Tag Archives: Moral relativism

Drifting moral values

Last night the New Zealand Parliament overwhelmingly voted to go ahead with the marriage Equality Bill. A common comment is that it’s time had come. It would have not been possible 10 years ago.

Is this just an example of moral relativism, laws and rules being decided by what is fashionable? By our current whims and fancies? The situation which is supposed to result from subjective morality.

Or does it illustrate progress? Are we getting better at deciding what is truly “right” or “wrong?” This implies that there are some sort of objective standards – an objective basis for human morality.

I argue for the second position – you can see that from my earlier posts Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers and Subjective morality – not what it seems?This is like Matt Dillahunty‘s argument – “If it was wrong then, it is wrong now.” If we decide today that marriage equality is morally right, then it was also right 10 years ago when we didn’t recognise that.

Slavery, racism, discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation may have been socially acceptable in the past. We may have believed them to be OK morally. But they were still morally wrong. Marriage inequality was socially acceptable 10 years ago, but it was still morally wrong.

Human morality based on evolved biological value

I say that because I think there is an objective basis to human morality. At least on some issues, we can say there is a “correct” moral decision – even if society doesn’t see it. That “correct” position does not depend on popular vote, fashion, or the whims and fancies of a leaders, society, a divine “lawmaker” or a god.

In Subjective morality – not what it seems?”  I briefly outlined an objective basis for human morality derived from evolved biological value. I won’t develop that further here, although I recognise some people find it controversial. But if there is an objective basis for human morality why do we see the differences we do between different societies and cultures? Why do we see this moral drift within our own society? Despite an objective basis in our evolved biology our moral decisions can differ over time and place. What drives these differences?

I also compared our moral system to a modern camera in the last post. Most people in most situations use their moral camera in the “auto mode”. It’s far more efficient to rely on feelings, emotions and our reaction to them than to consult our “holy books” or carry out a logical consideration for each moral situation we face. We would have gone extinct long ago if that was the way we worked.

Using the “manual” mode

However, we do sometimes use the manual mode – that’s what happened in Parliament last night. The manual mode is necessary when we rehearse moral arguments, consider new ethical situations, deliberate on ethical rules and laws. As the caption to the photo of Joshua Greene in the last post says our automatic ethical responses just “may not be effective in handling modern moral problems such as global warming.”

Mind you we are more a rationalising species than a rational one. An individual considering their response to a moral situation is not necessarily using good or unmotivated logic. They rarely are. In fact modern research suggests that inevitably our feelings and emotions are involved in our apparently reasoning, logical considerations. So the manual mode is far from perfect (and admit it, how often do you make mistakes when you use your camera’s manual mode).

We don’t always get it right.

Reasoned consideration of ethical situations works better when more than one person is involved. Rationalisations are more likely to be noticed. Diverse opinions can be represented. But there is still no guarantee that it results in the “correct” moral decisions determined by the objectively based nature of our values and the situation being considered. I think, though, like scientific knowledge it is something that improves with time and experience. Society can recognise the mistakes of the past, correct them and learn from them.

Another reason is that our human nature is complex. We may have an inbuilt tendency to empathy and the golden rule, but we also have inbuilt tendencies to violence, and to a tribal “them vs us” mindset.  We are a complex species, our interactions with other humans, and with members of other species is also complex. We are not always going to make the “correct” ethical decision – even when we think we have applied careful reasoning and involved multiple viewpoints. There is always the option of in future correcting our mistakes of the past.

Effectively the NZ parliaments was doing that last night. It was recognising that previous marriage legislation had problems and that the Civil Unions Act they passed 8 years ago had still not resolved all of them.

On the whole, I think our drifting moral values indicates progress and not moral relativism.

In my next post on this subject I will discus how deliberate and intentional use of our moral camera in the manual mode can also adjust the auto mode. And even if you never use the manual mode you might find that your auto mode tends to update itself.

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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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Philosophical justifications for morality

I will use this post to answer some of the more philosophical questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version. (Open Parachute@SciBlogs). Last time in Answering questions on morality I responded to some specific questions from a critical religious apologist.

One outline of my approach is in Foundations of human morality but I have discussed these ideas in many other posts.

Once again I thank all those who have critiqued my ideas – I have found the input valuable. And I welcome further criticisms

Are philosophical justifications required for morality?

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