Drifting moral values

Last night the New Zealand Parliament overwhelmingly voted to go ahead with the marriage Equality Bill. A common comment is that it’s time had come. It would have not been possible 10 years ago.

Is this just an example of moral relativism, laws and rules being decided by what is fashionable? By our current whims and fancies? The situation which is supposed to result from subjective morality.

Or does it illustrate progress? Are we getting better at deciding what is truly “right” or “wrong?” This implies that there are some sort of objective standards – an objective basis for human morality.

I argue for the second position – you can see that from my earlier posts Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers and Subjective morality – not what it seems?This is like Matt Dillahunty‘s argument - “If it was wrong then, it is wrong now.” If we decide today that marriage equality is morally right, then it was also right 10 years ago when we didn’t recognise that.

Slavery, racism, discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation may have been socially acceptable in the past. We may have believed them to be OK morally. But they were still morally wrong. Marriage inequality was socially acceptable 10 years ago, but it was still morally wrong.

Human morality based on evolved biological value

I say that because I think there is an objective basis to human morality. At least on some issues, we can say there is a “correct” moral decision – even if society doesn’t see it. That “correct” position does not depend on popular vote, fashion, or the whims and fancies of a leaders, society, a divine “lawmaker” or a god.

In Subjective morality – not what it seems?”  I briefly outlined an objective basis for human morality derived from evolved biological value. I won’t develop that further here, although I recognise some people find it controversial. But if there is an objective basis for human morality why do we see the differences we do between different societies and cultures? Why do we see this moral drift within our own society? Despite an objective basis in our evolved biology our moral decisions can differ over time and place. What drives these differences?

I also compared our moral system to a modern camera in the last post. Most people in most situations use their moral camera in the “auto mode”. It’s far more efficient to rely on feelings, emotions and our reaction to them than to consult our “holy books” or carry out a logical consideration for each moral situation we face. We would have gone extinct long ago if that was the way we worked.

Using the “manual” mode

However, we do sometimes use the manual mode – that’s what happened in Parliament last night. The manual mode is necessary when we rehearse moral arguments, consider new ethical situations, deliberate on ethical rules and laws. As the caption to the photo of Joshua Greene in the last post says our automatic ethical responses just “may not be effective in handling modern moral problems such as global warming.”

Mind you we are more a rationalising species than a rational one. An individual considering their response to a moral situation is not necessarily using good or unmotivated logic. They rarely are. In fact modern research suggests that inevitably our feelings and emotions are involved in our apparently reasoning, logical considerations. So the manual mode is far from perfect (and admit it, how often do you make mistakes when you use your camera’s manual mode).

We don’t always get it right.

Reasoned consideration of ethical situations works better when more than one person is involved. Rationalisations are more likely to be noticed. Diverse opinions can be represented. But there is still no guarantee that it results in the “correct” moral decisions determined by the objectively based nature of our values and the situation being considered. I think, though, like scientific knowledge it is something that improves with time and experience. Society can recognise the mistakes of the past, correct them and learn from them.

Another reason is that our human nature is complex. We may have an inbuilt tendency to empathy and the golden rule, but we also have inbuilt tendencies to violence, and to a tribal “them vs us” mindset.  We are a complex species, our interactions with other humans, and with members of other species is also complex. We are not always going to make the “correct” ethical decision – even when we think we have applied careful reasoning and involved multiple viewpoints. There is always the option of in future correcting our mistakes of the past.

Effectively the NZ parliaments was doing that last night. It was recognising that previous marriage legislation had problems and that the Civil Unions Act they passed 8 years ago had still not resolved all of them.

On the whole, I think our drifting moral values indicates progress and not moral relativism.


In my next post on this subject I will discus how deliberate and intentional use of our moral camera in the manual mode can also adjust the auto mode. And even if you never use the manual mode you might find that your auto mode tends to update itself.

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26 responses to “Drifting moral values

  1. I’m glad to see that in these new pronouncements on morality you are giving more weight to evolutionary ideas. However, I think you are going seriously wrong with your interpretation. I also think you are allowing your preoccupation with subjectivity/objectivity to lead you astray.

    You wrote:

    “Moral questions are differentiated from many non-moral ones because they evoke strong moral reactions. Emotions and feelings. In fact the feelings of “right” and “wrong” are very strong feelings. Perhaps this is why some people see them as objective – they must be because they are so strong.”

