A philosopher comments on science and morality

Here’s another video from the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right
from Wrong?”
(See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this
debate and workshop).

It’s the presentation by Pat Churchland. She is a philosopher who gives qualified support to the concept that science can tell us right from wrong. Its interesting because she does spend some time discussion issues which probably concern many people about this suggestion. Things like the possible arrogance of such decision making and the fact that scientific knowledge is not absolute. Her presentation, which is only 13 min long, also outlines the origins of human morality.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: Patricia Smith Chuchland, posted with vodpod

Patricia Smith Churchland is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Her research focuses on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy. Her books include “Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy,” ”Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain and On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997,” with husband Paul M. Churchland. Her newest book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality,” is due out in spring 2011.

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106 responses to “A philosopher comments on science and morality

  1. Pat was interesting, but I’m left with the same questions. She describes how our brains developed from having self-caring goals to having goals of caring for others, but to describe this is wholly different from making a value-judging or goal-prioritising statement such as: to care for others (or even ourselves) is ‘good’ or ‘better’ than not doing so, etc. ((I noted the use of ‘wellbeing’ – a term that is loaded with metaphysical assumptions of what is ‘good’ or ‘well’ for us; which we forget because we’re so used to the term.))

    I liked her spectrum of from ‘obviously wrong’ to ‘obviously right’, even if it only served to underline Sam’s (unconscious?) appeal to intuition rather than facts! It is not ‘factually’ or ‘scientifically’ good, right, just or virtuous to nurture your kids (nor is it ‘factually’ bad, etc. to torture them. Nothing new here, unfortunately… Describing is not prescribing.


  2. Dale, if one’s “prescribing” doesn’t come from intuitions (and we have an extremely strong intuition of rights and wrong) or rational consideration where the hell does it come from?

    Don’t forget our prescriptions have varied with time.


  3. Ken, saying it comes by intuition and/or reason is quite another thing from saying (as you and Sam do) that it is determined by (or based on) science.


  4. I have been into this issue at length, Dale. I have discussed the relationship between our intuitions, moral logic and facts. I think I have presented a credible hypothesis. (At least one open to critique).

    Now, what about answering my question? If our “prescriptions” don’t come from our intuitions or reasoning (and facts come in here) where the hell do they come from?

    If you can’t offer an alternative please don’t blame me for sticking with my hypothesis.


  5. Ken,
    I’ve never denied that there is a relationship between science/facts and knowing what is right or wrong. I’ve got my own blog for presenting my own ideas. As for interaction with your post above, I’m solely responding to this bit: “She is a philosopher who gives qualified support to the concept that science can tell us right from wrong.” I saw no such support in the video, and I contend that there is no such support.


  6. OK Dale. This is a completely different issue.

    As you can see the specific question is that of the title to the debate. I believe Pat Churchland argued the case very well. Pointing out how science gives us an understanding of the the origins of morality amd how it works.

    She also contributed some valid negative comments on the the naive idea of science determining right and wrong.

    It was a useful contribution.


  7. Describing “how science gives us an understanding of the origins of morality [more precisely… the development of our brains, giving us mental capacity to act and think morally] and how it works [more precisely… how our brains function whilst acting and thinking morally]” is one thing, and I don’t deny that her contribution is useful for that descriptive task.

    However, given the fact that her contribution is descriptive, and given that you seem to admit the idea of “science determining right and wrong” is “naive”, I’m puzzled by your words in your post –> “She is a philosopher who gives qualified support to the concept that science can tell us right from wrong.”


  8. Dale, I think you are looking for faults that aren’t there.

    My use of the word “naive” should have been clear in the context. A naive interpretation of the role of science in determining right and wrong leads to the conclusion that it’s a matter of wiring people up or a scientists make a declaration. Churchland identified some of these problems.

    Do you not think she gave qualified support to the role of science?

    Perhaps you should also watch the panel discussion.


  9. It’s quite simple Ken – you’ve said Pat “gives qualified support to the concept that science can tell us right from wrong.” ALL I’m saying is that she doesn’t. Vague talk of ‘the role of science’ is one thing, saying what you said is another.


  10. Dale, I say she does. Simple as that. I find her talk to be very reasonable and I really identify with her points. In many ways her position is closest to mine. Mind you I could say the same thing about Pinkers talk.

    You seem upset that I have dared to provide her talk – and the other ones. But you refuse to offer any alternatives.

    Do you have any alternatives?


  11. Pingback: A physicist comments on science and morality | Open Parachute

  12. Ken – again – I have my own blog to promote my own ideas. As for this thread, my point is not to counter Pat’s statements (I’ve agreed she makes helpful contributions), but rather your declaration that she “gives qualified support to the concept that science can tell us right from wrong.”. She doesn’t – and it can’t.


  13. She does – and it can!

    Come off it Dale, you refuse to put up alternatives because they would only come across as theistic dogma. (Prove me wrong – I dare you!)

    I would think you would get tired of continually stating opposition and give in to the human desire for a bit of creative discussion.


  14. Ken.
    Your blog – your post – your statement to defend. Besides, I’d only be interested in discussing alternatives after agreeing that science cannot “tell us right from wrong”.


  15. Well, considering the coverage this question, the science of morality, is getting right now I can see the theological concepts of morality being really challenged. Already the discussion at this workshop seems to leave any theological concepts well out of contention.

    If the theologically inclined are not prepared to discuss their alternative one should nit be surprised if the scientific approach makes all the running.


  16. You really can’t resist telling me what you think about theology, can you? I’m trying – as usual – to talk about science, or more truthfully the philosophy of science, not theology. Are you not going to defend your statement then??


  17. In this area, Dale, it would not be honest to ignore the theological claims of a monopoly on morality. It’s necessary to expose these claims as false. How often do I hear even non-believers thoughtlessly attribute a role for religion in this field. It’s completely unsupported.

    And of course there are the hateful claims that theology makes about atheists and morality. Really hateful – and unfortunately probably quite influential amongst believers.

    If religion were not making these claims we would not be required to consider them in this discussion.


  18. Pingback: Science and morality – a panel discussion | Open Parachute

  19. (your blog periodically is slipping into a format which looks different and requires login to comment – don’t know what this is, just thought I’d let you know)

    Ken, I’m not pretending that theology has nothing to say on the matter – I’m just trying to get you to discuss what you wrote. I’m beginning to think you don’t want to?


  20. Richard Christie

    Besides, I’d only be interested in discussing alternatives after agreeing that science cannot “tell us right from wrong”.
    What? the current state of science investigation or never?
    In addition you’ll have to put a case as to why not.
    As it stands I doubt if you are going to get agreement to that blanket statement in here.
    Silly to try.
    I suspect you want agreement so you can fill the gap with theological tools.


  21. Thanks Dale for the tip about strange changes with the blog. I will have to try and track it down. But definitely some strange things have been happening with syndication etc lately.

    The posts this week are really just to fill in. There’s nothing significant from me. However I am quite happy to discuss anything specific made by the speakers. While I find I agree with much of what they say I am sure there are bits I will disagree with.

    One thing that comes to mind is that physical scientists and philosophers tend to have a very mechanical concept of how we make decisions. I think more should be made of the emotional contribution to decision making – especially in the area of morality. Psychologists usually are more aware of this and I am sure Pinker would probably accept this point.

    The Edge workshop brought this aspect out more but then was vague on the role of science in moral decisions. Really the two workshops complement each other.

    It’s an important point because I think most of us recognize this subconsciously and react to any concept that emotionally inert people in white lab coats should make our moral decisions for us.

    Mind you I think we also react to the idea that emotionally crippled and judgemental old men in dresses and with crosses around their necks can make moral decisions for us too.


  22. why not? Because philosophically, ‘right and wrong’ are concepts based on a:
    a) qualitative ontology (the value of this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’),
    and a b) prescriptive teleology (this is intended for ‘this’ or ‘that’ goal or function).

