Science, values and ethics

There is an unfortunate common perception that scientists are cold, hard people. That they are only interested in objective facts and are emotionless. And especially that science as a process is not creative and does not encourage the development of an ethical outlook. Consequently there is an attitude that while we can learn about the nature of reality from science and scientists we can learn nothing about ethics or the appreciation of reality.

Some people even claim that for this we must turn to religion. Although they never seem to be able to explain how on earth religious leaders can offer any better knowledge of ethics than scientists, boot makers, mechanics. or cooks.

I think most scientists would object to this common perception. So I was pleased to see this recent article from Agnosticism / AtheismValues of Godless Science: Modern Science Does Not Need Religion or Gods for Values. It’s worth a read so I reproduce it below:

Modern, Godless Science is not Value-Free:

It is commonly claimed by both critics and supporters that modern science is value-free. This is false, though it is true that science lacks many of the values traditionally ascribed to religion and doesn’t make any value judgments about the use of scientific knowledge. On the other hand, the very ability of science to function as it does, and so successfully, is dependent upon a set of very important values. Some of those values are explained here.

Work & Discipline:

Science is a difficult field to be successful in. Nothing gets done in science without a great deal of hard work, long hours, and the discipline necessary to work those long hours. Very little in science can be described as “glamorous” — most scientific work involves poring over large amounts of data and tiny details that would make most people’s eyes just glaze over. This work is necessary, however, because it builds the foundations for new discoveries.


Every profession depends upon its members being honest for the profession to function. In science this requirement can be even more important. Many scientists work independently and their results are then incorporated into the work of other scientists. Faulty data can thus take on a life of its own, infecting the honest work of researchers around the world. Fortunately there are systems in place to catch and eliminate cheating, but they don’t always catch problems immediately.


One of the most important values of science is the use of reason. Problems aren’t assumed to be solved by tradition, faith, or simply trusting someone’s word. The use of reason helps ensure that explanations and solutions are based upon reality rather than upon personal preference, what is politically correct, or what is ideologically convenient. Reason can of course be misused, but no more so than anything else — and thus far, reason has proven to be more reliable than anything else.


Although it’s common for scientists to work alone, science isn’t really a solitary profession. Scientists are part of a larger scientific community, one which encompasses both those in the same field and those involved in other aspects of scientific research. All are interlinked, such that the results reached by anyone may help the work of others. The community also helps ensure the reliability of everyone’s work because to be properly scientific, research must be reviewed by peers.

Questioning Authority & Critical Thinking:

Although there are authority figures in science like there are in every profession, this authority is not absolute. Scientists are encouraged to question and challenge the claims and results which authority figures offer. After all, the next biggest name in science will be someone who can prove that an earlier theory was wrong, or at least incomplete, and therefore that current authority figures have been mistaken. Every scientist has a vested interest in questioning authority.


It’s common to think of scientists as focused on logic, but a very good imagination can be more necessary to being a good scientist. Imagination is important because it allows one to think of new possibilities which may not be evident from the raw data alone. Imagination also allows one to develop new explanations which also aren’t immediately supported by the data, and this provides an impetus to look for the data. Often, it’s imagination that draws a person to science in the first place.

Progress & Improvement:

One important feature of science is that it is never static. No explanation is ever final or complete and there is always new data that has be to explained, so there is never any feeling that the work of scientists is finished. This means that scientists are always looking towards improvement and progress at all times. Science works for the betterment of humanity and society, helping us all move forward rather than simply being content with where we are now.

Methodology Over Conclusions:

One value of science which many can miss is the emphasis on focusing on proper methodology over conclusions. What this means is that work must not be done for the sake of reaching particular and favored conclusions. Instead, one must focus on following the proper scientific methodology and reasoning. This helps guarantee that one is more likely to arrive at the correct conclusions and correct explanations, regardless of what they may be. Imagine if other fields, like politics, worked this way.

Godless Science and the Enlightenment:

Modern science is largely an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and that, in turn, was a period when religious institutions and ecclesiastical authorities began to really lose their power over most aspects of people’s lives. The Enlightenment was thoroughly secular in that it did not derive its impetus or principles from religious tradition or authority. The most fundamental values of godless science are thus also the values of modernity: skepticism, empiricism, and secularism. It’s not a coincidence that science and modernity developed side-by-side: godless science has reinforced secular modernity while secular modernity has provided the atmosphere in which godless science could thrive.

What this means is that it isn’t possible to defend one without also defending the other. Secular modernity won’t be able to proceed very far without the reinforcing support which godless science is able to provide; godless science won’t be able to continue helping us understand the world around us without the atmosphere created by secular modernity. Not only do they need each other, but we need them as well: secular modernity provides the freedom and room for people to follow their consciences and explore their religious beliefs; godless science has become invaluable to our survival as a species.

Science is often maligned for being godless, but godlessness is largely why science is successful: being godless means that science is not beholden to any religious ideology or perspective. If it were, then it wouldn’t be truly free to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Science is also often maligned for lacking values, but science has many values — it’s just that they are values which are fundamental to our secular, godless modernity. It is this which most upsets critics because those values are proving their superiority to the religious values which anti-modern ideologues would rather promote.


Similar articles

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


112 responses to “Science, values and ethics

  1. I enjoy this post. Though not a scientist, I have an interest in the subject. Also, I would say that lack of critical thinking in the amerikan population in general is rampant, and stultifying, and a great contributor to what I see as the dumbing-down of the average amerikan. I’m an atheist. But I also have a moral code, and I’m anything but emotionless.


  2. Watching the Deniers

    I agree with Anne, a nice post mate. What I can’t fathom is how the deniers play up two competing stereotypes:

    a) the scientists as cold, unthinking and removed from the world


    b) the scientists leading an international cabal of warmist/socialists in making up data and the AGW theory in order to obtain more funding/political power/destroy industrial civilization

    How the denier maintains these two is uncertain, but then in order to maintain their world view one requires an incredibly amount of cognitive dissonance.

    I think this is very true: “Modern science is largely an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and that, in turn, was a period when religious institutions and ecclesiastical authorities began to really lose their power over most aspects of people’s lives…”

    I see the denial movement as part of a broader “anti-Enlightenment”. Religious and political conservatives and some industries see science as a threat to their power base, and have reacted accordingly.

    Creationism and climate change denial are linked together for good reason: they reject reason for the sake of the vested interests of those whose dominance are being challenged.


  3. I see the denial movement as part of a broader “anti-Enlightenment”. Religious and political conservatives and some industries see science as a threat to their power base, and have reacted accordingly.

    Creationism and climate change denial are linked together for good reason: they reject reason for the sake of the vested interests of those whose dominance are being challenged.

    Well said.


  4. My central comment would be that you need to keep ‘science’ (the activity) and ‘scientists’ (the persons) distinct. ‘Science’ (in the sense of the activity which scientists engage in to learn about the world) and ‘moral inquiry’ are both things which scientists do. I suppose it’s possible for a scientist to be a nihilist, but (consistent) nihilists are rare.

    I’ve never seen anyone claim that scientists cannot and/or do not have feelings or moral positions. What I have seen, however, is the pretty basic and non-controversial distinction between science and moral inquiry.

    fact/value, is/ought, descriptive/prescriptive – we’ve been here before.


  5. Must disagree with you there, Dale. There is a science of morality. Books are being written about it. research is being done.

    And thank goodness this is happening. For too long we have seen others promote a “divine command” morality which ends up justifying the most extreme forms of moral relativity.


  6. We’ve been around this topic before Ken. I’ve yet to see any ‘fact’ with determines a prescriptive moral value.


  7. OK – I can accept you don’t see this.

    But others do. And there is a moral science and there are scientific books on morality.


  8. a bit of a cheap shot saying it’s ‘me’ that cannot see?

    please inform me (and the rest of the world) of any fact that can determine a moral value. good luck!

    And to be clear, a ‘scientific book on morality’ is fine – we can give a scientific account of anything we see. But let’s not mistake that with some notion of a ‘fact-based’ morality.


  9. Well Dale, your initial claim is a cheap shot – you knowing I and others certainly don’t see it that way.

    We have been through all this and I don’t expect you to either agree with me or present your own alternative.

    But the fact that we exist as an intelligent, empathetic, social and sentient species is to me a fact. On the basis of that fact I have been able to derive moral attitudes, prescriptive ones, relating to discrimination of women, gays, etc. being wrong. Or that slavery, apartheid, segregation, colonialism, etc. is wrong.

    In fact, didn’t I see an article recently (perhaps a book review) where the author state that sentience was the basis of all morality?


  10. Ken,
    Yes, we’ve been through this, and whilst you’ve listed those ‘facts’ (intelligent, empathetic, social, sentient, etc. numerous times, you’ve never:

    a) showed how these ‘connect’ to prescriptive values (i.e. how ‘intelligence’ leads to moral position/value ‘x’ as opposed to ‘y’)

    b) addressed the point that we are not actually merely ‘intelligent, empathetic, social and sentient’, but that we actually have ranges of intelligence, differences in kinds/levels of empathy, differences in modes of being ‘social’, and different levels of sentience (at least in early stages of development).

    So not only is your list of facts incomplete (one-sided?), but I’ve never seen you ‘connect the dots’.

    The idea of sentience being ‘the basis of all morality’ is a case of less-than-precise langauge, particularly the word ‘basis’. I agree in the sense that only sentient (possibly only intelligent) beings could engage in moral reflection/consideration/reasoning, but being sentient is doesn’t dispose us toward any particular moral value/conclusion. A rapist is just as sentient as a rape victim.


  11. Dale a rapist can also be just as much a Christian as a rape victim. A silly argument.

    Dale you are just indulging in jelly wrestling – “degrees of intelligence indeed?

    That is silly.

    I don’t know why you cannot see the link between these facts and our moral conclusions. But thank goodness most people can, at least instintively.

    I really suugest this is your problem, not mine. Especially because you are unable to present your own alternative.

    Sent from my iPod


  12. Dale said,

    I’ve yet to see any ‘fact’ with determines a prescriptive moral value.

