Talking sense about morality

Here’s a great blog post by Jerry Coyne outlining a scientific approach to morality (see How should we be moral?: Three papers and a good book) it gives a summary of his current ideas and a reading list of papers and a book which have influenced him.

I go along with Jerry’s conclusions but I would add a couple of things  to his summary:

  1. I agree that there is no such thing a objective morality – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can show an objective basis for morality. We can understand how some of our values have an objective basis (others may not) and this is important in our evaluation of moral codes.
  2. I think we should extend our understanding of an instinctual morality model (as opposed to a rational one) beyond the simple proposition of an evolutionary origins of our instincts. We need to see that the instincts or intuitions driving our moral feelings or emotions can also develop, or evolve, via cultural mechanisms. I think this is important to understanding of the moral zeitgeist, the way that our moral codes tend to change over time.

An objective basis for morality?

There is a difference between objective morality – which implies some sort of moral truth existing independently of humanity – and objectively based morality. This latter implies that there is a basis for our morality – the nature of our species – which means that we generally come to the same moral conclusions. Our morality is not just a matter of personal choice.

I see the simplest basis of morality in the simple facts of life itself. Living organisms, even the most primitive, have the property of valuing life and its continuation. Without this basic biological value such organisms would not survive and reproduce. Just imagine a simple organism which ignored indications of nutrients in its environment and had no ability, or “desire,” to reproduce. Natural selection would soon have put paid to it.

While initial organisms may have had simple physical and chemical mechanisms putting biological value into effect evolution eventually led to development of neuronal structures and brains. Biological value could be expressed as instincts and emotions.

Evolution of social animals provided requirements for a finer structure to biological value. The interactions between organisms became more important and this finer structure became represented in the instincts and emotions of social animals – including humans.

Long story short – I see an objective basis for human morality in human nature itself. The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, conscious, social and empathetic species.

Hijacking human instinct

Of course, there is not necessarily a direct line between our evolved instincts, objectively based in biological and social value, and the morality we profess.  Jonathan Haidt described his useful theory of foundational moral values in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (see my review in Human morality is evolving). While some of our moral codes related to life, care, harm and well-being are related to foundational human values involved with life and its survival – biological and social value – others are not. Or at least they are driven by instincts which have been hijacked. For example instincts of purity may well be related to survival and life, but moral codes related to sacredness, racial superiority and religious purity (unrelated to life and survival) rely on the hijacking of such instincts.

So while I assert that there is an objective basis for some of our morality – especially that related to life, care, harm and well-being –  some of our morality may well not have a genuine objective basis, even though it utilises basic human instincts.

Moral learning and moral zeitgeist

A simple instinctive model of morality, relying on evolved instincts and not conscious deliberation, really doesn’t explain how and why human morality changes. It doesn’t explain the moral zeitgeist.

I think it’s necessary to include both rational consideration as well as instinctive, emotional reaction, to explain this. As Jerry said, our “instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution.” But it doesn’t stop there. Our intuitions, and hence our emotions, are produced unconsciously, without delineation, but over time they are influenced by our conscious deliberation and learning.

When we learn to ride a bike, or even to walk as a toddler, our actions are deliberate. We consciously consider them and put them into effect. But with learning these actions no longer need conscious deliberation. They are incorporated into our unconscious brain and carried out automatically. Just as well – imagine that adults had to continue all the conscious activity the toddler uses when they start walking. With all the inevitable conscious mistakes. Just imagine grown-ups walking along the footpath, but every so often falling on their backside like a toddler! Because the process of walking had not been learned and incorporated into their unconscious.

I argue, that the conscious moral deliberations of individuals and society produce the same sort of learning. These deliberation may be active – as, for example, our current discussion of marriage equality. Or the learning could be almost passive. Exposure to our culture. I think many people have unconsciously shifted their attitudes towards working mothers, racial integration and homosexuals because of their exposure to TV shows, books, and life itself, where these modern moral attitudes are accepted.

Incorporation of this moral learning into our subconscious means that  homosexuality, for example, no longer automatically provokes our instincts of purity and disgust. Or meeting an atheist no longer causes us to react out of disgust or respect for authority.