    Science, however, works with a:
    1) quantitative ontology (this numerical value compares as such to this or that…),
    and a b) descriptive teleology (this tends to function ‘this’ or ‘that’ way)


  23. Ken,
    I see your last comment as a very real departure from your comments in the original post and basically every other post on science and morality. You have scolded me severely for talking of the role of emotion in morality, and here you say “I think more should be made of the emotional contribution to decision making – especially in the area of morality.“!!!???

    Indeed, morality is not a matter of ‘facts’, but of ‘values’ (qualitative ones, not quantitative). And because scientists and priests (or John Polkinghorne, who is both…) both do the non-scientific task of responding to emotion, intuition, qualitative value-judging and prescriptive goal-discerning then they – like all humans – do their morality in a non-scientific and non-factual way.


  24. Richard Christie

    b)right and wrong are concepts based on … prescriptive teleology .

    This is rich.

    The old “morals are prescriptive because morals are prescriptive argument”.
    Just as well that’s a philosophical position and not one necessarily related to reality.


  25. Richard – are you saying that something I wrote didn’t make sense? Or are you suggesting that ‘right and wrong’ are not by nature prescriptive concepts? That ‘ought’ doesn’t mean ‘ought’? And goodness, we’re talking about morality here – there can be nothing more ‘related to reality’ as experienced moment by moment by all humans!!


  26. Dale – I have several times talked about the role of emotions in decision making. I suspect the problem here is your selective memory or understanding of what I have said – something we are all guilty of. We are a pattern seeking, and therefore a pattern imposing, species.

    This has come up, particularly in talk of “other ways of knowing.” And a common example I give is the situation with climate change. Science had produced factual knowledge but our political decisions involve more.

    Now, when I say more should be made of the role of emotion – surely it is clear that my criticism is that philosophers, and some scientists, are perhaps neglecting an important component that psychologists are more aware of. A lot was certainly made of this part of decision making in the Edge workshop.

    The ideas I have been presenting myself aim at amalgamating these different aspects. But I am also clearly promoting things like these individual workshops and debates because the content is very valuable, even if incomplete.

    I suspect your problem is the word “science.” Instead you should take the point that what is coming out of the storm that Sam Harris has provoked, and most of the speakers in this particular debate, are arguments against moral relativism. Arguments for an objective basis for morality.

    In the panel many of the speakers are conceding that their problems have arisen from a narrow understanding of the word “science.” It’s interesting that the word causes such a response.


  27. Cheers Ken,
    Indeed, during the panel, Sam agreed with someone (??) who suggested that he was widening his definition of ‘science’ to include philosophy. And it is at this point that I just want to keep the disciplines distinct, because I think science will function best AS science and philosophy AS philosophy, and this will help them to have better interaction. I am a better husband to my wife when I am more myself, not pretending to be a mixture of me and my wife.

    But again, even despite the question of wide or narrow definitions of science, ‘right and wrong’ remain prescriptive concepts, which rest (like it or not) on non-factual (qualitative) value-judgments and non-factual (prescriptive) goals. The fact that these values and goals are mostly ‘obvious’ (a word Sam uses often – and undermining his point in doing so) does not make them a matter of ‘fact’ or still less ‘objectively’ based.


  28. ((I should say, “The fact that these values and goals are mostly considered to be obvious…”))


  29. Susan Hemmingsen

    Although I can agree with Lawrence Krauss in part (taking a scientific stance on stem cell research, wearing the Burka) I can see no link between science and morality. To quote the Urantia Book:
    (2078.4) 195:7.1 How foolish it is for material-minded man to allow such vulnerable theories as those of a mechanistic universe to deprive him of the vast spiritual resources of the personal experience of true religion. Facts never quarrel with real spiritual faith; theories may. Better that science should be devoted to the destruction of superstition rather than attempting the overthrow of religious faith — human belief in spiritual realities and divine values.
    (2078.5) 195:7.2 Science should do for man materially what religion does for him spiritually: extend the horizon of life and enlarge his personality. True science can have no lasting quarrel with true religion. The “scientific method” is merely an intellectual yardstick wherewith to measure material adventures and physical achievements. But being material and wholly intellectual, it is utterly useless in the evaluation of spiritual realities and religious experiences.
    (2078.6) 195:7.3 The inconsistency of the modern mechanist is: If this were merely a material universe and man only a machine, such a man would be wholly unable to recognize himself as such a machine, and likewise would such a machine-man be wholly unconscious of the fact of the existence of such a material universe. The materialistic dismay and despair of a mechanistic science has failed to recognize the fact of the spirit-indwelt mind of the scientist whose very supermaterial insight formulates these mistaken and self-contradictory concepts of a materialistic universe.


  30. To quote the Urantia Book…

    Oh please, quote it by all means.
    There’s a book that does not get quoted nearly enough times.

    Rumour has it that “many respected scientists and philosophers” have a deep and abiding regard for that worth tome.
    (cough, cough)

    After all, “as no one has refuted the arguments contained therein; I think we can take this as evidence of spirituality, celestial beings, psychic powers and true religion”.

    The exact circumstances of the origin of The Urantia Book are unknown. The book and its publishers do not name a human author: instead it is written as if directly presented by numerous celestial beings appointed to the task of providing an “epochal” spiritual revelation to humankind. For each paper, either a name, or an order of celestial being, or a group of beings is credited as its author.

    As early as 1911, William S. Sadler and his wife Lena Sadler, physicians in Chicago and well known in the community, were approached by a neighbor who was concerned because she would occasionally find her husband in a deep sleep and breathing abnormally. She reported that she was unable to wake him at these times. The Sadlers came to observe the episodes, and over time, the individual produced verbal communications that claimed to be from “student visitor” spiritual beings. This changed in early 1925 with a “voluminous handwritten document”, which from then on became the regular method of purported communication. The Sadlers were both respected physicians, and William Sadler was a debunker of paranormal claims, who is portrayed as not believing in the supernatural. In 1929, he published a book called The Mind at Mischief, in which he explained the fraudulent methods of mediums and how self-deception leads to psychic claims. He wrote in an appendix that there were two cases that he had not explained to his satisfaction.

    The other exception has to do with a rather peculiar case of psychic phenomena, one which I find myself unable to classify, and which I would like very much to narrate more fully; I cannot do so here, however, because of a promise which I feel under obligation to keep sacredly. In other words, I have promised not to publish this case during the lifetime of the individual. I hope sometime to secure a modification of that promise and be able to report this case more fully because of its interesting features. I was brought in contact with it, in the summer of 1911, and I have had it under my observation more or less ever since, having been present at probably 250 of the night sessions, many of which have been attended by a stenographer who made voluminous notes.
    A thorough study of this case has convinced me that it is not one of ordinary trance. While the sleep seems to be quite of a natural order, it is very profound, and so far we have never been able to awaken the subject when in this state; but the body is never rigid, and the heart action is never modified, though respiration is sometimes markedly interfered with. This man is utterly unconscious, wholly oblivious to what takes place, and unless told about it subsequently, never knows that he has been used as a sort of clearing house for the coming and going of alleged extra-planetary personalities. In fact, he is more or less indifferent to the whole proceeding, and shows a surprising lack of interest in these affairs as they occur from time to time.

    Eighteen years of study and careful investigation have failed to reveal the psychic origin of these messages. I find myself at the present time just where I was when I started. Psychoanalysis, hypnotism, intensive comparison, fail to show that the written or spoken messages of this individual have origin in his own mind. Much of the material secured through this subject is quite contrary to his habits of thought, to the way in which he has been taught, and to his entire philosophy. In fact, of much that we have secured, we have failed to find anything of its nature in existence. Its philosophic content is quite new, and we are unable to find where very much of it has ever found human expression.