    Here is a nice simplified example of some hypothetical facts that determine a moral ‘ought’ (you might recognise it).

    1. Fido is a dog who likes to eat meat, loves the company of other dogs and really doesn’t like to be eaten.
    2. All dogs are made of meat and share Fido’s likes and dislikes.
    3. Other non-doggy meat sources are available.

    IF Fido wants to gain maximal happiness and minimal suffering (derived from the three simple observations made in point #1) THEN he ought not to eat the other dogs and instead eat food from another source.

    Now, my challenge to you, Dale, is for you to provide an example of a prescriptive moral value that *doesn’t* in some way implicitly or explicitly require the IF (x wants to x) THEN (x ought to x) that I had to produce in order to arrive at a moral value.

    It is this intrinsic link between the goals or desires (i.e. ‘wants to’) and the recommended course of action (i.e. ‘ought to’) that allows us to take scientific observations and derive moral actions.

    Some will struggle to see how an ‘incorrect’ course of action such as attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole can be related to an ‘incorrect’ course of action such as killing a fellow being. We tend to invoke the word ‘morally’ incorrect when suffering or well-being is involved. But it is essentially the same formula.


  13. Ken, I’m simply responding to your post. I note, however that now you’re using the langauge of making moral conclusions by ‘instinct’ – very scientific 🙂

    Damian, yes I recognise the formula, and again my main point is that the goal of ‘maximum happiness’ and ‘minimum suffering’ is NOT intrinsically connected to the ‘facts’ of Fido’s desires (it’s also utilitarian, which may well be a decent moral framework, but – again – is not science, but philosophy). The example assumes the morality of the desires and then constructs the moral goal of realising them.


  14. But Dale, a creature’s desires are physical and can be observed. A worm will react strongly to light and will attempt to seek out a dark place. Expose a worm to light and it ‘suffers’ in some small way. Expose it to water and it will attempt to travel upwards to avoid being drowned. These are all physical mechanisms. These are all observable facts.

    When we say: “IF you want minimal suffering THEN you ought to do x” we could just as easily say “IF you want food THEN you ought to do x” and so on.

    It becomes a moral statement when suffering becomes involved. Especially the suffering of others given the choice to do otherwise (or, if you don’t believe in true free will, apparent choice to do otherwise).

    Why do I feel like I’m beating a dead horse here? Is this what you mean by ‘jelly wrestling’, Ken?

    So, are you able to come up with an example that would show that there is no intrinsic link between goals and the appropriateness of actions to those goals becoming a moral issue when those goals or desires involve happiness or suffering?


  15. Damian,
    A paedophile’s desire to touch children is observable too. Here’s a logical and scientific-based moral conclusion based on what I’m hearing:

    IF a paedophile wants maximum child touching thrills THEN he should (i.e.) get a job at a childcare centre, etc.

    Using universally-positive goals such as ‘eating food’ skips over the question of whether the desire is ‘good’ or not.

    I hope you believe me when I say I’m genuinely not trying to be difficult. I actually thought we agreed that morality is meaningless apart from a reference to a goal? And whilst we can infer (again, still non-scientifically) a goal from a desire, this still does not even begin to address whether the desire (let alone the realising of that desire!) is good/bad.


  16. Dale, if those were the *only* factors involved in the paedophile example, then, yes, it would be morally appropriate. But you and I both know that doing so in the real world would cause much suffering and, in fact, the suffering that he would cause would then, in turn, cause him much suffering because he would be punished by the rest of us.

    So, no, given the other factors he really ought not to if he want happiness and less suffering.

    Now, you still haven’t been able to come up with an example so I’m going to assume that you have none.

    And you don’t seem to have made the connection that all you are doing when asking whether the desire itself is good or bad is that you are broadening the scope of the factors involved. Much like I just did with the paedophile example.

    I hope I have shown that if suffering or happiness is taken out of the equation it is meaningless to ask whether it is any longer a ‘moral’ question. So, in asking whether the goal of less suffering is in itself a moral question either you are assuming other external factors that would cause suffering or you are not making sense.

    Does that make sense?


  17. we all agree, I’ve no doubt, that the goal of ‘less suffering’ is a good goal, but my point is that this goal is no more scientifically ‘based’/’supported’/’derived’ than a goal of ‘more suffering’.

    Biological ‘suffering’ is empirically observed, no doubt, but it is intuition, tradition, emotion, logic, etc. (philosophy) that tells us that less of it is ‘good’.


  18. Dale your paedophile example shows you are screwing up the derivation of moral outlook. While an individual may well act out their base desires without considering right and wrong, most people don’t. Societies don’t. Because we are intelligent, empathetic, etc. we can consider the children. The victims. It’s a fact, part of our nature, that we have that ability well wired in. We actually feel the hurt of others

    Sent from my iPod


  19. Dale, I really don’t know how I can reword it if you haven’t already got it. But I’ll try again.

    Can you agree that without causing happiness or suffering an issue can not be a moral issue? That it can not be morally good or morally bad? Yes?

    A ‘moral’ issue is *defined* by how it is tied to happiness or suffering. Yes?

    So, how can you not see that to ask, “how can we know whether it is morally good to prefer happiness over suffering” is completely circular?

    Please tell me you see that.


  20. Ken,
    Ken the whole point is that even for those who DO act whilst considering right/wrong, we cannot use ‘facts’ to determine the right/wrong-ness of their considerations.

    Yes, we ‘can’ consider the children, but obviously not all of us do – i.e. paedophiles. We have no purely ‘scientific’ reason why paedophilia (or any action for that matter) is ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’.

    It’s good to focus as you have on the question of what makes an issue a ‘moral’ one. This is key.

    I reckon we don’t have (nor could we have) any ‘scientific’ reason to see happiness/suffering as the constitutive element in making an issue a ‘moral’ one. Sure ‘happiness’/’suffering’ is prominent in a utilitarian philosopohy, but this is not ‘science’.

    My entire point is that the is/ought distinction seems to be unavoidable, and that morality is fully/completely on the philosophy side of the science/philosophy divide. And if you’re baffled at me not seeing your point, I’m just as baffled why this is not obvious to you guys.


  21. side comment: do you guys think that ‘science’ can adjudicate on aesthetic judgments as well???


  22. Dale it is wrong because we decide it is wong. There isn’t an outside rule about it.

    And we decide on the basis of the facts of our existence. It is obvious in many cases that an act would cause suffering to someone or many. That us why we call it wrong. That is our judgement and we can find, in essence universal agreement on many things. Because of the objective facts of our existence.

    Sent from my iPod


  23. Ken, the whole point is that ‘we’ decide a lot of things – contradictory things more specifically. And if science/’facts’ don’t support one position more than another then how can we say that it is ‘science’ which is guiding our moral conclusions?

    Again, I’ve never argued that people cannot or do not have all kinds of moral opinions with all kinds of ways of reasoning behind them. What I’m saying is that we all do this based on a) value-judgements we make and b) goals we discern/derive via whatever means – and not c) simply by some ‘scientific’ assessment of data.


  24. Those value judgements rely on facts often delivered by humanity’s scientific endeavors. They are judgements we make because of our empathetic, etc nature and the decisions are largel determined by that nature.

    Hence the often common agreement on what is right and what is wrong.

    Sent from my iPod


  25. Ken,
    the scientific facts merely serve to make the value judgements more detailed – for example, people always made value judgements about human value/worth, in relation to abortion, etc. but now we know a lot more about the finer details of the process of gestation, which means the same value judgements are had but with talk about the ‘foetus’ and ‘spermatozoa’ and ‘implanting’ and ‘fertilisation’, etc. instead of ‘the life inside her’ or some such.

    Hear me, i’m all for having this detail – I think it helps. But the facts/data themselves do not push (morally) one way or the other, so to speak.

    And again, I’m very curious to see if you also think that science can adjudicate on aesthetics as well? If you think right/wrong can be put in ‘factual’ terms, then do you also think beautiful/ugly can be put in ‘factual’ terms as well?


  26. I think scientific knowledge has been of immense help for our moral decisions on things like abortion, IVF, stem cell research, etc. It will have enabled many people to change their moral judgements.

    Of course moral judgents on such issues changed before we had that knowledge. But it did so out of fashion and changes in moral edicts (derived from “divine commands” and popes).

    As I have said – this was just moral relativism. Now we have much more ability to make objectively based moral decisions.

    Sent from my iPod


  27. I’m happy with saying science ‘helps’ (or informs) our moral judgements, but cannot see how it could enable/change (or ‘form’) them.

    Again, even the most scientifically-informed judgement is still made out of one’s value-set or worldview or philosophy or goal-set, etc. words like assumptions, intuitions, deeply-synonymous human emotion, religious/spiritual traditions, etc. also accurately describe what all of us use to amke these judgements.

    What I’d really suggest would be helpful is for us to stick with ONE test case (I do think abortion would be an ideal example) and try to demonstrate our points in those terms. I’d maintain that there are no scientific facts which ‘point’ to the right-ness or wrong-ness of ANY position however extreme. Again, a ‘factual’ account of a murder (6-inch blade, 43 cuts, 16 bruises, occurring at 7:47pm) says nothing about it being ‘wrong’. We assume that via tradition, emotion, intuition, culture, spiritual/religious/philosophical sources. We all have ‘religious’ (in the broadest sense of the word) value-sets. Unless we’re nihilists?


  28. Well then, Dale, you start. Do you consider abortion right or wrong?

    How did you determine that moral position?

    Sent from my iPod


  29. Fine. Note that I won’t need to use scientific facts in my position. Abortions would be (theoretically) non-existent if there were no unwanted pregnancies due to rape, careless sex, etc., so for me rather than being reactive we should also be proactive and address the root (no pun intended) issue of sexual responsibility.

    But sticking to the very real cases of unwanted pregnancies, yes I think abortion is wrong in the sense that it directly contradicts the goal of preserving, protecting human life. That’s pretty simple. Yes, I’m aware of ‘natural abortions’ due to lack of implantation, just as much as I’m aware of women who are infertile. Nature isn’t infallible. But I think our actions should be always to save life, not to end/kill/stop it.

