Foundations of human morality.

How did he know it was the right thing to do?

Sam Harris caused a bit of a stir with his recent book The Moral Landscape.” While it upset religious apologists (gods didn’t come into his argument) it also caused debate among philosophers, scientists and fellow atheists.  Clearly his contribution was welcome and useful – but not all agreed with his ideas.

Most, but not all, of the criticisms relate to the question of a foundation or basis for human morality. I will leave aside, for the moment, the Christian apologist positions – which were recently re-rehearsed by WL Craig in a debate Is Good From God? – this caused a flurry amongst apologists who approach all of Craig’s debates like bigoted and vocal fans at a boxing match. This position relies on a naïve dogma that their god provides a “sound foundation for objective moral values and duties” – an axiomatic assumption which is never proven and is problematic even for many Christians.

Human flourishing as moral foundation?

Sam Harris appears to argue that one does have a basis for human morality, and determining right from wrong, in human flourishing or maximizing human well-being. And he provides clear examples where one can determine good situations from bad situations using that criteria. “The ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban” in Afghanistan is obviously a bad one.

But many critics feel this is inadequate. Possibly because terms like “flourishing” and “well-being” seem hedonistic. That good is all about pleasure.  People feel that good is more than that. It involves some abstract, high thinking, concepts – more than pleasure and pain. There also seems to be a common feeling that human flourishing is too arbitrary. That different people might define this in different ways. That right and wrong are concepts more absolute than that. Harris himself says of his use of the words “flourishing” and “well-being” “I don’t know of any better terms with which to signify the most positive states of being to which we can aspire.”

One can argue that a moral logic can arrive at a more “absolute” or “objective” morality. That morality can be seen as something moral absolute because it can be arrived at logically. Perhaps moral laws are a bit like arithmetic?

Moral assumptions as “brute facts”?

And there has been the position that some moral positions just have to be assumed, accepted, as basic. They can’t be proved.  Erik J. Wielenberg, for example, argues that “objective morality rests on a foundation composed of brute ethical facts.” These have “have no explanation outside of themselves” They just are. “They need not be inferred from other things that we know.” This strikes me as a bit like a Clayton’s morality – the god-like foundation for morality you have when you don’t have a god. It is basically as good as, or as bad as, the moral foundation advanced by the Christian apologist, because it is assumed and unproven by logic or evidence.

I believe one has onlyhalf the picture if discussion is limited to philosophy and logic. Gods don’t add anything – except to provide a justification which, being “holy” or “divine,”  can’t be questioned. Sam goes one better by at least providing an easily understood foundation. Perhaps if we use different words, get away from limitations of pleasure and pain, bring is some higher ideal, this will be more acceptable.

To me this still suffers from ignoring the real world. It ignores the facts staring us in our face – the nature of humans and how they evolved. And the nature of human morality in practice and its evolution. I think we should go beyond philosophical and logical consideration of human morality to a more scientific discussion of the subject. One which seeks a foundation for human morality in humans themselves and in our relationship to reality.

We need to recognize that human morality is intimately tied up with human nature. Morality is more than a philosophical or logical question for us. It is an emotional one. Our intuitions and subconscious are involved, perhaps more so in most situations than our intelligence, reasoning and logic.

Moral intuitions

Humans have very strong moral intuitions. We react reflexively to situations – we have to. There is not enough time to go through logical exercises of reasoning when lives may depend on our reactions. Sure, we may try to explain our behavior after the event but research shows this is more rationalization of our actions than a replay of the processes that went in our brain. Processes which we don’t usually have access to anyway.

Our moral intuitions are adaptive and incorporate out adaptive intuitions. Feelings of purity, disgust, fear, guilt, etc. Perhaps the strongest intuitions we have are intuitions of right and wrong. We may not know why something is wrong but we have extremely strong feelings that it is. These intuitions of right and wrong are so strong that it is understandable that some might see them as somehow inviolate, absolute – objective even. The sort of thing one hands over to a god if you think that way. Or even personalises in a little imp (our consciounce) who sits on our shoulder warning and encouraging.

But, the last 500 years or so of experience of the progress of science surely tell us “god did it” (or little imps) explanations get us nowhere. The old creation myths don’t explain our origins or the origin of the earth and the universe. Neither do they explain the origins of, or offer a foundation for, our morality.