    In 1924, a group of Sadler’s friends, former patients, and colleagues began meeting for Sunday intellectual discussions, but became interested in the strange communications when Sadler mentioned the case and read samples at their request. Shortly afterwards, a communication reportedly was received that this group would be allowed to devise questions and that answers would be given by celestial beings through the “contact personality”.

    Sadler presented this development to the group, and they generated hundreds of questions without full seriousness, but their claim is that it resulted in the appearance of answers in the form of fully written papers. They became more impressed with the quality of the answers and continued to ask questions, until all papers now collected together as The Urantia Book were obtained. The group was known as the Forum. A smaller group of five individuals called the Contact Commission, including the Sadlers, was responsible for gathering the questions from the Forum, acting as the custodians of the handwritten manuscripts that were presented as answers, and arranging for proofreading and typing of the material.

    The Sadlers and others involved, now all deceased, claimed that the papers of the book were physically materialized from 1925 until 1935 in a way that was not understood even by them, with the first three parts being completed in 1934 and the fourth in 1935. The last Forum gathering was in 1942. Also documented are methods of reception that Sadler denied as the way the papers were received.

    After all of the written material was received in 1935, an additional period of time supposedly took place where requests for clarifications resulted in revisions. Sadler and his son William (Bill) Sadler, Jr. at one point wrote a draft introduction and were told that they could not add their introduction because “A city can not be lit by a candle.” The Foreword was then “received.” Bill Sadler is noted to have composed the table of contents that is published with the book.

    The communications purportedly continued for another two decades while members of the Forum studied the book in depth, and according to Sadler and others, permission to publish it was given to them in 1955. The Urantia Foundation was formed in 1950 as a tax-exempt educational society in Illinois, and through privately raised funds, the book was published under international copyright on October 12, 1955.

    Only the members of the Contact Commission witnessed the activities of the sleeping subject, and only they knew his identity. The individual is claimed to have been kept anonymous in order to prevent undesirable future veneration or reverence for him. Martin Gardner states that an explanation concerning the origin of the book more plausible than celestial beings is that the Contact Commission, particularly William Sadler, was responsible. Gardner’s conclusion is that a man named Wilfred Kellogg was the sleeping subject and authored the work from his subconscious mind, with William Sadler subsequently editing and authoring parts. A statistical analysis using the Mosteller and Wallace methods of stylometry indicates at least nine authors were involved, and by comparatively analyzing the book against Sadler’s The Mind at Mischief, does not indicate authorship or extensive editing by Sadler, without ruling out the possibility of limited edits.
    There’s so much more at the link.

    Glorious stuff. Simply glorious. Gotta love it. They just don’t write ’em like this any more.


  31. Richard Christie

    …and Cedric don’t fail to notice appearance yet another eerily accurate avatar.

    Dale, human morals, determination of right and wrong etc are merely decisions and judgments. they can be collectively held (societal) or individually held.
    They can be held arrived at by consciously or subconscious (as much as a reject Freudian psych, I have no problem with subconscious processing of information as in dreams etc) weighing external input and information, or, as some recent scientific research suggests, some may be hard-wired genetically. More understanding is sure to arise with further scientific research.

    As to the external sources of input in to regard morals one can take information and weigh it oneself or one can be lazy and just accept predetermined and predigested codes of ethics etc. Religion has been in the game of providing those for millenia. There is no impediment to other systems of rational thought also filling that role. Ken provided a good example over scientific input into debate on stem cell research and cloning etc.


  32. Richard,
    I asked you about your seemingly dismissive comment above, and then I get this? Please do respond.

    As for this,
    I agree moral conclusions are held collectively & individually and arrived at consciously & subconsciously, and also have no problem with the unhindered advance of science in increasing understanding of what’s going on in the human animal when we ‘do’ morality. Ken, however, has said (here and elsewhere) that morality is ‘fact-based’, ‘objective’ and ‘determined’ by science, which “can tell us right from wrong.” I don’t see how an inherently descriptive tool can ‘tell us’ (prescriptively) right from wrong.

    You say ‘religion’ has provided codes of ethics… But it’s not just ‘religion’ that codifies moral intuitions into laws – it’s actually humans that do this – whether it’s laws of any nation, religion, or the universal declaration of human rights or any such thing.

    I have a post that proposes a ‘ladder’ so-to-speak that we all travel up and down continually; the greek terms make it sound pretty solid, though I think it’s solidity is in it’s coherence: ontos, telos, ethos, nomos…

    Based on our (quantitative & qualitative) understanding of what reality is, including value-judgments (ontology), we discern or perceive goals (descriptive & prescriptive), and these goals make possible the evaluation of the ethics of that this or that action; then we take these evaluations and codify them into laws.

    As we question things, we travel ‘down’ the ladder:
    -If we don’t agree with a law, we evaluate the ethical evaluation it was based on…
    -If we don’t agree with the ethical evaluation, we reconsider the goal (or goals) that it was based on…
    -If we don’t agree with the goal, we reconsider the nature or ‘ontos’ (including value) of the objects involved.

    At every ‘rung’, we can distinguish between two modes of analysis: physics and metaphysics – I’ve done a quick photo here. Sam (and Ken?) seem to be sneaking (or simply forgetting) metaphysical judgments into his allegedly ‘scientific’ machine.


  33. Richard Christie

    The right hand side of that ladder gives me the heebe geebes.
    Laying it out like that falsely implies that they are complimentary systems and ought ought to be given equal weight.
    Like homeopathy and modern medicine, yeah right….


    But, OK I’ll agree that science can not tell us good from bad, only provide information us of for our critical faculties (conscious/unconscious) to weigh.
    But in conceding that, nothing else can definitively tell us either.


  34. I like the idea of science and philosophy merging when considered at the most general. After all, without science philosophy would be dead or at least sterile. It would remain at it’s medieval level (which is unfortunately the level at which some people practice it). A philosophy which refuses to accept the role emperical interaction in epistemology can be of no use today.

    It’s all very well to use terms vaguely like metaphysics (I wish people would discipline themselves to keep away from words like that which just introduce confusion because of their different meanings). But why not deal with practical examples, Dale.

    What about providing examples of these abstract prescriptive concepts, right or wrong, or any human moral decision which does not have an objective basis?


  35. Susan, WTF is this “Urantia book”? It seems to present a very false conceit if science.

    Who the hell is responsible for promoting ideas like that?


  36. Richard,
    Do you get the “heebe geebes” when you argue against racism? We are all ‘metaphysicians’ in that we all make qualitative value judgments, hold views about what things are intended for, etc. My view is that both physics and metaphysics are best when distinct but reinforced by one another.

    As before, I actually prefer practical examples. I suggest that it will be rather straightforward and obvious to spot the ‘metaphysical’ work being done (i.e. qualitative judgments – discerning [or assuming] prescriptive goals) in literally any moral scenario. Pick a scenario – any scenario.


  37. …and I take it as established that I’m using the word ‘metaphysics’ in the Aristotelian sense and not in the “let’s gather and pray to the universe and send out our thoughts to the stars for world peace” sense.


  38. Dale, yet again I have to correct your misunderstanding and misrepresentation of my views . This statement if yours is obviously wrong: “Ken, however, has said (here and elsewhere) that morality is ‘fact-based’, ‘objective’ and ‘determined’ by science, which “can tell us right from wrong.”

    I have said that we can make our moral decisions on the basis of facts, even if their direct manifestation is intuitive. Facts and rational consideration do help shape our intuitions. That is why society’s moral values do evolve.

    I do not say our morals are “objective.” many times I have pointed out the distinction between that theist claim and my description of our morality being “objectively based.” I think there is a clear difference.

