Tag Archives: ethics

Human morality is evolving

I want to give some of my final thoughts on   Jonathan Haidt‘s book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In Morality and the “worship” of reason my interim judgement (after reading one third of the book) was favourable – but I had concerns. Now, having finished the book, my judgement overall is very critical. I don’t think it’s a book I can truly recommend (except for the first third).

Partly because I feel Haidt really uses the later parts of the book to promote his own hobby horses – prejudices about atheism (or the “New Atheists” – whoever they are), political ideology and the role of religion in morality and society. But also because his scientific analysis of human morality was too reductionist – in a bad way.

Why badly reductionist?

Throughout the book I was acutely aware Haidt’s analysis was of human morality – as it exists. To his credit, as it exists in several different societies. To me its important philosophically to study things in their environments.

But the big mistake was to study human morality as a static phenomenon – he didn’t investigate it in its development, as a constantly changing, evolving thing. (Again I think the investigation of things in their development is philosophically important).

The fact is human morality in most cultures is evolving. And there are huge factors in today’s world which make this inevitable, probably even escalate moral evolution.

A role for reason in moral evolution?

So yes it is useful for Haidt to draw out two principles in his book:

1: Morality is about emotions, not rationality. Our emotions enable us to react quickly in moral situations and our intelligence enables us to “explain” why after the fact. Haidt’s slogan is “Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.”

2: His second slogan is “There’s more to to morality than harm and fairness.” He describes six different foundations underlying human morality:

  • Care/Harm;
  • Liberty/oppression;
  • Fairness/cheating;
  • Loyalty/betrayal;
  • Authority/subversion;
  • Sanctity/degradation.

But he does little to elucidate the role of intelligence and reason in moral change and evolution. He limits this to only the possible education of one person by interacting with another (and hence inhibiting somewhat our inbuilt desire to rationalise rather than reason properly). But ignores the much wider role of society in general, especially in today’s world of modern communication and entertainment, mass entertainment, the internet, etc.

Also, in concentrating on the six different intuitive or instinctive foundations of human morality – as it exists – he does not investigate the relative roles of these intuitions, and their resultant human values, in the evolution of human morality and laws.

How do we change human morality?

Obviously this is not simple. Nor is it always, everywhere, and for everyone a rational process. A result of reasoning, discussion and democratic decision.

But, despite all these other factors we should recognise that reasoning, rational discussion and democratic decisions are involved. Look back over your own life time. In my case I have seen huge evolution in aspects of human morality like attitudes towards discrimination – racial, gender and even species. For the average person in the street these changes may have occurred subconsciously – because of changes in social acceptance of women and gays, of interracial marriage, etc., or because they were habituated to a new morality by what they saw on TV or read in books. But this was also accompanied by the intelligent debate that occurred, and is occurring in society. The challenging of old prejudices. The argument for recognition of human rights, etc. Even the passing of anti-discrimination laws – which of course require intelligent discussion and decision.

So while a static view of human morality must emphasise that emotion comes first, rationalisation after, when we look at the evolution of human morality in today’s society we must recognise an important role for reason, intelligent discussion and decisions.  So, I think there is a lot of value in Haidt’s metaphor comparing our subconscious feelings and emotions to an elephant -(which usually goes its own way) and our conscious and intelligent reasoning to its driver (who thinks he is in control). But using that metaphor there are times when those drivers can educate the elephant. Train it out of old habits and into new ones.

What role for Haidt’s moral foundation theory?

And what role do the six foundations of morality Haidt identifies play in the the evolution of human morality. Well of course they operate at the non-conscious, non-reasoning, emotional level – and continue to. But when it comes to intelligent collective discussion and deliberation of moral issues I don’t think they have the same importance.

Yes, citizens of a specific nation may argue for recognition of authority, loyalty and purity when it comes to discussing laws and acceptable behaviour regarding oaths, respect for the national flag, etc. But in a modern, pluralist society such foundations will not play the same role when consider laws and behaviour on blasphemy, defamation of religion, genital mutilation, freedom of speech, freedom of association, marriage equality, gender equality, discrimination, rights of individuals, etc. When we come to applying reasoning and rational discussion to human issues the values based on the foundation of harm and care will be dominant.