So, with this picture we have concepts of right and wrong – intuitively extremely strong concepts. Ones we might even feel as objective or absolute, although they are part of our own human nature.  Rather than being absolute or objective – they just feel that way. For very good evolutionary reasons.

My critics may argue that this still does not explain good human behaviour. That people could have intuitions which bias them to bad behaviour as much as good behaviour. I just don’t think that accords with the facts of our evolution or nature of our brain.

Brain mapping produces empathy

Our species has evolved as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species. This has consequences for the physiology of our brain and its interaction with our body, the external world and other humans.

How does this work? Our brain is continually mapping “images’ (visual, audio, memories, feelings, sensory, etc.). These reflect inputs from external objects and internally, from our body and coded memories from other parts of our brain. We have continually mapped images related to emotions and feelings, to our movements and our perceptions. But as an intelligent and conscious animal these also relate to memories and plans as well as each other. Consequently we also map imaginary things. Plans, memories and speculations.

These in themselves, because of connections to visceral and moral inputs and actions, also cause emotional and physical responses.  We can feel and emote when we rehearse a real memory, imagine a possible sad event and read a sad story. We can train our motor responses by imagining an exercise or physical action – something professional athletes, and sports psychiatrists, are well aware of.

This mapping and interaction with feelings, body responses and imagination also operates for events and situations we see. Our mapped imagination is similar to our mapped observation.  Consequently we feel another’s embarrassment, pain and happiness. It really is as if we were in their shoes when we see or hear about the experiences.  This provides a physiological basis for empathy. We literally can feel for others, even if the sensations may be reduced somewhat from a direct experience.

Golden rule wired in, foundational

Humans are literally wired for the Golden Rule – to treat others as we wish to be treated. It’s built in. It’s all part of being a social and empathetic animal. We evolved to be like this. I can’t actually imagine how a conscious, intelligent creature like humans, living in an extended society and interacting continuously with others, could be anything but empathetic. Unless of course there were pathological reasons – as there will be for some people.

All this means that we are empathetic moral creatures by nature. Our morality is inbuilt – it doesn’t come from an external source. We don’t rely on an “objective” or “absolute” morality exisiting somewhere out there in the void or in the hands of a mythical supernatural creature.

Some might object that this explains what goes on in our brain but it doesn’t guarantee that our moral decisions are “correct.” I agree, but it does offer a foundation for applying reason and logic to situations. In principle we can logically determine what is “correct,” based on our subjective feelings of empathy, our wired in “Golden Rule.” We don’t have to rely on an axiomatic “human flourishing” (or a god) foundation. We have a built-in human empathy foundation. And this can encompass higher feelings and thoughts than basic hedonistic ones like personal pleasure and pain.

Because most of the body’s management occurs at the unconscious level our morality largely operates at that level too. Morally we operate in the camera’s equivalent of “auto” mode.  Of course we can switch to “manual” mode. This would be no good for the day-to-day automatic reflex actions we have to accommodate. But for the consideration of “what if” situations, debating possible laws or social rules, or considering new and intriguing moral dilemmas we may face, the “manual,” conscious, mode would switch in. We would consciously deliberate on the issues.

Moral education and zeitgeist

I think there is an important inter-relationship between our “auto” and “manual” modes. Between our unconscious reflex actions and our intelligent, reasoned consideration of specific moral situations. These are not separated from each other – they influence each other. Obviously our “auto” mode may well interfere with our reasoning, may bring in prejudice or bias. This is inevitable for any such consideration – its part of being human. Decision making by group interaction can help to ensure more objective decisions.

But this relationship also works in the other direction. Our reasoned, rational deliberations can also lead to changes in our unconscious responses. The conscious, reasoned deliberations could, as it were, lead to re-wring of our subconscious. When we learn to ride a bike the deliberate conscious attention to learning is similar to the reasoning and deliberation of the “manual” moral mode. Thereafter the bike riding skill becomes incorporated into our subconscious. If by chance we have to update that skill (change from a “penny farthing” to a bicycle or old bicycle to a ten-speed or mountain bike) the conscious learning updates our subconscious skill.