    This is entirely misleading. The social emotions and instincts, like all other human characteristics, are as they are because they enhanced the survival chances of genes. If they are connected to “right” and “wrong” it’s because these terms were originally defined according to what we feel rather than the other way round.

    Morality exists in the world because a co-operating group survives better than independent individuals. The whole can be so much more effective than the simple sum of the parts.

    You wrote:
    “Is this, (marriage equality), just an example of moral relativism, laws and rules being decided by what is fashionable? By our current whims and fancies? The situation which is supposed to result from subjective morality.
    Or does it illustrate progress? Are we getting better at deciding what is truly “right” or “wrong?” This implies that there are some sort of objective standards – an objective basis for human morality.”
    These are not the only options. One of the difficulties for modern man in being saddled with social emotions and instincts evolved within our animal ancestors is that these characteristics evolved to promote co-operation only within comparatively small groups. Not only that, but we have other characteristics which make us cautious or even hostile towards other groups. We are naturally phobic about difference.
    I believe what has happened in recent times is not a change in our basic social emotional and instinctive characteristics but an expansion of our “in group”.
    Many things have contributed to this expansion:
    Foreign travel
    Mass media
    Immigration
    Education
    Trade
    International Electronic Communications
    Translations of foreign literature
    All this has rendered the strange more familiar and less frightening. Thus does our “in group” expand. We accord to members of the “in group” the same rights and freedoms we enjoy ourselves.
    I believe today’s grouping situation is of course much more complicated. An individual feels himself part of several groups to which he assigns various levels of importance and co-operation. The situation is analogous to the rings of an onion or perhaps within a selection of people like a complicated Venn diagram.
    You wrote:

    “Slavery, racism, discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation may have been socially acceptable in the past. We may have believed them to be OK morally. But they were still morally wrong. Marriage inequality was socially acceptable 10 years ago, but it was still morally wrong.”

    This implies the existence of some absolute morality good for all places and times. If you are going to appeal to evolution you should follow through.

    If slavery was wrong in the past by whose standards are you going to judge it? I suggest that the success of many slave owning societies in the past shows that it was not detrimental to the “in group”, that is the slave owners. So for them it was right.

    And in more general terms: The optimum moral code of conduct for a group is that which best assures their wellbeing and survival in the long term. Note that this means that as a group faces different existential threats over time that require different levels of co-operation among members then the moral code of conduct should change appropriately.

    This is what I believe we should be learning about morality from evolution. Whether any of this confers objectivity on the contents of moral systems I wouldn’t like to say. One thing is for sure: all our decision making including moral decision making has improved because we have access to much better more objective information about the real world. We are more able to assess the consequences of any decision we might make, moral or otherwise. In addition, this objective information helps us choose what values are important in moral terms.

    Before finishing this rant I’d like to say something about our social emotions and instincts.

    They brought our animal ancestors through a very long school of extremely hard knocks. So you were right to emphasize their importance. It may well be that decisions made on an emotional “gut feel” will often be better than those made on inadequate information. They’ll certainly be faster.
    Unfortunately our emotions are easily manipulated by demagogues. How often in history has an orator inflamed a mob to commit some of humanities worst atrocities?

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  2. Despite the arguments for subjective and objective morality being well constructed I still fail to see how being married would make me more moral regardless of who or what I should be allowed to marry being decided by a ruling elite who have shown the least and most questionable morals in recent and past times.
    Would being married entitle me to tax relief and inheritance rights? Would it gain me respect from other married people who have fashionable morals and expedient judgements? Maybe all of the above but I dont see being married or not being married would have any effect upon my morality .
    I am pleased that gay people can demand the same rights as any other person . I am sad that some wonderful and valued gay people died due to prejudices of fashionable moral arseholes ( the list is too long but Oscar Wilde’s story of love is so sad} . But I am sad that anyone would think that being married solves anything at all .

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  3. “Being married” is just a label. In most countries these days, married is the same as a de facto relationship, so adds little other value

    I don’t see what it has to do with morality.

    Unless of course you are in a middle eastern country, where living together as an unmarried couple can lead to lashings, beheadings etc.

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  4. Agree completely Lorraine. I sympathise with the Aussie who welcomed their PM’s opposition to homosexual marriage and looked forward to her extension of that policy to heterosexual couples. Most people these days don’t make such reactionary judgment of people’s morality and most taxation and financial inequalities have largely been eliminated. Very welcome changes.