    Now abortion might hypothetically be in isolated cases the lesser of two wrongs, but it is always tragic.

    In terms of moral philosophy, there are questions that are begged of course. But how about you? What do you think, and how did you determine that position?


  30. But what makes protecting and preserving human life right?

    How did you get to that moral conclusion?

    Sent from my iPod


  31. Again, the only way for something to be meaningfully right/wrong is in relation to a goal/purpose. The goal of life protection/preserving is a properly basic one philosophically speaking.

    Of course, 98% or even 100% agreement on such a goal would merely beg the question “so why is agreement a verifier of truth?” So it’s possible (even eventual in at least some cases) that the minority view could actually be the ‘true’ one.

    But here we see the inevitable relationship of epistemology ethics. If ethics are bound to goals, then how do we ‘know’ these goals, etc.

    I maintain that we are epistemically justified to claim to ‘know’ that the goal of protecting/preserving life is a good goal even if there is not a shred of ‘scientific’ evidence to support it (or really even comment [directly/’factually’] on it).


  32. I also would of course happily use the language of spiritual discernment of truth, via logic, reason, tradition, intuition, deep-resonating emotional conviction, i.e. that these goals are simply ‘self evident’, self-reasonable, self-justifying, self-demonstrating, or ‘revealed’.

    The point is, we all believe things that we can’t prove with ‘science’, so we’re all being more ‘unscientific’ than we may be comfortable with.


  33. “the only way for something to be meaningfully right/wrong is in relation to a goal/purpose. “

    I don’t see that (unless your goal is the same as my moral conclusions) so you will have to justify.

    “I maintain that we are epistemically justified to claim to ‘know’ that the goal of protecting/preserving life is a good goal even if there is not a shred of ‘scientific’ evidence to support it (or really even comment [directly/’factually’] on it).”

    You might very well maintain that, Dale. But I certainly can’t see why. Forget science, how do you support it? How do you “know” it?

    “I also would of course happily use the language of spiritual discernment of truth, via logic, reason, tradition, intuition, deep-resonating emotional conviction, i.e. that these goals are simply ‘self evident’, self-reasonable, self-justifying, self-demonstrating, or ‘revealed’.”

    1: Why do you call all those things “spiritual? ” I myself talk about spiritual but don’t usually see those things in the description.
    2: Of course we all believe things we can’t prove, with science or with any other thing. Rationalise or “justify” perhaps.

    But a lot of beliefs are just weird or wrong. And we are always changing our beliefs, surely (at least if we have a pulse).

    Are you just saying I believe abortion is wrong or I believe we should preserve life but I can’t explain why?


  34. on ‘goals/purpose’:
    anti-x action is ‘wrong’ for goal of pro-x

    On ‘knowing’ a good goal:
    Like the scientific question of physical causation, philosophical/metaphysical ‘why’ questions also tend to set up a kind of infinite regress. So just as we get to ‘what cause the big bang’ type questions in physics, we get to ‘but why is preserving life a good goal’ questions in metaphysics. We can talk about various metaphysical ways of responding to that infinite ‘why’ regress, but the point relevant to this thread is that you seem to think that science can adjudicate on a metaphysical/ethical question. As for ‘knowing’, I happen to believe that humans don’t perfectly/completely ‘know’ anything at all, so people use ‘know’ in the sense of ‘I am convinced beyond all doubt’, etc. We have reasons, we think, we feel, we sense, we intuit – but we don’t (at least fully) ‘know’.

    1) I’m using the term loosely – let’s not splinter the conversation unnecessarily?
    2) Sure – what’s your point?

    You say “a lot of beliefs are just weird or wrong” !!?? That’s an enquiry-stopper if I’ve ever heard one!

    As for last question – I’ve given a sufficient outline of how I see it, and have never claimed omniscience at any time. I’d say that’s a humble approach that is open-minded.

    Your turn – how do scientific facts guide moral conclusions about abortion being right or wrong?


  35. You guys might be interested in a judge’s decision in the UK. This is a little bit related to some of the practical difficulties of this “morality” stuff.


  36. Thnaks for the link Nick. I had seen a report of the judges comments – but not the ex archbishops reposne.

    That could be shaping up for a bit of a fight.

    Have you followed the religious attacks on the trial of an ethics class in New South Wales Schools? This has some similarities in the assumption of religious people that they have special rights.


  37. How easy/convenient (and false) to contrast “those religious people over there” having their subjective speculative dogma and beliefs, with “us rational evidential humanitarians” with our scientifically based morality.

    We ALL have assumptions/ideologies/experiences/cultural-influences that shape our moral positions. Both ‘the bible says X so it’s true’ and ‘it’s immensely unpopular to be against Y, so it must be OK’ approaches are equally uncritical.

    Ken, were you going to fill us in on what scientific facts direct our moral reasoning on abortion?


  38. ((meant to also say thanks to Nick for the link – which highlights how complex/confused/contradictory the conversation often is))


  39. OK Dale – I will try to summarise your explanation. I have to admit that I don’t understand it, or understand it only vaguely.

    You start by qualifying using the lesser of 2 evils argument but to you abortion is wrong because it contradicts a goal of preserving and protecting human life. This is a basic point in philosophy (?), you “know” this is so and it is epistemologically justified to know even if there is no evidence (?). You say this is also spiritually justified but you definition of spiritual seems, to me, to be a catch all. We all believe what we cannot prove.

    However, you then qualify or weaken the knowledge by saying we feel, we sense, we intuit but we don’t (at least fully) know.

    To pursue this you see as leading to a philosophical infinite regress.

    (By the way your reference to the “big bang theory” is not justified. I don’t see any infinite regress there. We have gone as far back as we can on the basis of evidence and theory. We have reached a point where we say “we don’t know”. So we get stuck in. We are attempting to unify relativity and quantum theory and to improve out knowledge of particle physics at higher energies. I don’t see any infinite regress.)

    I agree this is not fact based.

    My impression is that it is basically intuition based, but rationalised by claiming to “know” something is wrong or that we have specific “goals”.

    I am trying to describe your position objectively from your comments, not trying to attack it. Just saying that I don’t think I really understand it.

    I will give an outline of my probable approach in a separate comment to avoid confusion. This also enables you to clarify anything I have got wrong in this summary.


  40. Dale, I’ll try to put this into the perspective of development of idea (time) and society (environment).

    I can remember what society was like in the 50s and 60s. Abortion was a shocking criminal act. Coat hangers, pills, and bicycle pumps were involved. Back street shonky houses. The weekly newspaper “Truth” reported criminal cases. I don’t know if you can picture it. Also we had an incredibly hypocritical morality (promoted by religion by the way). Sex was sinful, especially before marriage. A young woman who got pregnant was despised, sent to the country, hidden from society. Her child removed from her. We still suffer the consequences of this break up of families and family relationships.

    Women were definitely not quite human. They did not have equal rights. They could not drink with men in most bars. They were considered sinful if they worked after marriage. Many gave in to the effects of urban isolation and ended up in mental hospitals.

    I “knew” then that abortion was wrong. Didn’t have to think about it. It was intuitive. I had mopped it up from the environment. But I also “knew” women had a second class position and that men had a duty to look after them. Intuitive again – mopped up from the environment.

    In the early 70s the women’s movement really took off. Part of the result was a public discussion on fertility rights, including abortion. (Don’t forget up until then doctors would not help unmarried women with fertility issues. Many would refuse to help married women – for religious reasons).

    For me this involved thinking about these moral issues. I had already thought about racism, peace, etc. I had rationalised to a position of having working class sympathies. Now I thought more about women, reproduction morality. Etc.

    So I was starting to apply moral logic and this changed my, formerly intuitive, moral concept of what was right and wrong in this situation.

    (By the way, I think there is a dialectical interaction between intuitive morality and “thinking” morality. As we develop and change our ideas based on evidence and logic our conclusions do become ingrained in our intuitions so that we can then intuitively arrive at our new moral positions in the future. This is just the normal way our brain works and how we learn).

    Being sentient, intelligent, empathetic and social I see it this way.

    I feel the pain of others, I am wired to. It’s part of the fact that I am a social animal. This involves communication and reading others. So, if I am aware that other individuals suffer, or will suffer, pain, loss of dignity, abuse, restriction of rights, etc., I feel this myself. OK, not to the same extent as the sufferer, obviously, but many of the same neural circuits are activated. So I can put myself in their shoes.

    So I can appreciate, empathise with, what women have and were going through.

    Does this empathy extend to life in general? Well actually it does, to varying degrees. The important thing is that it extends, to varying degrees, to non-human life as well. Obviously we have empathetic gradations. We don’t have as much sympathy for the evil murderer when they are imprisoned as we would for someone who is unjustly detained. We are less concerned if we tread on an ant (although many Buddhists are excepted) than if we cause pain to a dog or cat.

    So yes, my empathy, at least in an abstract form (I imagine that different neural circuits are activated, or less activated) does extend to the unborn fetus, and to pets and domestic animals. And further.

    So we have got a fact based morality – a response to situations based on the facts of my empathetic, intelligent (I am applying logic a lot of the time) social and sentient nature.

    But scientific facts also come into this. I can appreciate differences in the level of sentience, awareness and self awareness between different animals, and between different stages of their development. I can appreciate the fact that all life is related and some other animals really are our cousins. This scientifically established fact comes into it. I think humans actually feel more empathy for whales, dolphins and elephants than they do for many other animals. I think we can appreciate that their level of sentience may actually be higher than for other animals.

    Obviously scientifically established facts about human development come into our moral considerations. We can see a gradation of sentience, self awareness etc. And yes it is complex because of the evolved strong emotional interactions between adults and children, and with kin.

    So judging abortion right or wrong (and that is a human decision – not a god given rule) means I have little concern for the recently fertilised ovum. So no problems with IVF. Similarly early abortion is not a problem and can be justified even if the benefits may appear relatively minor (women’s career, financial, etc.) It becomes less right, more wrong, as development progresses. But even late term abortions are not wrong if, for instance, it is a choice involving the life of the woman. The recent murder of the abortion clinic doctor was abhorrent because this guy was doing late term abortions for those very situations and was seen by women as a life saver. But in principle abortion become less right, more wrong, with time.