    I do not say our morality is “determined by science” or that science can necessarily tell us right and wrong. Science plays a role in the most general way because that is how we know objective facts which we use. Our decisions on what is right and wrong usually do, and should, have an objective basis – be fact based. But human decisions inevitable are not mechanical. They involve emotions. In fact studies show that when the emotional part of the brain is disconnected our rational brain is incapable of making decisions.

    This debate (and the title of Sam’s book) may be taking the form of “Can science tell us right and wrong?” – but be sensible. Recognize that this is a provocative way of presenting the issue. It gets attention, readers and participation. As the presentations and the panel discussion shows no one sees the issues in such naive terms. Yet this debate clearly attracted a huge audience and Sam’s book us selling well.

    But the provocative presentation of the debate is helping people understand the objective basis for our morality. This helps to counter ideas of a relativist morality – the whole thrust of Sam’s book.

    But it should be completely obvious to anyone who has read what I have written on this subject that my ideas are not the naive ones you describe, Dale. That should have been obvious ages ago.


  39. No Dale it is not necessary for me to pick. Just explain why you think specific examples of human moral decision have no objective basis. (Perhaps if you need examples consider our attitudes towards slavery, race, women and homosexuals and why these have changed over the years).

    And please don’t use the word “metaphysical” – or provide a precise definition if you do use it. I should warn you that my own understanding of that word is not very flattering – nor has it been for almost 50 years. But this may be because of how the philosophers I read then disparaged it.


  40. And, no, those philosphers did not include Aristotle.

    They were far more recent.


  41. Ken,
    Apologies if I’ve misrepresented you. Your language seems to me to be a bit here and there. Saying our moral decisions are ‘based on facts’ is slippery. I 154% agree that ‘facts’ matter incredibly and when I’m making moral decisions I want all the facts I can have. ((However, I hasten to add that my wife and I have found – and know many others who agree – that sometimes knowing all the ‘facts’ of what can happen in a scenario causes more worry and stress than just waiting for things to happen… it’s a bit personal at the moment, so won’t go into detail))
    But ‘having’ the facts and even ‘using’ them doesn’t mean that the facts guide us at all in any way toward this or that moral decision. Any scenario will, of course, have ‘facts’ which can be known about it. But without value judgments and goals, the ‘facts’ are morally indifferent. The most ‘obviously’ heinous of crimes are not ‘factually’ wrong.

    I will of course continue to use the word ‘metaphysical’ as it is the most technically correct and accurate umbrella (general) term to describe qualitative & prescriptive activity (there’s your definition if you like). I trust you can cope.

    No Dale it is not necessary for me to pick. Just explain why you think specific examples of human moral decision have no objective basis.

    As above, I do think there are (loosely) objective facts to know and be aware of in any moral scenario. But – as above – the facts are morally indifferent.

    I think abortion is a immediately practical example. At the level of ontology (see my pic linked to) whilst science can provide a quantitative analysis (‘x’ number of weeks of development, ‘y’ ability to feel pain, etc., etc.), we have to make a qualitative value-judgment (i.e. life has qualitative value or is ‘good’ or ‘worth’ protecting; causing pain to sentient beings is ‘bad’, etc.). That’s just at the level of ontology and value judgment.


  42. @ Richard.
    Ooo, good catch. It is indeed wickedly appropriate.

    But ‘having’ the facts and even ‘using’ them doesn’t mean that the facts guide us at all in any way toward this or that moral decision. Any scenario will, of course, have ‘facts’ which can be known about it. But without value judgments and goals, the ‘facts’ are morally indifferent.

    Yea verily, for is it not written in the good book that…

    “Facts never quarrel with real spiritual faith; theories may. Better that science should be devoted to the destruction of superstition rather than attempting the overthrow of religious faith — human belief in spiritual realities and divine values.”

    I think abortion is a immediately practical example. At the level of ontology (see my pic linked to) whilst science can provide a quantitative analysis (‘x’ number of weeks of development, ‘y’ ability to feel pain, etc., etc.), we have to make a qualitative value-judgment (i.e. life has qualitative value or is ‘good’ or ‘worth’ protecting; causing pain to sentient beings is ‘bad’, etc.). That’s just at the level of ontology and value judgment.

    Oddly enough, there was an interesting example of this just the other day…
    (No need to comment on this. I’m not trying to push any emotional buttons)

    No loss. No loss at all.


  43. Dale I resent this “slippery” description. I am trying to be precise. Perhaps it’s not me that’s “all over the place” but your interpretation which has problems.

    However, you seem to be conceding a very important role for objective facts. Maybe conceding even that there is an “objective basis” for our moral decisions. However, the difference is perhaps in how the decisions are made.

    You say:

    “life has qualitative value or is ‘good’ or ‘worth’ protecting; causing pain to sentient beings is ‘bad’, etc.).”

    I will leave “ontology” out of it as it is another word, like “metaphysics”, which covers and confuses.

    So you say (I assume) life is good and we should protect it. Causing pain is bad, etc. I explain that as based on the objective facts of our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic beings.

    How do you explain it?

    If this “qualitative” value of life is not objectively based how do you derive it?


  44. So you say (I assume) life is good and we should protect it. Causing pain is bad, etc. I explain that as based on the objective facts of our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic beings.

    Ken, when a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic human argues that a baby can be aborted after birth, and thus judging that the loss of life and pain caused is OK, do you think they are wrong? I know a philosopher who argues this, and probably not without his reasons.

    I fail to see how your description of human nature explains (or even relates to) the value judgments and goals: that a) life is good and worth protecting, and b) that causing pain is bad, etc. However our nature is to be described, we kill and hurt all the time.

    I ‘explain’ it that we discern the goodness of life through non-factual sources: reason, intuition. I take very seriously the notion that humans are not omniscient, and we don’t ‘know’ anything perfectly. We don’t ‘know’ that we’re not in a matrix-like existence. We don’t ‘know’ that we weren’t created 5 seconds ago with memories and appearance of age.

    This is my last comment tonight – it’s new years eve and my wife is pulling me off the computer 🙂


  45. Richard Christie

    What? how can a baby be “aborted after birth”?
    Do you mean infanticide (murder)?


  46. Dale, beware of philosophers. Some of them are obviously evil!

    So you determine right and wrong from reason and intuition. What come into your reasoning besides the facts if the situation?

    Where are your intuitions derived from and why do they change over time?

    It might be better to avoid abortion and stick with slavery, etc. They do also have the advantage of clear changes of human intuitions over time.


  47. Richard,
    good point – i used the wrong term.

    Additional info on that philosopher. He would not, I’m sure, advocate killing babies 3 months or under himself personally. He reasons that it is not murder to kill non-persons, and because of his science-based understanding of human personhood, babies under 3 months (or so?) don’t have the sufficient cortical function to attain to personhood, and thus it is not ‘anything’-icide. His name: Peter Singer.

    As for an example: Maybe it’s better to go with something that is ‘obviously’ (or I should say ‘near-universally thought to be’) wrong rather than something that is debated. ((FYI, Ken, abusive forms of slavery – not all forms are – have been sharply criticised throughout human history. In fact, some of the most dehumanising forms have been in relatively recent history – post Enlightenment)) How’s child abuse as an example?

    Similar basic (qualitative) value-judgments are at work here. That life is valuable and worth protecting, that abuse is ‘bad’, etc. The wider goal at work is the goal for a stable, peaceful, development-conducive environment, etc. Child abuse is not wrong because this or that fact of the situation says so. Facts just don’t prescribe anything. Value and goal-holding persons do.


  48. Dale, I agree that a child’s life is valuable. I go a lot further and see as abuse things that not only physically harm a child but also harm her psychological and moral development.

    But why do you find child abuse wrong? Why do you place a value on the child’s life? How fo your intuitions on this arise? And what is involved in reasoned consideration behind these values?