Overt cultural learning

This updating of unconscious moral skills, or learning of new ones, is not restricted to our own internal mental deliberations. There are also less overt cultural influences. As social attitudes change they get reflected in cultural presentations, film, TV, books, etc. These in turn overtly “update” the moral skill of the viewer or reader, of members of society.

So we can get changes on the moral views of society both through the conscious deliberations and debates of the more socially active members of society. But also through the unconscious assimilation of these new moral skills by the less active majority who unconsciously acquire these from the cultural exposures.

That is why there is a moral zeitgeist. A continual upgrading of our moral skills in modern developing societies.

While the trending moral zeitgeist is not conscious for most members of society it is influenced by the conscious moral deliberations and logic of the more active people. These include the artists, writers, and directors as well as the natural and social scientists.


Consider some examples familiar to my generation. In the 1950s a common moral attitude in this country was that it was wrong for married women to work. Especially women with children. In this decade women very often feel it is wrong not to work, even when they have children.

In the old days sex outside marriage was morally wrong. Everyone did it – but this created a lot of guilt because it was wrong. And those caught out by pregnancy were considered social outcasts. There were “shotgun” weddings, unhappy marriages. Young women were quietly sent to the countryside to give birth, children were secretly adopted, etc.

Nowadays it is perfectly normal for couples to live together without marriage. It is not wrong.

In the old days homosexuality was abhorrent. It was definitely wrong and evoked feelings of disgust. Nowadays this is completely different. Most people do not see it as wrong. Different sexual orientations are accepted in society without judgment.

In the old days everyone (almost everyone) stood for the Queen in theatres before the film. I can remember the strong hostility directed at me and my mates who refused to stand. We were considered wrong. Nowadays we just don’t get that indignity imposed on us when we attend the cinema.

I am sure readers can think of plenty of other examples.

The “god did it” foundation

The arguments presented by Craig and other religious apologists for a god-based moral foundation may not be logical. They may not even be very applicable to many Christians. But the do lead to justifications and dogmatism on moral issues.

Believers will always debate which particular moral instruction from popes, ministers, imams, Rabbis and holy books, must be obeyed. This is one of the driving forces for the existence of so many religions. But the fact that such instructions are considered “holy” and infallible, that the represent “divine commands,” leads to justification of moral codes which are completely out of step with reason, logic and evidence.

So the idea of a divine foundation for morality provides religion with a way of resisting the moral zeitgeist, refusing to consider evidence and reason. This explains why religions on the whole are morally conservative. Advancing ancient, often discredited, ideas of morality and resisting modern thinking. Just consider issues like women’s rights, acceptance of different sexual orientations, etc.

It can also mean that people growing up ain a strong religious environment, particularly a cult, do not learn to be morally autonomous. Instead of developing a morality based on themselves they rely on the diktat and instruction of their leaders and “holy” books. Mature adults can then have problems operating by themselves in the real world and society. In a sense they are morally immature.

Finally, because a morality imposed by instruction and justified by “divine commands” and “holy” scriptures and leaders, can be divorced completely from evidence, reason and rational consideration it can end up being arbitrary. Rather than have an objective basis in human nature and the facts of real situations, it may depend purely on religious whim. “Right and wrong is what our god says it is. And he says what we want him to.”

The model I have described above may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectivley based. In contrast any old moral positions can be supported by “divine commands.” Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.

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22 responses to “Foundations of human morality.

  1. I can’t find the exact quote, but one of my books has this as the basis for morality a character’s parents taught her.
    Remember that “people like me” is not just family or friends or people who look like me or people who happen to be born in the same country as me or who share my beliefs, but everyone.
    Ask yourself, “what would the world be like if everyone acted this way? Would I want to live in it?”

    We seem to be programmed for empathy towards people we see as “like me,” but all too often we divide humanity into “like me” (which for a real sociopath may be self only) and “others.”


  2. We start with empathy, add reason to that and then find ourselves in the mix of cultural norms.
    Does this make ethics less than objective? No two houses are identical; objectively they are different, yet, objectively, they are both houses.


  3. Yes, Sue. I think there is also an adaptive them vs us intuition. It is easily mobilized and in today’s society can be very destructive.