    One problem I have is that why should I judge, say, a medium term abortion wrong because the women wanted to leave child rearing for a few years if I am prepared to eat meat and therefore think it is right to kill an animal with a greater level of sentience than the foetus concerned?

    I should really be a vegetarian, ethically, and that is a genuine dilemma for me.

    So – I argue that in the end our morality, if it is conscious, is fact based. On the nature of our existence and on the scientifically established facts of the choices. Even when we are acting intuitively (and I guess most of us do in such matters) if we have been through a moral logic exercise in the past this does become part of our intuitions.

    The danger is that many people haven’t and their intuitions are determined either by relatively base instincts (them and us, racism) or by the environment (Religion? Ideology? Dogma?) which is often intolerant, and immoral anyway.


  41. A young woman who got pregnant was despised, sent to the country, hidden from society. Her child removed from her. We still suffer the consequences of this break up of families and family relationships.

    Women were definitely not quite human. They did not have equal rights. They could not drink with men in most bars. They were considered sinful if they worked after marriage.

    Ah, the good old days.


  42. Nick – a couple of links I have received on the UK ruling.

    Has one man the right to change the constitution? – a Christian response appearing to argue that Christians have constitutional privileges over other religions – based on the Monarch’s pledge.

    The full text of the Judge’s ruling – good stuff.

    And a summary of the case from an employment law website.


  43. Thanks for the links Ken, I will have a bit of a read later.

    This thread (and previous) seem to pivot around that old “can’t derive an ought from an is” idea. Apparently, Hume’s argument here was a bit more sophisticated than that oft quoted sentence, but sorry, I have not as yet read any of his books. I will nevertheless, in the spirit of blog commenting, offer my opinion on the subject.

    When I read about critical issues in philosophy, especially in the early/late modern era, I am often struck by how coloured a lot of the ideas are by concepts of human uniqueness/specialness. I.e. cartesian dualism, determinism and what that means for free will etc.. I suppose that the fact that we are human beings can explain some of our tendency to have a few biases in that direction.

    It seems to me though, that a lot of what were considered (perhaps they still are?) the big philosophical questions, just don’t seem so interesting or unknowable as perhaps they did then. I say this for two main reasons:

    1). Religion. At least in the early/late modern period in western philosophy, religion, and more specifically the Christian religion was a very dominant force in society as a whole. Child rearing, education, health care, almost anything you care to name was considered to be a religious domain. A lot of the important philosophical debates seem to either reactions against religious ideas or attempts to reconcile historical beliefs with new knowledge. Starting from a standpoint of no religion, or even with a much reducing “weighting” for religion, I think that a lot of these questions lose their elevated importance.

    2). Lack of scientific (i.e. supported/demonstrated) knowledge. Given what we now know about the brain, in particular, research on people with brain injuries, I just don’t think that people like Descartes would be obsessing over mind body dualism. At the very least, progress has been such, that granting equal or higher weighting to “supernatural” forces when it comes to, well … anything really, just doesn’t seem reasonable. If you want to have a conversation about the supernatural, then I think that in this day and age, you are really going to have to come to the party with something pretty damn impressive to be taken seriously.

    How does this relate to the thread topic? If you put yourself in my shoes, without any religious upbringing (indoctrination?), having read quite a bit about science, and last but not least, having thought quite a lot about some of these issues, I just don’t see what the problem is with the type of morality that Ken is talking about here.

    All knowledge is arrived at through deduction or induction that at some level or another rests on axioms or assumptions. Yes, there is an infinite regress when it comes to providing “the justification for a true belief”, but so what. This just rules out 100% certainties and means that we have to “weigh the evidence” when evaluating competing ideas. Yes, this does make some people uncomfortable, and I am amazed at the logical labyrinths that some people run into to try and avoid this.

    I just don’t see how morality is any different. At some point you need some base level axioms that you can then build the whole structure on. Surely a logically consistent and rationally thought out morality based on an as minimal as possible set of axioms is vastly preferable to a morality based on mythology, old wives tales and the gut feelings that our evolutionary history has given us (or is that a bit of a straw man?).


  44. howdy,
    I had a crazy busy week (4 talks + 1 asgmt completed – not to mention family time), so have not been able to chime in for a few days. And I honestly won’t be able to do so meaningfully this week as I have a critical book review that will take a lot of research time.

    All I’ll briefly say is that your sketch of ‘the good old days’ of racism, bigotry etc. are not only opportunist (these moral pendulums swing back/forth through history – it’s not a simple shocking-to-wonderful progression), but more importantly you did not show how *science* made people realise suddenly that blacks were equal or that slavery was wrong. It would of course be difficult to do so, namely because people were against slavery, and descrimination thousands of years ago. Women have been rulers, judges and queens ages ago. Again, the pendulum (zeitgeist?) swings.

    Science (and the knowledge that comes with it) is immensely helpful for moral work/thought, but it does not tell us why things are wrong/right – it rather gives us more precise/technical descrptive language with which to have these moral conversations.

    I’ll check back in a week or so – off to book review research!


  45. Dale, I am also very preoccupied and somewhat distracted (with ongoing serious family health issues) so don’t wish to get into pointless jelly wrestling.

    Could I suggest before critiquing my serious description you take the time to read and objectively repeat it? I did that with yours and I think it helped a lot (although please show me where I have read it wrong if I have). I think I learned something fom the exercise.

    Describing my serious description as opportunist and appealing to pendulums doesn’t give it the respect it deserves. Remember, too, I am relating to my personal experience – don’t we all.

    Sent from my iPod


  46. the busy-ness that I mentioned should explain why I’ve not worked through your comment in detail – which I did read, btw.


  47. Here is a link to an interesting post on this topic from Sean Carroll. You will have seen this Ken, but I’ll post it for Dale or anybody reading.

    He makes some good points.


  48. fantastic article, nick, thanks for the link. I particularly liked his ‘role’/’foundation’ distinction – says it better than I’ve been trying to 🙂


  49. Just realised that is a more recent article, Nick.

    Bit distracted at the moment but must get around to reading it. There was a previous article by Sam Harris challenging Sean’s earlier reference to is/ought which I found quite good.

    I must say I find people are using this argument as a dogma or mantra, and also loosely to justify a specific argument they are making.

    I find, sometimes, when people talk philosophically they will do it dogmatically whereas the same people when talking scientifically are more open minded. There are few things scientists would cling to (perhaps 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is most likely). But whereas someone like Sean or Massimo Pigliucci will accept that we shouldn’t dogmatically deny we might find the speed of light is not what we currently think it is, they will quote a philosophical principle from centuries back as if it is inviolable.

    Also the “is/ought” and “naturalistic fallacy” seem to be used interchangeably in arguments. That is, these arguments are oftne very lossley applied.

    Personally I don’t think we should just quote things like that and think that ends a discussion. Thinking scientifically we should look at each specific situation and argue it out. Things like this should never be decided from dogma.

    Personally, I think most of us do decide “ought” ( our moral decision about what we ought to do) from “is” (the situation we are considering).

    We all choose whether to tell the truth or lie, depending on the facts of a situation. And most of us develop attitudes towards living beings depending on the facts of their level of sentience and awareness.


  50. Ken,
    I do wish to find time (eventually) to more fully interact with your comment above, but I do think the article linked to may serve as a good ‘discussion document’ so to speak. He presents the points well. For ease of time/clarity, I’ll copy/paste main-points below:

    1. There’s no single definition of well-being.
    2. It’s not self-evident that maximizing well-being, however defined, is the proper goal of morality.
    3. There’s no simple way to aggregate well-being over different individuals.

    I also particularly liked these words:

    science will play a crucial role in understanding morality. […] But it’s a role, not a foundation. Those of us who deny that you can derive “ought” from “is” aren’t anti-science; we just want to take science seriously, and not bend its definition beyond all recognition.


  51. I want to get back to it too when things are a bit calmer here.

    But currently I don’t see the problem: 1, 2 and 3 may well be true, or may just represent the fact that life’s decisions aren’t easy. But that does not stop an individual, or group of individuals, using the facts of a situation to determine what they judge to be right or wrong in that situation.

    I suspect part of the problem here is people’s insistence on judgments of right and wrong being absolute. I don’t see that.

    And I suspect that this is what Harris was referring to with his concept of a moral landscape.

    By the way PZ Myers also has a brief article at Sam Harris v. Sean Carroll – which I have yet to read properly.


  52. Ken,
    It’s the ‘truth’ of our moral judgments that is in question. No one is saying that people do not situationally make judgments this(x)/that(y) way. The question is of course how we can know that judgement ‘x’ is more/less moral than judgement ‘y’.

    This is where goals come in. ‘x’ or ‘y’ will be ‘better’ for a previously assumed/defined/perceived/’known’ goal. (which relates to his point 2 – these goals aren’t self-evident – at least ‘scientifically’)

    Speaking of morality – I’m being naughty – i need to stop commenting here and work on my assignment!


  53. …if the ‘goal’ of assignment completion is a good goal… 😉


  54. As I said – I think part of the problem is that when you talk about the “Truth” of a moral judgment you have in mind that there is an absolute truth of right and wrong – an objective morality. A god-given morality.

    My argument is that because this is derived from nowhere – it is just claimed – it enables relative morality of the worst kind.

    Whereas an objectively-based morality – based on the facts of our nature and of the situation- enables us to derive a moral position which can find common acceptance (after all we have very similar natures).

    The dialectical interaction of logic and intuition comes into this. That is we can learn our morality in a way similar to learning to ride a bike.

    I am coming (as a result of these sorts of discussion) more and more to the point that using philosophy to derive a moral position is just as sterile and wrong as using unfeeling, objective, scientific method to derive a moral position. And, from the discussion I have seen, it is all done in the abstract.

