Deriving “ought from is” scientifically?

Dr Richard Carrier

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of science in deciding moral questions. And I am sure this will continue as scientific investigations reveal more about our morality.

One issue which keeps coming up, though, is the question of telling an “ought from an is.” Often this is presented dogmatically (“You can’t tell an ought from an is”) and justified as almost an ancient philosophical truism.

But this is now being challenged by some of the participants in this debate. recently I heard Richard Carrier, a philosopher and historian of science, on this. He rejects this specific dogma. In the interview Richard supplies a clear example:

“A surgeon ought to maintain high levels of hygiene in her work.”

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it. And we can get there from two “is’s.”

  1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
  2. A surgeon protects human life.

I thought it useful for him to divide the argument in this way. Too often we think only of the first is – the facts which have an immediate effect. Most people will acknowledge that science usually has a role in this area – and that is clear in our example. Science has established the role of hygiene in prevent fatal infections.

So there is wide acceptance that science can “inform” moral decisions such as these. But Many people, not just religious believers, will maintain that step 2 is not an “is.” One can’t prove logically or scientifically that “A surgeon protects human life” or the equivalent.

Well, I think in the case of surgeons it goes with the job, the definition of the profession., But the more general case would be the “is” that humans have such attributes. The claim that you can’t prove it is human to protect life, to desire the flourishing of human life, etc.

Getting rid of dogma

Personally I think this is another dogma that the philosophically, or religiously, inclined often cling to. But science is telling us a lot about ourselves these days. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have helped us understand our biological and social evolution. Cognitive scientists and psychologists have provided understandings of our human thinking and instincts.

Consequently we have a better idea now of this second “is” – our human nature. We can appreciate how our social relations have developed, how our intuitions have evolved to aid social interaction. We can understand some of the physical and social reasons for our empathetic intuitions. Both in terms of basic nature but also in the way these adapt to social interactions and learning. And our knowledge about the differences and similarities of human societies today and historically help us overcome old racial and sexual biases which influenced our social interactions and our morality.

In effect this second “is” refers to our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent, social, and empathetic beings.

So I agree with Richard. It’s about time we stopped repeating the old dogmatic mantra “You can’t get an ought from an is.” Lets realise we can do a lot to provide an objective basis for human morality. And we should not be intimidated into accepting an imposed “morality” which doesn’t have such an objective basis.

Incidentally, look forward to me from Richard Carrier on morality. He has three chapters in the book The End of Christianity published next July. One of them, Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them), provides a philosophical grounding for an objectively based morality.

See also:
The End of Christianity (Table of contents).
Skepconnect Richard Carrier interview

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108 responses to “Deriving “ought from is” scientifically?

  1. So…
    1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
    2. A surgeon protects human life.

    The notion of ‘health’ is something science can describe, but only be prescribed by a human making (or assuming) basic, near-universal, yet non-factual, value-judgments, like the (qualitative) judgment that more life is ‘better’ than less life; which is not a ‘fact’. I see no ‘ought’ derived factually here. Nothing new here…


  2. Exactly right Dale. This post completely misses the point and fails to understand the philosophical issue at hand.

    What he has done is read:

    2. A surgeon [AS AM EMPIRICAL FACT] protects human life.


    2′. A surgeon OUGHT to protect human life.

    In other words he has sneaked an ought into the premises and has done nothing more exceptional that derive an ought from an ought.

    No one denies this is an issue.

    Disappointing and shallow.


  3. Max, just realized I am carrying out this discussion on the syndicated version at SciBlogs as well as here. I will just repeat a comment I made there wich responds to your point as well:

    Well, Max, in the case of a surgeon this is part of the definition. We create surgeons with that job by training them, education them. We don’t create people with these skills and then say “you choose but I think you ought to do this.”

    Similarly humans have evolved to have a nature – this is an objective fact. It’s not a matter of a zombie human evolving and then being told “you choose but I think you ought.”

    We are by nature a moral species – that’s how we evolved. It didn’t come from outside, it wasn’t injected into us.

    Science doesn’t impose that character. But it can investigate our nature and work to reveal how we evolved. Why we are moral beings.


  4. Dale. You are well aware of my answer by now.

    It is because if what a human “is” that we can prescribe.

    Our nature as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic soecies (our “is”) is an objective basis for our ability to prescribe. And notice how we can develop a large amount of agreement on those prescriptions. That is evidence of an objective basis – an objective starting point in the facts of our nature and the facts we confront.

    If we haven’t developed our Morsl presciotoons this way, developed our oughts from our is’s then where have these oughts, prescriptions, come from? And why have they a high level of consistency?

    Max, I am alsoo interested in how you answer those questions.


  5. Ken,
    the question of ‘ought from is’ is NOT whether or not we CAN prescribe – it’s an observed fact that we do all the time. It’s rather about whether or not facts (is) can determine, prescribe, instruct or guide as to what is right or wrong (ought).

    Richard’s points, as Max points out, sneak the ‘ought’ into the ‘is’. And yes, some disciplines are inherently a mixture of science and non-science. The various kinds of ecological sciences, would likely all assume the value (‘goodness’) of the earth and the goal of caring for it. The medical sciences assume the value of life and the goal of caring for it.


  6. Who the hell is claiming “facts (is) can determine, prescribe, instruct or guide as to what is right or wrong (ought).”

    Certainly not me.

    Objective facts don’t make decisions – we do. And we do so on the basis of facts (with a healthy admixture of emotion). And yes this can be intuitive as well as conscious – there us a dialectical interaction between the two.

    What other way is there?

    Whoops – another question and you haven’t yet responded to my last ones.

    Nrt has Max. I wonder what the problem is?


  7. “…we do so on the basis of facts…” It is the ‘on the basis of’ but that I don’t understand. I don’t see how the calculus works to ‘get’ from facts to ‘this is wrong’.

    In my understanding:
    – it is an observed fact that a given action is thought or said to be right or wrong’
    -…because it contradicts goal ‘x’ for the assumed best existence for the affected objects
    -…which rests on value-judgment ‘y’ which sees the affected object as having this or that kind of worth of value.

    I’ll also copy/paste this from the other thread:
    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 only ‘source’ of these value-judgments 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’.


  8. ((dang, me and these tags…))


  9. If you have trouble understanding my terminology what about you answering the question I put:

    “If we haven’t developed our moral prescriptions this way, developed our oughts from our is’s then where have these oughts, prescriptions, come from? And why have they a high level of consistency?”

    Maybe you will then use language like on the basis of “lived experience in the real world.”

    And come off it. How is the real world “quite distinct, mind you, from the world of ‘objective fact.’?

    I get the impression you agree with me but don’t want to say so for some reason.


  10. Ken, like it or not, there are non-objective ways of considering the world (which you and I both take to be objectively real), and one of these is making fundamentally basic (and continually overlooked by moderns) value-judgments and discerning moral goals such as ‘more life is good’ or ‘better health is good’. The data – objective and indifferent as it is – just doesn’t point either way.


  11. Dale, you don’t mention what this “data” is you are talking about. I am also intrigued by what you mean by “fundamentally basic (and continually overlooked by moderns) value-judgments.” Sounds like you want to return to the past or something.

    What are we “overlooking?”


  12. I’m using the term ‘data’ generally. Data/facts are by nature descriptive and objective, and thus prescriptively (and thus morally) indifferent. By all means, show me any data or facts that point to either this or that (qualitative) value judgment or (prescriptive) goal!!

    On past or future: it’s a both/and for me. My point about ‘overlooking’ was in reference to the basic value-judgments we make (i.e. life & health are ‘good’), which are not themselves supported by cold, hard (and indifferent) facts. What I mean by ‘overlooking’ is that we are so used to these basic and “obvious” values, that we treat them like facts when they are more subjective than we dare admit.


  13. Ken, so as implied by you, this is a valid argument:
    1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
    2. A surgeon protects human life.
    3. A surgeon ought to maintain high levels of hygiene in her work.

