on evolved instincts can have bloody consequences. An obvious issue is the “them vs us” problem. Sometimes described as the problem of expanding reciprocity.

This is a double-sided sword. On the one had our empathy and kin sympathy encourage us to protect and advance the interests of our “in-group.” On the other hand this often means conflict with the “out-group.” The morality of the ‘in-group” may value  a warrior who kills a warrior from “out-group” who threatens their security. At a more mundane level a prevailing morality may actually encourage attitudes which are xenophobic or racist. Because of our natural “in-group/out-group” instincts.

The history of social development of our species has necessarily been one of expanding the boundaries between the “in-group” and “out-group.” This has required social mechanism to expand our morality from simple kin or clan considerations to wider city, regional, national or coalitional interests. Social structures, legal frameworks, religion and ideologies have assisted this. Religion, for example, enables expansion beyond national boundaries by pushing the boundary between them vs us to non-believers vs believers. Ideologies have done a similar thing based on ideological beliefs (eg., communism, democracy) or class interests (hence The Internationale).

So it is inevitable that intuitions wider than just “good” empathetic ones are involved in providing our “internal standards.” However, these “standards” are not simply the instinct or intuitions themselves. As social and intelligent beings our social, legal and moral structures may be based on our human natures (good and bad) but there are also the result of reasoned processing. Both individually and collectively.

As a species which has memories and is capable of planning we can look further ahead than simple satisfaction of instinctual requirements. We can postpone rewards, consider the long-term and wider social effects of our instinctual behaviours. We can apply our intuitional, in-built “Golden Rule” in a way that favours some intuitions over others. In fact, in a way that recognises our in-built ability for behaviour which we consider wrong, as well as right.

A realistic, human morality

Again I am sure some people will resist this analysis because it does not “set moral values in ethical concrete” or ensure “moral certainty.” But surely our history shows such certainty to often lead to tyranny. A more realistic appreciation of human morality is based in our own human nature and amenable to reasoning and deliberation. A morality which takes account of our real situations, is capable of improvement over time and is available to all – whatever the ideological or religious outlook.

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52 responses to “Philosophical justifications for morality

  1. HappyEvilSlosh

    Personally I would find that approach more convincing if the proponents actually indicated where they get their external stand from, what the prescriptions are. But they never seems to.

    Tu quoque.

  2. Good post Ken.

    I think that the “longing for moral certainty” is the key point. A longing for certainty seems to be a common factor in so many of these debates. Consider for example, the conclusions to which our friend Glenn was led to, by his desire to avoid the infinite regress of justification for knowledge in his epistemology. His answer (this sounds a bit familiar), define the problem away by stating that there must be true knowledge that just is true, and requires no justification to be true.

    This seems to also be a common failing (well, at least I think it is a failing) within philosophy circles where at least some philosophers seem to think that they are actually uncovering “truths” about reality with their a priori musings.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against using logic, or more precisely mathematics in the search for truth about reality, but there is an essential step that you need to take with such attempts. Checking them against reality. In most cases (all?), your mathematical models are actually (gross?) simplifications which can/should be used when and where they have predictive power. Cue the usual example of newtonian gravity.

    An ironic point as regards the “cannot get ought from is” quote, is that as far as I can tell, Hume himself though that a priori reasoning itself was essentially underpinned by experience thus making it also at least partly empirical.

  3. Hey, Happy, what is the name for the fallacy where people indisicrimnatly throw around accusations of falacy without any justification?

  4. HappyEvilSlosh

    Slosh, actually. HappyEvil is just a prefix to try ensure it’s unique.

    what is the name for the fallacy where people indisicrimnatly throw around accusations of falacy without any justification?

    I’m not aware of any name for it, maybe red herring? But really I felt the implication in this case was pretty clear hence omitting it. In particular I’ve noticed you somewhat frequently criticise someone else’s criticism via words of the effect of ‘yeah? well you don’t have any other explanation’. Thus tu quoque. I would be hesitant to claim it is exactly a fallacy, as you never seem to explicitly say that they are wrong because of it, rather dismiss their statements courtesy of it.

  5. Nick, another thought on this longing for certainty and looking for it externally:

    It seems to me that philosphy should have left that approach behind ages ago. Learned from human experience in obtaining knowledge and started to aprpeciate that often the origins and causes of things are internal rather than external.

    I recently read Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain and was impressed with his description of the origins of value. He starts with the concept of biological value – “value as indelibly tied to need, and need as tied to life.”

    So even the simplest orgnaism will react to irritants to preserve its existence. This reaction becomes more sophisticated as nervous systems, and then brains evolve. And now we have conscious brains – which still operate according to biological value to maintain the organism. To maintain homeostatis.

    “That connection explains why human brain circuitry has been so extravagantly dedicated to the prediction and detection of gains and losses, not to mention the promotion of gains and the fear of losses. It explains, in other words, the human obsession with assigtnation of value.

    “Values relate directly or indirectly to survival. In the case of humans in particular, value also relates to the quality of that survival in the form of well-being.”

    So perhaps Damasio’s concept of biologival value is providing an objective basis for Harris’s “human fluorishing”?

  6. Well, slosh, you should try and read exactly what is written instead of assuming you know what the writer “really means.”

    I said “Personally I would find that approach more convincing if the proponents actually indicated where they get their “external standard” from, what the prescriptions are. But they never seem to.”

    It is purely a request for information. I am happy to consider such ideas, but when I come across a stumbling block like this, it is natural to ask – where is the data? what do you actually mean? In the case of Fyfe this is a genuine attempt to understand his point as, from my reading so far, the Desirism Morality he proposes does not actually rely on an “external standard.” I get the impression that my ideas on morality are actually quite close to his – relying on internal standards, if you like.

    I cannot consider an idea like an “external standard” if this is not explained. Asking for clairifaction or evidence is not dismissal of an idea. On the other hand how can one get past that stumbling block into proper consideration of ideas if no-one responds to the question wiuth information?

    Sure, theists hand wave their “external standard” into a god. But Fyfe is an atheist. That’s why I have asked this specific question of him.

    Perhaps, slosh, if you yourself support the concept of an “external standard” for morality you could contribute something to the discussion. In my experience vague knee-jerk accusations of fallacies are a way of avoiding, not contributing.

  7. HappyEvilSlosh

    Well…, in this case you are possibly also making a strawman. Consider:

    I think this approach is related to the is vs ought concept. It implies there is an objective, external, ought. And that we can not determine this ought, this prescription, from the facts of a situation. Personally I would find that approach more convincing if the proponents actually indicated where they get their “external standard” from, what the prescriptions are. But they never seems to.

    So you start of saying this is related to the is-ought concept. Fine, I would tend to agree. But wait, it implies there is an objective, external ought? How do you get there? If you look at the quote

    “neither justifies nor has any moral force upon the actions of agents unless you introduce that “thou shalt” prescription.” Then one needs a “prescriptive premise.”

    there seems nothing about this that implies an external ought. In fact it seems to me the person saying this could easily be a meta-ethical relativist, but even if they aren’t that their views aren’t consistent with this statement isn’t indication of the statement’s incorrectness (This is where the fallacy comes in). Essentially you’ve asked for clarification where such a clarification shouldn’t actually effect your response to the statement.

  8. Slosh – Fyfe does talk of an “external standard,” Wilkins of a “prescription, a normative element.” Perhaps people see this in terms of “ought.”

    An “ought” doesn’t have to be objective or external – but this approach does imply that. Hardly a straw man.

    Surely I am arguing for the concept of “ought” which is not “objective” or “external” but objectively based in human nature.

    And isn’t rather arrogant to claim that a clarification won’t influence my understanding and therefore response to a statement?

    Slosh, your critcisms would be far more useful if you addressed what I am proposing, my concepts of an objective basis for morality, instead of trying to build nebulous arguments based on your choice of interpretation on points that are hardly key.

  9. HappyEvilSlosh

    Slosh – Fyfe does talk of an “external standard,” Wilkins of a “prescription, a normative element.” Perhaps people see this in terms of “ought.”