    Of course we use scientific knowledge (and investigation) to derive the facts of situations and these can be a great help. But in the end our decisions are judgements. But judgements based on facts – much, much, better than god-given morals delivered from on high.

    Approaching this philosophically we get silly situations like how can one prove something is beneficial or good.

    We don’t do this in life, either intuitively of logically. We start from our nature as social, empathetic, intelligent and sentient beings and right and wrong follows. We don’t sit down and work out the maths or philosophical logic. If you like – we “feel” it when someone is oppressed. Emotions and feelings are very much part of this judgement.


  55. only time for a quick comment then I’ll have to keep myself away for few days…

    you can drop the ‘from on high’ and ‘just claimed’ and ‘abstract’ language. Clearly these common moral convictions are not for a few that have been up a mountain or through a analytical philosophy doctorate programme. Even if it is not ‘fact based’ these are very ‘down to earth’, ‘practical’ and ‘human’ ideas. There’s nothing more practical than a good idea.

    See you in a few days.


  56. You seem to be reacting defensively to something Dale?

    The fact is that a lot of this discussion is taking place abstractly. I wish, eg, that Sean dealt with specific examples and described how he say us arriving at moral decisions.

    If it is the “god-given morality” term that you find upsetting – well why not debate it.

    I get thoroughly fed up with people who attack my serious suggestions of how I think morality works and refuse to describe an alternative. Divine commands just doesn’t cut it.

    One has to go much further than advancing a bald claim when one is attempting to discuss these sorts of things.

    Unfortunately, until some argument is put forward I really have no other alternative to the language I have used.


  57. Ken,
    (assignment done – now a hopefully helpful comment before bed)
    It actually seems you do admit (above – “But in the end our decisions are judgements.”) that ‘science’ cannot found/guide our ethics??

    But then you go on to say that “But judgements based on facts – much, much, better than god-given morals delivered from on high.”
    My request is for you to show how a ‘fact’ can be the ‘base’ of our judgements. Use the abortion issue (as above) if you prefer (as I do) to stick to practical examples.

    The point is, there is a huge difference between a) taking ‘facts’ into account when making a moral judgement, and b) ‘basing’ a moral judgement ‘on’ a ‘fact’.

    I maintain that ‘the data’/’facts’ are so objective that they are ‘unbiased’ when it comes to any/all moral positions. A foetus is a foetus whether it is chopped up or fought for. The difference comes NOT from the ‘facts’ of the foetus, but what one believes about the ‘worth’/’value’ of life in general and human life in particular; and these beliefs will always be based on things such as (here’s the long list): intuition, emotion, tradition, ‘common sense’, ‘self-evident truths’, ‘philosophy’, ‘religion’, ‘humanism’, ‘pro-life-ism’, ad infinitum.

    Interestingly (and a key point), it is not just ‘those hopelessly unthinking religious people over their with their god-given morals’ who eventually shrug their shoulders and say this/that action is simply ‘just wrong’. We ALL have to say that eventually.


  58. Can’t see your point, Dale.

    I suggest you attempt to summarise the position I presented, place it alongside the position you have presented, and isolate the key differences.

    Doing that myself I suggest the differences lie in “knowing” what is right and wrong. You seem to suggest that we just “know,” don’t use objective facts about the situation or our nature. Then suggest that knowing this way may not really be very reliable – perhaps we shouldn’t use the word “know”.

    I am suggesting that, yes we just “know” – intuitively. This is our intuitions in operation – we don’t have to stop and think before making a moral decision (or at least our brain makes that decision so fast we are unaware of it). This “knowledge” may not always be justified when we consider the facts and our nature (eg. what we used to “know” about slavery and discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation being OK).

    I am saying our moral thinking, our application of moral logic to the facts of the situation, together with the facts of our existence as an empathetic, social, intelligent and sentient species, enables us to form conscious moral decisions. These then become integrated in our intuitions in the normal learning process.

    The god-given morality approach interferes with this conscious moral logic. It implants a morality without justification (or the god justification) – from the outside. People submitting to this don’t develop their own moral character – instead it is imposed. And becuase it is not logical it can be quite distorted and inhuman. Hence it is a form of moral relativism quite divorced from the objective basis for morality of the sort I am arguing for.


  59. Should add that PZ Myers has made another comment on the objective basis for morality (arguing with sam Harris) – see How many little girls are slaughtered unnoticed?.

    He refers to Richard Carrier – presumably his book (Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism) which I must read sometime.


  60. Hi Ken,
    I’m caught between wanting to meaningfully engage and knowing that with a few assignments I need to start on soon, I shouldn’t try to sustain a detailed comparison of views.

    I genuinely think isolating key points is best, for a) clarity/precision, b) comparative ease and c) shorter comment length(s)?

    I think sticking with the abortion example a) keeps it practical, and b) focuses the conversation onto a specific example, allowing us to use (for example) abortion-specific ‘facts’ to make our points.

    My point is (as above) that ‘the facts’ of a foetus are so ‘objective’ that they are unbiased as to any of the dozens/hundreds/etc. of moral judgments that are logically possible. The bare/naked ‘fact’ (i.e.) of when sentience is clearly present in the development in the womb doesn’t ‘lean’ toward aborting the child being ‘right’ any more than it leans toward it being ‘wrong’. What will determine it, however, is not ‘the facts’, but rather a moral framework: i.e. an assumption/belief/worldview that has a ‘bias’ for protecting/privilleging ‘sentient’ life above non-sentient life.

    ((to quickly make a comment on an other-than-abortion example, PZ’s example is also other-than-factually based. The “facts” (age, weight/height, sentience, intelligence) of the girls and/or the fathers is not what makes their slaughter inhumane/evil. It is rather a value-set/belief-set. The murderous father’s value-set valued the daughter’s virginity more than their life. The ‘facts’ aren’t what tells us that this is a bad value-set.


  61. btw, I’m not presenting an argument (at least yet) for how we can ‘know’ right/wrong – nor am I commenting as to how belief in God relates to morality at the moment. I’m only concerned (for now) with seeing if we can agree that ethics is ‘other than factually based’


  62. I think I have made clear, Dale, that I argue for an objectively based morality. Based on:

    1: the facts of specific situations, and

    2: on the nature of our species as social, intelligent, empathetic and sentient.

    Nothing you have written has contradicted that. So I think you are being a bit hopeful wanting me to “agree that ethics is other than factually based.”

    You are not going to get anywhere with this task by adopting the tactic of “I’m not presenting an argument (at least yet) for how we can ‘know’ right/wrong – nor am I commenting as to how belief in God relates to morality at the moment. “

    Come on. Don’t expect me to fall over and give up a life time experience just because you desire it!

    Why be so coy?

    You are going to have to break your silence and produce the argument.

    So far all I have from you is:

    “I maintain that we are epistemically justified to claim to ‘know’ that the goal of protecting/preserving life is a good goal even if there is not a shred of ‘scientific’ evidence to support it (or really even comment [directly/’factually’] on it).”


    “As for ‘knowing’, I happen to believe that humans don’t perfectly/completely ‘know’ anything at all, so people use ‘know’ in the sense of ‘I am convinced beyond all doubt’, etc. We have reasons, we think, we feel, we sense, we intuit – but we don’t (at least fully) ‘know’. “

    I can only interpret this to mean you know something is wrong or right because you know it. But knowing something, you admit, is not reliable.

    I agree – intuition, by itself, may lead us into reprehensible prejudice and inhuman actions. And also makes us prone to being hijacked by ideologues.

    Considering the facts of the situation and engaging our human natures helps us come to a better morality.


  63. we may have different understandings of what we mean by morality being ‘based’ on something.
    (and it’s not a little bit ironic that you call me to break a silence and then quote me twice)

    But on your two points;

    1) ‘the facts of specific situations’ (like the abortion example, which -again- we would do well to stick with) do not serve as a ‘basis’ for action a, b, c, d, etc. They are just bare/naked ‘facts’ to be interpreted, valued, etc. The ‘fact’ of pre-birth sentience doesn’t serve as a ‘basis’ for protecting its life any more than ending it. This ‘fact’ has to be interpreted/valued by a worldview/belief/value-set.

    2) ‘on the nature of our species as social, intelligent, empathetic and sentient.’ Again, you continue to use the one-sided language. We are also unsocial, unintelligent, apathetic, and non-sentient (at certain times – i.e. early stages of development, sleep, coma, etc.). But again, even if we include both sides, these ‘facts’ still don’t serve as a ‘basis’ for any particular actions – until they are ‘used’ by a worldview/belief/value-set.


  64. Where do you think your “world view” comes from?


  65. That’s an excellent thing to focus on, Ken,

    To be sure, it is “the world” (complete with all the ‘facts’) we are “viewing”. But worldviews are passed on (tradition), constructed (reason), assumed (culture/experience). These are the ‘sources’ of our worldview – how we learn to ‘interpret’ the facts.


  66. So whats the problem?

    Surely our empathetic, social nature has a huge role in determining our culture. Our reason enables us to apply our intuitions to real situations and to relearn intuitions (we no longer have to “assume” because we are intelligent).

    These traditions, cultures, etc. came out of our social evolution and were inevitably influenced by our nature. Other animals have different cultures and tradition.

    Just as society has continued to develop we have changed a lot of our ethical outlook. Changed facts and changes resulting from human contemplation.

    When we get down to it I suspect you actually do agree with me about this. You don’t have to drag in any gods to consider this issue.


  67. The problem, Ken, is calling this a) “objective” or b) “based” on “facts”. We’ve no way to ‘factually’ discern which traditions, cultures are ‘good’ and which are ‘evil’/’bad’. Or whether to tell if an evolutionary social developments is a ‘progression’ or ‘regression’. The pendulum swings.


  68. btw, I’d want to reach agreement about the role that ‘facts’ play in morality before talking about how I think we can be justified in saying we ‘know’ certain things are wrong (or that they are against a divine will). In discussions, I find it unproductive to bang on endlessly about points we obviously disagree about (i.e. God), and rather find a point we can (potentially) agree on – i.e. the role of ‘facts’.