So while our day-to-day moral functioning relies on these intuitional reactions and not logical consideration, these unconscious intuitional reactions have been modified by our learning and exposure to cultural changes.

Moral progress?

On the one hand, that moral attitudes related to care, life, harm and well-being can have an objective basis in biological value, in the very nature of life, means we have ways – both emotional and logical – at arriving at common agreement on what is “right” and “wrong.” On the other hand, although our morality is instinctive or intuitional and not rational (at least in common day-to-day activity) the deliberate intellectual consideration of moral issues, as well as our passive exposure to a culture which is changing because of that deliberate consideration, means that we are capable of moral learning. Of adjusting our automatic moral reactions over time. Of making moral progress.

And I think we can conclude that this has happened on issues such as human rights and discrimination – even if not uniformly and evenly.

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16 responses to “Talking sense about morality

  1. Good post and interesting reading – a quick question: Do you see any difference between the phrases “objectively based morality” and “explicable morality”?

  2. Gee, Ian, I have enough trouble explaining to people that “objectively based morality” is not the same as “objective morality.”

    I think one would have to define what “explicable morality” is, but off hand I don’t see it as the same. After all, a religious proponent of divine command ethics may feel they have explained morality and therefore their moral codes are explicable.

  3. Except we both know there isn’t an explanation for morality along the religious route :) My point was more that explaining the origins of the moral framework we have is essentially what you describe (i.e. what I would call explicable morality). If that is your idea of objectively based morality then I can accept that but I question the need for the phrase. If you are claiming the valuing of life itself is somehow objective and morality that stems from there is therefore objectively-based then I disagree for basically the same reason I discard the religious explanation for objectivity – it kind of pushes the question out of the way.

  4. I think then, Ian, we must disagree. I am saying that biological value is objective. It’s part of life – life cannot exist without it. Organisms without biological value would not have been selected.

    It’s not my original idea and I think I have trouble communicating it. Antonio Damasio described biological value as “ubiquitous in modern thinking about brain and mind.” In his recent book “Self comes to mind.” He concludes “value relates directly or indirectly to survival. In the case of humans in particular, value relates to the quality of that survival in the form of well-being.”

    Valuing of life is objective because life just could not exist without it – and in humans we extend that to quality of life – questions of harm, care and well being.

    An explanatory model should provide an objective basis for it to have any scientific meaning. If it didn’t we would be in the same boat as the religious apologist who uses logical possibility alone (without attention to an objective existing basis) to provide an “explanation.”

  5. “I see the simplest basis of morality in the simple facts of life itself. Living organisms, even the most primitive, have the property of valuing life and its continuation. Without this basic biological value such organisms would not survive and reproduce. Just imagine a simple organism which ignored indications of nutrients in its environment and had no ability, or “desire,” to reproduce. Natural selection would soon have put paid to it.”

    If you will, this little framing of “biological value” bugs me. I just read Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind, which I highly recommend, but he used the phrase “biological value” with almost the exact same explanation. I guess my problem is that I think we need to avoid problematic language and I worry how if we model and label this as “biological value” it will mushroom a property that is not extant.

    Evolution is a process that creates organisms that are apt to survive within a given environment, and where useful, perhaps, may survive within many varying environments or as environments change (though the latter point is not necessarily the most conducive to the flourishing of a species, if given say an extremely long, stabilized environment). Terming this process a “value” metaphorizes a characteristic into all living creatures which doesn’t exist. It also encourages us to think of “evolution” as something that desires such a goal, living beings with this property, but evolution is only a process. The common relational structures that manifests between existing species and their continual survival is not something that any entity or process is “striving towards,” but is instead a descriptor about how evolution and environmental culling creates biological entities that fit well within certain environments, but they fit well not because of some property of survival but because that is what evolution continuously does, continuously culls systems of organic matter to be in such a relation.