    By the way the very fact that racism, slavery and prejudicial treatment of women and gays is controversial means they are excellent examples to discuss. As these attitudes are in transition these examples could be more revealing of where our morality comes from than something like child abuse. (Mind you some aspects of this are also transitional).


  49. Ken – before we go any further, can we agree on one thing: that when we speak of the ‘value’ of any/all life (including a child’s life) we’re speaking qualitatively and not quantitatively; and thus non-scientifically?


  50. Obviously we are just speaking vaguely in generalities with these words. But of course they can be used more precisely or specifically. I can imagine contexts in which such terms have quantitative meanings. One that comes to mind is the mathematical consideration of genetic roles in altruism.

    But don’t worry – just go ahead and make your point.


  51. Ken – it’s a straightforward and simple question, and I think you can give a simple answer.


  52. Well that has to be no. Value can be, and often is, used as a precise quantitative concept.

    But, go ahead. I am sure I can understand your meanings from the context.


  53. ((Sorry, my wife’s in the hospital, – not life threatening, gratefully – I’ll catch up with this later.))


  54. ((hospital time behind us, wife resting up))

    Ken, let me be precise. Do you acknowledge that science does not deal with qualitative value-judgments? ((and thus when we speak of the ‘value’ of a baby’s life, we’re not speaking ‘scientifically’))


  55. No, Dale, I don’t. That would be ring fencing parts of reality again.

    Why this need to restrict science? Of course we can investigate reality qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

    And when you talk about the value of a life you could well be thinking quantitatively – that’s implicit in the meaning of the word.

    So, put aside the attempt to restrict science.

    A parent makes judgements about it’s child emotionally (and that can be studied scientifically – although the parent is not doing so). As I have noted before emotion is inevitably involved in human decisions.

    When we decide something is wrong or right this is usually an intuitive response – not a conscious one. We aren’t considering the facts and logically reasoning to arrive at a decision. Just as when we ride a bike we are not consciously addressing the question of balance and the way our legs work.

    But when we first learn to ride a bike or perform a new activity it is a conscious process. We are applying logical reasoning and knowledge about the world. The same thing happens when we address new moral questions, or reconsider old ones.

    Eventually our conscious consideration is internalized and our bike riding becomes intuitive. The same with moral questions.


  56. Dale,

    If you can state clearly (define) what something is, then you can study it. If you can study it, you can make that study scientific (i.e. with appropriate controls, etc.).

    As an exercise, try searching on ‘moral question’ in PubMed (or PubMedCentral) and skimming the articles titles.

    FWIW, the second hit I got at PubMedCentral was: “Selective deficit in personal moral judgment following damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex”. I haven’t read the paper, but if I find time this might make an interesting blog article on my blog. (Assuming the topic doesn’t have too much background.)

    Specific brain deficits tell us about where specific processes take place in the brain and if they are physically coded within the brain. It would be interesting to see if the paper, as a “side-effect” as it were, illustrates not only that you can study moral judgements (and physically in this case) but that a component of moral judgements are effectively hard-wired.

    The abstract suggests that this is the case:

    “Here, we tested 7 patients with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and 12 healthy individuals in personal moral dilemmas, impersonal moral dilemmas and non-moral dilemmas. Compared to normal controls, patients were more willing to judge personal moral violations as acceptable behaviors in personal moral dilemmas, and they did so more quickly. In contrast, their performance in impersonal and non-moral dilemmas was comparable to that of controls. These results indicate that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is necessary to oppose personal moral violations, possibly by mediating anticipatory, self-focused, emotional reactions that may exert strong influence on moral choice and behavior.”


  57. That paper looks interesting Grant. I guess we are going to see more studies like this detailing brain features involved in things like personality and moral decision making.

    I am personally interested in the long term effects of child abuse, particularly psychological abuse which can include material and emotional neglect as well as inhibition of moral development typical of growing up in religious cults.

    Considering the rapid brain development occurring in these early years I might expect that such experiences actually influence the “hard wiring.” So it’s not surprising that a child’s early experience of psychological abuse has manifestations for the rest if it’s life.

    I am aware of a few papers where this has been looked at and my brother told me recently there have been some popular articles in New Scientist.

    Makes you think though. Such child abuse is actually a lot worse in it’s consequence than society generally realizes. And the psychological abuse may have worse consequence than simple physical abuse.


  58. Ken (and Grant),
    I never have denied, nor will I deny, that science can describe things like brain function during both highly critical moral reflection and more intuitive emotional moral action. But this is not science ‘prescribing’ morality or ‘telling us right from wrong’.

    Slavery is not ‘factually’ wrong. The universe just doesn’t care what happens on this pale blue dot. The facts don’t care whether 47 women are raped or 4. Facts are objective, and not swayed by our emotional, intuitive, logical and traditional ideas about ‘equality’, ‘dignity’ or life being ‘worth’ protecting or developing or improving.


  59. I might expect that such experiences actually influence the “hard wiring.”

    You could view these as (potential) epigenetic variants or modifications of neural development. (Potential, as you’d need to show they exist and affect the relevant processes.)

    Epigenetics is a big topic of late – it’s been my own research interest for a number of years. In principle persistent and strong events might alter the epigenetic state of neural systems, setting up long-term changes in how some neural systems are used later in life. See for example:



  60. Dale,

    I replied only to your remark that “Do you acknowledge that science does not deal with qualitative value-judgments?”

    I don’t have time to read these long comment threads. Your first paragraph—to my reading—confirms that science does “deal with qualitative value-judgments”.

    This is not the same as you now write “But this is not science ‘prescribing’ morality or ‘telling us right from wrong’.”

    (From my perspective, it would have helped if you had been more accurate in the earlier statement.)

    To the latter, different, statement: science can contribute to this, too, but in a different way by informing us things like:

    – what exactly is our “moral judgement” system (such as the brain study I referred to)
    – how are these work, there limitations, flaws, etc.
    – given an objective, use unbiased methods to show how we might best achieve the objective (i.e. avoiding the limitations of our innate systems); don’t forget here that many problems will not be suitable for philosophy, but for quantitative modelling.
    – and so on.

    In this science can certainly help to tell “us right from wrong”. We’ve been using it this way for quite while, really. Ken latest post gives a nice example: cleanliness in medical practice as a moral act. Today it’d be considered immoral if a doctor/surgeon elected not to.

    Science is a tool: use it, rather than object to it because of ideological stances? 😉

    (Have to run.)


  61. But this us trite, Dale. Of course “facts” don’t care. Whoever said they do?

    Today we judge slavery as morally wrong. We haven’t always – and this us a case where we know religion got it wrong.

    We make that judgement on the basis of the facts – facts we can see more clearly as we escape from the economic greed involved, the ideological (religious) justifications, and the them vs us mentality (racism).

    We also make the judgement on the basis of the facts of our nature. We judge as sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic beings.

    This nature has enabled our evolution as moral beings and development of our morality on the basis of our experiences, history and the lessons learned.

    Of couse objective facts are not swayed by our intuitions, logical reasoning and moral values. But these latter are swayed and informed by the objective facts, and the objective facts of our human nature.


  62. Grant,
    (understand busyness, don’t expect you to reply unless you can or want to)
    the ‘form’ and ‘inform’ distinction is useful. As you say, once you have an (non-scientific, non-factual) ‘objective’ (or goal) in place, then of course, it can then be a matter of ‘fact’ that this or that action is inconsistent with that goal. Science can thus ‘inform’ moral decisions, but science or evidence or facts don’t ‘form’ the goals that underlie all moral questions.

    And I’m all for using science, BTW. Tools, however, are best used for the purpose designed for.

    abusive forms of slavery have been resisted by religions throughout human history.

    And I’d hope you’d have seen how circular your reasoning is: you say we judge slavery to be wrong because of ‘facts’ such as greed, bad ideology and racism… all of which are not ‘factually’ wrong! It’s like using the word ‘beneficial’ in a definition of ‘good’.