    Here we see what happens when scientists with no background in philosophy (like Sam harris, or now like you) wade into such things. The above argument is what is known as formally invalid. The conclusion does not follow. Here is a valid version:

    1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
    1a. Allowing fatal infections involves not protecting human life.
    2. A surgeon protects human life.
    3. Therefore a surgeon maintains high levels of hygiene in her work.

    Now the argument is valid, but there’s no ought. Sorry, this doesn’t work.


  14. Glenn, you have misunderstood my post. Now don’t interpret my use of numbers here as a logical argument. They are used , as in my post, only to clarify things:

    1: I numbered the two components of “is”, the objective bases for moral decisions, purely as an aid to clarifying. There has been a concentration on the objective facts of a moral situation and the role of the objective facts of human nature has been largely ignored.

    2: My post identified Richard Carrier and linked to his podcast. This is Richard’s point, not Sam Harris’s. In fact Harris has been criticized for effectively neglecting the “is” of human nature.

    3: Richard is not a scientist – he is a historian of science and a philosopher (at least in his writings)

    4: Harris does have a degree in philosophy but he is critical of the role of philosophers in this discussion. I think he has a point – at least regarding the philosophical arguments that often get used.

    Of course philosophy is not uniform ideologically so one does expect difference between different trends. Certainly there are a number of philosophers who reject the “is-ought” argument where used as a dogmatic mantra. Richard points out that it does not have the philosophical authority it’s proponents claim.

    5: I was pleased Richard mentioned this aspect of objective facts underlying morality. And i look forward to his book chapter with the philosophical logical arguments for this. It is an aspect Harris had more or less assumed and received criticism for. While some people will assume this aspect as axiomatic I think our scientific understanding of human nature enables far more than this, I am glad Richard is making the same point.

    6: I realize that your problem may be that you approached my post with a particular mindset – the hammer/nail attitude. However, if you can look past the numbers and recognize the point I was making I would appreciate a proper critique.

    I am arguing (together with Harris) against moral relativism and for objectively based morality. The point Richard makes helps dispose of the main criticisms of Sam’s arguments.


  15. Ken, two questions:
    1) Do you agree (with Dawkins) that without a goal, then talk of morality is meaningless?
    2) If so, then please explain how we can have an “objectively based goal” against which to consider the facts?


  16. Dale, I wasn’t aware that Dawkins had made the link between goals and morality (a view that I hold – as we’ve discussed many times before). Do you have any references so that I can see his particular angle on the topic?


  17. I will see if I can find Dawkins’ recent comment, Damian. I think it was in an interview where Sam’s ideas were raised. Dawkins’ comments that Sam could well be right, that science can help determine right and wrong, once a necessary criteria or goals are set.

    I think he more or less argues that in The God Delusion and other articles (while not specifically mentioning science).

    My point us that still leaves one open to a criticism of relativism because one starts with an axiomatic goal. I suspect Dawkins would not be satisfied with that situation. I certainly aren’t. That is why I argue given the objective facts of our human nature, our consciousness, intelligence, empathy and social nature we have a basis for a set if goals or ethical values which are more or less uniform across cultures, religions and societies.


  18. Dale, my reply to Damian effectively replies to your question 2. It is the key point in our difference. Your rejection of it leads you to moral relativism, at least of a sort. My acceptance of it provides me with a basis for arguing against issues like slavery which may still be accepted as right by a society.


  19. Damian,
    (nice to see you around – we should do another coffee soon, and I can try to guilt you into helping us move house 😛 )

    Yes, Dawkins’ mentioned that we needed to have an assumed goal of ‘less suffering’ in a recent comment that Ken mentioned related to the discussion of Sam’s ‘moral landscape’ book & ideas (TED talk, etc). It was a rather brief comment.

    Ken, so I take it that’s a “yes” to question 1? You do agree that without goals (and I insist qualitative value-judgments as well!), morality is meaningless and unintelligible? As for your comments on question 2, I have yet to see how a description of the facts of human nature (both empathetic AND apathetic, I insist, is a more balanced and honest picture) can “provide [you] with a basis for arguing against [moral] issues”??? We have a nature that contributes to us doing things that are commonly thought to be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – what’s your point? How do you connect the dots from a) a description of human nature to b) a prescriptive stance regarding something like slavery? Me thinks you’re skipping over a goal (i.e. working for & maintaining freedom) & a value-judgment (that humans should be valued differently to things we treat as property).


  20. Bugger – can’t recollect where Dawkins’ made this comment on Sam’s book. He had reviewed it in draft form so it may have been a while back. i think it was in a radio interview.

    However, after a brief reread of his chapter on the Moral Zeitgeist I can see that Dawkins was clearly aware of the need to provide an objective explanation of the “concerted and steady changes in social consciousness’ and “its relatively consistent direction.”

    He discusses things like education, the role of charismatic leaders, etc. and then says:
    “It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the moral zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way. For my purposes it is enough that, as a matter of observed fact, it does move, and it is not driven by religion – and certainly not scripture. . . . Whatever its cause, the manifest phenomenon of zeitgeist progression is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good.”

    I agree it is not his job to provide a full explanation and he indicates that this may be found in the fields of psychology and sociology.

    I just think we know enough now to advance a more definite hypothesis.

    Dale – we have already discussed the difference between a qualitative term like empathy and intelligence and the quantitative expression of these.

    We have to considered the difference between intuitive reactions and intelligently rehearsed consideration of a moral problem. I think it is the later, together with the objective facts of our human nature and the situation under review which enables some individuals, moral and educational leaders, to break out of the accepted morality of their time and therefore make movement possible.


  21. Ken,
    You’re still not connecting the dots. We agree that there are – and always will be – facts to ‘consider’, and consider reasonably and intelligently. But the point is that people with different values and goals will reach different moral conclusions by looking at the same facts. Therefore, the facts are not the determinative factor in the moral consideration. The values and goals are. But these are not arrived at ‘objectively’. ((I suggest all you need to do is use the term [and meaning] ‘intersubjective’ instead of ‘objective’.))


  22. No Dale, I am not walking into the old trap of playing with words.

    This concept is complex enough – often feels like juggling balls. Such playing around with words will destroy its current intelligibility.


  23. what is it too clear for you? do you not get that it’s values/goals not facts that shape/steer moral conclusions???


  24. Where t=do you get your values/goals from? What are they based on?


  25. Richard Christie

    Seems fair question Ken, from Dale’s comment (two above) he is confusing the formulation of morals with judgment calls based upon one’s morals.


  26. I think we both get our values/goals through sources like reason, tradition, intuition, emotion & culture. The point is that this is not ‘objective’.

    You, however, Ken, point to “the facts of our human nature” as an ‘objective’ basis for morality. My point has been to show that it is not our nature, but our values which are the basis for our moral considerations. Is this unclear?


  27. But all you are doing is slipping in another layer between the objective facts and our final, usually unconscious, determination of action or response, Dale.

    Our intuitions don’t pop out of nowhere. I have talked about the dialectical interaction between unconscious intuitive response and intellectually rehearsed consideration.

    Our culture and traditions didn’t pop outoif nowhere. Again a dialectical interaction between socially determined intellectual decisions and common intuitive response.

    As Dawkins points put there must be an underlying cause for our morality and it’s change over time. An appeal to “metaphysics” without allowing for actual causes will not do as an explanation. It just can’t explain what we observe. Therefore it’s not suitable as a scientific hypothesis.


  28. Who has ever claimed that these things “pop out of nowhere”??? None of the sources of values/goals I cited (reasoning, for example) come from ‘nowhere’… Just because something (i.e. reasoning) is a metaphysical activity, doesn’t mean it’s ‘out of nowhere’. Just because something is non-objective doesn’t mean it’s worthless or unreliable.

    I’m not slipping in any layers. It’s just simply the case that the values and goals rather then the facts (of our nature or a situation) are the determining factor in ethics. Facts are facts, but they must be understood within a framework for them to have moral significance and intelligibility.


  29. …and don’t fault me for moral value/goal attainment not being “suitable as a scientific hypothesis”. I’m not the one who says (or hints) we can “derive ought from is scientifically” (post title)!!!


  30. Of course they don’t come from nowhere. Reasoning is an ability of an intelligent being and uses facts as raw material. The objective existence of the individual provides a material base for the process of reasoning – can’t happen without it.