    That may all just be picky about language. Darwin had to counter misinterpretation of “natural selection” whereas that term given his explanation should not really have been problematic, from my account. But where we can avoid this, it seems like there is no reason to interject a “property” into all biological organisms that simply is not there. If many organisms have structures that allow them to survive across different environmental fluctuations and if the human brain/mind and social and institutional structures further help guard against extinction it is not because there is a property of life systems but because of the structural mechanisms of evolution. We may have to further explain how human brain/minds cognize and model their possible futures, including whether they will exist in such, and then engage in actions that further those goals. In some sense there humans may literally “value” different future possibilities and work towards such, though perhaps we could launch into simpler explanations such as memes to begin reducing that human “valuation” or understanding of their future. But that is a different worry than the idea that all biological life possesses a property of “biological value” whereupon they strive to live and reproduce. The latter claim seems like a dangerous way to think about and explain why biological life is structured at the present moment in the manner that it is.

  6. Thanks for that useful feedback, Lyndon. Must admit I felt some of the same misgivings when I originally read Damasio. “Value” can imply purpose – on the other hand it did seem to summarise the effect of this aspect of even non-conscious life. A bit like the conflict between usefulness and misleading with Dawkins’ “selfish gene.”

    At the moment it is probably a useful shorthand way of expressing things for me but perhaps I should at least use quote marks. And perhaps try to think of a less emotional way of expressing the idea.

  7. I think then, Ian, we must disagree. I am saying that biological value is objective. It’s part of life – life cannot exist without it. Organisms without biological value would not have been selected.

    Being completely detached, we can only say that it seems that organisms that behaviourally favour living over not living will tend to be more successful than those that don’t perhaps to the point of exclusion. The biological value here manifests itself only in terms of decision mechanisms – it doesn’t seem to be intrinsic.

    An explanatory model should provide an objective basis for it to have any scientific meaning. If it didn’t we would be in the same boat as the religious apologist who uses logical possibility alone (without attention to an objective existing basis) to provide an “explanation.”

    I am not sure I agree here – the only basis of gravity for example is the observation things seem to fall (or are attracted to each other). There is no “objective basis” to this – just a nice clear pattern in things we have observed. There is literally no reason to expect the next apple to “fall” off a tree won’t go up instead of down except that it would be such a huge anomaly in our collected data that it seems ridiculously unlikely. What the religious apologist or any other supernatural claimant lacks is a similar dataset against which their claims can be seen as likely or unlikely (unless they float into areas like age of the earth or evolution where there is of course a dataset).

  8. I think, Ian, that our surprise at an apple “falling” up rather than down is due to more than collected data. There is also the fact that humans do make inferences from their experience, their data. We develop concepts like forces and explanatory hypotheses and theories. And we test these hypotheses against reality.

    So scientific explanatory models may be far from the absolute “truth” but they are more than experience and data. And we are justified in believing they approach a true picture of reality.

    Yes, religious and philosophical explanatory models are usually very much weaker. Especially as they usually derive from speculative thought and emotionally held beliefs without any validation against reality.

    What I am suggesting about “biological value” is, yes, explanatory – but in the scientific rather than religious sense. There are good reasons to infer that survival (and evolutionary processes) are an inherent aspect of biological life. That this is not just a bit of fanciful speculative thought based on motivated logic.

    Yes, it may manifest itself in terms of “decision” mechanisms – at the physical chemical level initially – but surely that provides an objective or material basis? And I am not sure one should deny that these mechanisms are an intrinsic aspect of biological life. Imagine the situation if they weren’t.

  9. We collect data, look at patterns, name the patterns, and use those named patterns to guess at what other patterns might be out there that collecting more data might help us find. What else is there to science? And that is not to belittle the process – it works and it works damn well. But the reason religious beliefs get any traction at all is because of the habit we have as a species of giving false concreteness to concepts in general. Gravity isn’t a law or even a thing, it is a name for a pattern we have observed. Nature doesn’t obey the law of gravity (/relativity) but rather gravity (/relativity) describes what we observe in nature. It doesn’t exist except as a concept we invented – albeit a very useful one that seems to accurately predict future observations.

    Yes, it may manifest itself in terms of “decision” mechanisms – at the physical chemical level initially – but surely that provides an objective or material basis?

    There is good data supporting the idea that all organisms give value to survival (at some level, gene or group or somewhere in between) much like they all seem to have RNA or DNA. There is no data to support a pattern where living itself has value except to note that organisms seem to act as if that were true.

