Moral realism

ethicsby Massimo Pigliucci

New Scientia Salon video featuring a discussion between between Massimo and Dan, this time on the issue of moral realism. This is also being published as part of a new initiative by Bloggingheads.tv, called MeaningofLife.tv. Dan and I have our own channel, called, appropriately enough, Sophia.

Anyway, in this video we talk about just how hard it is to define moral realism, explain why I am not a moral realist, and ask whether utilitarians and Kantian deontologists are moral realists (not necessarily). We then talk about why we will likely not arrive at a single “true” ethical theory (and why this isn’t a problem, really), moving on to discussing human nature and why there will never be a Marxist (or libertarian!) utopia. Finally, we ask what happens to those who refuse to play “the moral game,” with a nod to Wittgenstein.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

Daniel A. Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University and a graduate of the City University of New York. His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social-political philosophy. His new blog is Apophenia.

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89 thoughts on “Moral realism

  1. Peter,

    “In your latest comment you say, ‘We are both moral realists …’ and then further on, ‘That’s why I am not a realist about morality…’ . For this and other reasons I’m a little confused about where you stand”

    Sorry, that was simply a snippet to remind you of what we were talking about. I meant to say that I do not consider myself a moral realist anymore.

    “to me you do not take full advantage of the idea of human nature and so leave your ethics floating free of any foundation. This would be my objection to Stoic ethics.”

    I don’t see how. My view of ethics *begins* with an examination of human nature, particularly of the ability of humans to reason and their nature as social animals (just like the Stoics did). So the idea doesn’t float free. But I also don’t think that a strong concept of human nature is defensible, which is why I use it only as a starting point, not as a major determinant.

    “Extend this nature to all sentient beings and one would have Buddhist ethics”

    That, I think, goes too far. If nothing else, because it isn’t clear how to define, let alone measure, what “sentient” means.

    “I would rather say that if ethics has any objective basis then it must be prior to biology”

    I disagree, just like the objective properties of chess playing cannot be prior to the invention of chess rules.

    Labnut,

    “Euthyphro has been waved around a few times as though this was some sort of conclusive argument. I have news for you, it is a very weak argument indeed. It is the lazy man’s argument that depends on a trivial understanding of God.”

    Call me lazy, then, but I disagree. I think, with Aravis, that Euthyphro is devastating, and clearly independent of whatever conception of gods one may have. I’ve read a number of theologians, both historical and modern, trying to get out of the dilemma, and they invariably get impaired by one of the two horns, often apparently without realizing it.

    paolini,

    “’Some lives are ethically better than others.’ is true? Objectively?”

    Yes, given certain assumptions about human nature and a shared framework for how to think about morality, for instance virtue ethics. Do without those ingredients and talk of objective morality makes no sense to me.

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  2. Massimo,

    ‘Yes, given certain assumptions about human nature and a shared framework for how to think about morality, for instance virtue ethics. Do without those ingredients and talk of objective morality makes no sense to me.’

    So an ordinary person’s claim that some lives are more ethical than other is nonsense unless they’re thinking in terms of a worked-out theoretical system like the one you described? My view is in a sense the opposite in that I think the ordinary person’s claim does make sense, and does have an objective truth-value, and it’s the theorist’s job to figure out how this works.

    That said, from your statement I think we disagree a lot less than I thought. I roughly agree with what you say about how ethical truth comes about; I just think it’s more a matter of fleshing out ordinary thought than it seems you do. That is, I think there’s a reality within ordinary thought regarding how ethics works that must be figured out, as opposed to ethics being something we can invent like a system of geometry.

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  3. paolini,

    I agree we are not that far from each other. I would argue that most people do have an ethical framework, call it folk ethics, which they deploy unreflective lay. The job of ethical theorists is to make that approach explicit, as well as more sophisticated (just like neuroscientists and psychologists can improve on, and sometimes reject, folk psychology)

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  4. PeterJ: “Why would this be arrogant?”

    I was giving a hypothetical Christian theist’s answer to the Euthyphro challenge (as expressed by Aravis). The theist would not be impressed with the talk about God having to base his actions on some piddling human logic, and would typically see that kind of philosophical critique as trivial and shallow.