    Yeah but to the particular statement you made that their views are inconsistent doesn’t make your response to the question of, I would actually call it a hint at, circular reasoning not an appeal to hypocricy.

    I didn’t say no clarifaction would influence your response, I was saying this clarification with regards to that particular claim shouldn’t, thus there’s no real reason to try and weasel your way out of responding.

    your critcisms would be far more useful if you addressed what I am proposing, my concepts of an objective basis for morality, instead of trying to build nebulous arguments based on your choice of interpretation on points that are hardly key.

    Yep, condescension followed by dismissal or an attempt to change the subject. Pretty much status quo for this blog. Move along citizen, nothing to see here.

    As to your concept you seem to lie somewhere close to because most people act a certain way theyfore we should. That is you’ve somewhat answered ontological ethical questions but I see no address of epistemological ones.

    In particular (going to your other thread because it seems to be the most comprehensible formulation):

    But, the last 500 years or so of experience of the progress of science surely tell us “god did it” (or little imps) explanations get us nowhere. The old creation myths don’t explain our origins or the origin of the earth and the universe. Neither do they explain the origins of, or offer a foundation for, our morality.

    You assume that knowing a foundation for morality or our origins of the Earth or us will be an important part of the implications of an ethical system. Why? That religious people still outnumber atheists and that even if you restrict to atheists there still, let’s face it, a lot of superstitious thinking would tend to imply that it’s not necessarily the case. Whether or not those explanations `get us nowhere’ very much depends on what your goal is.

    So, with this picture we have concepts of right and wrong – intuitively extremely strong concepts. Ones we might even feel as objective or absolute, although they are part of our own human nature. Rather than being absolute or objective – they just feel that way. For very good evolutionary reasons.

    My critics may argue that this still does not explain good human behaviour. That people could have intuitions which bias them to bad behaviour as much as good behaviour. I just don’t think that accords with the facts of our evolution or nature of our brain.

    So you seem to be saying we tend consider things to be good that are beneficial to us as a species. However given you are now talking an evolutionary process it will occasionally produces an individual that is not as fit as the others (I guess ‘bad behaviour’ in this case). But more importantly although you’ve established a basis for morality I’ve seen no good argument presented why it should be considered better than an other possible basis. Perhaps even more concerningly you don’t really address why religion, which is a viable—and, based on history of man, it seems generally more successful—outcome of such a model of ethical progress, shouldn’t be preferred to some secular ethical system regardless of whether the mythological creatures are representative of anything in reality.

  10. HappyEvilSlosh

    I guess the other reason I’d be wary of such a basis is that it is often used as a justification of bigoted views.

  11. Hi Slosh,

    I don’t rally want to jump into your discussion with Ken, but could you clarify something?

    When you state that Religion is a “viable -and, based on history of man, it seems generally more successful—outcome of such a model of ethical progress”, on what basis are you evaluating religion in terms of viability and outcomes here? Normative, or some sort of external standard?

    In other words, to make such a valuation, don’t you also need to solve the “ought from is” problem?

  12. HappyEvilSlosh

    Ah no, but fair question. It I’m not talking about successful in terms of one being ‘better’ than the other, but rather in terms of the mere numbers of members of a population that believe it. Why I’m trying to get it is that if you view ethics as a product of an evolutionary system where fitter things survive then it seems that, based on the distribution of beliefs in present society, secular ethics haven’t replaced religious ones (or necessarily even equalled some of them), which you might expect them to if they were more or less superior. Naturally there are possible reasons like the ones that spread might be the ones that aid self-propagation without necessarily improving quality of life but should someone propose an ethical system based upon evolutionary psychology I think it is an important point which needs to be addressed.

  13. Slosh – I think you are confusing between a model of explanation, a justification for and a detailed moral system itself.

    What I am proposing is a model to explain the origins and nature of human morality, based on current scientific understandings. Yes, including evolutionary science, but also brain science, anthropology, social psychology etc.

    Such a model doesn’t necessarily say anything about a detailed moral system at all. However, because it supports the idea that there is an objective, material, basis to morality, humanity should not be to surprised that we often come to similar conclusions about what is “right” and “wrong”. Understanding the science of morality may actually help us in confronting the moral dilemmas we face.

    You are contrasting “religious ethics” with “secular ethics’ But what the hell is the difference? These are just labels. If humans develop moral systems according to the ideas I suggest such labels are unimportant. It’s just that religionists may “explain” or “justify” their moral outlooks by invoking gods – just as humans used to explain things like thunder, lightning, etc. This did not make the thunder and lightning “religious” at all.

    This particular article, and others of mine, have explained a role for religions in moral ideas. Here I have talked about the problem of widening the basis for altruism, for example. Other human ideologies and institutions also play a similar role – particularly today in our democratic, pluralist, secular societies.

    The survivial of religion can be due to a number of reasons but does not say anything about its intellectual fitness at all. Religion has never been able to explain things about reality – that’s why we needed science. And that clearly has been successful. Its relative “fitness” is not in doubt.

    To understand the survival of religion we need to approach the question scientifically. Similarly to understand human morality we need to approach scientifically. In neither case do we get a sensible answer by saying “god did it!”

  14. I should clarify that when “relgious ethics” is based on “divine” commands it is of course different to more rational forms of morality. Using the argument that “god commands it” can be used to justify any old morality. That is why I say this form of divine command ethics can lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.

  15. HappyEvilSlosh

    I think you are confusing between a model of explanation, a justification for and a detailed moral system itself.

    You might be right.

    Understanding the science of morality may actually help us in confronting the moral dilemmas we face.

    I think you’ll get into trouble. Science will be able to tell you why, in terms of evolution, psychology, etc we think certain things to be good or not and what follows from that but not whether or not they actually are, which I think is the question people are usually trying to get at.

    You are contrasting “religious ethics” with “secular ethics’ But what the hell is the difference? [...] It’s just that religionists may “explain” or “justify” their moral outlooks by invoking gods – just as humans used to explain things like thunder, lightning, etc. This did not make the thunder and lightning “religious” at all.

    Broadly I was just using it to partition ethical systems. However for the sake of argument:

    It can cause complications. Let’s say that brushing your teeth daily had been codified as ethical. One might then ask ‘what about brushing the tongue’. In a secular ethics it would be difficult in general to progress from one to the other but depending on how it had been codified within a religion it might follow quite naturally. Moreover if it’s not selected against then it may well end up being viewed as just as important as the original statement, even if it isn’t actually. You are probably right in that for the big questions the conclusions will be similar, although I’m not convinced thunder was the best example, but I think it seems self evident that there’s plenty of grey area and moreover could be situational – it makes a certain amount of sense to wear a burka in a desert where you may not want to die of sunstroke.

    And consider if ethics is a result of natural selection (include other things if you like), for example, how could you argue that homosexuality should be ethical or one can have the choice to not have children? Taken to an extreme if everybody was homosexual or nobody had children the flourishing of human beings would soon stop. Is it only ethical as long as not everybody has those qualities?

    Religion has never been able to explain things about reality – that’s why we needed science. And that clearly has been successful. Its relative “fitness” is not in doubt.

    Well, yes and no. In some sense science does have a problem in truly displying its fitness in that you don’t have to believe in it to benefit from its results.

  16. So Slosh – How do you think we determine whether things “actually are” good or not?

    I have suggested, along with Malik this is a problem of the desire to “set moral values in ethical concrete. It is a yearning for moral certainty.” An illusion we don’t actually require.

    “In some sense science does have a problem in truly displying its fitness in that you don’t have to believe in it to benefit from its results.”
    Sure – but we don’t determine the fitness of an epistemological method by belief, do we? We determine the effectiveness by how it works in practice. And science has been overwhelmingly successful in helping us understand reality. religion has been abysmally a failure.