    Our brain with it’s evolved structure including wiring of the emotional and motor areas inevitably produces a limited range of emotional and intuitive responses. And these are amenable to learning. Inevitably we have goals and values coming from this material base. They can’t exist without the brain and their character inevitably results from the evolutionary and social history of the brain.


  31. A scientific hypothesis is explanatory. It’s not deriving ought from is.

    If the hypothesis is not scientific it’s just another way of saying that it doesn’t reflect reality, has no real explanatory power.

    Let’s not react emotionally and irrationally to the word science.


  32. Who the heck is saying that an objective real flesh & blood person is not involved in the process of moral consideration!!??

    None of what you’ve said shows how a given moral conclusion (i.e. slavery is wrong) is “based on” any kind of objective facts. The objective existence of our brains and bodies is just another morally indifferent fact, because people with the same kind of brains arrive at different moral conclusions.


  33. But this is the problem for you Dale. You might like the idea that ” because people with the same kind of brains arrive at different moral conclusions.”

    But that doesn’t accord with reality. We find an amazing amount of uniformity for humans across societies, religious beliefs, cultures. That is an empirical fact and it is desperate to concentrate on the fact that this uniformity has a range and distribution.

    (try comparing the moral behaviors of widely separate species. Also compare closer species like chimps and humans).

    This uniformity is an observation our hypothesis must be able to explain.


  34. Oh so we’re back to uniformity and the idea (correct me if I’m misrepresenting you?) that the shared-ness of a conclusion corresponds somehow to its goodness/rightness?? We’re not talking about describing how individuals (brain evolution, etc.) or societies arrive at the moral conclusions they do; we’re talking about prescribing right or wrong behaviour.

    An action can only be said to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in relation to a goal (and a value-judgment). You seem to agree with this above, and we both agree that we have the ability to use facts very well once we have an agreed goal, etc. Where we disagree is that you still want to argue for an “objectively based” morality, whereas I’d say the only thing you could come close to describing as “objective” would be the moral calculation of the consistency of action ‘x’ with goal ‘y’. But as for discerning the goal itself, this simply is not an ‘objective’ or ‘factual’ matter. I don’t know any way to be clearer.


  35. Richard Christie

    But as for discerning the goal itself, this simply is not an ‘objective’ or ‘factual’ matter.

    Wow that’s sweeping. How else do you account for different morals “(“goals” if you will) between individuals, times and societies?
    Why do children who grow up in company of disfunctional values (e.g. families of criminal backgrounds) end up with sociopathic values.?
    There is a mountain of evidence to argue we formulate moral schema due to observation of the reality around us.


  36. Richard,
    how do you know what a ‘disfunctional’ value is?

    Even something as seemingly obvious to us as ‘health’ (the word ‘wellbeing’ gets bandied about) is anything but a matter of strict, naked ‘fact’. A rape is not ‘factually’ worse then sex between to committed partners. We cannot just appeal to near-universal intuition and call it fact?


  37. Richard Christie

    how do you know what a ‘disfunctional’ value is?

    from the moral schema I developed on passage to adulthood, from personal observation and received pre-digested from sources such as parents, books, instruction etc and then build upon.
    I believe you can observe the moral outlook of children develop and change as they interact with their world. First its all “me” with no empathy for others, later it changes as they realise actions have consequences etc.

    I think your position most peculiar.


  38. Great! So we have a socially (thus subjectively) constructed, non-‘factual’ definition of ‘disfunctional’ value. One that is popular to modern westerners as ourselves – selfish apathy matures into considerate empathy.

    But this is still anything but a ‘factual’ or ‘scientific’ basis for value.


  39. Richard Christie

    If the first part of your reply is agreement and scientific method is simply another tool to interact with reality and interpret the result then there is no impediment for it to inform on the formation of morals and value .


  40. Dale – “Oh so we’re back to uniformity and the idea (correct me if I’m misrepresenting you?) that the shared-ness of a conclusion corresponds somehow to its goodness/rightness”.

    Well we are back because the discussion is circular and we seem to have to repeat things several times. However, it still seems necessary. How the hell you can interpret my position as “shared-ness of a conclusion corresponds somehow to its goodness/rightness” I don’t know. I actually saying the opposite.

    Although it’s perfectly true that a society’s prescriptive code is determined by majority. Hence slavery, racism, discrimination against women and homosexuals were considered right at one time – not now.

    Consequently the automatic unconscious intuitive response is that our code naturally accords to that of the majority in our society, culture, clan or group.

    But a more thoughtful approach allows us to determine in fact that the majority is wrong about some things. We can only do this if we use an objective basis for our conscious moral decisions. How else do you determine that racism or slavery is wrong when everyone around you and all the social institutions (including the religious ones) are telling you that it is right?

    Of course there will be people who claim to be doing the same thing and come to different conclusions. Today there are people who will logically justify crime, racism, slavery, gay bashing, etc. That just reflects that we are not a rational animal. We can pretend to be logical while just determining our moral prescriptions emotionally.

    But that is not insurmountable. No one said this sort of thing is simple. And as in science we have been able to overcome such subjectivism we have also been able to fight through such subjectivism in our moral decisions.

    The objective basis for morality enables individuals to be morally autonomous. To be able to derive their own moral code from the facts, human nature and logical reasoning. To maintain a position of sanity while everyone around them is mad.

    I think this is the way to raise our children. Enable them to internalize a moral outlook instead of having it imposed.


  41. Richard,
    Science can indeed inform our moral considerations, but not form or shape them.

    I’m sure we both feel we’re repeating ourselves. I simply have yet to see you provide anything that gets close to what can justifiably be called an “objective basis” for morality. And we’re discussing your views here, not mine. Your position (and Sam’s) is a philosophical novelty and I’m simply trying to understand it.

    Facts will always be a part of the process, but they need interpretation.

    Values and goals – not facts – are what determine and shape even the most detailed, critical, and rational ethical considerations. When a person analyses the facts, she is assuming the most basic and non-factual of values and goals – like the basic worth of sentient life & the goal of protecting it and helping it to ‘flourish’ (whatever the heck that is), etc.


  42. Richard Christie

    Science can indeed inform our moral considerations, but not form or shape them.

    I haven’t read all the discussion but haven’t interpreted Ken as saying it does. We shape our moral considerations, science doesn’t put on some smooth music and tie us up first.

    Apologies if you’ve interpreted Ken correctly and me incorrectly,
    but have you spent all this thread on that insignificant point of order?


  43. Perhaps you should read the thread and help me interpret/understand Ken? What do you think he means by an “objectively based” morality? He contrasts it with what he calls ‘subjective’ ones that are undesirable and inhumane and justify slavery, etc. Presumably there is something about ‘considering the facts’ that makes his version ‘objective’… It is this that I don’t understand… Rather than some fact about those would-be slaves or would-be slave-owners, being the determining factor, I think it should be obvious that the determining factor is a (qualitative) value-judgment about human worth.


  44. Dale – surely this is just a justification for the status quo (and relativism): “it should be obvious that the determining factor is a (qualitative) value-judgment about human worth”

    History of slavery etc shows how the value judgement on human worth has changed over the years. If the prevailing value-judgement of human worth is where one gets their prescriptive morality things would never change. (and I agree that that is how the majority gets their morality).

    But isn’t it great that some people are capable of looking beyond the prevailing prejudices and on the basis of the facts (including those relating to human nature) logically reason to produce a moral code which is in all our interests (not just the slave owner, land owner , priest, bigot, autocratic sexist or tyrant, etc.). This drives human progress.

    By the way, a continual evidence that you have a blockage or else cannot stop misrepresenting me. Nothing I have said justifies calling my morality “objective” – I have always opposed that and stressed that I am talking about objectively based morality.

    Nor is it correct to say I suggest it is just a matter of “considering the facts” – there is more to it than that. Otherwise a snake could come to a similar moral conclusion by “considering the facts.”

    And it doesn’t produce an objective morality.


  45. Ken, please tell me what facts we learned about humans that so aided our logical reasoning as to finally produce anti-slavery codes.