  69. Well, Dale, I have presented my concept of objectively based morality. I suspect we won’t reach agreement on this (although I don’t know how much of this is refusal to consider rather than a misunderstanding).

    I have approached this with integrity and realise with the difference in attitude the argument will be “unproductive – bang on endlessly.” But I thought it was worth the effort. And, as is usual in such situations, I find that I learn something myself each time I do this.

    I don’t understand your position of “just knowing but we can’t really know.” That really seems so sterile to me.

    I am used to not knowing but trying to find out. I am used to having a working/instrumental knowledge which I recognise can be improved with more evidence and reasoning. I don’t expect to know reality exactly – and especially I don’t expect to know reality at all without trying.

    We deal with a real, imperfect and changing world. We can only do our best and be prepared to acknowledge mistakes when results and reason indicate errors.

    To use lack of surety as a reason for doing nothing is inhumane. To advance ones particular prejudices as god-given truths is also inhumane.

    In the end we make judgments, decisions. We do our best and we reflect.

    I have described that procedure to you regarding my development of attitudes to abortion. And I am not impressed by someone who stands on the outside saying “you have no way of knowing this was right or wrong.”

    I am impressed by people who discuss the real issues, help in decision making, and are able to being into action their humanity based on their sentient, intelligent, empathic and social nature.


  70. Ken,
    1. Can I at least get you to agree that our “intelligent, empathetic, social” etc. nature is half the picture? that we also have an “unintelligent, apathetic, unsocial” nature?

    2. I don’t argue for “doing nothing” and certainly don’t advance my “prejudices” as god-given (but I assume ANYTHING advanced as god-given would be automatically rubbish to you?). So i hope you weren’t implying that I was doing anything inhumane.


  71. Dale, I use those terms to characterise our species. These are essential features. Of course there are variations – just as there are in height and weight. And there will be abnormalities – via brain damage, for example. This sort if thing is well documented and has been one of the ways we have had of studying the brain and our inate nature.

    But I think this is surely obvious. We don’t have an “unempathetic, unintelligent, non-sentient” nature unless as individuals there has been brain damage or genetic distortions.

    But it is because of these facts of our nature as a species, and the facts of situations under consideration, that we can come to a large amount of agreement on many situations. Our ethics have an objective basis even though they are human judgements.

    Sent from my iPod


  72. Ken,
    The point is not only that these terms are only half the story, but even if we were purely empathetic, we still have to place values on things. Sentient person ‘a’ who thinks it is moral to kill a 1 month old child is just as sentient as sentient person ‘b’ who thinks that is murder.

    The sentience of the judgment-maker is irrelevant to the judgment, which is made according to his/her worldview, informed by reason, tradition, cultural influence, etc.


  73. I think I have made myself as clear as I can. If you seriously think your last comment is not already answered I suggest you try to present what you think my position is.

    Or propose an alternative.

    Sent from my iPod


  74. I’m genuinely trying to understand your position, and you talk about our capacity as humans in terms of our intelligence, etc. but clearly ‘intelligence’ is not the determining factor in whether an action is moral or immoral.

    You seem to kind of ‘skip’ from our ability to do something; saying that our ability to do it is the ‘basis’ for our doing it. For example, you say that because we have the ability as humans to be intelligent and empathetic, this is our ‘basis’ for being intelligent and empathetic in our moral judging.

    But the problem is, this is still arbitrary in terms of morality. One can intelligently, empathetically judge that all abortion is murder just as much as one can intelligently, empathetically judge that some abortions are OK.

    Can you agree that ‘intelligence, empathy, etc.’ are not determining factors in moral judgments??


  75. Dale – if we were not an intelligent, empathetic, social and sentient species I can’t see that we would be making any moral judgements – let alone arguing whether they were “right” or “wrong.”


  76. Precisely Ken, but the question is not ‘whether’ we make moral judgments, but ‘how’ we make them. The question is not what is the basis on which we are able to make them, but what is the basis on which we make this or that judgment.
    Sure, only creatures with a biological/mental capacity for making judgments could make judgments. And yes we can use ‘facts’ to describe this ‘ability’. But when it comes to the MORAL question of why action ‘x’ (i.e. abortion) is moral or immoral, then ‘facts’ are not the ‘basis’.


  77. oops, missed a tag – meant to close italics after ‘this or that’


  78. Dale – do you not feel anything, react intuitively, when you see someone hurt, beaten? When you see someone discriminated against because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or belief?

    Are you not responding to objective situations with subjective reactions based on the objective facts of your nature?

    If you answer no – then please tell me how you make these judgements.


  79. Very interesting Ken,

    “responding to objective situations” – yes
    “…with subjective reactions” – yes (more on this later)
    “based on the objective facts of your nature” – i’d prefer to say “making use of the capacities you have” or similar, but yes.

    Here’s the rub. none of that addresses the moral question: ‘what is the moral/ethical response/reaction/judgment??

    Again, to stick to the abortion example:

    objective situation = foetus facts – mother facts – family facts – etc.

    subjective reation(s) = anything from a) “killing it would be murder”, to b) “having an undisturbed financial/social/family context is worth more than the life of this baby”, to c) “damn, my girlfriend is pregnant, I’ll beat her belly to keep from being caught…” (ALL of these involve ‘feelings’ and ‘intuitions’)

    objective facts of our nature = the ability to think, reason, feel, empathise, ignore, obsess, worry, trust, care, neglect, etc. ad infinitum.


  80. So you do have reactions to the objective situations where someone is threatened or hurt.

    Are these not moral reactions? Do we not all behave like this, intuitively, reflexively? Then after the fact we will rationalize our reactions, responses.

    And our rationalisations may well be culturally determined. Lessons we have learned from childhood. And so on. But they are rationalisations and may have no relationship to truth.

    The reality us that we acted intuitively. If there is a thought process it is too fast for us to be aware of it. It is subconcious.

    This is the same with something we have learned. Our aware mind does not have to deal with the mechanics of riding a bike, catching a ball, breathing or walking. Similarly, I do not have to consciously deal with a logical argument to intuitively react to discrimination against women or homosexuals, even though my intuitions are the result of learning. Learning about and considering the moral arguments and histories of these situations.

    We have evolved this way to enable us to deal with real life situations.

    Now, after the fact we may well discuss our reactions and determine if they were “appropriate”, “right” or “wrong”. This is where we make judgements and prejudices, culture and religious dogma may well come into it. But our judgement, if it is humane, is based on the facts of the situation. Sentience and intelligence are involved both in the judgement process and in considering the facts. And our values are determined by social intuitions (fairness, cheating, etc.) and our empathetic responses (which are wired in – mirror neurons for a start but lots more).

    The “golden rule” comes naturally to us. It is intuitively obvious.

    These moral judgements are therefore factually based . They are not objectively in existence as absolutes, but have an objective basis. That is why we can largely agree on much of our ethical decisions. And where we dispute these se should rely on the facts and out humanity rather than cultural dogma.

    Sure culture and ethical codes come into this. But there are also a result of the process. There is a dialectical relationship and they are constantly developing.

    This is not a dead pendulum in action. It is the evolution if social attitudes and values as a result of our empathetic and social responses. Sent from my iPod


  81. Ken, again please show me how “the facts of the situation” are a “basis” for making a human judgement. Use the abortion example.

    Also, how do we know the difference between a humane or inhumane ‘social intuition’/’empathetic response’. We are wired just as much for violent retaliation as we are for empathy.

    And the golden rule is not ‘factually’ based – it is reason, tradition and wisdom-based, which is sources in less-than-factual, less-than-objective, but I believe ‘True’ ways of knowing.

    And again, if you’d stick to the abortion issue as a test case (which you’ve not done for quite a few comments), we could see that we DON’T “largely agree” on moral questions. And again, who’s to say that the minority opinion isn’t morally superior? Certainly in majority-racist populations that would be the case.


  82. The “golden rule” is so obviously a result of our empathetic, social, intelligent nature. Think about it.

    And it is universal for that reason. There are no absolute objective morals etched in stone and somehow delivered to us.

    If you don’t agree then give your specific alternatives. Vague references to “True” ways of knowing don’t cut it with me. Such terms hide all sorts if devils and are the favourites of scoundrels.

    Sure we also have violent responses and these are often resulting from our empathetic and social intuitions. Some of them are not so appropriate in a modern society and are usually over riden by extension of our empathy to a larger society. Even to our cousins in other species.

    Sent from my iPod


  83. Ken, i think we may be speaking past one another. We need to give practical examples. I’ve shown examples of how ‘facts’ don’t determine which action is moral/immoral in the case of abortion…

    Will you please work through the example of abortion as a practical test-case? Show how to do the ‘objective’, ‘factual’ work from the ‘facts’ and show how the ‘facts’ help determine our judgments? (note: this is not asking for you to – yet again – remind me that we make judgments because we are capable of making them)


  84. I made a specific and lengthy comment on this. No point in repeating it.

    But if you attempt to reflect back to me what I wrote this would help identify what part you aren’t understanding.

    Sent from my iPod


  85. I’ll copy/paste the abortion-related part of your earlier lengthy comment:

    Obviously scientifically established facts about human development come into our moral considerations. We can see a gradation of sentience, self awareness etc. And yes it is complex because of the evolved strong emotional interactions between adults and children, and with kin.

    So judging abortion right or wrong (and that is a human decision – not a god given rule) means I have little concern for the recently fertilised ovum. So no problems with IVF. Similarly early abortion is not a problem and can be justified even if the benefits may appear relatively minor (women’s career, financial, etc.) It becomes less right, more wrong, as development progresses. But even late term abortions are not wrong if, for instance, it is a choice involving the life of the woman. The recent murder of the abortion clinic doctor was abhorrent because this guy was doing late term abortions for those very situations and was seen by women as a life saver. But in principle abortion become less right, more wrong, with time.

    One problem I have is that why should I judge, say, a medium term abortion wrong because the women wanted to leave child rearing for a few years if I am prepared to eat meat and therefore think it is right to kill an animal with a greater level of sentience than the foetus concerned?