  17. Hi Ken

    “Some people may refer to such prescriptions during conscious moral discussions – but there is no evidence these exist objectively, separate from the individual or her culture.”
    Not quite, I think you would agree if I say that these do not exist independently of human beings (and other relevantly sentient beings as required). If, by external standards is meant such independent standards then I agree, however this does not exhaust the category of “external standard”.

    “In one sense our problems have arisen because we have overestimated the importance of moral certainty. We therefore find it difficult to accept that our morality may not rest on external “truths.” Sometimes our moral decisions may not be obvious or may be “fuzzy.”
    how can anyone you, me or Fyfe how are arguing for a scientific basis for morality be arguing for “moral certainty”? I fail to see how, as Fyfe (and I do) in arguing for an external standard that is amenable to scientific investigation you can infer this means certainty hence moral certainty? This is a non sequitur. Surely, you would agree that any empirically determinable external standard would lead only fallible and not certain knowledge? AFAIK Fyfe is making no argument to the contrary.

    “Perhaps, in fact, our standard is internal. And it arises from our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent social and empathetic beings.”
    There are other external standards than are neither “independent” of sentient beings nor just “internal”. It appears that you are using an implicit false dichotomy here trading on different means of external and internal. (This is a common error and I am not implying you are doing it deliberately. The rest of this comment indicates what lies in between).

    There are also, as one could read from your second sentence here, surely interpendencies between such beings. Now why are these not amenable to systematic empirical investigation, that is quite objectively? This is where Fyfe and I look for external standards. As Fyfe implies, there are relations between desires and the targets of those desires – with the material and physical affects of fulfilling those desires, when it comes to moral questions, [i]on other desires[/i]. That is moral questions are the type of questions that treat the desire under question as a means to, directly or indirectly, fulfilling or thwarting other desires, and it is in virtue of such affects that others have reasons to act to promote or inhibit the desire under question. I see no reason why these relations cannot be both rational analysed and empirically investigated and this is leads to not just a possible but plausible basis for an objective and fallible external standard.

  18. P.S. A preview function would greatly help in writing comments. wordpress.com has one for free.

  19. Ken, in the field of evolutionary morality, it is uncontroversial that our moral intuitions, with their mixed biologically and cultural origins, are adaptations that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. As our social wisdom has grown, these groups have expanded from only families, to friends, clans, countries, and on up to everyone on earth.

    This understanding readily answers John Wilkins’ philosophical question about morality’s source of rational justification in science for accepting its burdens.

    All animals are natural born purpose machines: get water, get food, mate, and so forth. Animals that are not vigorous “purpose generators” tend to not live very long. People share these same ‘animal’ needs and preferences, but note that these purposes mentioned so far have nothing directly to do with morality.

    It is also uncontroversial that people have evolved their high level of intelligence and other human unique abilities, especially language, largely due to the reproductive fitness benefits of being able to deal with the complexities of social interactions required for maintaining the benefits of living in highly cooperative groups.

    Relevant to morality, our sense of well-being, or durable happiness (as some people have called it to distinguish it from mere fleeting pleasure), has been largely evolved to reward us with an experience of security and sustained pleasure when we are in the cooperative company of friends and family (and in cooperative groups in general).

    Large components of our sense of well-being, plus the actual material benefits of cooperation, provide the ‘carrots’ that motivate the self denial required for cooperation in groups. In other words, our sense of well-being, and cooperation’s expected material benefits, provide the ‘carrots’ that motivate and rationally justify accepting the burdens of acting morally. Evolution has made us natural born purpose generators to fulfill our needs and preferences, and in addition to the needs and preferences we share with all animals, people also have a biological need and preference to live in highly cooperative groups (as do some animals).

    However, as we all know, people sometimes become desperate to know “What is the purpose of my life?” and feel despair if they feel they have no purpose. How can this happen if, as I claim, evolution has made us natural born purpose generators? In the naturalistic view, people’s biologically based needs and preferences are not a rationally designed whole but are in a very real sense just a semi-random collection of often conflicting needs and preferences that individually increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors at one time or another. Further, people have culturally added needs and preferences that may be in conflict with our biological ones. On top of this mess, people have been arguing for thousands of years about “How to live to best meet all these needs and preferences” and have produced a large array of answers. The whole thing is so chaotic that it is not surprising that people seek a simple answer for an over-riding purpose to resolve all these conflicts.

    My understanding is that our moral emotions like empathy and guilt, our past and present cultural moral standards (some more successfully than others), and most of the components of our sense of well-being and durable happiness, all exist because they increased the benefits of cooperation for our ancestors or, in the case of present cultural moral standards, ourselves. My hope is that this understanding will focus attention on the idea that to have the best life, we ought (justified by the goal of experiencing life-long well-being) to accept the burdens of acting morally in order to enjoy its emotional benefits.

  20. Martin, thanks for the thoughtfull comment.

    1: Could you provide a link to wordpress.com’s faciltiy to preview comments? It’s something I have wanted for a long time but never found. Are you mixing up with wordpress.org?

    2: This subject seems rife with misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Not helped by an apparent sensitivity which encourages critical misinterpretation. This is why I asked Fyfe to clarify his “external standard” (He has now and I will consider the response later).

    3: I had interpeted “external standard” to imply objective existence, outside humanity. (And Fyfe implies also outside a being like a god.) I think you agree but wish to define an external stand not independent of humanity. OK, that is why I think Fyfes’ Desirism seems to be close to the model I suggest (I am still reading/listening to his material so am not completley sure yet. Won’t pass judgement at this stage).

    In that case I agree – this is amenable to scientific investigation – that is what I am suggesting with my concept of a scientific mnodel of morality.

    Malik’s point about moral certianty etc., is certainly valid for common interpretations of moral issues. I am not at all suggesting this is necessaryly the case for Desirism, at al. I don’t think it is with what I so far understand (although the word “standard” does raise the prospect of certainty in my mind).

    I find the discussion of relations between desires and the target still rather vague, and secondary in that it does not appear to get down to the underlying basis/source of desires, intutions and moral attitudes. And these are perhaps the external standards you argue for?

    4:
    However, these are the sorts of things which are or can be part of reasoned deliberation on moral questions, new moral issues or consideration of possible legislation. That’s why I believe a scientifc understanding of morality would actually assist humans in making moral decisons. It does not mean that science makes the decisions at all (although many people present it that way in their criticisms).

  21. Mark – I fiund myself agreeing with your comment, at least in general.

    The description of animals as “purpose machines” seems to fit well with Damasio’s ideas on “biological value.” I think this does provide a good basis for understanding why morality is a natural aspect of an advanced organism like humans and which there is an objective basis for much agreement on morality.

  22. Ken, thanks for the reference to Damasio. I find the discussion in his book “Self Comes To Mind Constructing The Conscious Brain”, Chapter 2 “From Life Regulation to Biological Value” correct as I understand it.

    I am also glad to see you say that: “morality is a natural aspect of an advanced organism like humans and which there is an objective basis for much agreement on morality”.

    In the hope of uncovering some disagreement (and thereby potentially refining my position through discussion), I propose the following universal hierarchy of causation of cross-intelligent-species, human independent, moral behavior (which I have not explicitly seen in the literature).

    1. The mathematics of game theory shows that our universe is such that in environments where there are synergistic benefits of cooperation, winning strategies require self denying behaviors, at least in the short term, and provocability toward poor cooperators.

    2. Our biologically based moral emotions such as empathy, guilt, and righteous indignation exist because the unselfish behaviors they motivated increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors by exploiting the synergistic benefits of cooperation in groups.

    3. Virtually all past and present cultural moral standards that advocate unselfish behaviors were primarily selected for by the benefits of cooperation in groups. (Some moral standards were pretty nasty because the benefits of cooperation for the group were obtained by cooperatively exploiting other groups such as slaves and women.)

    4. Virtually all moral intuitions, human moral values, and much of our sense of well-being and durable happiness were primarily selected for based on these intuitions’, values’, and emotions’ ability to motivate behaviors that increased the synergistic benefits of cooperation. Our sense of well being and durable happiness provides both the motivation and rational justification for accepting the burdens of acting morally when “unselfish behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral behaviors”. That is, the original ‘means’ of motivating moral behavior, its biological emotional reward, has now become its chief ‘end’.