    And I a, not sure one should deny that these mechanisms are an intrinsic aspect of biological life. Imagine the situation if they weren’t

    I have no problem with the statement that living things tend to value living in their decision models – that is a statement with datasets behind it. I would also be content with the inference that they are a necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for life although that may not be true. But saying they are intrinsic? That seems to go one step too far away from the data.

  10. I fear we may be getting away from the point about an objective basis for morality that I am arguing.

    Most scientists are philosophical realists, even if they don’t think about it. And I don’t think we see gravity as only a “name for a pattern” – even if we have yet to elucidate it’s true nature. One could have said atoms were simply a name for a pattern until the electron was discovered. We do understand that atoms exist as more than just an invented concept. In fact, it is this real existence which in the end means that any old invented concept, or even a description of patterns, really is not helpful. Modern science would really not be successful if there was no more to it than what you claim. Consider, the geocentric model of the solar system was very successful, more so than the heliocentric model at the time, and consideration of only patterns would have meant it’s continued survival. After all, whenever a discrepancy is found the patterns could be altered in an ad hoc way to accommodate the evidence.

    But that is the danger of a non-realistic philosophy – it can be used to counter ideas like the one I suggested without really dealing with the real world. We should not have to get into abstract details of scientific philosophy to see there is an objective basis for morality.

    This problem with “intrinsic” may be simply semantic – it might mean something slightly different to you than it does to me (although I have not insisted on the word). I see the need for renewal and survival, at least until reproduction, as inbuilt or inherent features of biological life. I know it is hard to define life but what is the alternative to this? What would happen to a living entity with no inherent mechanism or “drive” for renewal and survival? It would very quickly disappear from the gene pool.

    So it is understandable that organisms develop mechanisms aiding survival, renewal and reproduction. These mechanisms are what I mean by “drive” or “value.” I am not claiming there is something else – a spirit or magic – underlying them. Just that such mechanisms are an inevitable result of life and evolution. And these mechanisms provide a material, objective basis for what eventually becomes morality in a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species.

    All I am doing with the “objectively based morality” concept is arguing that a secular concept of morality can provide some sort of surety about “right” and “wrong” (a surety underlined by the commonality of some moral codes across cultures) without dragging in gods and silly supernatural “explanations.” The lack of surety is what the religious apologists keep claiming about secular moralities – I think we should offer a better retaliation than the simple claim of individual preference and moral relativism some advocates of secular morality advance. Such claims don’t even seem to acknowledge the patterns we observe.

    Acceptance of an objective basis for morality can also help us in our own deliberations on moral issues. And perhaps it can help in analysing our own moral feelings and judging whether or not they are really justified.

  11. Ken, I agree with many points in your post. However, I would like to try to convince you that there is, in fact, an objective basis for “moral truth existing independently of humanity”. That single objective truth has shaped both our moral biology and enforced moral norms (past and present cultural moralities).

    People are social animals. It should be uncontroversial that the biology underlying our emotions of empathy, loyalty, shame, guilt, indignation, and gratitude have been selected for by the reproductive fitness benefits of cooperation in groups.

    But to become social animals, there is a species independent, universal problem that our ancestors had to solve. That problem is how to obtain the benefits of cooperation in groups without being exploited. This is the universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

    Briefly stated, in our physical reality cooperation often brings more benefits than are possible by individual effort. But cooperation exposes cooperators to exploitation. Also exploitation is almost always the winning short term strategy and often is a winning long term strategy. Unfortunately, exploitation destroys future benefits of cooperation. The universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma is how to obtain those benefits of cooperation in groups without being exploited. This dilemma has existed since before the fusion fires of the first star lit and will still be a dilemma when the last star dies.

    Fortunately, there are strategies for overcoming this dilemma. Herbert Gintis calls them ‘altruistic’ cooperation strategies. These strategies, which universally combine ‘altruism’ (at minimum cooperation risking exploitation) with punishment of exploitation, were first implemented in our moral biology and later in enforced moral codes. For example, versions of the Golden Rule advocate indirect reciprocity, and circumcision is a marker of membership in a more reliably cooperative sub-group and therefore a useful enforced norm.