  46. Richard Christie

    Dale I’m with you on this at least, the 17th century viewpoint on slavery may well have been just as objectively informed as the 20th century one.
    We all know relativity depends on the position of the observer.


  47. …heck, and anti-slavery is as old as slavery itself… there are writings and codes against it that are flippin ancient.


  48. Dale, the fact that some people have always opposed slavery within a culture nbd tradition which supported it shows that there are other inputs to moral outlook beside tradition, culture etc. That is of course the fact for most people – they accept the tradition and culture because our normal mode is intuitive, unconscious and reason gets used to justify and sanction what is occurring. Powerful commercial and ideological forces help impose this.

    But the fact that some part of the population can apply reasoning more objectively and recognize the violation of person and dignity sanctioned by the tradition provides an avenue for overcoming such violations by changing the moral code. Same with racism, suppression of women and homosexuals.

    Why do you think people are capable of doing this? Seeing past the prevailing traditions, ideology and culture?


  49. Yes, Ken, ancient anti-slavery does indeed show that some can rise above the cultural moral zeitgeist. But you seem to think that this happens “based on the facts” and “more objectively”… THIS is where I don’t follow you. If slavery has been resisted roughly wherever it has happened, regardless of having modern scientific facts to consider, then surely you can see that it’s not facts that make the difference, but value-judgments?

    As for you last question, I think often the anti-slavery movements have to be started by the slaves themselves, who make their value-judgments (I’m worth more than a piece of property, so stop treating me like one!) known in their protests.

    A simple & direct question for you Ken: which do you think is more determinative in moral decision making, facts or value-judgments?


  50. I realize that your problem may be that you approached my post with a particular mindset – the hammer/nail attitude. However, if you can look past the numbers and recognize the point I was making I would appreciate a proper critique.

    If you weren;t giving an argument then there is nothing to critique, since you haven’t given any reason.

    However you actually did try to present an argument. You used a clear indicator by saying: “And we can get there from two “is’s.”” It is obvious that by “get there” you meant “infer.” if you did not mean this, then you only mean that we can state two “is’s” and then state an ought. But uttering sentences one after the other doesn’t “get” anywhere.

    So you did offer an argument, and the “ought” does not follow, for exactly the reasons I have explained.


  51. Glenn, as I made clear in the post and my comment I was referring to Richard Carrier’s point. I think he expressed quite clearly a point I have been making for a while (although not in the same words), that human morality has an objective basis.

    What I liked about his description is that he referred not only to the objective facts of a moral situation but also to the objective facts of the moral agent. While he chose a surgeon as an example I choose to extend that to humans in general.

    There are objective facts which underlying human nature. This means there is an objective basis for right and wrong. Or right and wrong as we humans see it (a snake might disagree).

    Everyone seems to have a problem of what we mean by right and wrong – speculating it us somehow “god given”, axiomatic or completely relative.

    Once we recognize the basis of our morality in the human nature derived from the fact that we are a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species we are able to understand a number of factors. Such as the relative uniformity of human ethics across societies, races, cultures, religions and other ideologies. Also the fact that acceptable ethical codes change over time. That we can get to see as wrong things we mayn’t have previously accepted as right (eg slavery, racism, apartheid, sexual discrimination and hostility to gays).

    This position is not arrived at by deductive logic. That is basically a conservative approach (you get out what you put in – and that may well be crap) and is often what scoundrels and the ideological driven resort to. I am advocating a position arrived at by interacting with the real world. Considering the results of psychological and sociological research. As well as modern philosophers who accept the advantages of obtaining empirical evidence and checking or validating ideas against reality.


  52. In case you missed my comment just above (here), I showed how the opposition to slavery through history shows that modern science (and the facts we’ve learned through it) hasn’t suddenly enabled us to view it as wrong. Rather, it is basic value-judgements about the worth, dignity etc. of a human being that enables such a view.

    As I said in another thread, with a cooking analogy, the more facts you have only makes the process of moral judgment more complex and rich – it does not steer or shape it one way or the other.

    ((btw, you refer to psychology and sociology above – which do not deal strictly with facts alone. The social and medical sciences all assume judgments about life’s value and the goal to improve it. These sciences are built on non-science. Again, we don’t ‘factually’ or ‘evidentially’ know that “health” [whose definition?] is ‘good’… We just assume it because of our culture and upbringing.))


  53. Dale, when I talk about objective facts underlying situations why do you have to interpret these as “regardless of having modern scientific facts to consider.”? Have we not always had facts relating to slavery? Why do you interpret this idea as meaning modern scientific findings.? In every period we have to go with the facts we can determine at the time. And surely human experience gathered enough facts early on to enable a moral judgement that slavery was wrong? (Yes, reality is complex – there were also strong ideological and commercial reasons to make the moral judgement that slavery was right, even ordained by gods). Yes, and the slaves were humans too. They were moral agents. And as the victims they would have a lot of reason to draw moral conclusions from the facts of their experience.

    Responding to your question (and I think I have made my position clear on this before). Most of us, most of the time, make decisions on the basis of our intuitions and emotions. There are very good evolutionary reasons for this. Even when we reason and consider facts a lot of the time this is not done completely rationally. We are not a rational species. But underlying our decisions and intuitive/emotional reactions there is an objective reality – both in the features of the moral situation and in our human nature. I have talked about the dialectical interaction between intuitions and logical reasoning. There is also the unconscious learning from our culture. Consider the change in attitude towards homosexuality. For some this has been a result of logical reasoning considering facts. For most it had been an unconscious change in attitudes, intuitions and emotions. A result of our cultural changes. Seeing homosexual accepted in society, knowing homosexuals and experiencing the situation through our literature, cinema and TV.

    I can appreciate that underlying our difference is an ideological difference. You give primacy to idea, I give primacy to a material reality. However I don’t see this in naive terms. I really like the way that Karl Marx admonished his son-in-law for presenting Marxism as naive determinism. He said that if that was Marxism he was not a Marxist. He argued that humans take actions, make decisions because if their ideas, their thoughts. But he also stressed that we should ask where those thoughts come from, why we have particular thoughts. He explained these origins as material. I talk about objective facts and objective reality. But not naively.


  54. Dale , it is not only psychology and sociology which deal with more than facts. Surely all of science does?

    There is actually a strong ethos in and underlying science of honesty. This actually conflicts with human nature so of course it is not easy and requires special procedures.

    This ethos, and the procedures, are markedly absent from ideologically driven areas of human enterprise. And I include religion and politics on this sphere.


  55. Ken, all your lecturing of how we consider facts in moral considerations is not necessary – I agree with you – we use facts. Indeed, we’ve always had ‘facts’ and have always been able to consider them. The facts only get more precise and detailed and complex as methodology and technology develops through history.

    The only point I’m making is that facts have no ethical significance without relation to goals and value-judgments. From what you write, I cannot tell that you include this in your descriptions of the moral process.

    And because goals and values are not objectively derived (in the sense of facts and science), then moral considerations cannot be objective as you claim.


  56. But that is the key point, Dale. We keep coming back to it and I have repeatedly argued that our values /goals have an objective basis. This explains their relative uniformity and changes over time. It also explains how we can make judgments of right and wrong which are at odds with the prevailing ideology and attitudes.


  57. Ken, I think you mean ‘basis’ in the sense that it is sentient, etc. humans ‘doing’ the moral judging; which I agree is obvious and non-controversial. It is an objective fact (more or less) that humans ‘do morality’, and that less conscious, less sentient animals (or non-living objects) do not ‘do morality’. Big deal.

    But this is wholly different to the more controversial sense of sentient, etc. humans knowing ‘objectively’ what is right or wrong. The idea that because we are sentient, etc. our moral judgments are more objectively correct?

    The test case of slavery is much needed. I cannot see how anti-slavery values or goals could have an ‘objective basis’. Do tell – using the example of slavery.


  58. Dale it is not honest to redefine my points as in “I think you mean”. I have tried hard to make my arguments clear. It doesn’t worry me that some people will stubbornly refuse to accept them. After all we have fundamental ideological differences. Such disagreements are natural.

    So I expect disagreement – but not strawmannery, trivialization and ridicule (as in “big deal”).