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  5. Quite a lot of straight people died as a result of the moralities of fashionable arseholes too Lorraine.

    Look at the Jews, for example

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  6. One survival of old attitudes towards marriages that pisses me off is the automatic assumption that both members of a couple have the same surname. That’s worse than assuming a formal marriage as many women these days keep ther family name even after a formal marriage.

    When it happens to me I don’t take it as a moral slight – just rudeness.

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  7. Marriage is a waste of time.
    It adds nothing to a de facto arrangement except the blessing of the state.

    Who needs the approval of the state to share a life with someone else?

    What is not moral is wasting all this time and energy on a liberal conscience vote when we have real problems to address like child poverty.

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  8. Gordon, thanks for taking time to make a serious response to my post.

    I think your conclusion “This is entirely misleading” must be relying on a misinterpretation because I don’t disagree with what you say. I am not suggesting at all that these feelings of “right” and “wrong” represent objective things in any way. Just that they are so strong (for good evolutionary reasons) this leads some people to give them objective significance.

    I agree with you completely about expansion of our “in group.” But while there may not be “a change in our basic social emotional and instinctive characteristics” I think that our automatic responses do change. Effectively there is a change in moral values. We may actually disagree here – let’s see. I am intending to cover this aspect in my next post (early next week).

    We may end up disagreeing over whether what is wrong now was wrong in the past (eg Slavery). For this I am starting with an evolutionary approach, the appearance of simple biological value in early organisms and its evolution to the sort of value system a sentient, intelligent, social and empathetic species like ours has. My argument is that this provides an objective basis for our value system – and while this may be imperfectly reflected in our emotions and feelings, it also provides a basis for intelligent reflection about ethical situations. Consequently we can see your claim “I suggest that the success of many slave owning societies in the past shows that it was not detrimental to the “in group”, that is the slave owners. So for them it was right.” is true. But judged against and intelligently considered moral code (possible today – but also possible amongst both intelligent slaves and intelligent slave-owners in the past) we can find it wrong.

    I take your point “If you are going to appeal to evolution you should follow through. “ As I said in this post “In “Subjective morality – not what it seems?“ I briefly outlined an objective basis for human morality derived from evolved biological value. I won’t develop that further here, although I recognise some people find it controversial. “ I find this area the hardest to express and explain (I am basically relying on ideas of Antonio Damasio on this) and I will have to do better in future . So thanks for that feedback.

    I agree with you also on the problems of relying on emotions and feelings. Even intelligent reasoning has its problems – and I suggest this is improved by doing it collectively.

    Personally, I think that we can see changes in our “auto mode”, changes in our intuitively based reactions and feelings, over time. I will deal with that in the next post.

    I appreciate your detailed feedback. It is helpful, it wasn’t a “rant” by any means.

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  9. Marriage is a waste of time.
    It adds nothing to a de facto arrangement except the blessing of the state.

    Who needs the approval of the state to share a life with someone else?

    I largely agree, furthermore, the marital and de facto relationship that is in existence in NZ effectively ‘marries’ anyone in a de facto relationship. Particularly so in regard to property.

    This raises an interesting anomaly in regard to old fashioned bigamy which is still on the statute books. . A traditionally married person is open to charges in this respect. Is a person in a de facto relationship? If not, why not. Also a married person might leave a partner and still, years later, be charged with bigamy if remarrying without formal divorce – will bigamy charges arise from simple co-habitation at a later date too? If not why not? . Are those who leave a de facto relationship still open to bigamy if they start another relationship, if not, why not?

    Yes, marriage (and bigamy) is a waste of time.

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  10. As I’ve argued before, slavery appears wrong to us in some objective sense because it conflicts with today’s morals, but consider a future society that sees eating animal flesh as morally repugnant, are they right in some objective sense that us animal eaters of today are amoral, as we might judge slave owners of the past?

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  11. Put another way, I still think you’re fighting occam’s razor, in this case the simplest solution is that there is no morality outside of what evolution (survival of the selfish gene) dictates.

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  12. Andrew, many people already see meat eating as repugnant so I suspect you may be right about the future.

    And perhaps that illustrates why our moral codes are never simply and naively dictated by the evolutionary process or simple genes. After all we are already very well aware that genetic determinism is incapable of explaining what we observe about the evolutionary process in practice.

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  13. Marriage is a waste of time.
    It adds nothing to a de facto arrangement except the blessing of the state.