    So, this objective basis for morality is certainly not limited to our moral biology. Our moral biology is just one set of necessarily flawed heuristics for motivating altruistic cooperation strategies. Our cultural moralities, properly understood as advocating solutions to the universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma, offer means for directed moral progress. For example, it reveals the misuse of our (Haidt’s) moral foundations of “loyalty, purity, and respect for authority” as means for increasing the benefits of cooperation in in-groups at the expense of out-groups.

    This universal basis for morality should fit people like a key in a well-oiled lock because this key, species independent moral behavior, is largely what shaped this lock, our social psychology.

  12. No need to convince me, Mark. I already see that as part of the objective basis for morality – especially in humans.

    What I have been trying to stress is that mechanisms have evolved for achieving the interests of organisms (renewal, survival and reproduction). These may have been physical and chemical in early organisms but with the evolution and development of neuronal structures and brains these became instincts, emotions, feelings. And the interests became more dispersed or diffuse because of the need for organisms to interact in social groups. That’s why I have been describing the objective basis of human morality being in our sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic nature.

    While we can talk about social interests and altruism, etc., we need to recognise that with primates we are driven by feelings, instincts and emotions. Even us humans. We are far more an emotional species than a rational one – even when we are trying to be rational. That’s why current scientific understanding of human morality supports an instinctual rather than a rational model.

    We need to recognise why we have emotions and instincts and the important role they play.

  13. One final bit on the science and then I’ll return to the objective morals :)

    Modern science would really not be successful if there was no more to it than what you claim.

    My question is what “more” is there? The geocentric world model was a fair model for the data we had available – at that point in time it seemed sufficient. All we have done by moving to a heliocentric and then non-centric model is to recognise actually the patterns we had noticed weren’t as universal as we thought. Literally nothing new was added but new data and new patterns to describe the old data as well as the new.

    All I am doing with the “objectively based morality” concept is arguing that a secular concept of morality can provide some sort of surety about “right” and “wrong” (a surety underlined by the commonality of some moral codes across cultures) without dragging in gods and silly supernatural “explanations.”

    I really don’t think it can because that surety you talk about can’t actually guide moral choices – it can only offer a reason why we might answer a moral question one way or another. I can offer any remotely significant moral question I like and the best you can evidentially respond with is that your opinion/instinct is X, and it concurs with pretty much everyone else’s opinion/instinct. My point isn’t that the conclusion is wrong, but that it isn’t objectively “right” either.

    The lack of surety is what the religious apologists keep claiming about secular moralities

    I know this bothers a lot of atheists/agnostics/secularists/humanists/pick-your-phrase but I think we should embrace the uncertainty because it is real. It may not be a good debating tactic but I don’t really care – we don’t know very much about this world we live in despite the illusion of certainty pop-science gives us. I suspect our best weapon against religion may be, in the long run, selling uncertainty not fighting a battle over certainty where the best we could hope for is equality in the battle and I doubt we’d even get there because of the nature of science.

    I think we should offer a better retaliation than the simple claim of individual preference and moral relativism some advocates of secular morality advance. Such claims don’t even seem to acknowledge the patterns we observe.

    We can offer a better retaliation. We can sit down at a table like rational human beings, establish a set of basic assumptions and goals we agree on, explore commonalities and tease out differences and reach a coherent set of rules (what we really mean when we talk about morals) based on achieving those goals. Those rules will reflect the common ground, instincts and the rest of it that we share and we’ll have a happy society that understands why the rules it has are as they are. No doubt psychology and anthropology could have a fair crack at explaining what mechanisms led us to the conclusions we reached but ultimately they would be nothing more than well thought out opinions and they would probably work well.

    There is no need whatsoever for some built in or original morality or biological value to guide our modern day moral questions. If everyone decides that permitting murder, rape and theft is actually the best way to get to the goals we want then I see no problem with that – I think I could even build a coherent if somewhat tenuous argument why that might actually work but few people would listen because they automatically discard those things without thought. Surety isn’t a path to rational discussion, it is just another form of faith when you get right down to it.