    This all seems obvious to me, but I can’t find the above hierarchy in the peer reviewed literature.

    Also, it seems to me that there “is an objective basis for FULL agreement on what morality ‘is’: an adaptation to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”.

  23. Hi Ken

    First, re previews, I must be confusing wordpress sites. Damn :-(

    ” I had interpeted “external standard” to imply objective existence, outside humanity. (And Fyfe implies also outside a being like a god.) I think you agree but wish to define an external stand not independent of humanity. OK,”
    They are both external standards but of different types. The first does not exist (argument from queerness, projective illusions etc.), the second could exist (and is immune to those type of critiques of the first type of external standard).

    ” that is why I think Fyfes’ Desirism seems to be close to the model I suggest”
    I do not see this, since the highly significant difference is that you focus on the internal state only, whereas Fyfe focuses on interactions between these, which are external to those internal states, hence an external standard.

    “(although the word “standard” does raise the prospect of certainty in my mind).”
    Why? One could say there is a scientific standard, but it is a dynamic, provisional and defeasible one! I fail to see why the use of the term standard leads to the idea of certainty. Anyway, now you understand that , we need not dwell on such semantic quibbles, that are not substantive?

    “I find the discussion of relations between desires and the target still rather vague, and secondary in that it does not appear to get down to the underlying basis/source of desires, intutions and moral attitudes. And these are perhaps the external standards you argue for?”
    If I am reading you correctly you seem to have this upside down. The underlying basis of intuitions and moral attitudes are desires, beliefs and and dispositions and these are the result of social influences constrained by biological capacities. Since these biological capacities are universal amongst (human) agents, it is the structure and operation of environmentally constrained social influences that creates and mediates the diversity and variation in intuitions and moral attitudes. Can we systematically examine these interactions? Certainly we can try. Desirism provides a framework with which to do this. Is it the best one? That is open to a rational and empirical critique. In my view it is the best working hypothesis I have come across but I am always look for better.

    Now I am not sure what you are finding vague. A desire, when fulfilled necessarily has material affects, since the state of affairs that was the target of the desire has been brought about – in the real world. Now, sometimes such results can also affect the capacity of others’ desire to be fulfilled or thwarted and vice versa. For example conflicts can happen, where there are incompatible or opposing desired states of affairs. Why can we not systematically examine and hopefully classify such interactions?

  24. Martin, can’t get into a detailed response just now but think it important to correct your claim of my ideas: “highly significant difference is that you focus on the internal state only, whereas Fyfe focuses on interactions between thes”

    Just not true. I have discussed at length the role of social interaction, overt and covert cultural education and the relationship between conscious learning and unconscious reaction.

    I have also looked for an objective basis in human nature and a biological basis for value. While I feel that Fyfe tends to ignore this aspect I will withhold comment until completing my reading/listening.

  25. Hi Ken

    In the meantime let me expand on another point that might help in the overall process. I like your auto/manual mode analogy for moral reasoning.

    On the one hand, this is nothing more than Hare’s Archangel/Prole two tier analysis, or, as he sometimes puts, it the critical versus the intuitive levels. On the other hand, your analogy is far less obtuse, misleading (IMV should the auto level be called “intuitive”), user-friendly and easy to grok. That is why I like it.

    Now, when one switches to the manual mode, on what basis does one perform a critical – that is rational and empirical – analysis; to either review one’s own or other’s auto mode “intuitions” or, lacking such auto mode positions, determine what they should be?

    This is what I am missing from your posts. All I have seen you claim is that one can rationally do this but you have not explained how, except for referring to an internal standard and “moral intuitions” etc. which does not enlighten. How do you apply this and what is it that you apply?

  26. “I have also looked for an objective basis in human nature and a biological basis for value. While I feel that Fyfe tends to ignore this aspect I will withhold comment until completing my reading/listening.”
    Fair enough but note that Fyfe does not ignore this at all, quite the opposite, it is the whole basis of desirism!

    The objective basis in “human nature” is belief-desire-intention (BDI) psychology, these all being brain states. Desires are the name for any and all motivational brain states, beliefs are the name for any and all descriptive brain states, such that Desire+Belief => Intention => Intentional Action.

    The biological basis for value is desire – motivational brain states but desires are not intrinsically valuable in and of themselves. Since there are not only desires but also the states of affairs that are the targets of those desires (and without which desires make no sense) and also the relations between these two. The three features together can make a model of value that is entirely extrinsic and that is empirical.

    Put the two together, albeit very briefly.

    If actions bring about a desire state of affairs, the desire is fulfilled, if actions prevent a desire states of affairs, the desire is thwarted. “Fulfill” and “thwart” are labels we give to the relations between desires and the states of affairs that are the targets of those desires. Similarly “true” and “false” are labels we give to the relations between beliefs and the states of affairs that are the targets of those beliefs. Establishing what is fulfilled or thwarted is on a par with establishing what is true or false, both are a posteriori empirical procedures.

    Now what are your two answers so that we can, apart from expanding and clarifying as needed, compare and contrast these to see what the differences are , if any.

  27. Martin, The auto/manual metaphor was raised at the Edge Seminar. It appealed to my photographic interests.

    As to how we perform a reasoned analysis in manual mode – I have also often commented on this and also do in a short post tomorrow. In principle a conscious deliberation can use evidence and reason. Of course the unconscious also influences the deliberation through biases, emotions and wishes. We are more rationalizing than rational. This is mitigated to some extent by collective deliberation. Another point stressed at the Edge Seminar.

    One criticism has been how do we get the values that determine our deliberation and decisions. After all we could be influenced by xenophobic them vs us intuitions as well as our empathy.

    I think we can argue that ultimately we build our values on the basic biological values of survival as Damasio argues. I think also that in a rational, reasoned collective deliberation there is more chance for empathy to have an influence. Especially if there is reasonable representation, some of the worst intuitions can be challenged. After all these presumably arise from instincts derived from survival values. In a social empathetic species we see survival of others as also important – our in-built Golden Rule. So we can be influenced to see that esoecially in the long term our more destructive intuitions should not be followed.

  28. I am looking forward to your post tomorrow, hopefully it will clear up this question.

    Sorry but I cannot see any reasonable answer from your last comments. At best it appears to be some sort of reflective equilibrium process that you are advocating. On the other hand, such collective deliberation is dubious, as it looks likely to fall prey to group think. The best collective deliberation I know of to date is the peer review process but I do not think that is what you were implying,

    Now I like much of Damasio’s work but either have missed or forgotten his stuff on the “basic values of survival”. All his books are packed away now and not on my Kindle :-( Still on surface level, I do no see how the biology of survival cannot provide a value basis for ethics, as it could just as easily support egotism.

    I have not seen anything equivalently concrete yet to compare to the desirist framework, which analyses desires and their interactions and that is it. Hopefully this will be resolved tomorrow.

  29. Mark – generally agree with the 5 points. Perhaps I am hesitant about using “”selected” for behaviours. Rather our behaviours are based on instincts that have evolved through selection.

    It seems logical that conscious beings with the ability to remeber and to plan for the future and imagine alternatives will be empathetic and accept the idea of unselfish behaviour.

    As for you last statment – I probably wouldn’t go quite as far. Because morality has an objective basis in the facts of situations and in the nature of our species I think there is a potential for full agreement. But given the role of emotions and prior beliefs this potential will not always be realised.

    There may also be scope for several solutiuons to a moral problem – along the idea of peaks in a moral landscape that Harris suggests. But also one could imagine that rather then these peaks being sharp they may actually have plateaus. Implying the possiblity of a range on very close solutions which are logically acceptable.

  30. Freedman, of course social deiberations will not always prodiuce good results. And considering that factor alone there will be those who argue that delibgerations led by or influence by the Church, by racists, xenophobes, etc., will produce a moral zeitgeist that goes backward.