    For my part, as I don’t believe in God, arrogance is not an issue. And, actually, I go along with much of what Coel said in a recent comment (quoting me) on this issue.

    But even if they are (as I believe they are) mistaken, some theistic views do have a certain grandeur and depth.

    And I do think we can learn something by looking at the way religious thinkers have dealt with moral and other issues. Two thoughts on this…

    Firstly, in the Christian and Jewish traditions of moral thought (and no doubt others) there is quite a deal of practical wisdom and psychological depth (which is sometimes sorely lacking in philosophical approaches).

    Secondly (and this does relate to arrogance, but it is a general point and not specifically concerned with morality), I think that intellectual humility, in the sense of an awareness of the frailty of our thinking and the limitations of our knowledge and logical constructs, is a good thing, and this is something that religious thinkers have often emphasized.

    I have just listened to the final part of the video and I hasten to say that neither speaker came across to me as arrogant! I did find the bits based on biological and social observations slightly more compelling than some of the purely philosophical arguments. But it ended very nicely, I thought, with some strong points about legal sanctions and hypothetical imperatives. Nice work, Dan and Massimo both!

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  5. Coel,

    This fails to deflect Euthyphro, because if God’s nature is what determines what is “morally good”, then if God were a sadistic monster who tortured children for the fun of it, then torturing children for the fun of it would be “morally good”.

    Now, if you’re William Lane Craig you reply: “Why yes, indeed so!” with a straight face. Sensible people, though, realise that something has gone wrong, since, at root, we all judge morality based on our own moral feelings, and most of us regard torturing children for the fun of it to be morally bad.

    Did you step back to ask *why* do we regard torturing children to be morally bad? More importantly, how do you think a theist would respond to that question? Simple, it’s because God created us (through evolution) to think that way. Incidentally, not all species are like that — for example, the female black widow spider beheads and eats the male after mating. Now imagine that this species in the far future evolves to the level of sentience which allows them to talk about ethics — in their culture, it would arguably be unethical *not* to kill and eat the male after mating. It is a consequence of their natural reproductive cycle, after all, and such behaviour would be deeply ingrained in their ethical standards, just like caring for children is ingrained in our ethics. A theist would say that God made humans to obey one set of ethical rules, while spiders to obey a different set of ethical rules — there is no “natural” set of rules which supervenes on God’s decision about the ethics of various species.

    There is no way to judge an ethical system in any way except by implicitly using another ethical system. But both systems are completely arbitrary, which is the only thing the second horn of Euthyphro is saying. The only issue that people can have with the second horn is that it is an unintuitive answer, but this is because their intuition is always based on a certain ethical prior, not because our intuition is somehow able to judge ethics “at root”, without invoking any ethical prior. And various cultures may have different ethical priors, in line with their particular religion, traditions and culture. Nobody can be wiser than others.

    Aravis and all,

    Regarding the topic of mutilation of female genitalia, I just want to make a small comment — it would be very gender-biased to ignore the similar mutilation of male genitalia (i.e. circumcision), which is also being often done without one’s informed consent (i.e. in early childhood). If you advocate economic sanctions or waging war against people who perform the former, it is only consistent that you advocate similar measures against people who perform the latter as well. I’d like to see how well you can push for that in the enlightened Western world…

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  6. Marko wrote:

    Did you step back to ask *why* do we regard torturing children to be morally bad? More importantly, how do you think a theist would respond to that question? Simple, it’s because God created us (through evolution) to think that way.

    There is no way to judge an ethical system in any way except by implicitly using another ethical system. But both systems are completely arbitrary, which is the only thing the second horn of Euthyphro is saying.

    ———————————————————-

    The answer to the first question is: “Because we can give reasons against the practice, which rational people are, in principle, capable of understanding.”

    Of course, if you keep asking for reasons, behind the reasons, the reasons will run out. But this is true of all justification — it is, in other words, a feature, not a bug, if one understands the framework relativity of all such judgments.

    But when I say, “X is wrong,” not for any publicly recognizable reason, but simply because God says so, that *is* completely arbitrary. Not arbitrary 15 reasons down the chain — and as I’ve said, I don’t think that *is* arbitrary — but arbitrary from the get-go.