That’s not to say the values based on purity, authority, sacredness, etc., won’t be involved. Just that in a modern pluralist democratic society these cannot play a controlling role. Partly this is just a fact of the way democracy must work in a pluralist society. Minorities should not get the freedom to override and dominate majorities. But it is also based on the reality that there is actually a more objective basis for the foundations of harm and care than there is for the other foundations. That objective basis is fundamental to biological life (how could it be otherwise – life would not have survived and evolved without these objective biological values).

Looked at this way – seeing human morality in its development and not as a static phenomenon – leads, I think, to quite different conclusions to those drawn by Haidt. He sees liberals as being at a disadvantage because they give more relevance to the foundations of care/harm, Liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating than conservatives who actually include, and give similar emphasis to the other foundations (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation). He argues that therefore conservative understand human morality better than liberals and politically they communicate better with others.

But I see conservatives as playing an undermining role in the development, evolution, of human morality because they are actually less concerned with the values based on care/harm liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating than on those values which are in fact secondary, do not have an objective basis, which are based on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation.   And I suggest that if we look back over our own lifetimes we can see that in fact political conservative have generally not lead movements for moral progress. They have worked to undermine moral progress by appealing to those secondary, less basic, foundations.

Atheists who promote religion?

It turns out that Haidt is another one of these atheists who actually see a positive role for religion and therefore are hostile to the so-called “New Atheists’ and others critical of the role of relgion in today’s society. They wish these “strident,” and “militant” atheists would STFU – because they feel such criticism undermines the very foundation of social cohesiveness and human morality.

Haidt uses (opportunistically and unthinkingly I think) a model of group selection to justify a determining role for religion in preserving society. Let the evolutionary biologists take him to task over that one. But it enables him to advance the slogan “Morality binds and blinds,” to substitute religion for morality as a force which provides our social glue and leadership.

He expresses it this way:

“Religions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are meshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarilty on the elephant to influence your behaviour. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. …… When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide . …”

And he warns atheists:

“Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).”

Again, let those who are concerned about the populations explosion, limited resources and ecological damage to our environment deal with that last sentence. But, personally I think his approach is cowardly and unrealistic (as well as unjustifiable righteous).

Cowardly because it expresses fear about the changes in human morality and moral understanding already underway. And unrealistic because it appeals to old institutions and beliefs to solve new problems in new situations. Yes, this does mean that more people will be appealing to their own inner moral compass – but when has development of a sense of moral autonomy been a bad thing.  And yes there will be, already are, new institutions and new communities. That is inevitable in a modern society with modern forms of communication and creation of communities. And modern understandings where appeal to supernatural guidance is far less effective.

Yes that does mean the old religious moral exoskeletons may disappear. But I don’t think moral exoskeletons in general will. In fact I think we are creating new ones all the time. And perhaps the much hated “New Atheists” are encouraging formation of these new exoskeletons by their activity.

Human society and human morality is not static. They will inevitably evolve. And our investigations of morality this should recognise this evolution.

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Morality and the “worship” of reason

I have so far read about one-third of  Jonathan Haidt‘s new book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I still highly recommend it – but I think some of his claims need strong criticism.

The first part of his book provides a really useful and fascinating (for the lay person anyway) summary  of what he calls his “first principle of moral psychology” – intuitions come first, reasoning second.  We rely on institutions for our moral reactions in most situations, but then, if asked, we will use reason to rationalise those actions. Sometimes we can’t actually provide very good justifications.

I think this aspect of human psychology in important – and relevant to lots of areas apart from human morality. But the fact that we do this should not be used to denigrate reason.

Intelligence is like sex

Human intelligence and reason may well have evolved naturally to handle situations our ancestors faced. And there was never an evolutionary requirement for an organism to know the “truth” about reality, purely to handle the situations it faced. However, like sex which humans use for other purposes than simple procreation, intelligence and our ability to reason enables us to investigate and come to understandings about reality – a reality which our ancestors never had to deal with let alone comprehend.

