Answering questions on morality

I want to spend a few posts answering some of the questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version (Open Parachute@ SciBlogs). See, for example, Foundations of human morality.

Those articles represent my thinking as a result of the New Science of Morality  Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) and the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop). Effectively I have tried to integrate the psychological approach of the Edge seminar with the more philosophical and neurobiological approach of the Debate. The reflection was also stimulated by reading books by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), Patricia Churchland (Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality), Jonathan Haidt, Marc Hauser, Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker and others.

I have been very thankful for the discussion the articles generated. It’s a great way of developing one’s ideas. Finding flaws, looking for alternatives. Even when the disagreement is a result of misunderstanding, realising where one’s arguments need clarifying or better explanation is very useful.

I do not doubt the discussion has significantly contributed to evolution of my ideas in this area.

Questions from a religious apologist

First I will deal with questions from Bnonn at Thinking Matters. His article (Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel) was basically a straw man attack but did ask some specific questions. Some  are worth responding to.

Q1: How is my model “improving?”

This was in response to my claim, in Foundations of human morality, that the model I describe “may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectively based.”

I think Bnonn has intentionally or unintentionally confused that claim. However I will answer his specific question.

Science is basically progressive in its knowledge. Over time its ideas and theories improve as we get more data from reality and do more testing and validating of our ideas against reality. In a sense our scientific knowledge is an imperfect, but ever improving, reflection of reality.

This will also be true of any scientific theory about human morality. The improvements in fields like anthropology, social psychology and neurobiology in recent years has made a scientific description of human morality possible. This will only improve with time and future research.

Q2: How does my model support moral positions?

Bnonn asks how I can “support specific moral positions, over and against divine command theories? For example, if a divine command theorist says that it is morally wrong to sleep around, and an evolutionist says that it’s morally permissible because of this evolutionary model, why should we give more weight to the evolutionist?”

First let’s dispense with Bnonn’s confusion about “evolutionists.” My dictionary defines an evolutionist as someone who “believes” in a theory of evolution. Let’s leave aside problems with that word “belief” (technically I don’t “believe in evolution” – I “accept” evolutionary science). Science is not a belief system like religion. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, have dogmas. “Evolutionist” is really not an appropriate term and I think Bnonn is using it here as a derogatory one. That is problematic for him because many of his mates who accept “divine” command theories also accept evolutionary science (or at least say they do).

Nor is the model of human morality I suggest a naïve “evolutionary” model as Bnonn suggests.  Rather it sees our morality as built on human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals. We can develop strong intuitions of right and wrong and of social taboos which make use of our evolved instincts like purity, disgust, fear, reward, judgment, etc.

A scientific model of human morality can easily explain why we have strong intuitions of right and wrong and we unconsciously respond to specific situation by classifying them as right or wrong (“auto mode”). When we go through the intellectual exercise of considering novel and theoretical situations (“manual mode”) we accept our empathetic nature as a criteria. The Golden Rule – which I claim is, in effect, “wired in.” Part of human nature. Not surprising that some form or other of the Golden Rule has emerged in many human cultures.

I see no problem in arriving at arguments of support, or opposition, to specific moral positions. We seem to do that all the time.

Q3: Does my model deny a progressive approach to morality?

Bnonn sees my reference to a moral zeitgeist as claiming that historically humanity is improving morally and asks: “but wouldn’t that contradict the model itself by implying some objective good towards which they are moving?”

I do say there is an objective basis to our morality in human nature. Particularly in our social and empathetic nature. This does give an objective intellectual basis, as well as an emotional one, for describing things as good and bad. So we can make judgements about moral progress.

Q4: Bnonn’s concern with “sleeping around?”

A rather quaint expression. Surely he isn’t judging ones ability to sleep anywhere?

But I reject his assumption that my model assumes sexual promiscuity is “morally permissible.” Opposition to sexual promiscuity is common in human moral codes. One can see how this has arisen as part of the social and empathetic nature of our species. The need to protect and raise children who have a long period of dependency on parents provides a biological basis for that. It also helps explain why monogamy is a common social arrangement. Even in our modern society where old and irrelevant sexual restrictions have been abandoned because of their restrictions on human rights we have a moral and legal code which takes this biological necessity into account.

Rather than dogmatically demanding sexually promiscuity as Bnonn suggests, my model helps explain why we have such moral codes. Perhaps Bnonn’s ignorance here is more a matter of his perception that evolutionary science is “evil.”

Q5: Are Humans hard-wired to “forcibly sleep around?”

Bnonn assumes my model implies humans are “hardwired” to “forcibly sleep around” (I assume he means rape) – so why is that not morally permissible?

Again he is misrepresenting my model. Surely it is clear why as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species we should have developed moral codes which usually abhor rape. And as a social, empathetic species we usually developed laws and moral codes to prohibit it.

I think Bnonn may somehow be confusing a moral code with the fact that our evolutionary development has produced instincts and desires influencing our social interaction and ensuring reproduction. They are not the same thing.

Of course there are people who may give a full reign to some individual instincts, sexual desire, dominance in human relationships, etc., while ignoring other empathetic instincts. Our species has developed moral intuitions and legal codes specifically to handle such problems, not to promote them.