    Not is it helpful when I try at length to answer your questions in a detailed manner bringing out the nuances of these situations for you to label me as “lecturing.”

    I have never claimed “humans knowing ‘objectively’ what is right or wrong. The idea that because we are sentient, etc. our moral judgments are more objectively correct”. Never. The fact that you keep misrepresenting me in this manner indicates you needed a detailed response along the lines I gave. Unfortunately you chose to see this as “lecturing” and therefore did not read it (or understand it).

    I think you need to be able to acknowledge that these points are a misrepresentation of my position (reredcing my previous detailed comment might help). Until you accept that I don’t see how you can really understand my argument.


  59. Again, we really need to stick closely to a practical test case. Using theoretical language only will make us continue to miss one another. We’ve used slavery as an example, and I suggest we continue with it?

    The whole point of this post/thread is about the question of ‘scientifically’ getting from ‘is’ (description) to ‘ought’ (prescription). With our test case, it is about the question of scientifically – or factually or objectively?? – getting from an ‘is’ statement describing the nature of humans, to an ‘ought’ statement prescribing that slavery is wrong.

    Before I go any further, do you agree with this last paragraph?


  60. Ken, do you agree with that paragraph?


  61. The objective facts are those in the situation considered (owning humans, restrictions on freedoms, etc), as well the objective facts of human nature. And these relate to the slave owners as well as slaves.


  62. Sure, those are some facts related to slavery. Great.
    But do you agree that the question is how to ‘get’ from these descriptive facts to a prescriptive statement about slavery being right or wrong?


  63. Actually both the prevailing (at the time) moral prescriptions and the humanitarian conclusions which are a minority but eventually lead to changes on moral outlook have an objective basis in the facts of the situation and the facts of human nature. Yet the conclusions are different.

    After all greed is part of human nature – as is the us vs them intuition. And economic interests were involved. In that sense slavery was a natural development. Perhapsan inevitable part of human social and economic development.

    On the other hand our ability to empathize, to walk in others shoes and to rationally reason through the facts and expand our altruistic boundaries enabled some people to draw conclusions about the immorality of their society.

    Perhaps this is really the social reflection of the dialectical interaction between the unconscious/intuitive aspect and the refelective, rehearsed, conscious and reasoned aspect of the human approach morality.


  64. Ken, you’re saying a lot of stuff I – and most would – agree with. But the heart of the question is still missing. My conviction is that when the people you describe “rationally reason through the facts…”, the determinative factor is how humans (and metaphysical concepts like ‘freedom’) are valued.

    For example, this comment simply assumes that empathy is ‘better’ and more ‘humanitarian’ than apathy, etc. But this is not factually evident. It is at this basic level of value-judgment that I keep trying – again and again – to get you to focus on. This level is – for us modern, westerners – largely assumed, so we forget that it’s not a matter of fact, yet we treat it as such. This is my (and others) central critique of Sam Harris (and your) proposal.

    How do we know what is good? Not by ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’.


  65. Your problem Dale is not my focus but your continual misrepresentation. Nowhere am I claiming that values are “matters of fact.” Thst is a straw mam i disposed of long ago. I keep repeating that there is an objective basis for values, culture, etc. This does not mean that values are directly or mechanically derived from objective facts. The relationship is far more complex. But the fact of the objective basis helps explain why we can come to common agreement on values.

    If this were not so our ethical values would be completely disconnected and personally invented. And we know they aren’t.


  66. But Ken, it’s not about explaining “why we can come to common agreement”. Again, what is common could be ‘wrong’? We’re talking about how we know that – for example – slavery is wrong. Not why people think it is right or why people think it is wrong; but why it IS wrong. The fact that we even use such ‘obvious’ examples as slavery, murder, rape, etc. only shows that they are common or near-universal opinions – not that they are correct opinions.


  67. Do you think they are not correct?


  68. Of course I do, but that’s not what the question is about. It’s not about what people THINK, it’s about getting an ought from an is.


  69. OK so you are claiming that slavery is (and was) wrong – and that is correct or true. Not just a consensus or belief or teaching or a cultural aspect.

    So what basis have you used to come to that conclusion? What basis would someone who opposed slavery at the time that it was culturally acceptable use?

    In your case you may be just unconsciously accepting the cultural and ethical mores of our time. But how did the opponent of slavery at that time come to this conclusion? One that violated the religious, political, social mores, teachings and pronouncements of these leaders?


  70. My conclusion that slavery is wrong is based on reasonable, and convictions which resonate with emotions, etc. – but it isn’t based on facts.


  71. So you only think that slavery is wrong – no sense of truth or correct.

    Isn’t that moral relativism.? You could just as easily conclude slavery is right.


  72. I believe it is truly and correctly wrong. And no, once humans are valued as having dignity, etc. then it’s much harder to conclude that slavery is right (indeed most abortions as well, but let’s not go there).


  73. But why should you consider humans have dignity? What do you base that on? Without justification you cannot say that is “true” or “correct”. It’s just an idea you have with no more justification than the opposite.

    A belief by itself doesn’t count for anything because most beliefs are clearly wrong.

    Are you assuming human dignity as axiomatic?


  74. I called it a reasonable conviction and that’s precisely what I think it is. It is reasonable and I have a strong emotional commitment to it. And what evidence do you have that “most beliefs are clearly wrong” ??? Who has gone through and evaluated all the ‘beliefs’ that people have and found ‘most’ (what 53%? 72%) to be wrong?

    But this thread – again – started with the notion of deriving is from ought scientifically and it involves the question of how ‘facts’ fit in to moral considerations. Do you think ‘dignity’ is factual? Is human ‘right’ to freedom a matter of ‘fact’?


  75. My point about beliefs being wrong ( and it needn’t be “most”) is that humans hold contradictory beliefs about things . They can’t all be right. Therefore many are wrong. Belief is not a sufficient basis for truth or correctness (even if scoundrels put “properly basic” in front of their most beloved beliefs).

    You and I find belief that slavery is wrong to be reasonable. We have a strong commitment to it. But in the past most people in some societies thought the opposite. They thought acceptance of slavery was right was reasonable and many had a strong commitment to that belief. Nevertheless some people’s attitudes were more similar to ours. Do you think if you lived then you would be in that group? If so why? What could you possibly base such ideas on? After all, almost every one around you would not have these convictions. They would not consider them reasonable. In fact such convictions may well have been illegal. People with them ran the risk of imprisonment, social chastisement and exclusion.

    Human rights and dignity are not technically facts except as they are incorporated in documents laws and treaties. This may, and hopefully does, lead to facts of human existence.


  76. I can only speculate and hope that had I existed in a pro-slavery culture, that I’d have bucked that trend.

    The relevant point here is that (because rights or dignity are not factual in and of themselves) what enables people to be anti-slavery is holding certain values Instead of knowing more facts, it seems one has to look differently at the facts they already are aware of.


  77. How do people get these values? Especially if they conflict with the prevailing culture, religion, tradition? Do you think these minority values originate in the same unconscious way as the majority values do? Or are they consciously derived? And if so what considerations does the conscious agent use?


  78. I think the question relates to epistemology – how do we ‘know’ the value of something? anything? Especially when different people value different things so… well… differently?

    I take human non-omniscience pretty seriously, so I don’t think anyone ‘knows’ the value of anything perfectly and completely. I do think this means that our morality is not ‘objective’. However I don’t think we know nothing either. I think this means that it’s not all just subjective wish wash.

    But I’m convinced that the fact/value distinction holds, and because of this, the is/ought (or descriptive/prescriptive) distinction holds. My epistemic view is that facts and science are not the only way to know truth, and that desire and emotion (and intuition & tradition) –always connected to reason & logic– are valid, trustworthy epistemic sources. Both experiMENT and experiENCE, if you like.