    While it may have been necessary when we lived in relatively small groups our larger societies have required ways of suppressing it. Religion helped extend the us group beyond kin or clan. But always at the cost of creating a new them group (the unbelievers).

    I think other factors in society and culture also help. But it certainly is a human problem.


  4. Every time the issue of the nature of morality is discussed it seems to me that a very simple issue becomes incredibly and unnecessarily complex. Whatever happened to Occam’s razor?


  5. Well, Andrew W, can you suggest where I have made my analysis unnecessarily complex?

    I welcome anything that can improve it.


  6. Hi Ken, I enjoyed how you tied together many different threads in your article.

    As I read it, Sue’s point from above also occurred to me. I am not sure however if in group/out group hostility is an evolutionary adaption itself, or rather, is a by product of the development of the extreme socialiability of humans. I.e. The mechanism that was developed is only properly functional within close groupings.

    This particular human bias seems to be particularly destructive, so in my opinion, is a perfect place to apply the “manual mode” that Ken was talking about. In other words, through the application of logic and reason, we can realise that our “automatic mode morality” is deficient with regards to in/out group issues, so we should try and compensate for the resultant bias. My favourite example of possible action here is enforced integration during the schooling years. i.e. Fight against faith schools, home schooling, socioeconomic segregation. I realise of course, that this goes against the current dogma of choice in education, but in my estimation hits a much more important issue.

    Ironically, the above point is also why I distrust some of what Sam Harris is saying. His natural fall back easy examples of “bad morals” typically involve Muslims, the Taliban, Burkas etc… I wonder, how much in/out group bias lies behind this thinking. I have no truck with women being forced to wear burkas, acid throwing etc.. etc… , but I am also not ready to state categorically that a woman could not choose independently to be a muslim, wear a headscarve or a Burka. Unlike some European governments, I think that laws against injustice and violence do not need to include bans on particular pieces/types of clothing.


  7. It probably needs some refinement, but:
    Morality is a product of evolution, it’s a characteristic that all social animals have, and that solitary animals do not have.

    The foundations of morality are based in our instincts, social moral codes are built on top of these more basic, instinct based, codes.

    People who look at current liberal moral codes as being superior to past, typically stricter, moral codes; who think that morality has, in some objective sense, improved or gotten better, don’t get that these changes in moral codes are simply a product of changing technology and greater wealth, that with the loss of that wealth and technology, stricter moral codes would reappear.

    In wealthy societies whose inhabitants perceive little threat to themselves as a whole or as individuals, those strict practices that worked to unite a society through common beliefs and practices (beliefs and practices that in themselves created a clear differentiation between each society and other, outsider and potentially hostile, societies), weaken, as the survival pressure to maintain that ridged unity are not so great.

    Greater wealth also means that the cost of expensive and destructive practices by those within the group are more affordable to the group as a whole, for this reason divisive and destructive acts, and those who commit such acts, are more tolerable to the group as a whole.

    A useful illustration of how strict adherence to accepted codes can serve to strengthen a social group can be seen in military discipline, where the groups survival is enhanced through sacrificing individualism. Military units that lack strictly enforced internal moral codes don’t survive unless they’ve significant advantages in other respects that offset this lack of enforced cohesion.

    Within a society there are two groups of individuals serving different roles that in combination enhance the survivability of the group. The first group is the high status establishment leaders, those representing the status quo of the group, are typically more wary of the threat posed by both insider and outsider groups to that status quo, the second group are those wishing to move up in the pecking order, looking for opportunities to advance their own status, this group is less focused on potential external threats to the group, in fact because the former group uses the external threat to justify the status quo, the second group rates that threat as less significant.

    It can be seen that religion is a useful tool in providing a group with many characteristics advantageous to survival, it provides defined common moral codes, codes that differentiate it from outsider groups, and moral codes that, because of the continuity of leadership policies provided by a deity, provide stability. It’s also advantageous if the religions moral codes are appropriate for the environment the followers live in.


  8. Other adaptive advantages of strict group morality
    – minimise freeloading
    – enhance cohesion
    – reinforce behaviours that benefit the group as a whole

    Moral codes around sexuality are the most contested because societies that fail to reproduce or care for their offspring are (genetically, economically, defensively) doomed.