    But isn’t that exactly the same as the problem with Fyfe’s idea of “the instincts and intutions we ought to have are those that people generally can cause people to have and that they have the most and strongest reason to use those social forces to cause people to have.?

    In fact, in vague terms his description is the same as my description of how moral education takes place socially (except I have added a relationship between unconscious intutitons and conscious, or covert, social learning).

    In both systems the education could encourage racism, or it could encourage diversity. In that sense I say Fyfe and my ideas are very similar.

    Now, I still have not heard sufficent to be clear how Fyfe gets an objective basis for value. And something is required to derive a value which enables us to decide which of the above scenarios (racism or diversity) is right or wrong.

    As for Damasio’s arguemnts which I quite like I will repeat quotes from my reply to Nick above:

    “It seems to me that philosphy should have left that approach behind ages ago. Learned from human experience in obtaining knowledge and started to aprpeciate that often the origins and causes of things are internal rather than external.

    I recently read Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain and was impressed with his description of the origins of value. He starts with the concept of biological value – “value as indelibly tied to need, and need as tied to life.”

    So even the simplest orgnaism will react to irritants to preserve its existence. This reaction becomes more sophisticated as nervous systems, and then brains evolve. And now we have conscious brains – which still operate according to biological value to maintain the organism. To maintain homeostatis.

    “That connection explains why human brain circuitry has been so extravagantly dedicated to the prediction and detection of gains and losses, not to mention the promotion of gains and the fear of losses. It explains, in other words, the human obsession with assigtnation of value.

    “Values relate directly or indirectly to survival. In the case of humans in particular, value also relates to the quality of that survival in the form of well-being.”

    So perhaps Damasio’s concept of biological value is providing an objective basis for Harris’s “human fluorishing”?”

  31. Hi Mark and Ken

    I will discuss Mark’s comment and Ken’s response together in here.

    There appears to be an implicit assumption in both these that the defect/cooperate and selfish/altruistic (or at least unselfish) distinctions match to a selfish/moral distinction. I am unconvinced that they do.

    Groups cooperate internally in order to better compete externally and there is certainly both biological support for this and it manifests it in the tribal mentality and/or in-group/out-group dynamics and double standards. Group success might relate to biological success but the methods that this might be achieved might be, from an ethical perspective, quite immoral or worse, as Mark noted, for example, with slave-based economies societies.

    Still is game theory a useful and important tool in analyzing different types of social interactions? I most certainly agree, And there are other techniques to use and apply as needed. But the issue of what types of social interactions are worthy of ethical consideration, how to classify them and how to strategically deal with them are, I think, prior to any such methods. Such methods become useful in determining or designing tactical resolutions of such situations that merit analysis.

    I, like Ken, disagree (but maybe more strongly) with Mark’s point 4. Particularly with “… and much of our sense of well-being and durable happiness were primarily selected for based on these intuitions’, values’, and emotions’ ability to motivate behaviors that increased the synergistic benefits of cooperation. ” A nice idea but is there any evidence to support this? History seems far to often to provide evidence that is quite contrary to this, just thinking of slave-based economies to name but one example.

  32. Martin, the sort of model being discussed here is obviously complex. Any model for human morality must be so by necessity. I think it us easily capable of accommodating things like slavery and the moral zeitgeist. To suggest that it can’t is to impose a very naive interpretation.

    This us why I continue to insist that we should see our moral behaviors as “objectively-based” rather than objective (which is very naive). However, it amazes me that people like Fyfe continue to misinterpret me when I stress that. He continues to interpret “objectively based” as objective even though I have stressed the difference to him.

    He is not alone in that, by the way.

  33. Ken now addressing only your response to my comments:

    Re the problem of social deliberation you say:
    ‘but isn’t that exactly the same as the problem with Fyfe’s idea of “the instincts and intuitions we ought to have are those that people generally can cause people to have and that they have the most and strongest reason to use those social forces to cause people to have.?’
    This seems to imply a, quite justified, fear of moral absolutism. However this approach is not absolute but, as I already said, inherently provisional and defeasible – when one is in “manual” mode critically examining the issue.

    As Fyfe indicated the best way to perform this critical examination is through peer-reviewed scientific analysis of the various possible prescriptions and that would require providing data and argument to support conclusions and the identification and elimination of irrational arguments and irrelevant data.

    If you can suggest a better way then please do, but I doube that general social deliberation does can do this particularly as it is infected by the worst culprits those moral absolutists themselves relying upon fallacies such as double standards, special pleading, appeal to tradition, appeal to force and appeal to popularity and so on. Remember truth is not democratic. Given that is primarily moral absolutists who use such fallacies to irrationally defend their morally dubious practices. the only people who need to fear from such an approach are moral absolutists!

    Now once this is done it is still a matter of social practices to update the “auto” mode moral intuitions of the problematic groups and that is up to all of us to do this. That harks back to the tactical issues to I noted in my previous comment and using such methods as game theory as needed.

    And the debate is dynamic and defeasible and anyone should be allowed to present alternate prescriptions providing better arguments (better as in less errors of reason and/or mistakes of fact).

    “In fact, in vague terms his description is the same as my description of how moral education takes place socially (except I have added a relationship between unconscious intutitons and conscious, or covert, social learning).”
    The conscious/unconscious distinction is irrelevant in my view. We need not ponder questions of consciousness at all in manual mode. (Certainly there are tactical implications in updating auto mode thinking, as much of that is and should be unconscious). So you have not added anything that is not already assumed in desirism. There are two aspects to emphasize to clarify this.

    People seek to substitute a more fulfilling state of affairs for a lesser one. They seek to fulfill the more and stronger of the desires they have and they act to fulfill these desires do this given their beliefs.

    So moral education is about providing both better (more true) beliefs and encouraging praiseworthy desires over blameworthy desires. The issue is to consistently, coherently and comprehensively do with through parenting and schooling.

    Many of the problems with people so-called moral intuitions is the result of being inconsistent – only praising members of your in-group for praiseworthy desires, only blaming members of your out-group for blameworthy desires ; or worse praising desires in members of your in-group where you blame those with the same desires in your out-group; failing to be comprehensive in both cases by applying an irrational and irrelevant in-group/out-group distinction; and being incoherent by praising blameworthy desires – certainly in one’s in-group and condemning praiseworthy desires – certainly in one’s out group. As and when children become socialized adults they mostly carrying on perpetuating these same corrupted and distorted moral intuitions through the same means.

    The key question being how to establish what are praiseworthy and what are blameworthy desires, that is where the dispute between us apparently is unless you disagree with the above too?

    Any this leads to your comment:

    “Now, I still have not heard sufficent to be clear how Fyfe gets an objective basis for value….Learned from human experience in obtaining knowledge and started to appeciate that often the origins and causes of things are internal rather than external.”
    We agree on the latter the origin of value is internal, desirism says it is desire! However desires are not valuable in and of themselves. I am dubious of any theory that espouses that values are intrinsic whether it is Harris’s flourishing over withering or Damasio’s(?) biological value or any other. For any intrinsic value theory one can always find non-extreme examples of those who disvalue that value and who are we to dictate to them? This leaves the question of moral value to be extrinsic and relational and so, happily it as it happens, it did not have to be that way, amenable to empirical investigation.

    Following Mackie combined wiht Griffin one could say generic good is “such as to fulfill the desire(s) of the kind in question”. This is what Fyfe did say too. Now when developed to apply moral value, the moral value of a particular desire is performed by evaluating it with respect to everyone’s desires (including the agents) – as these become the desires of the kind in question – and this leads to the formulation “what people generally have many and strong reasons to promote”. The moral value of a desire is its social desirability and its social desirability is as to whether it tends to fulfil or thwart other desires. Note that by “social” and “general” I do not mean culturally specific or a particular distribution of desires, this is a time and place transcendent analysis, a robust and distribution-invariant but still provisional and defeasible evaluation of a desire.