  14. Ian, I guess the “more” part in science is tied in with philosophical realism. The idea that we are attempting to describe an objectively existing reality – even if we can never do so completely. And the idea that our image of reality improves (becomes close to the truth) with time.

    I don’t like algorithmic models of scientific method – much prefer the edict to do whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality. But a certain amount of instrumentalism is inevitable – especially in the practical application of science. Even today we can get along quite happily with a heliocentric model in many applications. But the instrumental success of that model does not indicate scientific success. Your claim “The geocentric world model was a fair model for the data we had available – at that point in time it seemed sufficient” may have been true for a navigational point of view but was not true from a scientific perspective. A large number of ad hoc and unwarranted additions to the model had to be introduced to make it work.

    I get frustrated with those historians and religious apologists who claim that the geocentric model was better than the Copernican model because that ignores the whole nature of scientific epistemology. Of course it was better because it was gerrymandered to give the right answers – the Copernican model wasn’t. The heliocentric model may have been preferred for navigational purposes (perhaps it still is today) but it was not preferred scientifically (or philosophically).

    My use of the word “surety” was not aimed at guiding moral choices. I have been trying to explain a scientific approach to understanding morality (actually trying to summarise the current science as I have read and understood it). I am not trying to set up a normative moral system at all. I think this is a common problem when we try to discuss the science of morality – often critics will switch to a completely different normative thinking mode. It sort of parallels Hume’s comment about suddenly switching from a descriptive, is, to a normative, ought.

    I think there is a lot of mental gymnastics around the words “right” and “wrong.” People are sometime trying to talk in abstract mathematical or logical terms without recognising what the words actually mean in practice. They ate dealing with the words as if they were rational conclusions but they aren’t. These are words associated with emotional feelings. The feelings of “right” and “wrong” are extremely strongly felt – and I think this provides some people with an incentive to see them as objective when they aren’t.

    What I think the current scientific description of morality offers us is an understanding of how we come to think things are “right” or “wrong” and why we often agree on this. It also enables us to think mere deeply and perhaps recognise that some of those strongly held convictions may have an objective basis in survival, flourishing and well-being. Whereas other convictions may not be so objectively based – may in fact derive their certainty from co-option of instincts evolved for other unrelated purposes. This is the sense in which I used the word “surety” – at the intellectual, reflective level – especially when responding to the question “why?”

    I am not using the word to describe our actual moral decisions. Our convictions there are emotionally, instinctually based. We are in essence an emotional rather than a rational species and reliance on intellectual decisions to decide moral actions would have lead to our extinction many years ago.

    It would probably take a far larger comment to deal with the relativist arguements you presented regarding a unanimous decision to permit murder, rape, etc. as “right.” Perhaps I will just say for now that you point out that “few people would listen because they automatically discard those things without thought.” You would not win everyone over to such a moral code. Sure, people will refuse to discuss it (and let’s face it, if they did your suggestion would not win unanimous support) but why do we reject your proposal without thinking about it or discussing it?

    I suggest that the objective basis of our morality has arisen out of our evolution and has resulted in a human nature which usually rejects such ideas (we could discuss excptions) because we are basically a sentient, conscious, social, intelligent, empathetic and compassionate species. And we are normally wired a certain way as a result.

    However, if you could isolate a group of psychopaths you might be able to convince them. Evolution and development is not uniform or mistake free.

  15. Good conversation Ken, it’s nice to agree on the big stuff and to quibble over details for a change :)

    The idea that we are attempting to describe an objectively existing reality – even if we can never do so completely.

    I like the romanticism of that concept and think it is a worthwhile motivation but I am not sure we actually have any reason to take that as a given.

    I don’t like algorithmic models of scientific method – much prefer the edict to do whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.

    I agree entirely – keeping things as basic as possible is always a good idea. As soon as concepts take over from the data we start to fool ourselves.

    The geocentric model is now demonstrably a poor description of patterns in the data, but at the time it was as good a fit as they had. The model wasn’t a failure that was subsequently replaced by a success, it was just a first draft that worked far better than nothing. We are currently on a 5th or 6th draft and improving all the time.