    Not quite true. The state grants you certain advantages by making it official.
    Having official recognition gives partners protection under the law. You can visit each other in hospital without hassle. You can be in charge of funeral arrangements and the revolting relatives can’t do anything to stop you.
    Inheritence. Property. Child custody, governement benefits etc.
    If you co-habit with someone officially long-term, then you just can’t be ditched years later like used toiled paper without recognition and compensation.

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  14. Inheritence. Property. Child custody, governement benefits etc.

    In NZ you get exactly the same rights in law through the simple act of co-habitation with a sexual partner for a over a period of about 2 years (I can’t recall exactly), in fact, if you must “opt out”, in a manner similar to a pre-nuptial agreement if you want it any other way.

    This makes marriage essentially obsolete in terms of conferring many of the so-called advantages you mention. Marriage is essentially now just an expensive party and a public promise of love and fidelity, and, given the divorce rates, what is a promise worth? It also raises the interesting matter of bigamy that I rather clumsily raised earlier.

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  15. In NZ you get exactly the same rights in law through the simple act of co-habitation with a sexual partner for a over a period of about 2 years (I can’t recall exactly), in fact, if you must “opt out”, in a manner similar to a pre-nuptial agreement if you want it any other way.

    I think it’s similar in Australia but I’m not sure of the details. I like the idea of it being automatically applied and having to “opt out” if you want it any other way.
    As for divorce, I’ve personally always approved of the Star Trek concept where couples have a contact that has a built-in divorce trigger that kicks in automatically after five years. So all issues of property and children etc are sorted out well before you sign the contract and co-habit. If your five-year limit is approaching and the spark had gone, then do nothing…and soon you’ll have a no-blame, no-tears divorce with no recriminations and no surprises.
    On the other hand, if the five year deadline is approaching and you are still madly in love with your partner, then you both have to make both a symbolic and a real legal effort and do the paperwork to re-new your contract.

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  16. Maybe it’ll soon be easier to get a Cherry 2000 than bother with any paperwork at all.
    The dating scene prophetic

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  17. Oh, this is the Cherry 2000 model at work

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  18. I’m going to have to download that movie. ;)

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  19. Mr Walsh
    I did not intend to denigrate the sufferings of any group . I am sorry if that was how it came across . But I do wish you had used a different example with which to berate my comment. Perhaps the African Sugar Plantation Slaves or Child Labour in the Industrial Cotton Mills in England, or the conscription of young British men to fight the Franco Regime or the Third Reich ( on behalf of the Jews you mentioned) . Homosexuality is not an Ideology or a Creed or a Political Party. Homosexuals do not impose any particular dogmas onto anyone else for they are not subject to a dogma of their own . They are not exclusive and they do not threaten to kill you if you are not like them .

    I agree with your sentiment, but not your example . I have been advised to leave the debating room as soon as someone cites the Jewish Holocaust as an example of how bad a situation can become .and uses Hitler as a measure of their own tolerance. .Perhaps I shall take that advice as there are so many other good things being discussed on this blog . ( I am quite new here and I dont want to upset anyone ! It is a great group you have here .

    Homosexuals are absolutely innocent of any crime whatsoever . The alleged crimes were completely made up by religious zealots and nutcases and the juries were composed of those same nutcases who made the rules in the first place … how illogical can it all have been . .

    Anyway … back to objective and subjective morality … .

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  20. I have been advised to leave the debating room as soon as someone cites the Jewish Holocaust as an example

    Because you are anti-semitic, or because it is not one of your fashionable spray-on leftist cause du jour?

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  21. It sounds as if Andy is back.

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  22. What? Again?
    The turd that won’t flush.

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  23. Yup… I should have left the room … for obvious reasons. Mr Walsh has just demonstrated the reason and answered his own question to me .

    I am not anti semetic. I am not fashionable.or leftist or expedient . And i dont have cause du jour . I think Walsh is too subjective to debate with . I should have known when he sited the Jewish situation …. or issue …

    ha ha ha … he answered himself , Maybe its because i am a woman that he felt he could throw a few insults my way . I dont think he could take on some of the more intellectual people on this blog . How crass he sounds .
    I was hoping to learn and participate here .I dont live in New Zealand and thought I might add a Northern Hemisphere aspect to your great blog.

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  24. Pingback: Moral evolution in today’s society | Open Parachute

  25. …I have a feeling that cavemen and women were better off prior to government legislation and church-dictated norms.

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