Q6: What is wrong with moral relativism?

Bnonn: “Hasn’t evolution hardwired some of us for that to?”

No, it hasn’t. That is the point of my suggested model – to explain why we have moral codes. How these arise from our nature. Again, I suspect Bnonn is being distracted by his hatred for the word “evolution.”

Moral relativism is not a fact of human wiring but an intellectual position which denies any objective basis to human morality. One that is sometimes used to justify an “anything goes” approach to specific moral questions. Without a scientific model like the one I suggest the field is wide open to “moral relativism.”  Just imagine society trying to develop moral or legal codes without giving any credence to “The Golden Rule” or our inbuilt empathy?

This was why I criticised “divine” command ethics: “Any old moral positions can be supported by “divine commands.” Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.” After all, if morality is determined by decree or command from on high, and not reason recognising human empathy and society, anything can be commanded. And the “divine” part acts to prevent any doubts or questions.

So, considering Bnonn’s obsession with “sleeping around” for example. Surely he knows that some religious sects have proclaimed such behaviour, particularly access of religious leaders to young women and children, on the basis of “divine” command ethics. Instructions from their god. Whereas it is perfectly natural for humans as a social, empathetic species to develop moral and legal restrictions against such behaviour. And not just for cultural and historical reasons. But because we are hardwired to appreciate the suffering we can cause others. We are empathetic beings.

Finally, I think Bnonn’s problems with my model lie in his emotional reaction to words like “secular” and “evolution.” Consequently he has made unwarranted assumptions about this model and been busy attacking straw men.

Hopefully these comments will help him to critique the real model I am proposing.

In a future post I will answer some of the more philosophical criticisms I have received.

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5 responses to “Answering questions on morality

  1. “His article (Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel) was basically a straw man attack but did ask some specific questions.”

    You’re way too generous Ken, if he’d written that post about something I’d written I’d be calling him a patronizing arrogant deluded git. There was little in his post that wasn’t an infantile personal attack. I guess practicing scientific discipline for as long as you have has made you more tolerant of fools than I am.


  2. Perhaps being the eve of Zombie Weekend I thought I would “turn the other cheek.”

    Yes an exchange of pleasantries with bnonn could be entertaining – but we have been there before. Apparently I am a senile moron. After a while one can only be amused.

    But at least he did pose some questions and in the interests of clarifying what I think the science is telling us about morality I thought this was the better approach. After all, some others may relate to his questions.


  3. For what it’s worth, this is the comment I wrote in reply to your syndicated feed at sciblogs, but then let it go:

    (I really should be staying out of what isn’t usually “my thing”,* but…)

    Ken wrote: His article (Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel) was basically a straw man attack

    Indeed. To my reading you could be justified at stopping at the end of his opening paragraph, “indicating that these sorts of questions are well above the paygrade of the average scientist”. In my opinion this sort of approach only works if the argument offered is essentially bullet-proof** and his far from that. You could even cheekily remark that his writing is an example of him laying down a banana peel, then going ahead and planting his foot upon it order to demonstrate the effect of slipping on banana peels 🙂

    This passage I find interesting this way – in it he dismisses Ken’s claim :

    “he apparently believes that Christians merely assert that G-d functions as a sound foundation for morality”

    only to confirm it himself in offering his defence at the end of the same paragraph:

    Because G-d is the foundation of all reality, and because goodness subsists in him as one of his characteristics, a part of his being, he is therefore the foundation of moral reality.”

    It seems to have slipped his attention—opps, terrible humour, my apologies—that “G-d is the foundation of all reality” is an assertion, as is “goodness subsists in him as one of his characteristics”, and that in moving from these assertions to “he is therefore the foundation of moral reality” he has confirmed that he “merely assert[s] that G-d functions as a sound foundation for morality”—confirming what he dismisses in opening the paragraph.

    * I don’t write on religion or morality.
    ** On rare occasions I write dismissing, say, homeopathy, chiropractic and so on. I’ll stand by my belief that this style really only works if your case is essentially bullet-proof.


  4. Dale Headley

    I, an atheist, am a very moral and ethical person without any threat or guidance from a deity or ten (mostly silly) commandments. Christians, on the other hand, say this is impossible. The only logical conclusion I can reach is that Christians do, in fact, find it impossible to behave morally and ethically without the specter of Hell to constrain their darker impulses. Sometimes, though, even that is not enough, because, statistically, there is a much higher percentage of Christians than atheists who are serial murderers. John List and Dennis Rader immediately come to mind; both were Lutherans who constantly preached in their churches that morals come from God. That was on Sunday; the rest of the week they were cold-bloodedly murdering people. Rader was doing it for 20 years as he was the Deacon of his church in Wichita.


  5. Sometimes, though, even that is not enough, because, statistically, there is a much higher percentage of Christians than atheists who are serial murderers.

    Ah, but if you define a Christian as someone who is not a serial killer then the problem goes away.
    No “True Christian” would ever be a serial killer.
    Easy fix.
    That’s the reason why Christans never beat their wives or start wars or go to a different church or divorce.
    They are not really Christians in the first place.
    They are not “True Christians”.

    No True Scotsman


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