    But I’ve still yet to get your agreement that morality is not ‘fact based’ (or to clarify what you think about facts and objectivity and morality). I don’t know if you got my email a few weeks back – I was suggesting we do a phone call or skype or coffee next time you’re in Aucks


  79. Strange to use the term “non-omniscience” – quaint. Of course our knowledge is always imperfect.

    To say no-one knows “the value of anything perfectly and completely” implies that such a concept is logical. There is a right and wrong on such questions whether we are aware if it or agree with it. You say it’s not “objective” but not “subjective”. But to suggest that there is a logical value to me implies some sort of objectivity independent of a particular observer. I can classify that as having an objective basis. And that us why a completely objective observer, using flawless reasoning and not influence by biases should determine something right or wrong.

    I don’t see what other alternatives there can be.

    You suggest we can determine slavery is wrong and that this is true. But surely you can’t reach that position from simply “desire, emotion, intuition, tradition, and reason” alone.

    Surely the slave owner uses the same process to conclude that slavery is right?


  80. ((in passing, I note that your description of “a completely objective observer, using flawless reasoning and not influence by biases” is not far from describing an “omniscient” observer – which we both agree doesn’t exist.))

    I didn’t call it a ‘logical’ value – you did. I don’t think value or purpose or dignity or worth is the sort of thing that is ‘factual’. Value is not an observable ‘event’ or physical ‘thing’ that can be observed, tested, etc. Even qualitative value is not objective, but rather inter-subjective, and comparative, because we invent units of measure to express the distance in ‘x’ number of units (i.e. ‘feet’), etc. But when it comes to qualitative value, we are comparing qualities that are not observable, but – I know you hate the word – metaphysical and invisible. There will never be a truly ‘scientific’ experiment involving “freedom” or “dignity”.


  81. That word “never” reeks of dogma and how many people have been caught out from using such a word together with science in the past. Hence the saying “never say never.”

    But again I have to pull you up. I have nowhere claimed that value is “factual”. Nowhere.

    It seems you really cannot understand the difference between this and “objectively based.”

    The colour red is not factual but it is certainly objectively based.


  82. and the ‘never say never’ slogan is like the authoritative command from on high to ‘question all authority’… Never say ‘never say never’!!! 😛

    Ken, can I suggest you’re not distinguishing between quantitative and qualitative value? Yes, the quality of the color read can be quantitatively compared to other colors in a more or less objective manner, but the meaning of it (i.e. red means stop!) is subjective.

    In what sense can a qualitative value like ‘freedom’ or ‘dignity’ be objective???


  83. The colour red is also subjective and qualitative. That’s my point. It however has an objective basis in the radiation absorption properties of the colored object, the energy of the em radiation involved and in the detection components of the eye, the nervous transmission to thebrsin and the working if the brain itself in putting all this together.

    And I repeat again. I have never said freedom or dignity are objective. Never!

    Your continual misrepresentation of me on this indicates a fundamental flaw in your comprehension of what I am saying.


  84. Perhaps it’s the word ‘basis’ that you continue using when you say that morality has an “objective basis”??? If all you mean by this is that “the subjective [or inter-subjective, I’d say] process of morality involves [pardon the redundancy] objective objects” then I don’t think the word ‘basis’ is needed at all, and better to leave out as it is extremely misleading. It makes it sound as though the simple fact that we’re talking about objects provides some kind of safety net that will steer us toward good moral conclusions – which it doesn’t.


  85. Why doesn’t it? And why use the pejorative term “safety net.”

    You yourself reject completely subjective morality. You have a concept of right and wrong separate from what an individual might claim. And you claim it can be true or correct.

    That surely implies a basis. What is yours?

    I have said again and again that the objective human nature is involved as well as the objective facts of any situation.

    Where the hell are you going to have subjective concepts if not in the brain. And I suggest these moral concepts are different in the human brain to those in the reptile brain.


  86. Whilst I think my ideas about right/wrong are (mostly, never perfectly!) ‘true or correct’, this doesn’t mean that the basis is ‘objective’ or ‘factual’ (in the philosophical sense). The difference (it appears?) between us is that I grant a higher epistemic status to non-factual sources than you do? The near-universal assumption that humans have an equal inherent (qualitative) value is anything but based on fact, but it is so intuitive, so reasonable, so consistent with tradition, emotion & deep desire, that I take the notion as highly authoritative. I don’t need this assumption to be backed up (or formed) with facts – which I really think are indifferent to the entire notion (or any qualitative or ethical notion, for that matter).

    I don’t know what you’re on about with the brain, and reptile comments? I’ve no problem with scientific accounts of what is happening in the brain when people think moral thoughts, or accounts of the cognitive capacities of humans, etc. But insomuch as these accounts are scientific, they will necessarily and by definition be descriptive accounts; and not the ‘ought’ statements relevant to this post and discussion.


  87. You do nothing to support your idea that intuitions, traditions, emotions, desires are independent of any objective basis. Similarly you don’t provide any reason for the idea that your ideas of right and wrong are true or correct. Why should they be? Why should you take a particular cultural, traditional, intuitive, emotional moral view as authoritative?

    After all, supporters of slavery would have said the same thing. Why is it possible for some people to beak out of that intuitional, emotional, cultural, traditional framework which entrapped people into supporti9ng slavery?

    My point about reptiles (or other creatures) is that our morality is different. Our values are different.

    Why is this so? My suggestion it is because we are different creatures. Our bodies and brains are different. Our evolution has resulted in different brain wiring. We are empathetic, intelligent and social because of this. And this objective fact of our nature is one of the legs of the objective basis for our morality.


  88. What!? “…we are different creatures”… from the humans who were – and are – pro slavery!?


  89. Humans are different creatures to reptiles.

    Is this misunderstanding a way of avoiding my specific questions?


  90. Ken, I’m not the one claiming an ‘objectively based’ morality. I think the best we can say (philosophically speaking) is that it is ‘intersubjective’. And as for why I have confidence in their truth is that they resonate deeply with the beliefs and values and traditions and emotions and desires of humanity. This doesn’t make it ‘objective’, but it’s sufficient to have confidence.

    What about you? How do you know your morality is true or correct?


  91. The slave owners and supported of slavery were part of humanity – with it’s desires, emotions, beliefs, values and traditions. They had confidence too. So I can’t see any way your “intersubjective” aproach can give you any special confidence.

    And it is the same today on many issues like attitudes towards women and homosexuals. Who can trust tradition and culture on those ones.


  92. Again, I’m not claiming an ‘objectively based’ morality – please explain how yours leads you to the view that slavery is wrong (reminder: not the bio-psycho-neuro reasons why you think it’s wrong).


  93. I think your response is illuminating: “I’m not claiming an ‘objectively based’ morality.” and this to justify an inability to support the concept of “correct” or “true” moral codes.

    To me this means a tacit acceptance that for ones’s morality to be “true” or “correct” there needs to be a basis for it. Otherwise one falls back on intuitions, traditions, cultures, emotions. This is moral relativism. No moral system can be “justified” without a basis. Hence one would be unable to judge others, or oneself. Moral codes are the just what the majority (of one’s society or even just one’s social or ideological group) ordain.

    Without an objective basis it is not possible to justify a moral code which differs from that of the prevailing culture. Yet we do argue against the prevailing code and this in the end gets to change it.

    We argue using the facts of a situation (the treatment of slaves) and human principles (dignity, freedom, human rights) based on the facts of our human nature.

    I think we agree that when one consciously considers moral situations the facts of the situation are important. Where we disagree is that the facts of our human nature provides a basis for values, goals, obligations, duty, etc. You possibly consider these values almost axiomatic. I think they arise naturally from our nature and can be consciously argued for.

    Our evolution as a social species means that some mental processes are hard wired into our brain. We are empathetic and this is determine by the connection of our perception, emotional and motor systems. We can feel the pain of others. We can “walk in their shoes.” We can plan and imagine consequences. We have language but so many other aspects are involved in communication..

    This is true of our species and similar primates. Hence similarities in moral positions. But some species have a radically different morality. Their nature is different. Evolution has found other ways to handle their specific environments and situations.

    Of course you can point to individual who appear to lack empathy or at least don’t exhibit empathetic behaviors. There is always a distribution and some individuals are pathologically abnormal. But even for the “normal” just because we are hard wired this way and have a conscience does not mean we will always follow it. We are also hard wired to at times be selfish, to be xenophobic, hostile to people with different ideas or skin colour, etc.