    Phew, enough for now!

  34. Martin, my quote about “instincts and intutions we ought to have” was taken from Fyfe – not me.

    Your concern about the falacies, special pleading, etc. occurring in social delibration is of course true. We have always had that and always will. Part of being human. As reasoning and acceptance of science improves though I think we can handle these problems better. I think modern experience probably supports that. And this is assisted by proper democratic involvement of all groups in discussion.

    We should try hard to remove the concept that religious leaders should be consiulted as of right. And I would say the same about philosopohers of ethics. This is a job for everyone, not self appointed “specialists.”

    Your reference to peer reviewed scientific examination instead of social deliberation seems very mechanical to me (these particpants have their own subjective probelms) and unrealistic. Sure go ahead with such publication and review. But in the end social deliberation will occurr before we reach social acceptance of moral standards. That deliberation can be informed by the scientific peer review, etc., but it won’t be replaced by it.

    If Fyfe has incorporated an undertstanding of the role of unconscioous that is good. I have not yet found it (still being bored by aliens dispersing rocks!). However, I strongly disagree with you about its relevance. I think it is extremely important and we ignore the findings of modern science if we refuse to understand its involvement.

    Our moral education is not restricted to parents and schools. In fact some of the changes just can’t be created through schools. Just imagine updating our morality on women or sexuality through schools – that would be extremely divisive.

    A lot of our moral education takes place socially – through peers and social contacts but also through news media and entertainement. In fact a lot of that education can be overt.

    Your raising problems that people have with “so-called moral intutions” may well be true. But it is reality. We work with reality, not with wishes of how the world “should” be. Humans are human.

    Intrinsic values – why oppose that word? Intrinsic just means natural or essentual. In that sense Damasio’s biololigcal value is natural and it is essential to life.

    Similarly, why choose the word desirism? No-one else seems to use it and it can be off-putting. Desire - “a strong feeling of wanting somethign or wishing somethign to happen.” In common usage this does not give the impression of empathy or The Golden Rule. And who the hell is going to sit through the sort of convoluted justification Fyfe provides?

    I really cannot find anything in “desirism” that goes beyond desires to recognise that humans do arrive at unselfishness naturally, that we have an inbuilt empathy. That we can remember, plan and imagine consequences. It seems to me that the scientific understanding we have of human nature these days must be incorporated into any scientific understanding of morality.

    Leaving the discussion at a philosophical level will not work.

  35. Martin,

    It seems to me that moralities defined by ideas similar to “Based on your well informed, carefully considered expectations, it is moral to do whatever you expect will most increase your life-long well-being” necessarily have severely limited cultural utility.

    As Ken notes concerning desirism (which I understand to be, at bottom, justified by this same idea just expressed differently), these definitions of morality are too disconnected from following the Golden Rule and other self denying behaviors normally associated with ‘morality’ to provide reliable guidance for increasing life-long well-being. The combination of “in the heat of the moment of decisions” by fallible people combined with the focus on the over-riding principle that it is moral to do what you expect will most increase your well-being (or however you want to express that in desirism terms) seems to me to be a disaster in waiting. That is, people acting according to it are likely to commonly act in self centered ways that a disinterested observer would say were immoral.

    I want to suggest an alternative definition of morality with the same goal, but that I expect will provide a more reliable means for fallible humans of to choose behaviors that are actually likely to “increase life-long well-being”.

    In the field of human evolution, it is uncontroversial that people have evolved their high level of intelligence and other human unique abilities, especially language, largely due to the reproductive fitness benefits of being able to deal with the complexities of social interactions required for maintaining the benefits of living in highly cooperative groups.

    Relevant to morality, our sense of well-being, or durable happiness (as some people have called it to distinguish it from mere fleeting pleasure), has been largely evolved to reward us with an experience of security and sustained pleasure when we are in the cooperative company of friends and family (and in cooperative groups in general). (Yes, I have to leave this just as an assertion here, but I can say it is at least a plausible assertion based on how people have been so extensively evolutionarily molded to cooperate in groups.)

    The upshot is my expectation that defining morality as “Self denying behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral behaviors” is actually very effective (culturally useful) at guiding people to choose behaviors that “will most increase life-long well-being”. In particular, I expect this definition is more effective (culturally useful) in increasing life-long well-being than any of that class of moralities defined by “Based on your well informed, carefully considered expectations, it is moral to do whatever you expect will most increase your life-long well-being” (or however that would be expressed in desirism terms).

    Finally, as you point out, cooperation in groups has historically often been aimed in part at exploiting or even exterminating other groups. In those cultures, this exploitation (for example slavery) was considered moral. From our more enlightened perspective, we can see what they could not, that all people together make up a group worthy of moral regard and one sub-group exploiting another reduces the benefits of cooperation in the larger group and is therefore immoral. Indeed, most of what we see as historical ‘progress’ in morality is nothing more than increasing the size of the group judged worthy of full moral regard.

  36. Ken

    “Martin, the sort of model being discussed here is obviously complex. Any model for human morality must be so by necessity.”

    The issue is not the complexity or simplicity of the model but its relevance. I have asked and not yet seen what sort of model you are proposing. Given your implicit agreement over Mark’s Game Theory, I have already noted that this is a very powerful tool but what it misses or rather presumes, are the underlying intentions of the agents – are they rational maximizers or otherwise and so on. However it the determination and evaluation of the intentions that the agent have or lacks that is where moral evaluation could possible be done.

    “This us why I continue to insist that we should see our moral behaviors as “objectively-based” rather than objective (which is very naive). However, it amazes me that people like Fyfe continue to misinterpret me when I stress that. He continues to interpret “objectively based” as objective even though I have stressed the difference to him.”

    What does this “objectively-based” mean especially since you keep on arguing for a “subjectively-based” i.e. “internal standards” approach? Consider the issue from a third person point of view (POV).

    A third person exclusive POV looks at the interactions of agents but excludes their intentions (and desires and beliefs) such that one could not even determine whether these interactions are accidental or deliberate, let alone moral or not, regardless of how many facts there are, they are insufficient.

    A third person inclusive POV and includes their intentions (and desires and beliefs) such that one can determine whether these interactions are accidental or deliberate, and now we can consider the morality of those actions, and, there are facts of the matter that should enable us to do this. These facts include their intentions, including whether they lie or tell the truth about their beliefs and desires, there relevant facts of the matter.

    Both the third person exclusive and third person inclusive POV of view are amenable to empirical investigation in a scientifically objective and realist fashion. Now the third person exclusive POV is, within meta-etchics, labelled “moral objectivism” whereas the third person inclusive POV is labelled (amognst others) “moral subjectivism” so much for labels.

    Desirism is based on a third person inclusive POV and so empirically objective as is needed.

    ” I think it us easily capable of accommodating things like slavery and the moral zeitgeist. To suggest that it can’t is to impose a very naive interpretation.”
    Certainly desirism it can describe how these come about but also describe what is wrong with them. I fail to see how your model, whatever it is so far, can do this. It is not naive of me to criticize your approach this as you have not yet provided anything that could lead to another interpretation of yours ideas, so far.

  37. Ken

    Now addressing your last comment to me.

    First, I keep on giving you answers to your questions and providing concrete descriptions such as before on value combined with clarifying mis-understandings on desirism and so on. You are repeatedly failing to address and criticize these, and, instead, looking for and perpetuating mis-understandings.

    On the other side I have repeatedly asked what your “objectively-based” “internal standard” is and offered criticism based on whatever I could discern. I am still waiting for something concrete from you.

    I am interested in developing and refining a “science of morality” , so I am seeking to find a better working hypothesis than desirism, which either improves it or replaces it. You have offered nothing so far.

    Further if you are interested, as you appear to be, in a “science of morality” too, why are you not addressing the points offered rather such pointless diversions such as complaining about the label for this theory? (BTW that is my invention as I found that the old label “Desire Utilitarianism” led to too many straw man utilitarian criticisms (plus it is easier to type). If someone can come up with a better label, that is fine by me however that will not alter one iota the theory itself and that is what I am interested in discussing and comparing and evaluating).