    I appreciate the detail, and this is valuable as an expression of your personal moral judgments, but it is still subjective. You seem to assume a principle/’dogma’?/law that says ‘ending life increases in wrong-ness the more sentient the life is’?? you even say “I have little concern for the recently fertilised ovum.” (which I personally think is inhumane – because I think the ovum is a human – albeit just beginning the development) But then you recognise the logical connection with vegetarianism.

    Not only is this sentience spectrum arbitrary, it assumes that human worth grows with the level of sentience – which is not self-evident – certainly not ‘factually’ evident.


  86. Dale, are you not familiar with reflecting in discussions? It means taking in what the other says and reflecting it back in your own words. It’s aimed at developing the ability to listen and not placing your own prejudices in the others mouth.

    I think it is really helpful.

    Cut and paste is not reflection.

    However, taking some of what you said. We all, surely, have a graduated response depending on level of sentience. We don’t treat a vegetable the same way as a pet the same way as a colleague. In the past we treated members of another tribe as less human – even to the extent of eating them. This “them vs us” attitude still exists. Aren’t religions and ideologies very tribal?

    The facts are that an unfertised ovum Is less sentient than a fertilized ovum is less sentient than early stage foetus etc. Those are just facts.

    Most if us can easily develop a graduated sense of right and wrong accordingly. We can make honest fact based judgements.

    You have come to a different conclusion. OK I accept that and as long as you don’t interfere with the human rights of others it doesn’t really interest me. After all, part of being a social species is that we are all judgmental. And as there isn’t any objective absolute right and wrong engraved on stone we will often differ especially in details.

    But for the sake of this discussion you should explain how you get there. Really claims of other truths, knowing and then admitting human knowledge is not reliable doesn’t help.

    Sent from my iPod


  87. I’m keen to continue focus on the practical, down-to-earth (and frankly life or death) issue of the morality/immorality of abortion. Discussion about morality is best when practical test-cases are used.

    First, I think you’re wrong to say that the ‘graduated sentience’ judgement is a ‘fact-based’ one. The reason why is that more than the ‘fact’ of sentience is being used. The ‘fact’ of sentience is being understood in a framework which assumes that the value of life (or the responsibility to protect it, or whatever) increases in an exactly parallel rate that sentience does. This assumption is not factual and is assumed. And if strictly applied (people who are asleep, in a coma, or otherwise knocked out or not fully ‘sentient’), it would go against other intuitions we have.

    You say “as long as you don’t interfere with the human rights of others it doesn’t really interest me.” To which I say, how ironic, because I happen to believe that ending the life of an ovum quite literally interferes with the human rights of that precious little ‘other’. This is where the language of ‘rights’ (non-‘factually’-based, btw) is less than helpful, because we see a tension between (For example) the ‘rights’ of:

    a) the unborn person (however ‘sentient’ they currently are)
    b) the mother to govern what happens (to say nothing of her ‘right’ to be protected from her own hasty fear-induced and later-regretted judgement to end the pregnancy)
    c) the father to have the child (half his) protected

    consideration of only the sentience of the developing human does not get us far at all.

    As for me, I’m not the one claiming a ‘fact-based’ moral approach, but I do appreciate that knowin the ‘facts’ help us to make judgements (even if they don’t necessarily help us make better ones). I think ‘facts’ are like a microscope, letting us make the same decision we’d make without science, just with a more precise/detailed understanding of the things we’re deciding about.

    I recognise that abortion involves many things:
    1) the unfortunate (and preventable) case of an unwanted pregnancy – which I think can safely be said to equate to irresponsible (or oppressive, i.e. rape) sex. If people don’t feel ready for a child, then don’t have unprotected sex! Heaven forbid we protect sex from its degradation to a recreational activity which anyone has the ‘right’ to engage in with anyone and in whatever way that gives them a thrill. The maori (and many a traditional/religious people) have viewed sex as ‘tapu’ and to be treated with respect. Our NZ culture is too often ignorant of this.

    2) abortion involves scared women facing anything from shame from parents (for social and yes fundamentalistic religious reasons), pressure from scared/angry/frustrated/selfish/immature boyfriends/partners who don’t want to cope with the responsibility, the pain of being raped and falling pregnant, etc. ,etc. Whatever one’s views are, the women must be treated as a person (not merely part of a ‘sentient’ species). (a brilliant video on PZ Meyer’s blog about this a while back) I think this means being patient, giving financial, personal and other kinds of support, AND also giving loving, gentle guidance when appropriate – an overlooked reality is post-abortion trauma.

    3) it also involves people other than the mother – the boyfriend, would-be grandparents and communities. Sadly, many an unwanted pregnancy happens because parents are either too strict (notice I said strict, not ‘religious’) or to apathetic as to what their kids do. So parenting as well as sexual control is involved in the wider story of which abortion is a chapter.

    4) and yes, abortion involves a developing life. I think ‘sentience only’ approaches leave us with an arbitrary decision (how much sentience is required before it is wrong to kill, abort, chop-up-and-suck-out [let’s be honest, this is what is done at times] or other wise end the life of the foetus?). The reality of a developing process, and that (all complications aside) that foetus will develop into a fully functioning and fruitful human being (and yes, fully ‘sentient’) is essential.

    The question of the ‘rights’ of the unborn person is not as easy to swipe aside as some may think. If the universe is billions of years old, and each human lives usually less than 100 at at time, isn’t it a bit arbitrary to deny them the right to develop into adulthood simply because they were a few months (weeks? days?) away from being ‘sentient’?

    This is getting long, and I’ll end now, but close by saying that the underlying (and manefestly non-‘factual’) goal, value and Truth which I take to be foundational is Life itself. We don’t ‘know’ this goal, value and Truth in a ‘factual’, objective scientific, empirical way, but in much deeper, intuitive, reaonable, traditional, spiritual, emotional, ‘heartfelt’ way – even if it’s ‘subjective’. I happen to think that Love and Truth transcend ‘objective’/’subjective’ and ‘fact/value’ and is/ought divides.


  88. Bloody hell – my thoughtful, detailed, kind and long comment in reply got lost in the aether. Perhaps I had better just let loose with my simple reactions.

    So just a few points, Dale:

    1: Your last comment explains nothing about how you got to your moral position. It just advances a moral outlook – rather aggressively.

    2: I think its best to keep away from abortion – feelings appear to be too strong to use that as an example. Perhaps we should consider a human rights issue – eg discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, race. etc. How do we judge these right or wrong.

    3: Perhaps with a different example you will be less tempted to misrepresent my position. It is not helpful to use arrogant put downs (eg a person is “not merely part of a sentient species”). I still think you could usefully attempt the reflection exercise.

    4: I have actually provided a very detailed outline of how I, and I think most people, do develop a moral outlook. You have refused to provide an explanation of how you develop yours. This, of course, increases my confidence in my own approach. But really it does not give you license to misrepresent and attack my position inappropriately.

    5: You might find this difficult but my advice is to put your judgementalism aside, recognise that you cannot speak for me (and in fact may be motivated to misrepresent me) and try to objectively consider what I have written.

    6: Also be aware that I am not impressed by your unwillingness to reciprocate.

    7: Finally – please recognise that while your tirade against abortion was inappropriate it was also pointless. I don’t actually care what moral conclusions you have come to on this. I have come to my own and feel confidence in them.

    So please participate in a discussion about how each of us thinks we reach moral conclusions. Don’t attempt to impose yours on me.


  89. Ken, whilst I may not have bothered to systematically re-produce your lengthy comment, I don’t think I’ve misrepresented you. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your view does seem to consider mainly (only?) the sentience of the baby/foetus? That’s pretty straightforward and simple, no?

    I’m not trying to ‘win’ here. But I will be honest, I wonder if you’re (subconsciously?) realising that ‘sentience’ is not a very good basis for making a moral judgement for abortion?

    I’ve not personally insulted you at any time. Both of us, I trust, can handle having our views challenged. I am inclined to see your request to avoid abortion as a bit telling… as is your “I don’t care what moral conclusions you have come to…” statement.

    It’s worth me quickly restating the key issue: You talk about a ‘fact’-based or ‘objective’ morality – and that we can know right/wrong by ‘looking at the facts’. This is a bold claim in the history of ethics, as the reaction (even by fellow atheists) to Sam Harris’ recent TED talk indicates. I’m simply wanting you to explain how we get from ‘is’/facts to ‘ought’/ethics. I’ve not seen it done yet, and (like Carroll and PZ, etc.) I don’t think it can be.


  90. You are wrong. Definitely. You have made an unwarranted assumption. A moral outlook is based on the empathy, sentience, intelligence and social nature of all the agents – obviously.

    The level of sentience of a plant, animal, ovum, fertilised ovum fetus, individual, is just one important factor. But without our own empathy, sentience, etc., we would have no way of coming to a moral conclusions.

    Your misrepresentation is aimed at discrediting my position, not understanding it. Even in your last paragraph you distort my presentations. I have never claimed we know right and wrong by simply ‘looking at the facts.’ Never.

    I actually don’t think you are interested in understanding it because of your unwillingness to go through a reflection exercise.

    Dale, I think I have thoroughly expressed my approach. I have explained – you refuse to take it in. I don’t think I can get through to you unless you present a reflection.

    And you still refuse to explain your alternative.

    Obviously you have your own motives for that. And perhaps my time would be better spent discussing my understanding with people like Harris, Carroll, Pugliucci, etc. I am sure we would have our disagreements, and I am also sure I would learn from them. But at least there aren’t such blatant ideological differences getting in the way of honest discussion.


  91. Ken, I don’t think either of us have been dishonest. But alas, I think something you’ve said in this last comment has brought a clear focus. Allow me to cut/paste/comment:

    I have never claimed we know right and wrong by simply ‘looking at the facts.’ Never.

    This, I think, lies at/near the heart of our discussion.

    I am talking about morals/ethics in the prescriptive sense of how we discern/judge/’know’ what is right and wrong for a given time/place/context. It is in this sense, that I’ve been arguing that morals/ethics cannot be purely (philosophically) ‘objective’ or ‘fact’-based.