I think this is important to how we should consider reason. True, the individual more often uses reason like a lawyer, rather than a scientist. To justify one’s actions or support one’s predetermined beliefs, rather than get at the truth. But we can also use it to get at the truth – and I think that is valuable. So I agree – using reason like a lawyer may not be exactly noble (even though we all do it) but I certainly don’t put the discovery of truth into that class.

Delusional reasoning

After describing this modern synthesis on moral psychology Haidt asserts – “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” I will leave aside his emotional use of the word “worship” for the moment and just point out that Haidt has put himself in a bind – how is he going to determine truth without reason?

This impossible situation seems to scream out from his next sentence – “We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.” How does he imagine taking this “cold hard look” without using reason?

Of course his problem is that he is using “reason” almost in a pejorative sense – “motivated reasoning” – the reason of a lawyer, not a scientist.

Elsewhere Haidt does clarify “I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. . . .Rather, what I am saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.” We are all partisan and prone to confirmation bias but we overcome this, especially in scientific endeavours, by reasoning socially – in groups where “some individuals can use their reasoning powers to discomfirm the claims of others.”

Now , that’s better. Reasoning is a good thing, even though it is often motivated.  But why denigrate those who support reason by calling that “worship”? He goes further – “As an intuitionist. I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of on of the most long-lived delusions in western history: the rationalist delusion.”

The caricature of “new atheism”

Perhaps his motive is revealed by that word “delusion.”  He adds that some people see reason as bringing “us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).” Perhaps he is really having a bash at these so-called ‘new atheists” who he has a hang-up about. (I referred to his preoccupation in that area in my recent post Conservatives, liberals and purity.) Haidt even refers to Richard Dawkins’ “childrearing advice” (“utopian program for raising more rational children”) in The God Delusion.

Haidt’s presentation of “new atheism” is a sad caricature. It is silly to characterise as a “utopian progam” the raising of one’s children to ask the question “How do you know that?”, to look for the evidence supporting ideas and claims, and to try to apply reasoning to questions they face.  After all, I can imagine discussing with my grandchildren the ideas of moral psychology Haidt describes in his book. Explaining  how humans very often reason like a lawyer rather than a scientist. And the importance of having input from a range of perspectives.  Is Haidt going to describe that as a “utopian program,” a “rationalist delusion” and the “worship” of reason? Come off it Jonathan.

Ethics education?

However, even worse than this Dawkins’ bashing” is Haidt’s apparent rejection of ethics education. He says:

“if our goal is to produce good behaviour, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism. Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom.”

I think that is not only naive – it is just plain wrong. And it is denigrating what could be an effective contribution to the ethical education of children. Especially as he offers no real alternative.

And this is, I think, one of the weaknesses in Haidt’s analysis – a mechanical tendency to see intuition and reason as opposite and ignoring their interaction. Sure our moral actions are intuitive, not immediately based on reason. However, out intutions are not static – they can actually be altered by reason. This happens in learning, when a new action or idea needs to be consciously rehearsed at the start but in time becomes incorporated into our unconscious and becomes automatic. It becomes intuitive. Haidt concedes this may sometimes occur when an individual with a different idea comments on one’s actions. But he ignores the very important role of society, at a number of levels, in helping form and change our moral intuitions.

Personally, I think ethics classes where children get to discuss and suggest solutions to common moral issues could play a valuable role in the moral upbringing of our children. Sure, no student walks out of a class and immediately applies all they have learned in a lesson (in mathematics as well as ethics). But surely Haidt can see that education, especially that supplemented by the inevitable relevant real day-to-day activities does lead to intuitional changes.

While reading this book I can’t help thinking from time to time that the book itself is an example of motivated reasoning, of Haidt’s own partisanship and prejudices. Perhaps that’s how it should be and how the reader should see any book.  And Haidt even admits the possibility of his own bias:

“I have tried to make a reasoned case that our moral capacities are best described from an intuitionist perspective. I do not claim to have examined the question from all sides, nor to have offered irrefutable proof. Because of the insurmountable power of the confirmation bias, counterarguments will have to be produced by those who disagree with me. Eventually, if the scientific community works as it is supposed to, the truth will emerge as a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out”

Now that would be putting the best of Haidt’s scientific ideas into practice.

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Demolishing Craig on morality

Here’s another video on human morality.