    Finally so far you have not addressed Fyfe’s main and fatal criticism of your approach, that it fails a Euthyphro-like dilemma, whereas desirism does.

    I am only interested in theories that can pass such a challenge, there are more than just desirism of course, such as Raillton’s social rationality as well as others. That is where the debate over the framework for a science of morality should be, comparing, contrasting and improving those theories that pass the Euthyphro challenge. Now, if you disagree with that, then provide an argument as to why this is incorrect.

  38. Mark

    “It seems to me that moralities defined by ideas similar to “Based on your well informed, carefully considered expectations, it is moral to do whatever you expect will most increase your life-long well-being” necessarily have severely limited cultural utility.”
    I agree

    “As Ken notes concerning desirism (which I understand to be, at bottom, justified by this same idea just expressed differently),”
    No it is entirely different. You like Game Theory, well desirism leads to an analysis of desire-desire interactions which has some similarities to Game Theory but focuses on the intentions of the players directly. Ken’s complaint, especially given his implicit agreement on Game Theory, on examining Alonzo’s and Luke’s Alpha and Betty scenarios is quite ironic as this is within the same scope as two-player zero-sum games!

    The Golden Rule can be derived from (and improved upon) by desirism, as does Game Theory itself , for example the Tit–for-Tat resolution to the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma being used as the basis for the Platinum Rule. Still these are just a tactical heuristics and nothing more.

    “…other self denying behaviors normally associated with ‘morality’ to provide reliable guidance for increasing life-long well-being.”
    Desirism does nothing of the sort as the problem such as akrasia and similar are built into it and it only uses “ought implies can” since it is based upon and consistent wiht neuro- and cognitive psychology.

    Much of the rest of your post is irrelevant to defending or explaining desirism as it is operating on quite false conceptions on what the model is. If you read only my comments here on Ken’s site alone you will see that Desirism is radically different to what you are discussing here.

    “I want to suggest an alternative definition of morality with the same goal, but that I expect will provide a more reliable means for fallible humans of to choose behaviors that are actually likely to “increase life-long well-being”.
    So hopefully, unlike Ken, you are going to provide a theory to critically examine. Lets us see.

    “In the field of human evolution, it is uncontroversial that people have evolved their high level of intelligence and other human unique abilities, especially language, largely due to the reproductive fitness benefits of being able to deal with the complexities of social interactions required for maintaining the benefits of living in highly cooperative groups.

    Relevant to morality, our sense of well-being, or durable happiness (as some people have called it to distinguish it from mere fleeting pleasure), has been largely evolved to reward us with an experience of security and sustained pleasure when we are in the cooperative company of friends and family (and in cooperative groups in general). (Yes, I have to leave this just as an assertion here, but I can say it is at least a plausible assertion based on how people have been so extensively evolutionarily molded to cooperate in groups.)”
    I would like this to be true, like you, but there is, as previously stated, far too much contrary historical and anthropological data against this.

    Further even with D.S Wilsons’s multi-level selection model, there is a generational increase of defectors over co-operators within the more successful cooperating groups that out compete other such groups.

    “The upshot is my expectation that defining morality as “Self denying behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral behaviors” is actually very effective (culturally useful) at guiding people to choose behaviors that “will most increase life-long well-being”.”
    This utilizes a “sacrifice” model, which, by contrast, desirism rejects or at least ameliorates, and so removes your unfeasible demand over issue of “self-denying” behaviors. Through successful socialization in general (not just parenting and schooling of course) agents would not want to perform such actions in the first place – no sacrifice required. They would still pursue their own desires for their own flourishing, but their desires are mutually and reciprocally molded so that they have desires that tend to fulfill others desires rather than those that tend to thwart others desires and that is how social harmony (not co-operation directly) is achieved, as side effects of everyone’s socially molded desires, needs and interests.

    Sometimes social harmony is achieved through cooperation, sometimes through competition. You are laboring under a false assumption that cooperation is automatically a moral good and the only moral good. It is not , it depends. some co-operative behaviors can be quite immoral.

    “Finally, as you point out, cooperation in groups has historically often been aimed in part at exploiting or even exterminating other groups. In those cultures, this exploitation (for example slavery) was considered moral. From our more enlightened perspective, we can see what they could not, that all people together make up a group worthy of moral regard and one sub-group exploiting another reduces the benefits of cooperation in the larger group and is therefore immoral. Indeed, most of what we see as historical ‘progress’ in morality is nothing more than increasing the size of the group judged worthy of full moral regard.”
    No question one of the issues is, as Hume put it, the “widening of the circle” of those worthy of consideration as moral agents and moral patients, however you need to provide some demonstration that co-operation is the moral good, which implies that competition is the moral bad. I fail to see how the co-operation/competition distinction matches the moral good/bad distinction. Further this is not just historical it goes on to this day.

    Lets try the Euthyphro challenge on this:
    X1: “is it good because of self denying behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups
    or
    X2:” are self denying behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups good?”
    If X2 we have to look elsewhere to see why that is.

    If X1 then you need to show that this does not lead to absurdities but it does. There are many issues here I will add two more communism and fascism. I cannot see your model passing the Euthyphro challenge but please show me otherwise.

    Finally to your credit, and, unlike Ken, you at least are providing a concrete model that we can discuss.

  39. Martin, I am happy to accept your description of desirism: “They would still pursue their own desires for their own flourishing, but their desires are mutually and reciprocally molded so that they have desires that tend to fulfill others desires rather than those that tend to thwart others desires and that is how social harmony (not co-operation directly) is achieved, as side effects of everyone’s socially molded desires, needs and interests.”

    However, I am puzzled by your claim that desirism is NOT justified by claiming to be the moral system that will most increase “life-long well-being”. If not “life-long well-being” (or durable happiness or eudemonia) what justifies accepting desirism’s burden of “mutually and reciprocally” molding desires?

    I stand by my statement that desirism will necessarily have severely limited cultural utility. Its utility will be necessarily limited because the leap from “I will mold my desires to maximize my ….(pleasure, happiness, well-being?)…” to “correctly making moral choices in the heat of the moment” is simple too great for fallible humans to be able to use it for useful moral guidance. Saying that people’s desires have been somehow “molded’ so they will not want to behave immorally seems to me highly unrealistic.

    Also, you seem to be thinking that what is moral and what is good are somehow synonymous. We agree that moral acts are good acts, but there are good acts (relaxation, self pampering, and self improvement that produce pleasure) and good things (good jokes, entertainment, and winning the lottery) that have nothing to do with morality.

    Cultural moral standards are generally recognized as cultural norms whose violation engenders the emotion righteous indignation and the idea that the violator deserves punishment (though the violator may not actually be punished). Cultural moral standards as they presently exist (norms whose violation merits punishment) only make sense if they are advocating behaviors that are in some sense self denying. Are you proposing a new kind of cultural moral standard or claiming that with desirism, cultural moral standards become irrelevant?

    In the end, I expect the only rational justification for accepting the burdens of acting morally is the individual’s expectation that doing so is likely to increase their life-long well-being. Further, while increasing life-long well-being is the justification for accepting the burdens of acting morally, on its own, this stated goal is virtually useless for providing moral guidance.

    On the other hand, there appears to be an underlying moral principle of virtually all past and present cultural moral standards as well as our biologically based moral emotions: “Self denying behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral behaviors”. Due to its consistency with our moral emotions and moral intuitions, and defining the goal of morality as benefits obtained by self-denying actions, I am happy to argue that it, of all available secular alternatives, is the basis of the morality most likely to increase life-long well-being.

  40. Mark

    “Martin, I am happy to accept your description of desirism: “
    Not quite. That was not just a description of desirism, but partly a description of how things already work, within which desirism can be used to evaluate the application of those social forces, to show how to increase social harmony and reduce discord.