    You (here’s me presenting what I think your view is) seem to be talking about morals/ethics in the descriptive sense of what makes us ABLE to make these judgements. It appears that it is in this descriptive sense that you have been arguing for a ‘fact-based’ or ‘objective’ morality.

    I’ll stop there are see if you think that’s at least a key point in the conversation.


  92. No, Dale.
    You are wrong.


  93. in the patient attempt to find a point of agreement, I wonder: should we compare definitions of ‘morality’/’ethics’?

    For what it’s worth, the wikipedia entry distinguishes basically between the sense of ‘morality’ which I’ve outlined just above. For example (with my own emphasis in bold):

    In its “descriptive” sense, morality refers to personal or cultural values, codes of conduct or social mores that distinguish between right and wrong in the human society. Describing morality in this way is not making a claim about what is objectively right or wrong, but only referring to what is considered right or wrong by people. For the most part right and wrong acts are classified as such because they are thought to cause benefit or harm, but it is possible that many moral beliefs are based on prejudice, ignorance or even hatred

    In its “normative” sense, morality refers directly to what is right and wrong, regardless of what people think. It could be defined as the conduct of the ideal “moral” person in a certain situation. This usage of the term is characterized by “definitive” [I would say ‘prescriptive’] statements such as “That act is immoral” rather than descriptive ones such as “Many believe that act is immoral.” It is often challenged by a moral skepticism, in which the unchanging existence of a rigid, universal, objective moral “truth” is rejected, and supported by moral realism, in which the existence of this “truth” is accepted. The normative usage of the term “morality” is also addressed by normative ethics.

    Does this help clarify anything of what I’ve been saying?


  94. It should be clear that I argue for an objectively based morality which enables us to say so an so is right or wrong irrespective if the number of people who may or may not agree.

    This is not the same as claiming rigid universal moral “truth” because it can be derived and there may well be multiple answer. (Sam’s moral landscape).

    In science we may suggest there is an objectively realist reality which we approach with our ideas/theories. In practice our knowledge tend to be instrumental and developing.

    In ethics we, I think, have to accept a similar approach. We do the best we can accepting that we are often dealing with probabilities and imperfect information. So our ethical conclusions may well change with time (we may well come to the conclusion that meat eating is unethical as Peter Singer has done), and our skills in moral logic may well improve.


  95. Sam’s moral landscape seems to me (and the others) to be assuming an non-‘factual’/’scientific’ framework where things are assumed to be better/worse and/or valued more/less, etc. We may think we don’t need to ‘prove’ that rape is wrong, but it certainly isn’t ‘factually’ or ‘objectively’ wrong (in the ethical-philosphical discourse, anyway).

    Yes, you’re certainly correct that “our ethical conclusions may well change with time”, but on this view, I still would have to ask how we can discern an ‘improvement’ from an ‘unimprovement’.

    If I can dare to use the abortion example, IF it is true that, say, the woman’s right to an undisturbed life is worth more than the life of a developing foetus, THEN abortion would be ethical. However, IF the life of the foetus is worth more than the strain-free financial circumstances of the woman, THEN abortion would not be ethical. The deciding factor (or what the decision is ‘based’ on) is a non-‘factual’ value judgment, it seems, not on an ‘objective’ fact?


  96. OK you will now describe how you “know” rape is wrong and how you make the absolute judgement on this specific abortion?

    Sent from my iPod


  97. I’ve read that comment several times, and whilst the grammar appears correct, I’m not clear what you’re asking, sorry! 🙂 Could you re-word it for me? (might be the iPod!!??)


  98. ((attempt –> a) I don’t (epistemically speaking) 100% ‘know’ that rape is wrong, I just passionately believe it is and find it it be logically, emotionally, culturally, traditionally and intuitively consistent with everything else I believe; b) and I don’t make ‘absolute’ judgements on abortion, I just passionately believe… (see above). ))


  99. Ken,

    You might be interested in these remarks about England’s new Minister for Universities and Science:

    “He is also one of the few politicians who has thought deeply about how the evidence-gathering that is axiomatic to science might play a wider role in policy-making.”

    Hilary Leevers, acting Director of CASE, highlighted the lecture in welcoming Willetts’s appointment:

    “He spoke eloquently of the relevance of science to all areas of society, as a basis for rational thought, and of how fundamental it is to our well-being. Willetts is well placed to ensure that everyone in the Cabinet appreciates the importance of science and engineering and how they relate to their departments.”

    I wonder if his thinking extends to the sort of thing you are discussing here?



  100. Should add I haven’t read this thread through (too long, too little time), just thinking the general thing of making decisions, etc., so it might not have much direct relevance here. Still might be interesting all the same?


  101. If you had grown up in South Africa you may have passionately believed, etc, that apartheid was right and the ANC wicked.

    Sent from my iPod


  102. First of all, not every South African in those days supported apartheid. So whilst we all know culture does influence us, we ALSO all know that people can and do critique their culture.

    Also, the flip side of that logic is that we might only be against apartheid because we’ve been told it is wrong.

    I think the reality is that South Africans are/were divided into a) those who supported (unthinkingly) uncritically the cultural norms (including apartheid), and b) those who opposed it by applying reason, tradition, (subjective) value-judgements, etc.

    Likewise, we here in NZ are a mix of a) those who uncritically go with whatever the mainstream opinion is, and b) those who critically discern their opinions.

    So then, my views on abortion and rape are as culturally influenced as anyone else’s, but it is not only culture that forms my views – also reason, tradition, emotion, intuition, value-set, worldview, etc.


  103. Dale – why do you think some people do critique their culture? Come to different moral decisions?

    See, this is key. I am talking about the ability of many to come to their own decisions, to determine a confidence in these decisions because of their objective basis.

    People who develop their moral outlook this way are far more to be admired than those who accepted that apartheid was either right or wrong becuase their church or parents had told them so. (and the most powerful churches in RSA were pro-apartheid).

    In your last para you are effectively acknowledging an objectively based ethics. Our intuitions have an objective origin and basis. As do our emotions. Our reason must deal with facts.

    In the end a good objective basis can produce the best world view and values in individuals.

    This discussion is actually very relevant to the current political attacks being made on the trial teaching of secular ethics in 10 NSW schools.

    The churches see this as a threat to the scripture classes and would rather kids opting out of these did absolutely nothing (as a punishment?). Now that the trial has provided an alternative the churches realise that even more kids will leave the scripture classes.

    To hell with the fact that these kids will probably get a useful experience in ethical thinking. A process which can set them up for a healthy moral outlook.

    These churches would rather the kids were restricted in their choice to hearing bible stories, have artificial moral codes imposed or picking up paper in the playground.

    So they are campaigning politically to have the ethics trial stopped!


  104. Ken,
    I disagree with this paragraph:

    In your last para you are effectively acknowledging an objectively based ethics. Our intuitions have an objective origin and basis. As do our emotions. Our reason must deal with facts.

    Sorry, but the reality is we can have BOTH ‘humane’ AND ‘inhumane’ intuitions, emotions and lines of reasoning. What is ‘humane’ to one person is ‘inhumane’ to another. It really is that fuzzy when it comes to cold, naked, objective ‘facts’. Murder is not any ‘factually’ better than breast-feeding.
    Hear me. I’m not against being taught facts, and I’d not even begin to deny that facts can help us make moral judgements.
    But (this is key) the WAY in which the facts help us is merely to make the discourse more detailed/technical (sometimes, perhaps, so technical that it begins to cloud the issue). Facts do NOT help guide/steer us toward a ‘humane’ judgement as opposed to an ‘inhumane’ one.


  105. (should read: ‘…not any ‘factually’ worse than breast-feeding…’ !!! )


  106. (let’s not get into it here – but more and more I’m beginning to doubt that there is any identifiably distinctive features of anything with a ‘secular’ label – thus, I have no idea what ‘secular ethics’ is)


  107. Dale -you confound the fact that some people will act in inhumane ways (maybe for religious, political, ideological reasons or because of brain abnormalities) with what is a n actual feature of our species. Our brain has evolved to operate in social situations. Empathy is wired in – mirror neurons and circuits. We are (almost) all sentient. We feel pain so we can experience the pain of others.

    Except for some cases explained physiologically might I suggest that the inhumane character of some has more to do with culture and ideology than the facts of our nature.

    (Although I hasten to add there a features of our social nature which make us prone to follow others, to be taken in by cynical ideologues, etc.).

    Certainly my experience tells me that I have developed human moral views because of the facts of the situations and the facts of my own nature.

    I think secular is really a very inclusive term covering things in the non-“spiritual’ realm. In my view it covers the interests that are common to all. Which means, of course, that imposition of a religious understanding is excluded so as to ensure inclusiveness. No judgement is made.

    Anyway, the secular ethics course being trialed really impresses me. I would love to see our schools get into something like this. I am sure the kids would enjoy it and suspect we might eventually see it having a marked influence on our society.


  108. it’s all ideological reasons, really. People are ‘hard wired’ both to retaliate and to forgive, to react and to be proactive, for humane and inhumane acts – and these are all ‘normal’ people with no physiological ‘defects’. Being able to observe physiological activity correlating ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ activity (so-called) doesn’t help us judge right from wrong.


  109. Dale, you are either not being serious or are in denial.

    Not a good way to understand or seriously explore human issues.

    Sent from my iPod


  110. I’m genuinely trying to understand how you see it. I learn from patient engagement with other views. I’d love for us to get to the ‘source’ of where we ‘part company’ ,so to speak, on this issue.

    Did you ever give comments on those definitions of ‘morality’ (or any others that you prefer)??


  111. Dale, life is too short for jelly wrestling. I don’t actually care if you accept my concepts or not. And there are other things in life which are more important at the moment.

    I am going to be reviewing a book on the problems of Christian morality later this year. So we will no doubt get back to it then.

    Sent from my iPod


  112. You made reference a while back to some serious family health issues, and I’m in 120% agreement with you that care for family is infinitely more important than blog discussions.

    I think this might be a good place to leave it. Take care sir, and one of these days when you’re up in Auckland, we really must share a cuppa.


Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s