This from a series produced by Qualia Soup. It’s the third in a series of four, so far.

Morality 3: Of objectivity and oughtness.

This one is interesting because it demolishes the naive deductive logic used by William Lane Craig who claims morality as a “proof” for the existence of his god. It also deals with the common misinterpretation of Hume’s “is-ought” problem.

Thanks to: Debunking Christianity.

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Rational morality

Here’s a great video. It’s not short (31 mins) but its well worth watching right through – or downloading and watching later. Even watching several times, the speaker is so eloquent and precise with his language.

In it Scott Clifton gives a thorough critique of the Christian apologetics understanding of morality. He also gives a good outline of secular morality – a rational, objectively-based morality.

Treatise on Morality. – YouTube.

Clifton stress morality is important because it determines how we behave and how we interact with others. In the video he sets out to answer four questions:

  1. What do we specifically mean by words like “right,” “wrong,” “moral,” “immoral,” etc.?
  2. Why our definitions are useful and applicable and why they represent how the vast majority of people see these words, whether they realise it or not?
  3. How can we objectively determine what is “right” and what is “wrong” without appealing to personal taste or subjective opinion?
  4. Why we ought to do right and ought not to do wrong?

He answers the first question by defining “right” as that which promotes the health, happiness and well-being of humans. Or minimises unnecessary human pain or suffering. And “wrong” of course is the converse.

Immediately I know many readers will reject his definitions. But if you do, you should hear him out. Watch the video. Listen to his arguments.

I suspect you might find that you do in the end agree. I do.

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Ethicists have problems with ethics!

I picked up this article recently – The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors. So I couldn’t help laughing when I came across this other one – When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists.

A title like “When Scientists Make Bad Scientists” would be more newsworthy (as the first article is implying the ethicists are not actually very good at personal ethics).

I will get back to Matt Flannaghan’s little rant against a scientific approach to understanding morality in a later post. It’s an important issue and I can appreciate why theologians like him worry about the scientific work in this area. (Their response is rather like the Roman Inquisition telling Galileo he had no right to believe that contrary to the Church’s teaching the earth goes around the sun – or King Canute’s command to the tide not to come in).

But – here I just wish to bring attention to the research in the first article suggesting that professional ethicists perhaps don’t behave too ethically as individuals. These researchers compared the:

 “self-reported moral attitudes and moral behavior of 198 ethics professors, 208 non-ethicist philosophers, and 167 professors in departments other than philosophy on eight moral issues.”

“Ethicists expressed somewhat more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, such as vegetarianism and charitable donation. However, on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the two comparison groups. Our findings on attitude-behavior consistency were mixed: Ethicists showed the strongest relationship between behavior and expressed moral attitude regarding voting but the weakest regarding charitable donation.” (Quotes from abstract)

Senior author Eric Schwitzgebel expressed concern about these findings on his blog :

“I do think that our research raises questions about the extent to which studying ethics improves moral behavior. To the extent that practical effect is among one’s aims in studying (or as an administrator, in requiring) philosophy, I think there is reason for concern. I’m inclined to think that either philosophy should be justified differently, or we should work harder to try to figure out whether there is a *way* of studying philosophy that is more effective in changing moral behavior than the ordinary (21st century, Anglophone) way of studying philosophy is.”

I can’t say I am too surprised. I have often noted how specialists in some subjects appear very bad at handling their own particular problems in the specialist area. How often do we find psychologists or counsellors who don’t seem to follow the advice they dish out to their clients? (How often do we find priests . . .  No, let’s not go there).

But, perhaps more importantly, ethics at the individual level is usually not a conscious activity. It is based on ingrained intuitions and emotional responses.

So it’s easy to imagine how professionals may teach and intellectually justify ethical positions in the day job. But in their personal ethical and moral behaviour they will instead be exhibiting their emotional and intuitional behaviour.

See also: Ethicists, Courtesy & Morals.

‪Videos on morality

I often discuss a scientific approach to morality‪ because I find this an interesting and developing field. However, morality is still sometimes linked in the public mind with religion, so it’s worth actually considering those religious arguments.

