Tag Archives: morals

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.


A scientific consensus on human morality

There has been some local discussion of the scientific approach to morality. Unfortunately some of this has concentrated on only one source (a TED talk by Sam Harris – see Can science answer moral questions?). I believe Sam makes some interesting points and am eager to read his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values which will be published next month. (I am planning to review it then). However, he is just one person, has tended to concentrate only on the problem presented by advocates of moral relativism, and has not actually done any significant research in this area.

I posted previously about the Edge Seminar last July on the science of morality (see The new science of morality and Is and ought). This brought together eight researchers, including Same Harris. (Well nine actually, but Marc Hauser’s contributions have been removed – that is another story; unfortunate but significant). The videos and transcripts of the conference are available at the Edge site and are well worth viewing.

Below I have reproduced the Consensus Statement made by the scientists at the seminar. It’s a useful summary of where the science of morality currently stands – at least in the minds of eight significant scientists working in the area. Its taken from Edge 327.

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Can science answer moral questions?

Here’s a great TED talk by Sam Harris. He is well known for his best selling books The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and its follow-up Letter to a Christian Nation. But he has recently been researching the neuroscience of morality and ethics. Sam has a a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.

Harris has a new book coming out in November – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It should be fascinating.

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No gods required

Book Review: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (October 27, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061670111
ISBN-13: 978-0061670114

With this title the book is obviously going to discuss morality. Fortunately it quickly disposes of the question of “whether we can be good without God” early in the introduction. As the author, Greg Epstein, says the empirical evidence is irrefutable “Millions and millions of people are, every day. The answer is yes. Period.”

But, of course, he devotes the rest of the book to explaining and recommending how the one billion “non-believers” of the planet are, and can be, good. On how they do and can deal with social organisation in suitable ways.

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Evolution of human morality

Here’s a short clear article on the science of morality by Dick Swaab published in NRC Handlesbad. Swaab is a professor of neurobiology at the University of Amsterdam and is associated with the Nederlands Institute for Neuroscience. He writes a weekly column for NRC Handelsblad. (See the original at The evolution of human morality).

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Babies and bathwater

When society rejects a practice considered repugnant sometimes we throw out the baby with the bathwater. This was brought home to me recently while watching the BBC Documentary “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.”

It’s hard hitting – dealing with the way terms like  “social Darwinism”, “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” have been used to advocate inhumane social policies. Of course the justifications have been purely opportunist and erroneous. One such social policy the documentary discusses (in Part 2: Body and Soul) was eugenics.

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Scientific investigation of morality

Modern science can advance a reasonable theory of the origins of human morality. And its an area receiving research attention.

A recent paper in Science (In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust) outlines findings indicating a link between moral disgust and more primitive forms of disgust related to toxicity and disease.The researchers found a “similarity in the facial motor activity evoked by gustatory distaste (elicited by unpleasant tastes), basic disgust (elicited by photographs of contaminants), and moral disgust (elicited by unfair treatment in an economic game).”

The research suggests that physical and moral disgust have the same root. A newspaper report of the work (Injustice leaves bad taste in mouth) describes the results as suggesting:

“the powerful emotion of disgust was co-opted to drive morality, as systems of ethical standards became advantageous to human societies.

A disgust response is a powerful incentive to avoid behaviour that might induce it and people who make you feel revulsion. This would have promoted fair and co-operative behaviour by making people disgusted with themselves when they transgress and by imposing a social cost on those who break moral rules.

“Unfair offers may be received like a plate of spoilt food,” the researchers wrote. “This turning away or rejection of unfair actions may also extend to later avoidance of transgressors.” “

Coincidently the most recent Philosophy Bites podcast includes an interview with Julian Savulescu of Oxford University. In this he discusses the relevance of revulsion to our moral judgements. The direct download is: Julian_Savulescu_on_the_Yuk_Factor.MP3.

Isn’t science fascinating? These ideas give us a much better lead into understanding morality that the tired old “God did it” explanations offered by religious apologists.


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Pinker on morality

Jerry Coyne, the author of Why Evolution Is True, has posted an interesting comment from Steve Pinker on his blog (see Steven Pinker’s take on the material mind). I will just quote here the section where Pinker comments on the origins of human morality.

“Nor is morality any mystery. Abstract, universal morality (e.g., a Kantian categorical imperative) never evolved in the first place, but took millennia of debate and cultural experience, and doesn’t characterize the vast majority of humanity. More rudimentary moral sentiments that may have evolved – sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt – are stable strategies in cooperation games, and emerge in computer simulations.”

A beautiful brief statement which encapsulates some of my own attempts to explain the sources of our morality (see Where do our morals come from?, Atheists not allowed to criticise Hitler! and A naturalistic approach to human morality).


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Neurons and free will

neuron1The free will “question” is sometimes raised in comments on this blog. I am not someone who denies “free will” but recognise that people often define the concept differently – and this can be a cause of the debate.

Dr Ginger Campbell presents a very interesting discussion of the topic in her recent Brain Science Podcast reviewing the book Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will.

From her summary:

“This book challenges the widespread fear that neuroscience is revealing an explanation of the human mind that concludes that moral responsibility and free will are illusions created by our brains. Instead the authors argue that the problem is the assumption that a physicalist/materialistic model of the mind must also be reductionist (a viewpoint that all causes are bottom-up). In this podcast I discuss their arguments against causal reductionism and for a dynamic systems model. We also discuss why we need to avoid brain-body dualism and recognize that our mind is more than just what our brain does. The key to preserving our intuitive sense of our selves as free agents capable of reason, moral responsibility, and free will is that the dynamic systems approach allows top-down causation, without resorting to any supernatural causes or breaking any of the know laws of the physical universe. This is a complex topic, but I present a concise overview of the book’s key ideas.”

I found the discussion fascinating and will try to get my local library to purchase the book. Unfortunately, it’s quite expensive so they may balk at this.

The Brain Science Podcasts are always interesting and intellectually stimulating. This is no exception and I recommend it to anyone interested in the questions of brain science, free will and moral responsibility.

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Defining oneself negatively

I have been struck lately how some people define themselves negatively – by saying what they are not or criticising the beliefs of other instead of presenting their own beliefs.

A clear example is the use of the word ‘atheist.’ It’s OK as far as it goes – which isn’t very far. It just says ‘I don’t believe in a god.’ It says nothing about what I do believe in. I have made this point before but pointed out then ‘I do have my own beliefs (wider than, but including atheism). They are always evolving (aren’t we all) and they are a source of great spiritual comfort and pride to me. I won’t give them a name but, of course, they are revealed in discussion.’

Intelligent design

I think the intelligent design (ID) proponents are classic examples of people who define their ideas negatively. They will rave on about the real or imagined problems or gaps in evolutionary science and then call their rave ID theory. But notice that they never actually propose a specific ID hypothesis or theory. They define themselves negatively. Christopher Heard gives a typical (and as he says brazen) example of this in his in a book review of Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse in Dialogue. Here he quotes ID guru Bill Dembski: Continue reading