    —————————————————————-

    As for your comparison of female genital mutilation with the Jewish practice of circumcision, I think the comparison is perverse. Female genital mutilation causes harm orders of magnitude beyond that caused by male circumcision. Fortunately, the preposterous “foreskin rights” movement, with these sorts of false equivocations, is fringe and will remain that way. The last thing we need is for this kind of stuff to distract us from serious human right disasters.

    (Says this as a person who does not resent his own circumcision.)

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  7. (Editor, please post this instead of previous for blockquote correction)

    Hi Massimo,

    … the moral instinct, let’s call it, is only the beginning of a pre-reflexive type of morality… It then takes reasoned reflection to move from there and build on it. And that immediately means you are leaving any hope for realism behind.

    I certainly agree with this argument which undercuts naturalist realist positions, but I don’t think it stops people from advancing them as possibilities in the first place. Such people would view our behavior as almost entirely instinctual, or pre-determined, and so beyond rational ‘enhancement’. Since I agree with your argument I think such people would be wrong, but so is the theist realist position, which you disagreed with but put out there as a position people might take.

    If you mean that given certain facts about human nature, and certain reasoned arguments, then it is objectively better to behave in one way or another, yes. But I doubt relativists would go for that sort of thing. My favorite example o relativism is etiquette, where there really is no rhyme or reason to any of the rules, they are entirely arbitrary. This is not the case, I argue, for ethics.

    As a relativist I do go for that sort of thing, as long as “human nature” is swapped for “specified interests” (then our debate becomes whether humans share specified interests enough to call them our “nature”). The difference between rules of etiquette and ethics, to my mind, is the underlying interest and so depth of concern/reaction to an infraction. Etiquette is usually based on concern for commonality and tradition (ritualized habits) alone. Ethics normally involves more concerns which affect us more deeply.

    This is a a complex issue, which I have treated elsewhere… We can have a good and spirited discussion about human universals, the degree of variation within those universals, etc., but to deny their existence outright seems to me very strange.

    I have no idea where I was that I missed that essay! So I will read it over and get some ideas together regarding your position.

    I am definitely on board that humans have common physical characteristics, drives/interests, and concerns. This often leads to similar behavior (solutions) when faced with common situations (problems/challenges). But that does not suggest the behavior is “programmed” or “universal” to humans. I think the variation (indeed the patently contradictory solutions) in what are considered “universals” reveals the “stretching to make something fit” nature of that enterprise, and look forward to a spirited discussion on that someday 🙂

    But social forces aren’t always concerned with practical stuff.

    Sorry, I should have been more clear. By “practical” I just meant to the moral agent. Society may go nuts about the strangest things. It’s just that however strange or nonpractical societal concerns are, their reaction can pose very practical challenges to you.

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  8. It has always struck me that the view equating male circumcision to the sexist and oppressive lopping off of labia and clitorises lacks perspective, since the two are nowhere near the same. No offense to anyone, but “foreskin rights” sounds like an SNL skit.

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  9. Marko Theistic evolution, as long as one believes in a double-omni god, is no escape from either horn of Euthyphro.

    The only logical escape is to accept that either one’s god is not omnipotent, or that one’s god is not omnibenevolent.

    There’s then the question, once one opens either one of those two Let’s Make a Deal doors, how far short of perfection on either side (or both, which is possible, too) a being superior to us can be and still deserve the appellation of “god.”

    Would Zeus, or Apollo, or Odin, or Thor, were they real, but seen in today’s light, as far as the degree of our scientific and technological advancement, be gods? Not for me. They might be supertyrants, if they demanded worship, per Apollo in Star Trek’s “Welcome to Olympus” episode, but no more:

    It’s just 3 minutes. Give it a view. It has a lot to say about all of this.

    You’ve otherwise not addressed the issue of how some ethical “pivot points” are more logical, more empirically informed, or both, than are others. And, that relates to …

    Coel I would certainly accept your previous comment through the filter of my “degrees of subjectivism.” Think of informal logic, where any proposition with total warrant support of 51 percent or more is accepted as “inductively valid.”

    ==

    Massimo Still waiting to hear back on your thoughts on a Humean, inductive approach to meta-ethics.