QualiaSoup is currently posting a useful YouTube video series on morality. I have posted No 2 below. It deals with the problems of religious morality, or the “divine command” concept of morality. It’s quite thorough.

Morality 2: Not-so-good books‬‏.

There is at least one more video to come in this series.

No 1, Good without God, is below.

Morality 1: Good without God‬‏.

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Pat Churchland on the science of morality

A few months ago there was a flurry of attention around Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape and lectures he gave around the time of its publication. A lot of it critical – but not all.

I thought the value of this book is that he did take on the problem of moral relativism in a way that religious moralists have been unable to. I think his contribution was valuable for that.

But, people seem to be ignoring a better book recently published on this subject. This is Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. I highly recommend it as being very sensible and enlightening. it also will answer some of the questions readers might feel Sam Harris was unable to.

I have written before on this book and some of Churchland’s talks. However, I think a recent podcast will be very useful for those following this subject. It’s from The Partially Examined Life (Episode 41: Pat Churchland on the Neurobiology of Morality (Plus Hume’s Ethics)). The discussion is with  Mark and Dylan Casey who are relatively knowledgable on philosophy so Pat’s arguments are quite deep. However, even non-philosophers will get a lot from the discussion. It’s 1 hr 45 min long but you can  Download the podcast (96.1MB)

There are three points I wish to make on the content of the podcast:

1: Is consciousness over-rated?

Pat Churchland devoted little of her discussion to the unconscious, or subconscious, aspects of human morality. The conscious aspects are important to understanding social rules and lawmaking, and to understanding how humans set up moral societies. But at the day-to-day and personal level our instincts and intuitions are critical. We operate largely in the automatic mode.

I am sure Pat acknowledges the important role of the subconscious, it’s just that in this discussion it was not really covered.

2: What do we mean by “right” and “wrong”?

I would love Pat to delve into this aspect more deeply. She does divorce the concepts from any absolute or objective meaning, particularly a divine one. At the same time she is not adopting a purely relativist approach. I feel sure that she would accept that while morality is not objective, it does at least have a objecitve basis in the facts of situations and in human make up. Particularly in the human brain.

However, most people do feel there is something special about saying something is “right” or “wrong”. It feels absolute or objective. We are not just expressing an opinion.

Personally, I think this is part of our evolved moral intuitions. We have evolved to operate in an automatic mode – we just don’t have time to apply reasoning and logic to every moral situation we face. Consequently there needs to be some sort of emotional/intuitional feeling about our possible responses and decisions. We need to feel that we are doing the correct thing. That it is “right.” Or that something we find disagreeable or repugnant is “wrong.” Emotionally, not logically. Churchland does describe in her book how these intuitions can evolve naturally from the interests of living organisms.

So we have these strong feelings/emotions of “right” and “wrong.” So strong, and  partly because they are automatic, they can at times seem external. It is no accident that cartoons will often portray our conscience as a little being sitting on our shoulder and advising us. That is what it feels like.

So I can see why many people will argue that our concepts of right and wrong are objective, presented to us externally (and therein we get the leap of logic to divine beings and divine commands). But we can see the intuitions of “right” and “wrong” are really evolved. Not objective or absolute. And, capable of changing over time as society changes or more information is required. This is quite consistent with an objectively based morality.

3: Pat is really more helpful than Sam

I found Pat’s comments on Sam Harris’s book far more critical than I have heard from her in the past. They are friends so her criticisms are not a personal attack – they are the evaluation of a philosopher and neuroscientist. Consequently her criticisms are far more relevant than those made by theological critics. We all know what is driving them, and that is why their critiques usually have no value.

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Is there a role for science in morality?

In our discussion of the science of morality commenters often assert that science may be able to describe why and how we are moral but it cannot make moral decisions for us. Or tell us what is right and wrong. Sometimes these commenters have their own motive – a covert or overt interest in promoting a religiously determined moral code and they don’t want another discipline intruding into “their” arena. At other times they may be reacting to a simplistic interpretation of the role of science. This is common in criticisms of The Moral Landscape (and Harris did not help by using the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values”). In partial mitigation of Harris’s position he does make clear, often, that he is using “science” in a very general sense – including philosophy and history.