  9. I’m not very clear on what you mean, Ken, by ‘mapping images’ to inform our empathy in that it seems to me you are suggesting that empathy is something we create. In this same critical vein I am also disappointed that Harris didn’t delve into the central role that mirror neurons play in the discussion about the roots of morality, namely, empathy as a biological expression not of collected data but a function of our biology.

    It seems to me that when we find mirror neurons in social animals and their absence in solitary critters (more for highly social ones and fewer for less social ones), we have a pretty good indication for avenues for research. I am particularly interested in finding out if sociopaths and other criminal behaviours are linked to an impairment or even lack of this network. Imagine what effect that information might do to the very foundation of our judicial system: crime and punishment (or ‘rehabilitation’- nudge, nudge – we like to pretend)!

    I also suspect women come with significantly more of these neurons than men (but at this point who knows?) and I wonder if brain plasticity allows us to further grow our empathy by exercising it.

    I don’t think a cohesive examination of what we call morality can continue to ignore this most promising line of inquiry into brain function and physiology of empathy. But I do think we are so inured by religious and dualistic presentations of morality that it is difficult to stand back, take a deep breath, drop our preconceptions about what we think morality is and how it is exercised, and come at it afresh seeking to understand these behaviours as biological expressions of our shared neurology.


  10. May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    Let’s Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion



  11. Nick – I take youir point about Harris’s obsession with negative Muslim examples. We can clealry condemn fropm a distance but handling the issues of multiculturalism in Europe is a complex problem. I suspect the ban on Burquas in france may only encourage relgious matyrdom and not help the situation.

    I suspect that just as within kiun/clan empathy may have been evolutioanry adaptive for a socuialk species, the in group/out group hostiluy would also have been a natural adaption. It is certainly a strong insitinct socially and does require conscious work to overcome.


  12. tildeb – am not suggesting empathy as something we create consciously.

    The mapping refers to the fact that we create images in parts of our brain to follow (consciously and perhaps unconsciously) what is going on with our bod. We have found brain areas mapping corresponding features of the body. The same mapping will occur for feelings and emotions. So we can link feelings to the body and internal conditions of our organs. In fact we need to do this to regulate our body and to create a feeling of self.

    Our mapping also involves motor regions. We map sights, sounds. tastes, sensory inputs, etc. – effectivley mapping continuously the outside world. This includes other beings who of course we have special, social, relationships to.

    This mapping involves an integration of sensory inputs, feeling, observations of objects and other beings. So its natuural that when we watch another person we foind that there are emotional, motor and memory responses in our own brains. We are effectivley in the otrher’s shows. We mirror them. We are empathetic.

    I am not sure myself how real “mirror neurons” are – perhaps they are just shorthand for this general integration I am talking about.

    But I agree – it is disappointing that Harris didn’t delve into the neuroscience of epmathy. Surpising considering his area of study. However, that was more about beliefs (which he included in his book). Perhaps its just a matter of specialisation. But it would have improived his book to have delved into the neuroscience of empathy.

    Interesting question on sociopaths. Somewhere recently I saw reference to a study looking at the neuroscience of empathy and suggesting that is some indiviiduals this was impaired, leading to reduced empathy, or enhanced, leading to individuals being over-empathetic. Both creates problems I guess.

    Must try and track that research doen.


  13. Ken,
    Neither you nor Sam Harris go nearly far enough towards investigating “flourishing”.

    Empathy, mirror neurons, and the evolutionary basis of cooperation are fine as far as they go. The golden rule covers that aspect of morality.

    But flourishing for any individual, group, species, or ecosystem is something objectively quantifiable, at least in principle. A science of flourishing is in its very early stages.

    Neural correlates of happiness and various other subjective states may almost be the least important data we can examine.

    I have enumerated several dozen measurable parameters of flourishing or well-being here:

    General Utility 2.0–Towards a science of happiness and well-being


  14. This attempt to define an objective morality through “flourishing” or any other arbitrary measurement I find ridiculous.

    Can’t people just swallow the reality that all morality that runs deeper than social customs, morality that is always the same throughout human history no matter what cultures might exist, is based in human instincts? And that other sentient creatures, for example, those in which, for biological reasons, the female parent eats the biological father as part of the reproductive process, have their own moral codes that are independent of what humans might think is “right”?