  63. Dale, slavery was also promoted by religion (wasn’t there a famous slave ship “Jesus Christ” plying the slave trade routes with Africa?). It is an example of how religion can be used for good and bad. In itself it can’t derive a moral position but it is used to justify them. And sometimes they justify the wrong ones.

    I have actually also written of the posyitive aspect of religion’s role in solving the extension problem of altruism – expanding the “us” part of “them vs us.”

    By the way, isn’t all slavery inherently “abusive.”

    Dale, you continue to avoid a substantive discussion by misrepresenting. I did not “say we judge slavery to be wrong because of ‘facts’ such as greed, bad ideology and racism… all of which are not ‘factually’ wrong”

    I said that in the past greed, bad ideology, racism, them vs us, have inhibited our analysis. Enabling us to judge slavery right. We after all are not a rational species – real or imagined self interest is always a problem in human judgements – often preventing us appreciating things which are otherwise obvious to an empathetic being.


  64. Christ, Dale, you continue to make the most obvious mistakes confusing facts and values. Of course rights are not facts – I certainly fifnt say they are. But we derive them from facts both of our nature and the situations people are in.

    Of course facts in themselves have no moral function – who the hell suggests they do? How many times do I have to repeat myself? Are you purposely intending to misrepresent me?

    And it is patronizing to congratulate me on my empathy when I am pointing out that empathetic reaction is the normal response of our species. We are hardwired to this. It’s tied in to the emotional and motor regions of our brain. We don’t have a choice.

    And how you could possibly get that we are “merely considering information or facts when we’re in manual mode” is beyond me. I stressed the dialectical interactions between intuitions, emotions, and rational consideration.

    It’s late, I am tired and really not taking kindly to this continual
    misrepresentation. It makes reasoned discussion frustrating, if not completely impossible.


  65. Dale,

    To my reading you’ve tactically accepted that science can prescribe moral positions (you offer this to my reading), but now try raise a form/inform distinction to try invoke a sort of infinite regression to grant yourself victory.

    Can you see how this could be read as being disingenuous?

    But never mind that. It also “overlooks” examples such as Ken latest post presents.

    But never mind that either.

    Isn’t the whole point of this discussion to look to what could be done, not what has been done in the past?

    Sure, in the past morals fall on earlier culture, which, in turn, will in cases fall on straight human (i.e. animal) behavioural traits. (Note that this will mean that many/most morals won’t have a religious root as their original origin.)

    Just because most things have previously been based on non-science cultural structures, doesn’t say that they can’t be based on science. (False dichotomy, etc.)

    Both of your two rebuttals essentially try deny science a role going forward by declaration, a “just so” argument.

    “Science can thus ‘inform’ moral decisions, but science or evidence or facts don’t ‘form’ the goals that underlie all moral questions.” — you simply assert by fiat that it could never happen. Aside from the error of looking at what had been done (history) rather than what could be done (the point of the discussion), dressing it up with ‘form’/‘inform’ is just playing word games to try assert by fiat rather than look at what is do-able.

    “Tools, however, are best used for the purpose designed for.” — And you accuse others of circular logic! (You foist a ‘purpose’ that suits you onto science, then use what you foisted on it to draw conclusions in circular fashion!)

    So far what from you is a referral to what was done in the past, which isn’t necessarily relevant (it also “overlooks” such as Ken’s latest post brings up) and a dismissal out of hand what might be done using science in future.

    I think I’ll leave this as it is.


  66. Ken, it was also William Wilberforce that fought to end the slave trade. But this is distracting from the original point – yet again.

    I’m proposing – happy even to say insisting – that science is not the tool we’re using when we are dealing with the qualitative value judgments and prescriptive goals that all morality is based on (and meaningless without). I think the slavery example (and Grant, I’ll not just focus on the past, but speak in general non time specific terms) will be good to continue with.

    I want to know what ‘fact’ makes slavery wrong? I’m not talking about why we THINK it’s wrong or what bio-neuro-psychological factors whichare at work when anyone SAYS it’s wrong, but what ‘fact’ or facts make ownership of humans wrong. I think it is inescapable that the reason that slavery has been, is or will be opposed is that we (subjectively and non-factually) value humans differently to other things we possess (cars, boats, computers, etc.). This value-judgment is non-factual. For modern egalitarians such as ourselves, it is so ingrained into culture and our ways of thinking that we largely fail to ever question it.


  67. (oops I messed up the close tag)


  68. Dale, why do you think we “value” humans differently to cars, etc?

    This attitude didn’t just pop into our heads. So where did it come from?

    Nor was it, or more correctly the underlying facts it is based on, missing in the times of slavery (although our reactions may have been also strongly influenced by other factors, including ideological).


  69. Ken, it is one thing to recognise that a human is not a rock. Obvious differences in levels of sentience, intelligence, etc. But it is quite another to prove ‘factually’ that one OUGHT to treat one differently.

    It may be helpful to use the computer or robot analogy here (without invoking A.I. digressions). A computer does not know how to value or treat anything unless it is told to.

    I’m not suggesting that these values ‘pop’ into our heads. I think the human desire for survival and relationship, our best emotions and intuitions and our reasonably sharpened and considered traditions can be seen as imperfect, always open to inquiry, etc. but nonetheless the actual ‘source’ of these value-judgements and goals. They ‘bubble up’ from human communities – from lived experience in the real world. But all this is quite distinct, mind you, from the world of ‘objective facts’.


  70. Dale sounds like you are talking about the “is” of human nature – although vaguely (“bubble up’).

    I would put it slightly more specifically. We are a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social, empathetic species. Hence out in institutions, emotions, culture, traditions, etc.


  71. No, I’m not talking about our ‘being’ (human nature), I’m talking about our ‘thinking & feeling’ (reason + intuition + emotion + tradition + experience).

    But what of my first two paragraphs?


  72. No, we are neither rocks nor computers. I have already repeated many times the nature of humans so it is unfair to use those metaphors.

    My description is only a summary and each could be expanded. But I think it actually encompasses many of your descriptions – intuitions, emotions and traditions. I have made many comments on the role of intuitions (and their dialectical interaction with reason and facts) and emotions. Tradition certainly comes into our social nature.

    I actually think you do accept my position although you are unhappy about that and are searching for points of difference.

    You certainly aren’t offering any alternative I can see.


  73. Ken,
    For crying out loud, if you admit the rock and computer descriptions were metaphors, why not treat them as metaphors rather than dismiss them as ‘unfair’? whatever the heck you meant by that? The point is: whilst we can ‘scientifically’ and ‘factually’ map (For example) the gradient of sentience from rock to rocky (when not knocked out, of course), we cannot ‘scientifically’ or ‘factually’ map a gradient of wrongful harming (i.e. ‘the more sentient – the more wrong it is to cause harm’). That, by the way, is perhaps the most notorious of ethical assumptions.

    Whilst I’d like very much for us to find agreement, I won’t ignore real differences, esp. when they appear to be so fundamental. Sure, we agree about how tradition, intuition, reason and emotion are involved in human morality, but we don’t agree about how ‘science’ or ‘facts’ relate to it. Please spell out this ‘dialectical interaction’ for me (use an example??). And I’m particularly interested to see you demonstrate how ‘facts’ function, as ‘reason’ is not something I’m arguing against.


  74. We can surely put “functioning facts” behind us. I have never used the term and have corrected you several times when you have attributed decision making to facts as part of my argument. It isn’t and never has been.

    I have several times presented arguments for the dialectical inter-relationship of intuitions and reasoning. But here we go again (I guess it is good practice for me).

    I am using dialectical in the Hegelian sense. Intuitions and reasoning appear to be opposites but we can see them as interacting components of a higher organistion or level. In effect they merge. (But often need to be considered separately recognising the limitations of such reductionism).