    Organisms are never simple.


  94. Ken – again, our nature leads us to BOTH free slaves and own them. We ‘naturally’ do both. We don’t ‘factually’ know what an ‘abnormal’ or ‘normal’ behaviour is.

    And when humans use their brains to rationalise and consider morality, they simply cannot do this without assumed values. But these values don’t pass genetically, but ‘memetically’ through instruction, teaching, role-modelling, cultural influence (why are NZers more ‘green’ than Americans!?), ‘tradition’ or (to use a pejorative term) ‘brain washing’.

    It’s neither entirely subjective nor fully objective.


  95. “It’s neither entirely subjective nor fully objective.”

    Progress? Perhaps this is a concession to an objective basis,


  96. how would we distinguish progression from regression???


  97. Dale, most of the time subjectively. These days I would guess conservatives call our moral development regressive while many liberals would call it progressive. I see it as progressive.

    However, I have referred to the dialectical
    Interaction between the unconscious intuitive system and intelligent reasoning.

    I think that the objective facts about our global society and our human nature can justify an intelligent reasoned analysis of progression.

    But obviously change is never uniform. And the selfishness and them vs us intuitions can certainly be manipulated to lead to regression.


  98. I agree that facts can justify an intelligent reasoned analysis, but again, the subjective nature of basic value-judgments and goals makes it not an objective enterprise.


  99. Dale, you have retreated back up ignoring the objective basis of that second leg – human nature- again.


  100. Ken I’d like to see you run each of your ‘legs’ through both the fact/value distinction and the descriptive/prescriptive distinction.

    If any part of your three-legged system is other than objective than the whole thing cannot be objective. A chain (moral system) is only as strong (objective) as it’s weakest link (least objective component).


  101. Dale – the whole thing isn’t objective. How could it be? It involves people making decisions.

    Again you are ignoring my point about being objective-based – not objective.

    I haven’t time now to do what you ask and a comment is not really the place for a detailed analysis like you ask.

    However, I might do something as a separate post later on as I think this would be useful. I would include the fact/value descriptive/pre3scriptive aspects coming out of our discussion.

    I am painfully conscious that I should do a post on Sam’s book. Not a full review – but outlining his points and evaluating them. Now that more detailed reviews are coming in there is quite a lot of useful constructive criticism to mull over.


  102. Cheers ken, catch ya.


  103. Last November at a conference on Darwinism I conversed with a graduate student in philosophy who embraced Ruse’s position on the evolution of ethics, which is not all that unusual among evolutionists. He told me he believed that morality is a biologically innate response shaped by evolutionary processes. It has no independent, objective, or universal existence. I pressed this graduate student, asking him how far he was willing to take his ethical relativism. Upon his affirmation that he subscribed to it completely, I asked him if he thought Hitler was morally evil. After explaining that he personally found Hitler’s views repugnant, he admitted that he had no basis for condemning Hitler and finally he conceded, “Hitler was OK.”



  104. Rob – what is it with you apologists. Are you prepared to acknowledge you promote the ID people and their rubbish? (eg. your link). Your mate Stuart ran away when he was challenged. As do Matt and Glenn. It appears you guysactually promote it but pretend you haven’t made up your mind.

    Do you think Hitler was morally evil? Do you have a basis for that decision? What is it?

    I am not interested in you subjective account of a student you have met. I am after your own reasons.

    Look forward to your considered response.


  105. Last November at a conference on Darwinism…

    A conference on what?



    Hi, I am an atheist, I know beyond every possible doubt that there is neither God nor afterlife.
    I think that belief in God can not provide us with an objective morality, as clearly shown by the Euthyphro dilemma : is something good just because God stipulated it is (in which case it is arbitrary, for God could state one ought to love ones foes as well as ordering the slaughter of the folks of Canaan. ) or did God ordered it because it is good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of God) ?
    However, I believe that the same challenge could be posed to any form of atheistic moral realism.
    Over the past decades, numerous discoveries in neurology and evolutionary psychology have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our moral intuitions ultimately stem from the shaping of our brain by evolution and that WITHOUT any such emotional intuition, no moral system can be built from reason alone.
    This is well illustrated by the study of the brains of psychopaths: since they lack the moral emotions, they don’t consider as true most fundamental moral principles (like avoiding to create suffering, trying to promote the happiness of others) although they are quite able to reason well.
    This shows the truth of David Hume’s famous principle that moral truths are the projection of our gut’s feelings on an indifferent and cruel reality : since one can not derive an “ought” from an “is”, moral truths are the expression of our emotions which we mistakenly consider as features of the objective reality.
    No moral system can be created without the appeal to at least one kind of intuitions, the brute facts of nature never lead to moral duties and obligations.
    Now, I want to state a version of the Euthyphro dilemma which shows the impossibility of defining an objective atheistic morality: is something good just because Evolution hardwired this conviction into us (in which case it is arbitrary, for Evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right ) or did Evolution produce our current beliefs because they are good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of Evolution) ?
    Let me now develop the first point: there is an extremely great number (perhaps even an infinity) of planets where intelligent beings like us could have evolved. Given the huge dimension of the sample, it is more than likely that many such intelligent beings have evolved conceptions of morality which would appear completely disgusting to us.
    Imagine for example a species of giant lizards ( or whatever else if you’ve more imagination than I 🙂 who were shaped by natural selection to value power, violence , selfishness in so far that it remains compatible with the interests of the group. When invading a city and killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, their brain generate a warm feeling of happiness, satisfaction.
    When however confronted with weakness among their own folk, they feel an overwhelming indignation, anger, rage which lead them to kill the individual guilty of failure , and after having done that, their brain awards them with an intense feeling of pleasure.
    Now imagine such beings arrive at our earth and conclude based on their evolutionary intuitions that it would be moral and perfectly good to enslave all human beings capable of working and to kill all others.
    What would an human atheist and moral realist say to these lizards? Do they ought to behave in a way coherent with the moral intuitions they have and slaughter or enslave all humans ?
    My contention is that it would be completely impossible to show to these creatures that killing innocent beings is wrong: all moral systems developed by humans which would justify this conclusion can not be deduced from the mere consideration of natural facts , they all crucially depend on one or several moral intuitions , which are not shared by the intelligent lizards, so there would be no common ground upon which one could argue that something is right or wrong.
    Now, a defender of godless moral realism could agree with me it is fallacious to rely on evolution to define an objective morality in the same way it would be fallacious to rely on the commandments of a deity. But he could then argue that there exists a moral standard independent of Evolution upon which moral realism would be based.
    The problem of this argument is the following:
    As I have said, no moral system can be grounded by mere logic or factual analysis alone, at some point moral intuitions (due to Evolution) are always going to come into play.
    Take for example the possibility of torturing a baby just for fun: almost every human being would react with disgust and say it is wrong. Neuroscience has proven that such reaction does not stem from a rational consideration of all facts but rather from instinctive gut feelings.
    Afterwards, people try to rationalize their belief by backing them up with arguments and mistakenly think they feel this disgust because of their reasoning although it is the other way around.
    Based on rigorous experiments in the field of neuroscience, Jonathan Haidt shows that in the case of moral reasoning, people always begin by getting a strong emotional reaction, and only seek a posteriori to justify this reaction. He has named this phenomenon ‘the emotional dog and its rational tail’:
    And since one can not derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, there is no way to prove that ‘one ought to not torture a baby for the fun’ by a reasoning based on fact alone, at one moment or an other , one is forced to appeal to emotions.
    For example, saying to a intelligent lizard they ought no to do that because the baby is cute, because he is innocent, because he has an entire life before him would completely beg the question for our intelligent alien, which would then ask: “why does the baby’s beauty, innocence, or the fact he has still many years to live implies one ought not to kill the baby ?”. After one or two hours of circular reasoning, the honest human would be coerced to recognize it is so because these things sounds intuitively bad for him.
    Concerning the objectivity of morality, I am neither a moral relativist nor a moral subjectivist but a proponent of an error theory: moral statements and truths are in fact nothing more than the products of our emotional intuitions , but because of the hard-wiring of our brain, we erroneously believe they correspond to some external facts of the objective reality and try to derive them from pure natural facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.
    For those interested in the line of thinking presented here, I highly recommend you to read Joshua Greene’s dissertation, where he clearly demonstrates the true nature of morality and develops a coherent error-theory.
    To conclude, although I am not a moral realist, I do think there is a place for ethic in each human life.
    But instead of using moral absolutes such as “good”, “evil”, “right”, “wrong”, “ought”, “ought not”, referring to spooky concepts whose existence is as likely as the presence of an invisible yellow unicorn on the surface of Mars, I prefer to employ the language of desires, which correspond to indisputable facts:
    We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun. Contrarily to moral realism, the ‘ought’ I have used here is hypothetical and not categorical.
    In the same way, I can not say the atrocities we find in the Old Testament are objectively wrong, because I don’t believe in the existence of such moral absolutes, but I can express my convictions in the following manner: if we want our intuitive feelings of love, justice and charity to be respected, then we ought to reject many books of the Old Testament as being pieces of barbaric non-senses.
    The traditional moral discourse “The God of the Bible is morally wrong, we ought to fight Christianity, we are morally good whereas religious people are wicked and so on and so forth” seems to me to be completely flawed because it involves the existence of spooky moral absolutes which have no place in a scientific view of the world.
    I really appreciate the critical thinking of my fellow atheists when applied to religion but I am really sad to remark they fail to apply it to their own cherished beliefs like the existence of an objective morality.