    I have been trying to explain a scientific approach to understanding morality

    I think we both come at this from different angles. I am approaching from a zero-base and seeing what turns up whereas I think you are approaching from the existing framework and pulling it apart. I think we are both ending up in a similar place but describing it differently because of the origin of the journey.

    The feelings of “right” and “wrong” are extremely strongly felt – and I think this provides some people with an incentive to see them as objective when they aren’t.

    I agree entirely.

    I suggest that the objective basis of our morality has arisen out of our evolution and has resulted in a human nature which usually rejects such ideas (we could discuss excptions) because we are basically a sentient, conscious, social, intelligent, empathetic and compassionate species. And we are normally wired a certain way as a result.

    I agree here too – but what I don’t do (which a great many do, I am not sure if you do) is add on the end of that statement any kind of conclusion with respect to objective or impartial conclusions. I think we can describe what mechanisms lead to us thinking certain things are right or wrong but I don’t think we have any data that leads us any further than that which was at the heart of my original question :)

  16. Ian, I agree that the geocentric model was in some senses a “first draft.” But it became obvious that it actually didn’t provide a good fit – and in fact the Copernican model provided a much better fit than the unadjusted geocentric model. But because of the prevailing instrumentalism this last model was gerrymandered with ad hoc adjustments to make it fit. That certainly provided a useable model but not an understanding. Galileo was scathing in his criticism of those who pointed to the inadequacies of the initial Copernican model while being oblivious to the the inadequacies of the geocentric model and the large number of unwartanted ad hoc adjustments required to make it work. Adjustments for which there was no material evidence – except that it worked.

    Talking about first drafts – I sometimes think its worth considering that primitive, usually religious, concepts about the world should be considered first drafts in a scientific sense. After all such ideas enabled agriculture and navigation. Their basic assumptions may have been silly from our perspective but from an instrumentalist point of view they worked.

    One my basic description of human morality you agree but say you don’t “add on the end of that statement any kind of conclusion with respect to objective or impartial conclusions.” In a sense that is perhaps getting back to rejecting the idea of “objective morality.”

    I think that starting with basic values related to care, survival, harm, etc.. (which I say provide an objective basis) we have on the one hand evolved emotions and instincts which drive our day to day moral behaviour. On the other hand these values also are important starting points when we rehearse of consciously deliberate on and discuss moral issues and solutions.

    We are not robots or computers so shouldn’t be surprised that such deliberations may not be truly and objectively logical. We can reason but our reasoning is usually motivated and influenced by emotional attitudes. Reasoned discussion can be helped when it is collective.

    I think, given the objective basis and our starting values we could argue that in many, but not all, situations there are “correct” desicions we could declare “right” – almost like a mathematical argument. That correct decision may be considered “objective” or “impartial.”

    In reality, because of the interaction of our “auto mode” with our “manual mode,” the influence of our emotions, feelings and instincts on our rational decisions, we probably rarely reach such ultimately “correct” decisions. Individuals might but society probably not. Although, like scientific investigation, we over time may approach correctness.

    For example, currently society seems to overwhelmingly support marriage equality and the current bill is very likely to be approved. But 5 years ago that was not the case. The facts were the same, the “correct” answer was the same but the subjective conditions were not right in society as a whole (although they were for individuals). I think we can see similar situations in the past with respect to race and women’s rights.

    So I do argue that the objective basis of our morality can mean that there are “correct” answers to some, but not all, moral situations. However, as individuals and society we can only do the best we can. Sometimes we are incapable of actually reaching the correct decision. But it is important that often some parts of society can reach a correct decision (as they did over slavery, women’s rights and marriage equality). This provides the possibility of continued consideration and learning by society as a whole – and often that learning is passive as in education by entertainment.

    In a sense perhaps the “correct” decision is “impartial” – it’s at least objectively based but not “objective.” Problem is that the strong emotional feelings association with “right” and “wrong,” while understandable from an evolutionary point of view, perhaps place more importance on moral decisions at the society level than we should. I think there is an argument that we should often “cool it,” recognise the actual political possibilities and be thankful for what we can achieve even if there are still problems which need solving eventually.

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