    Intuitions enable us to react quickly in situations where any reasoned analysis would possibly leave us dead because of the time involved. We don’t have access to intuitions – effectively they are part of our subconscious. We have strong intuitions of right and wrong and personal conscience. So strong they can even seem external (we even picture our conscience as a little imp sitting on our shoulder).

    Some psychologists refer to use of our moral intuitions as operating in the auto mode. A lot if our activity is like this – we don’t need to consciously reason and operate our limbs to do most things.

    But of course when we are asked why we responded in certain ways we often rationalize rather than say it is automatic. Particularly true of moral reactions. We act intuitively and reason after the fact.

    Our moral reasoning operates at the conscious level. We are then in the manual mode. In theory we objectively consider the information, the facts that we have. We may be determining a course of action based on these facts and our existing moral values. But we may be using our reason to determine moral values and responses in new situations. Today we are continually facing new problems in these areas – stem cells, genetic engineering, environment, etc. The objective facts are important to our reasoned consideration.

    We also have to periodically review our moral positions. This has happened with slavery and racism. I cam remember quite clearly how our attitudes towards women have changed. Similarly on homosexuality. I used to intuitively accept that men had to care for women, that it was wrong for a woman to work after marriage, pre-marital sex was wrong, pregnancy out of wedlock was shameful., etc.

    I can remember conciously reviewing a lot of these attitudes. Taking into account the fact that women were also human and had the same rights as men. Being conscious of my own life requirements and putting myself in the restricted position of others, women and homosexuals, enabled me to adopt moral positions based on these facts. Talking with friends who were women, gay, etc helped. Being an empathetic being certainly helps – but also being well read and conscious of the issues others faced was also important.

    But our manual mode is not completely divorced from our automatic mode. They influence each other. On the one hand our learned moral responses to new situations or review responses to old situations become integrated into our subconscious like any learning. We react intuitively in a new way. We are more likely to intuitively support women’s equality and the end of sexual discrimination and the discrimination towards gays. Whereas in the past we may have intuitively reacted negatively to gays we no longer do. They are no longer an intuitive issue.

    But also today psychologists recognize that our manual mode is not just simple reasoning about objective facts. Subjective aspects are inevitably involved. Our reasoning and observations are still very much influenced by our emotions and prejudices – although most of us wouldn’t acknowledge that.

    Hence the dialectical unity of opposites – reason and intuition. We are of course helped by the fact that we are social animals. Our reconsideration of moral attitudes towards women and homosexuals has been social. And we make much better decisions in groups than we do as individuals. That social consideration also occurs at the cultural level – books, newspapers, TV, even church and sporting groups help.

    I could probably rave on at great length but hopefully this gives you an idea of what I mean.


  75. Ken,
    Thanks for that. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only address things I disagree with.

    In theory we objectively consider the information, the facts that we have. We may be determining a course of action based on these facts and our existing moral values. But we may be using our reason to determine moral values and responses in new situations. […] The objective facts are important to our reasoned consideration.

    I think the automatic/manual analogy is true to experience. And I certainly agree with this last sentence that “objective facts are important to our reasoned consideration.” However, I don’t think we’re merely considering information or facts when we’re in manual mode. Indeed, we consider the facts as they relate to “our existing moral values”, or the moral values we then use “reason to determine”. I’d go so far as to say that without these values (humane or not, reasoned or not, auto or manual), the facts have no moral function – at all.

    I can remember conciously reviewing a lot of these attitudes. Taking into account the fact that women were also human and had the same rights as men. Being conscious of my own life requirements and putting myself in the restricted position of others, women and homosexuals, enabled me to adopt moral positions based on these facts.

    Whilst it is a fact that women are also of the species homosapien, the language and ideas related to “rights”, whilst popular, attractive, reasonable, etc., are not ‘factual’ in the least. (Ian has relatively recently owned this truth on his blog) And whilst your empathetic approach to various marginalised peoples is admirable to me and many others, it’s simply not “based on these [which ones!? do tell…] facts.”

    You and most NZers are standing in (‘auto’) and agreeing with (‘manual’) a particular intellectual, philosophical and cultural tradition.

    I’ve not read Hegel, though I’m familiar with the concept of dialectical tension. Whilst I do think there will always be (and should be!) a relationship between values (intuited and/or reasoned) and facts, I think it’s not so much a matter of dialectical tension between the two. Rather, I think ‘facts’ (and the moral decisions they relate to) exist in relation to ‘values’ in an analogous way to how a house exists in relation to its foundation.


  76. rights ate not facts – but we derive them from facts both of our nature and the situations peole ate in.

    Show me how this ‘deriving’ happens.

    Re ‘facts …of our nature’:
    I assume you mean to imply your familiar mantra about the facts of human nature (social, empathetic, intelligent, etc.). I remain unconvinced, and I insist (with no insult intended) that your mantra is half-baked and overly positive – we are also selfish and abusive by nature. Our nature can lead to both humane values and inhumane ones. But even if we had a nice cuddly nature it still doesn’t work. We all share the same nature, and yet have very different value-judgments (both intuited and reasoned). Our nature, therefore, is not what ‘steers’ us, so to speak.

    Re ‘the situations people are in’:
    There are indeed facts of people’s circumstances and situations, but again, without underlying values, these facts don’t help us ‘derive’ anything, certainly not ‘human rights’.


  77. I am tired, I have done a lot to describe my position, no alternatives are forthcoming and I am not taking kindly to this ongoing misrepresentation.

    Dale, you continue to make the most obvious mistakes confusing facts and values. Of course rights are not facts – I never said they were at all. But we do derive them from the facts both of our nature and the situations people are in. Saying rights have an objective basis is not saying rights are facts at all.

    And I certainly never said that “we’re merely considering information or facts when we’re in manual mode.” I pointed out the dialectical interaction between reasoning, intuition and emotions. I seem to continually keep repeating this.

    And how many times do I have to repeat that I have never said that facts have a moral function. Why do you keep misrepresenting me on this?

    I think it’s best you reread what I said tomorrow. Hopefully that will help prevent you putting words in my mouth.


  78. Perhaps it’s your phrase “objective basis” that I don’t understand? When you say “rights have an objective basis”, what do you mean, then?


  79. Something like your use of foundations but nowhere near as direct as that metaphor implies.


  80. Less direct, yet ‘objective’ still??

    Yes, maybe we can play with the foundation metaphor?

    I that the shape of our ethical ‘houses’ (the moral decisions we make, both intuited & reasoned – or ‘auto & manual’) necessarily depends on the shape of our ‘foundation’ of values & goals.

    I’ve not meant to accuse you of thinking that ‘facts’ have their own minds and can prescribe, think, guide, etc. I think our main difference is how we make use of the (scientific) facts. I content that the more facts one has makes ethics a more complex or rich task, but for every person looking at the same facts will ‘use’ them in their own way depending on the extent to which their values/goals are similar or different.

    Perhaps we can imagine a gradient between a simple meal and a complex meal. Making oneself a sandwich for an afternoon snack is simple, and catering a large wedding is complex. A lot more ingredients (‘facts’) for the wedding than the snack. The amount of ingredients is not what makes the meal ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Indeed, without prior notions of what makes a good sandwich or meal, then we’d have no way to tell a ‘bad’ one from a ‘good’ one.

    So there will (and must!!) always be facts (ingredients) in a moral scenario to consider. And even though most of is intuitively know that you don’t put mustard or baking soda in the icecream sunday, we don’t know that by simply looking in the cupboard at the available facts – we only know that in light of an agreed culinary standard of what proper cooking is.

    The metaphor is not perfect, but I think is nonetheless well-suited for our discussion.