  107. Gruesome, there is no reason for an atheist, because they are an atheist, to have a good understanding of human morality. After all the scientific understanding of the issue is very new and there are a lot of emotional blocks in the way.

    I agree with your long analysis in part – and disagree in other respects. Some idea of my recent understanding of the issue may show through in my review of Haidt’s recent book (see Human morality is evolving –

    I accept the central role of intuition, emotion or passion, as pointed out by Hume and reiterated by most moral scientists today. But I think a simple understanding of this ignores the dialectical relationship between facts and ideas – and between conscious and unconscious deliberation. It is also responsible for misunderstanding Hume’s is/ought issue. He pointed out the difference between emotion and facts – and today’s philosophical dogmatists choose to interpret this in a way which prevents determination of “right” or “wrong” by consideration of facts. I think that is a naive analysis. I notice that more and moral moral philosophers are now challenging this is/ought fallacy.

    Personally I think philosophical speculation can be quite naive and inhuman (and illogical). I really can’t take seriously claims like “evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right” without supporting evidence. I don’t see any evidence for the claim. Similarly speculation about intelligent alien lizards with completely opposite morality purely because of chance is naive. That could be equivalent to saying (for all you know) that it is possible on one of those planets for aliens to breath fluorine because of chance – and ignoring the chemistry.

    Similarly I reject arguments about not being able to “prove” torturing babies for fun is wrong. Just consider the facts and your values which have an objective basis in human nature.

    Talk of objective morality is, I think, inappropriate. Personally I try to use the term “objectively-based” morality. That implies that because of the nature of life, the biological value that results, and our evolution as an intelligent, empathetic, social, sentient species we have inherited an emotional/ intuitional system, operating largely unconsciously, to handle our interactions. So our morality has an objective basis in our structure as an organism with neuronal control and I argue that we can also, sometimes, find an objective basis for our specific moral intuitions and decisions – because of our objective nature and the facts of the situation.

    This is not the same as the theist objective morals by any means (but I am amazed how many people choose to interpret it that way).

    I find your definition of “error theory” inadequate as you state it:- “moral statements and truths are in fact nothing more than the products of our emotional intuitions , but because of the hard-wiring of our brain, we erroneously believe they correspond to some external facts of the objective reality and try to derive them from pure natural facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.” Why has this “hard wiring” produced many common features in human morality? Why, and how, does this hard wiring change? The fact is that “moral truths” do and have changed markedly over time. And yes this means that our emotional reactions to homosexuals, skin color, working and 
    voting women, slavery, etc., has changed. And while this change has been largely unconscious for many in our society there has also been a lot of consideration of facts and application of reasoning involved. So much for not reaching an ought from an is.

    Good luck for your attempt to replace “right” and “wrong” with a “language of desires.” I don’t think it will happen because those words actually correspond to strong emotional and intuitional feelings. And it’s just as well – as that is how our body works to get us to respond in socially appropriate ways. That does not make them “objective” in a mechanical way (I agree such a spooky concept is stupid) but it does strongly motivate us to act.

    The way I see it we do infer ought from is because, in the manual mode, we take account of the situational facts and our values (intuitionally based and able to change over time) to decide on a course of action we consider to be “right” – and that feels “right.” In the auto mode (most of the time)  this is not conscious. That’s the way we had to evolve – and we can see that in some other animals.



    A much later answer:with all due respect, I believe your comparison of alien evolving a morality opposed to ours with some chemically impossible think smacks of wishful thinking.

    It looks like:

    “Personally I think philosophical speculation can be quite naive and inhuman (and illogical). I really can’t take seriously claims like “evolution is true” without supporting evidence. I don’t see any evidence for the claim. ”

    So, you clearly you have an initial strong desire to believe that those things could not have evolved, and you say you don’t see any evidence, which is very akin to the way creationist brains work

    Come on, the universe is probably infinite (or there exists an infinite number of parallel universes) so every event which is a probability different from zero, however unlikely, will happen. (this by the way also means we as atheists should stop ridiculing religious beliefs by comparing them with faith in elfes, fairies and dragons because such beings may very well exist somewhere).

    Moreover, I am extremely suscpicious of arguments for the impossibility of the existence of intelligent immoral aliens, because they really ressemble those for intelligent design: because the authors cannot allegedly conceive of how this could have evolved, they declare it to be impossible.

    So, if you take the strong position and make the extraordinary claim that advanced aliens lacking compassion and love cannot exist, you have clearly the burden of proof, and should not limit yourself to mere assertions and dubious comparisons. I’m going to change my mind on that if you provide extraordinary evidence.

    So, on these grounds I think Carrier’s moral ontology faces Euthyphro dilemma: is something morally good because evolution made it, or did evolution make it because it was good?
    The second possibility is impossible for naturalists like ourselves, evolution could not have had such a conscious and meaningful goal in mind.
    As I have argued above, the first possibility means morality is arbitrary, because evolution could very well have programmed us in a different way. (to refute that, please offer arguments and not merely assertions)

    As an human being, I’m very well aware of the moral intuitions biological evolution put into my brain, but why on earth do I ought to follow these impulses?

    As Peter Singer put it:

    “A standard
    way of arguing against a normative ethical theory is to show that in some circumstances
    the theory leads to judgments that are contrary to our common moral
    intuitions. If, however, these moral intuitions are the biological residue of our evolutionary
    history, it is not clear why we should regard them as having any normative

    “The way I see it we do infer ought from is because, in the manual mode, we take account of the situational facts and our values (intuitionally based and able to change over time) to decide on a course of action we consider to be “right” – and that feels “right.” In the auto mode (most of the time) this is not conscious. That’s the way we had to evolve – and we can see that in some other animals.”

    But this passage actually undermine your attemps to define a rational morality based on facts, because we know that the animal morality you mention can oftentimes be quite irrational. In fact, as you know it, psychologist Jonathan Haidt point out that most of the time, what we consider to be morally right just stems from our unconscious gut feelings, and we MISTAKENLY beliebe they stem from rational considerations based on the fact. So, this clearly support an error theory, people are mistaken about the nature of their moral beliefs. I would argue with Hume that you cannot justify the sentence “murdering is wrong” with facts and Reasons alone, you have to use a POSTULATE. Carrier Postulate is apparently that we ought to follow our factually correct and coherent desires shaped by evolution.
    Sam Harris postulate is that we ought to act in such a way to always minimize suffering and maximize happiness. (utilitarian logic).
    Note that both moral systems will quite likely lead to many opposite statements, because our ape-like mentality is often very individualistic.

    Who’s right? I would think neither of both is, as far as objectivity is concerned.

    I apologize for my late answer, I had in betwween forgotten I wrote a post here.


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