    As I said, I find all this dancing around to rationalize a form of objective morality so that people can continue their adherence to cherished ideologically based beliefs is just ridiculous, little difference to the rationalizing entered into by creationists to justfy their own cherished beliefs.


  15. Andre W – sorry. I have been meaning to get back to you on your previous comment. Clearly you put some effort into it and I concurred with a lot you said.

    I’ll probably have a go at responding to some of the points tomorrow.


  16. Andrew, there is nothing automatically moral about nature, evolution, instincts, psychology, or culture. Such theories of morality are ego-centric and narcissistic rationalizations. Morality is whether I help you or harm you objectively. Nothing more; nothing less. If you don’t like general utility, use the golden rule (a heuristic version of general utility for those who can’t be bothered with science).


  17. Hi Andrew W, you make some interesting points.

    However, I disagree that the change in morality in modern times is fully, or even mostly explained by wealth and technology allowing us to be more tolerant.

    Rather, I suspect (or perhaps would like to think), that some of the changes in morality, such as the increased acceptance of marginal groups, actually makes societies stronger and more productive and would also benefit societies that are not so wealthy or technological.

    I think that advances in thinking and cultural innovation can be very powerful sources of progress for humans and that morality is part of this.

    For a concrete example: What sort of progress in Mathematics/Computing would we have if a modern tolerance of homosexuality was the norm in England during the 40s-50s. Alan Turing anyone.

    Of course, I think we still have a lot further to go, particularly with the in/out group issue.


  18. Little Richard: “Morality is whether I help you or harm you objectively. ”

    Do I understand you correctly? Are you arguing that causing harm, or helping people are respectively immoral and moral acts in an objective sense?

    Nick, a valid point, in times of bounty a society as a whole may be better off accepting greater diversity amongst it’s members, I don’t see that that affects my greater wealth leads to more liberal moral codes argument though.

    Taking multicultural societies as an example, I think in times of prosperity they can be stable, but in times of hardship it’s very easy for rabble-rousers to create division. In times of extreme hardship societies fragment and collapse, and cultural differences are one of the first fault-lines to split open.


  19. I think Andrew W had some interesting ideas about stricter moral codes applying in less wealthy societies. Lets assume that members of a primitive society (I’ll call it a tribe for simplicity sake) spend much more of their cumulative time and energy in the hunt for food, clothing, medicine, etc. which help the tribe as a whole to survive. If resources are limited it makes some sense to me that there might be pressure on, for example, those of a non-heterosexual nature. These individuals would be unlikely to reproduce, and therefore would provide no offspring who would be able to continue providing for the tribe. It isn’t a huge leap to imagine that homosexuality may become frowned upon, and could eventually be proscribed. In our modern society there is much less pressure on individuals as a whole for resources, and as such we can afford to be more accepting and tolerant of differences which may have threatened survival of the tribe in the past.

    I’m not saying this is definitely the case, but it does make for an interesting thought experiment.


  20. Andre W – My comments on your previous comment. Sorry it’s taken a while – I have been struggling with a faulty SD card.

    1:I agree morality is a product of evolution, a characteristic of social animals, based on our insitincts.

    I think it is worth elaborating on this – as I did with a bit more analysis of instincts, our hard wiring for The Golden Rule, brain mapping etc. This brings in some current knowledge which is relevent.

    I also think its worth elaborating because of the malicious way theists interpret reference to evolution. They will claim it means that anything goes, we have survivial of the fittest, that examples of some of the most bloody aspects of nature are what atheists are talking about.

    I also think its worth stressing the overpowering strength of intuitions of right and wrong because this can be what drives some people to argue that there is an objective morality. They feel there must be.

    Also, I think its worth explaining the moral zeitgeist as theists will sometimes argue that this proves atheists are moral relativists.

    As with Nick, I don’t agree with your explanation of the moral zeitgeist as due to technology and wealth. However, there is a relationship because I think they correlate with education, culture, communication, social security and the emancipation of women, races, etc. I would hope that if a society did get poorer that this would not automatically mean a return to the old stricter moral codes. That education and culture would still have an influence.