  81. Pingback: Deriving “ought from is” scientifically? | Open Parachute

  82. What you been drinking Dale? Bumping into things.


  83. no, I’m under the impression that ‘bump’ is a gentle way to remind a person of a thread that was accidentally dropped. I thought the cooking metaphor was un-crap enough to hopefully advance our conversation. But I can understand dropping the thread – there are several going here.


  84. Dale, my last comment was a reply to your query about “basis” – I compared it your foundations but less direct.

    I may have missed something – have also been carrying out the discussion on SciBlogs (you might be interested in that).

    And these days I admit I am easily confused.


  85. Yes I read your last comment about ‘basis’, etc. …and I then made a comment which included a cooking metaphor (just a few comments above, so I can’t see how you’ve ‘missed’ it), which I’d hoped would help show how we differ regarding how we use facts in ethics. Let me know what you think


  86. I agree that as you say “for every person looking at the same facts will ‘use’ them in their own way depending on the extent to which their values/goals are similar or different.”

    But I suggest there are still constraints so that we will have a range of responses (not just one). However studies show a surprising amount of uniformity of moral responses across races, societies, cultures and religions.

    At sciblogs I compared this to human morphology. This has a basis in objective facts – DNA, environment and time and their interactions. While this produces what we see as an incredible range of human morphology there are still limits and a distribution. I see it as the same with our morality where the objective facts are the facts of the moral situations and the facts of our human nature ( which has a distribution but limits). So it’s not surprising that we recognize the uniformity of human morality that is observed.

    I guess with your cooking metaphor you are equating culinary standards to values/goals. On SciBlogs my discussion partner (who in the end threw a wobbly and took off) insisted these values/goals are axiomatic (he was arguing for moral relativism). I think that is OK as far as it goes. However, my suggestion is that these are not axiomatic. They arise out of our human nature which is to a large extent wired in.

    This means that while each individual may choose their own axiomatic values/goals the objective basis of human nature actually produces a more uniform and limited distribution io values/goals.

    Hence the observed uniformity of human moral responses.


  87. just a quick comment before heading to work…

    I’m confused as to what you mean by the “uniformity of human moral responses”. Clearly, it isn’t uniform? Even general and basic values differ from culture to culture..


  88. Dale I thought I made clear that I was talking about a range, a distribution, with limits. This leads to a relative uniformity across societies and cultures. Our moral codes are not completely random.


  89. I guess I’m wondering what your point is? I agree one can emphasize the ‘relative uniformity’ across cultures, but you can also emphasize the ‘relative discontinuity’? We both agree that the reality is somewhere between ‘completely disagreed on everything’ and ‘completely agreed on everything’ – there is a degree of agreement. But what does this demonstrate? Why, for example, does this partial agreement exist? I think it will reflect shared values and goals, (rather than merely sharing human nature??) and for me this reflects what is called “inter-subjectivity” rather than “objectivity”.


  90. But Dale, why these “shared values and goals”? What is the basis for their relative uniformity?

    When we see something like this we don’t expect it’s natural to ask why and look for the underlying causes.

    It’s probably important that these are not actually shared – more arrived at independently without contact.


  91. What is the basis for the relative uniformity of values & goals? Well clearly not many people want to even consider that life is worthless and that it is not good to protect it. These value & goals are incredibly intuitive and attractive. But this does not mean that “the facts” point us toward either (human worth or worthlessness). “The facts” only make the issue more complex as more facts surface.

    Another key question would be: take those (few) who actually do believe that human life is worthless and not worth protecting. How could we ‘factually’ prove them wrong? All, it seems, we can do (on your view) would be to say, “But a lot of people disagree with you” – to which they could no doubt reply “…like I freegin give a rats arse!?”


  92. Why do “not many people want to even consider that life is worthless and that it is not good to protect it. These value & goals are incredibly intuitive and attractive. “? This is clearly true – but why? What causes this? What is it based on? It doesn’t just pop out of the air?

    (By the way – your claim of “on your view” is way off beam. There is no way you can get that conclusion from what I have said.)


  93. Why do people not want to see life as worthless, etc.? I’m sure there are psychological factors we could point to. And I’m sure someone denying the value of life, etc. would be clinically diagnosed as delusional or depressed. But – the point is – we are talking about how we would ‘factually’ know if life has (qualitative) value. And we don’t. How, again, would we ‘factually’ prove the above delusional/depressed person wrong?


  94. Would you call those psychological factors objective or facts about human nature?


  95. the psychological factors I had in mind were related to what some call our psychological hunger for our life world to be valuable, etc. Not really the domain of facts here. So in the sense relevant to our discussion, no I don’t think I would call them objective or facts.

    But even if we could say something like, “it is an objective fact that a psychological hunger exists for us to see life as valuable” – this fact would be equivalent to something like “it is an objective fact that married men have a psychological hunger to be desired by women other than their wife”. Without some underlying value judgment or goal, these facts have no ethical relevance – at all.


  96. So where does this psychological hunger come from? It doesn’t just pop out of the air, does it? What causes it?


  97. It comes from our embodied experience. We just have to figure out what to do with it – whether or not it reflects a real or actual value to life, etc.


  98. …but the point is that this experienced hunger for value is anything but ‘factual’.


  99. What do you mean by “embodied experience?”


  100. any kind of bodily or mental experience – ‘experience’ would suit just as well


  101. So… reviewing….

    1) I maintain that human value (the qualitative kind we speak of when we talk about life’s worth, etc.) is not a ‘matter of fact’, but of responding to our experienced ‘sense’ that it is valuable.
    2) I also maintain that ‘the facts’ (whether or human nature of a given scenario) cannot have any ethical relevance apart from prior values & goals.


  102. Dale you are repeating what we both agree on. But I have always added that these values and ethics have an objective BASIS – which is not the same as saying the facts have ethics and values. This has been clarified quite a few times.

    Strangely, the position you argue is very similar to that argued by many atheists and, incidentally, by my old mate Dawkins. I don’t agree with him here (although his position is not a detailed one).

    I think it is largely true that we can see that our ethics have changed over time, and that most people adhere to a traditionally, culturally agreed ethics.

    But that position does not explain why the change occurs. And it foes not allow for the situation where individuals within a culture will stand up against the ethics of that tradition and culure.

    The fact that this happens means we have some way of overriding our culture and asserting that something most people accept is wrong. It is this that enables us to develop a more humane, a more correct, ethics.

    I think my idea of objectively based morality can explain why people were able to take a stand against racism, slavery, sexist oppression and discrimination against homosexuals.

    The position you are advocating is a relativist one which doesn’t explain our ability to change and improve our morals.


  103. Ken, I do think that if we are only taking the ‘facts’ as they lie, so to speak, then we can only have a relativist morality. But you seem to think that a certain few, privileged ‘facts’ (namely, the facts of human nature – as you describe it) break this rule. I have yet to see you show how this works.

    You seem to be taking racism, slavery, sexism & discrimination (of any kind) as self-evidently (or factually?) ‘wrong’ or ‘inhumane’ or ‘not correct’; and I am convinced that —we cannot do this. I think you’ll find that they are wrong ONLY when certain specific values and goals are in place. And I have yet to see how ‘facts’ of human nature make them wrong.

    Your idea of objectively based morality can ‘explain’ (descriptively) why people both a) stand against racism, and b) are racist. Humans are empathetic and apathetic, whereas you seem to describe them only as empathetic? Hence my consistent critique of your positive (and thus one-sided) description of human nature.


  104. (To qualify and correct my statement, whilst I do think that in one important and real sense, racism, slavery, sexism & discrimination are indeed “self-evidently” wrong (in the philosophical/metaphysical sense), this is to be distinguished from any notion of a strictly and nakedly ‘scientific’ or ‘factual’ basis for them being wrong.)


  105. melvin goldstein

    Numbers are the Supreme Court of science. However Godel proved that we may not prove everything. There are Physics Foibles!!


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