    “However, I am puzzled by your claim that desirism is NOT justified by claiming to be the moral system that will most increase “life-long well-being”. If not “life-long well-being” (or durable happiness or eudemonia) what justifies accepting desirism’s burden of “mutually and reciprocally” molding desires?”
    It is not justified in terms of valuing any specific internal state such as pleasure over pain, flourishing over diminishing, satisfaction over frustration, happiness over misery or any other utility. For any of these there is a dispute as to which one to prefer over another, an unresolvable dispute AFAICS and , secondly, for any utility, they are either specified substantively and can be shown to be false due to many exceptions, or so generally that they are trivially true and become just empty platitudes.

    Desirism focuses instead on the social forces that can either hinder or help, cause friction or accord, in anyone and everyone achieving their own utility, whatever it is. It accepts value pluralism which dissolves all such exception challenges and better matches reality, there are many different ways for people’s lives to go better

    “I stand by my statement that desirism will necessarily have severely limited cultural utility. Its utility will be necessarily limited because the leap from “I will mold my desires to maximize my ….(pleasure, happiness, well-being?)…” to “correctly making moral choices in the heat of the moment” is simple too great for fallible humans to be able to use it for useful moral guidance. Saying that people’s desires have been somehow “molded’ so they will not want to behave immorally seems to me highly unrealistic.”
    1. There is no maximisation of a utility, there is no right act based on the above.
    2. This is how people do already act in the heat of the moment, so it is totally realistic, the moral question being as to how their desires have been molded, should they have been molded that way. Where do you think Ken’s “moral intuitions” come from – the prior influence of social forces of praise and blame1

    “Also, you seem to be thinking that what is moral and what is good are somehow synonymous. We agree that moral acts are good acts, but there are good acts (relaxation, self pampering, and self improvement that produce pleasure) and good things (good jokes, entertainment, and winning the lottery) that have nothing to do with morality.”
    No I don’t. That is why I wrote previously about generic good versus moral good. Moral value is a species of value. I am not going to repeat what I have already written, these comments are getting too long anyway!

    “Cultural moral standards are generally recognized as cultural norms whose violation engenders the emotion righteous indignation and the idea that the violator deserves punishment (though the violator may not actually be punished). Cultural moral standards as they presently exist (norms whose violation merits punishment) only make sense if they are advocating behaviors that are in some sense self denying. Are you proposing a new kind of cultural moral standard or claiming that with desirism, cultural moral standards become irrelevant?”
    Neither. Desirism looks at how “cultural norms” already work, much as you described here, (apart from the “self-denying” bit – that is one claim by some people usually egotists who wish to avoid those norms) and evaluates those cultural norms, so, amongst other things, one can objectively compare and contract different cultural norms

    “In the end, I expect the only rational justification for accepting the burdens of acting morally is the individual’s expectation that doing so is likely to increase their life-long well-being. Further, while increasing life-long well-being is the justification for accepting the burdens of acting morally, on its own, this stated goal is virtually useless for providing moral guidance.”
    And so you refute you own position!

    “On the other hand, there appears to be an underlying moral principle of virtually all past and present cultural moral standards as well as our biologically based moral emotions: “Self denying behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral behaviors”.
    Sorry I do not see this at all. There are plenty of people, in your terms, who want to co-operate, they do not see it as self-denying.

    “Due to its consistency with our moral emotions and moral intuitions, and defining the goal of morality as benefits obtained by self-denying actions, I am happy to argue that it, of all available secular alternatives, is the basis of the morality most likely to increase life-long well-being.”
    Then you need to address the Euthyphro challenge which as AFAICS your approach fails.

  41. Mark Sloan

    Martin,

    “1. It (desirism) is not justified in terms of valuing any specific internal state such as pleasure over pain, flourishing over diminishing, satisfaction over frustration, happiness over misery or any other utility.”

    I did not ask: What is the justification for desirism?

    I asked: What is the the justification for accepting the burdens of desirism?

    I now understand you to be saying something like desirism imposes no burdens (self denying behaviors are not required) because people are somehow pre-conditioned to have no desire to act immorally. So somehow people will be pre-conditioned to have no desire to act immorally which no one has yet ever figured out how to do. But to make this even more unlikely, there is, so far as I know, however no defined set of practical cultural moral standards for desirism that people will be conditioned to act in accordance with. I am unable to make any sense of this.

    “2. Desirism focuses instead on the social forces that can either hinder or help, cause friction or accord, in anyone and everyone achieving their own utility, whatever it is.”

    The function of all past and present cultural moralities has been to establish moral standards that, by being enforced in groups, help, rather than hinder, people from achieving their own utility (benefits) by cooperating in groups. I don’t see that desirism adds anything useful to efforts to optimize cultural moral standards to meet this goal.

    “3. Then you need to address the Euthyphro challenge.”

    The Euthyphro challenge is important in philosophical theism. Since I expect neither of us are theists, I don’t see its relevance to our discussion. If you wish to ask a question about objectivity, universality, or species independence, which is a critically important subject, you can ask that directly.

  42. Mark

    The Euthyphro challenge is important in philosophical theism. Since I expect neither of us are theists, I don’t see its relevance to our discussion. If you wish to ask a question about objectivity, universality, or species independence, which is a critically important subject, you can ask that directly.”
    Well, if this is the best you can do to answer the challenge that I gave you and that, as as Alonzo showed, desirism passes, I can only conclude that your ethical model is a falure and there is nothing further to discuss on that.

    As for your purported criticisms of desirism, since I have already said it is limited by “ought implies can” as any model must be and is based on cognitive, philosophical and social psychology you points make no sense.

    Your first point (1) is a failure since the large majority of evidence supports motivational non-cognivitism and desirism provides a rational basis to that, AFAIC your criticism is a straw man, I dunno where it comes from.

    As for your second point it does not make much sense at all. You have yet to establish in any way bar a priori assertion that your model works, yet to answer the absurdities it leads to and yet you attempt to use it to criticize another model, that has empirical support and does not lead to absurdities. The theme under discussion has been (contrary to the title of this post) the scientific basis of prescriptions maybe you are taking the title literally, I am waiting to see any scientific support for your claims.

    Desirism is based on the social psychological features that describe how moralities do work and provide an objective basis to critically evaluate and proscribe any such morality, that is where “optimisation” comes in. You appear to be arguing for moral relativism and denying there are any independent and object bases to do this, in which case you need to show how desirism fails here rather than just dismiss it with no argument. That is, clearly, not an argument.

  43. Mark

    This is probably not the best place to discuss your approach (whatever that amounts to) versus that of desirism. I suggest you go to Alonzo’s blog and place further queries there. (My blog is inactive at present).

    Cheers

    Martin

  44. Mark Sloan

    Martin, we seem to be talking past each other to no useful purpose. I think it best to drop the convesation.

  45. Ken, can you spell it out for me, my friend? What moral system do you propose?

  46. Simon, in my writings on this issue I am not “proposing” a “moral system” at all – simply trying to udnerstand where our morality comes from scientifically.

    Persoanlly, I see externally imposed “systems” as dangerous because they are essentially dogma, often reinforced by myths and lies. I have also found that -isms and -ians that people give to name their “systems” are often meaningless and confuse the issue because they mean different things to different people.

  47. What if you can propose a system that works, and appeals to people because it works? Nothing is imposed then.

  48. I think that in morality, what needs to be optimized is health. Not pleasure, not well-being – health. This is a manageable and intuitive concept.

  49. So basically I’ve come up with a system, I’ve laid out the elements of it and I’m hawking it around trying to attract interest.

  50. Perhaps you should start a religion – that’s how it is normally done. Can be quite profitable too.

  51. It’s an atheist religion. There’s no money in it.

  52. Have a look if you like – yellowgrain.co.uk . The basics are in place but there’s a long way to go. I’m currently making an account of the evolution of human morality, because I’ve found it makes an excellent “user’s guide” to the moral landscape. The whole thing’s taking forever but I’m pleased with the overall progress.

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