    I actually think we can argue that the moral zeitgeist does produce a more humane morality. That our moral codes today are better than they were yesterday. Because they are more in line with our inbuilt golden rule, our empathy. Some might argue that I am ignoring the “them vs us” intuition – that this should be just as valid. But while that intution had adaptive value (and can even now be useful in , for example, sporting interests) it is completely out of step with modern society – or any society once we get beyond the kin/clan size.

    At this stage we no longer have cultural and social evolution. This means that our growing societies must find other ways of increasing the size of the “in group.” Religion has been useful for that – enabling empathy to dominate over “them vs us” into large groups (but of course very much encouraging the them vs us approach towards the outsider, non-believers). State structure, kings and chiefs, etc., also do this – and religion integrates with them. Justifies their power.

    Nations and nationalism have also helped.

    Perhaps my original article is rather loong and may contain too much detail for some. But I am very conscious of how popular concepts can be used to derive incorrect meanings (eg of evolution and morality). I am also aware that Harris has not done enough to provide an objective basis for his position. In fact he is being interpreted as claiming there is “objective morality” whereas I think he should take the bull by the horns, deny that and instead explain that morality has an objective basis. That gives us a justification for a scientific explanation, and for discussion and formulation of moral codes based on evidence and human nature.

    I could have written more!


  21. The subtitle of Harris’s book, “how science can determine human values,” is odd. It’s unlikely that our values will be “determined” once and for all. Our values are likely to continue to be an ongoing inquiry into the appropriateness of evolving institutions and standards of conduct. This ongoing inquiry will likely continue to occur simultaneously, and with varying degrees of isolation and mutual influence, among hundreds of languages, thousands of cultures, millions of places, and billions of people. The following recent citations, among many others, point me toward this attitude (an attitude which is itself an unfinished, ongoing inquiry).

    Darcia Narvaez (2010). Moral complexity: the fatal attraction of truthiness and the importance of mature moral functioning. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(2), 163–181. doi

    Abstract: “Recently, intuitionist theories have been effective in capturing the academic discourse about morality. Intuitionist theories, like rationalist theories, offer important but only partial understanding of moral functioning. Both can be fallacious and succumb to truthiness: the attachment to one’s opinions because they ‘feel right,’ potentially leading to harmful action or inaction. Both intuition and reasoning are involved in deliberation and expertise. Both are malleable from environmental and educational influence, making questions of normativity–which intuitions and reasoning skills to foster–of utmost importance. Good intuition and reasoning inform mature moral functioning, which needs to include capacities that promote sustainable human well-being. Individual capacities for habituated empathic concern and moral metacognition–moral locus of control, moral self-regulation, and moral self-reflection–comprise mature moral functioning, which also requires collective capacities for moral dialogue and moral institutions. These capacities underlie moral innovation and are necessary for solving the complex challenges humanity faces.”

    Joseph Henrich, Jean Ensminger, Richard McElreath, Abigail Barr, Clark Barrett, Alexander Bolyanatz, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Michael Gurven, Edwins Gwako, Natalie Henrich, Carolyn Lesorogol, Frank Marlowe, David Tracer, and John Ziker (2010). Markets, religion, community size, and the evolution of fairness and punishment. Science, 327(5972), 1480–1484. doi

    Abstract: “Large-scale societies in which strangers regularly engage in mutually beneficial transactions are puzzling. The evolutionary mechanisms associated with kinship and reciprocity, which underpin much of primate sociality, do not readily extend to large unrelated groups. Theory suggests that the evolution of such societies may have required norms and institutions that sustain fairness in ephemeral exchanges. If that is true, then engagement in larger-scale institutions, such as markets and world religions, should be associated with greater fairness, and larger communities should punish unfairness more. Using three behavioral experiments administered across 15 diverse populations, we show that market integration (measured as the percentage of purchased calories) positively covaries with fairness while community size positively covaries with punishment. Participation in a world religion is associated with fairness, although not across all measures. These results suggest that modern prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history.”