Emotions in human decisions

Our moral decisions are different to the apparently straightforward decisions a physical scientist might make relying on evidence. Logic and reasoning, and validation against reality. Being social animals things are never that simple for us. And we have evolved not to be a rational animal, more a rationalising one. Our decisions will usually involve our emotions and intuitions as well as evidence and reasoning. In fact research suggests that an emotional component is essential in decision-making. Where emotions are impaired people find decision-making impossible. We are also influenced by the moral attitudes of others, and in some situations a moral decision may involve a democratic process. Moral ideas get validated against society and not objective reality.

But the fact is human morality is now a very live area of scientific research and discussion. This is generally about how our morality works and its origins, and not using “science” as such to prove a moral position. But there is no doubt that an awareness of the science of morality may actually influence moral decision-making, particularly during public discussion and deliberation. Science indicates our morals are not simply “relative” (anything goes depending on our own feelings) or “divinely” commanded (our god tells us what is right and wrong – just accept it), or based on tradition. If that is publicly accepted then the proponents of “divine” commands, tradition, or relativism will have less influence on our moral deliberations.

Sure, our prejudices and emotions will still be involved. Our religious beliefs and cultural influence will also play a role. But there will be far more acceptance of discussion about facts and accepted ideas of what is good for society and individuals. In the past religion and tradition have been far too influential in such discussions. Hell, this example from a potential US presidential candidate shows they are still too influential (see Bachmann: God Told Me To Introduce Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage In MN). I think our moral progress has only been possible to the extent we have been able to override those influences.

Role of public deliberation

One argument that came through strongly for me in the Edge New Science of Morality  Seminar was the role of social or public deliberation of moral questions. (See The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) ) Particpation of a range of individuals helps make sure that prejudice and individual emotion don’t play a determining role. A group can be more rational than an individual. This indicates that groups and social decision-making may produce better moral, and hence legal, decisions than those made by individuals.

Of course, in the end our actions are made mostly by individuals. And very often these decisions and action are the result of unconscious moral decisions. But, as I pointed out in Foundations of human morality, our subconscious moral position is always changing. We are always learning and what we learn consciously becomes integrated into our subconscious. Similarly we are learning without deliberate intellectual consideration just by being a member of society, exposed to the changing moral zeitgeist through our entertainments and social contact. Just consider what influence the portrayal of women and gays has had on influence individual moral attitudes over the years.

Yes, there is an important role

So, I think the current interest in the science of morality is important. It’s important from the point of view of knowledge, of finding out and understanding more about our species and its behaviour. But I also think its important because it will help us be more rational about our moral deliberations and decisions.

That must be a good thing.

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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.

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Advocating or explaining secular moral values?

Micheal De Dora raises an interesting question in  Belief in God hinders even basic moral discourse over at Rationally Speaking.

What are the correct tactics for atheists when advocating secular moral values?

  • Should atheists critique theistic moral values and their justification that appeals to a divine being? Should they challenge god beliefs head on?
  • Or should atheists concentrate on pointing out that one can lead a happy, fulfilled and moral life without belief in a god? Rather than challenging god-beliefs should atheist restrict their advocacy to challenging the myth that life without a god “means a joyless, meaningless, selfish, self-centred life.” A myth promoted by many religious apologists.

It’s a question which often divides atheists. Some argue against “in-your-face” campaigns challenging god beliefs because they can “offend” and alienate people. However, theists will often respond to the less challenging approach by arguing that, yes – the non-religious can be moral but their values still come from a god whether one believes it or not. So, many atheist conclude that challenging god beliefs is an essential part of the debate. We can’t avoid it.Michael de Dora concludes that “There is simply no getting around the fact that belief in God makes for an enormous stumbling block in discourse about morality.” It the same time she does not deny the importance of promoting secular values. In a previous article he said: ” The critic of religious faith and dogma is on the same side as the promoter of secular values.” Internal squabbles about tactics loses sight of the main problem – overcoming “the staggering amount of uncritical thinking that is putting society to ruin.”

All right as far as it goes and in the real world different people naturally gravitate to different tactics. But I think there is a third avenue which she doesn’t mention. It’s an important one, it requires more effort but is already underway.

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