    Carla Masciocchi Messikomer and Carol Cabrey Cirka (2010). Constructing a code of ethics: an experiential case of a national professional organization. Journal of Business Ethics, 95(1). doi

    Abstract: “This paper documents the development and implementation of an ethically valid code of ethics in a newly formed national professional organization. It describes the experience and challenges faced by the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM) and its leaders as they worked to establish ethics as an organizing framework early in its evolution. Designed by the investigators and supported by the NASMM Board, the process took place over a 2 year period and more than 130 people participated. It provides a model for code development that is both practical and grounded in theory. Although the content of a code of ethics (the product) provides guidance to organizational members in the conduct of everyday business, especially when they face ethically challenging situations, how the code is developed (the process) influences its ethical validity. Few published cases document an organization’s experience developing a code, and this is the first case, to our knowledge, that provides a first-hand longitudinal account of an effective code development process.”

    Peter S. Alagona (2008). Credibility. Conservation Biology, 22(6), 1365–1367. doi

    Excerpt: “Conservation and wildlife biologists who have attempted to define credibility have sought to understand the factors that contribute to it or detract from it–to develop a theory of it. Yet, according to Shapin, there can be no such theory of credibility because there is no one recipe for how to produce it. The means by which credibility is developed, maintained, distributed, contested, and lost are too complex and contingent to generalize. All we can do is observe credibility in action, and then build a thick description of how it has worked in different contexts based on a rich set of case studies. So Shapin can only offer some general, speculative observations. First, no claim of knowledge has inherent credibility. All claims of knowledge must win their credibility through social and cultural processes. Second, the conditions under which claims of knowledge achieve credibility may differ depending on the subject matter. Highly technical fields or those that require expensive instruments, such as particle physics and neurobiology, may be more insulated from external critique than those that by their nature are accessible to more people, such as psychology and ornithology. Third, within professional communities, certain markers of intellectual or methodological rigor may serve to build credibility, even among people who have never met (Porter 1995). These markers may seem arcane and unconvincing, however, to observers outside the community. The hyperquantification of contemporary economics offers one example. Fourth, credibility is relational. Credibility represents a relationship between people, and different relationships will require different ingredients to build mutual trust and confidence. Fifth, familiarity breeds credibility. We tend to trust people we have met in person, whose eyes we have looked into, whose hands we have shaken. Familiarity is essential for building credibility between people who occupy different communities, and who will not value the same indicators of quality that have significance within a community…. For example, in my own studies of habitat conservation planning processes I have found that the scientists with the most public credibility are not those who have cultivated a reputation of objectivity among their peers. Rather, they are the ones who have devoted their time to public service, participated in collaborative planning efforts, articulated their biases and opinions, worked to find common ground among their fellow citizens, and respected the ideas of nonexperts who have every right to participate in a democratic decision-making process (Rigg 2001). For readers who may doubt my credibility on this subject, consider the experience of Edward O. Wilson–one of the founders of conservation biology and a man of unparalleled credibility among its practitioners. Wilson has made a discovery similar to my own, and to that of Steven Shapin, in his efforts to generate support for conservation among evangelical Christians (Wilson 2006). By reaching out to evangelical leaders, Wilson has begun to build new conservation constituencies not on the basis of objective facts about the loss of biological diversity, but on the mutual trust that comes from interpersonal connections and honest dialogue. Wilson has learned that familiarity breeds credibility, and that both come more from public engagement than dispassionate objectivity.”

    Lisa Maree Heldke and Stephen H. Kellert (1995). Objectivity as responsibility. Metaphilosophy, 26(4), 360–378. doi

    Excerpt: “In this paper, we present a case for defining objectivity as responsibility. We do not attempt to offer new arguments on epistemological issues such as relativism or the fact-value distinction. Instead, we construct a conception of objectivity which utilizes analyses from Deweyan pragmatism, feminist theory, and science studies, organizing them around the concept of responsibility. The resulting conception of objectivity is intended to serve as a tool to guide the process of inquiry; by suggesting that participants reflect on the question, ‘how can this inquiry be made more responsible?’ it provides a concrete guide for those struggling with the question of how to be more objective…. Inquiry is marked by objectivity to the extent that its participants acknowledge, fulfill and expand responsibility to the context of inquiry…. This definition conceives objectivity to be a property of inquiry primarily, and a property of statements and persons only derivatively…. Finally, objectivity is not a state to be achieved, but a character of inquiry which always can increase. We have no notion of ‘purely objective inquiry,’ but asking how to increase the objectivity of any particular inquiry is always meaningful.”


  22. Pingback: Philosophical justifications for morality | Open Parachute

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