    Massimo and Dan I haven’t listened all the way through. What exactly do you talk about with people not “playing the moral game”? Half in jest, half in seriousness, does this include Diogenes (putatively) masturbating in public, or other people not just not playing the moral game but kicking over the table?

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  10. Marko,

    “Did you step back to ask *why* do we regard torturing children to be morally bad? (…) Simple, it’s because God created us (through evolution) to think that way.”

    Yes – too simple.

    Remember here, first, that one culture’s “torture” is another’s “discipline.” If god designs us all in this fashion, than ethical imperatives should be universally within a range of possible behaviors. But while there seem to be some ethical behaviors that appear in all cultures, not all do, and the continuum of variance is greater than if we assume a unitary source.

    But I’ll try to give a more complicated answer to the question: I was raised in America where we were taught that torture was barbaric, a practice of the past and of other cultures. (Which is one reason I’ve grown so pessimistic, given political leanings of the past 13 years.) But we still teach our children to value themselves, and to value their own young when they grow up. That may change; it is a value not shared with every culture in history (or at least qualified in some). But for now we Americans prize our young and thus find attempts to diminish their value disturbing and unacceptable.

    As a philosopher, I can see the child as needing to be regarded as an end-in-itself, since having the same value as I do, and thus requiring the same respect I would demand. I can also argue that our children are our future, and thus we owe it to ourselves to nurture that future, so as to pass on our values properly following our demise. I can also argue this from a utilitarian perspective, that the security of our future is a good worthy of protecting in our children.

    Finally, as a Buddhist, I reason that all sentient beings struggle to survive; that this struggle inevitably brings forth suffering. Suffering being unsatisfactory, the reduction of suffering is thus a good in and of itself. So in opposite to this, whatever we designate ‘bad,’ or ‘evil,’ or otherwise unacceptable is behavior that increases suffering unnecessarily. (I can also admit that working towards the end of suffering for others decreases my own suffering, which is obviously a benefit worth working towards.)

    My point is, any ethical judgment is not a simple directive or dependency, but a complex interweaving of determinations within various frameworks – social, personal, rational, emotional. Historically god has been a signifier for the source and, recursively, the closure, of extrapolations of such frameworks within certain theistically-dominated cultures. But it has also been used to close off any discussion of such frameworks, especially when directed toward those lacking in sophisticated education. (Divine Command Theory ultimately reduces to ‘shut up, god told you this!’ which is frankly insulting to anyone wishing to think for themselves.)

    I’m not sure how much I buy the story that evolution has generated within us any necessary ethical imperatives at all. So I’m not going to buy some divine origin for it.

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  11. Aravis, Massimo,
    Call me lazy, then, but I disagree. I think, with Aravis, that Euthyphro is devastating, and clearly independent of whatever conception of gods one may have.

    I am more than a little astonished that you can claim it is “independent of whatever conception of gods one may have.

    But never mind, I will drop the matter as we are descending into a mutually reinforcing cycle of argument by contradiction, a most unhelpful state of affairs.

    I have just returned from evening Mass, where the homily was about the need for us to be open to love and compassion for the world’s unfortunate. That we should be sensitive and observant to their needs. And that we should react, by each of us doing all the little things to help, that is in our power. That the combined power of all our small actions can make a profound difference to the suffering.

    I looked around our full church, at the faces of the congregation and saw the expressions of rapt attention. I could see they believed this and sincerely intended to act on this belief. And then I thought about the many suffering people whose lives we touch in some beneficial way.

    I left Mass with a feeling of joy. I knew I was part of something truly wonderful and worthwhile. I could see the others shared this euphoria.

    So why do I say all this now, on this blog and on this posting?

    Because I feel you need to know this is the real face of a living morality. This is the real face of a beautiful and inspiring religion. I gladly endure the unpleasantness of atheism because I know I am doing something worthwhile, because I am part of something unutterably beautiful and noble. Because we will touch the lives of so many desperate people. This is morality at the coal face and this is moral realism.

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  12. In defense of Labnut, I don’t believe he’s said anything to suggest that he is a moral realist, and observe that he did directly tell us:

    Which raises my main point. It is not at all obvious that the existence of God implies moral realism.

    Thus I believe that his point was that the Euthyphro argument simply doesn’t mandate moral realism through the existence/belief in God (as has often been implied here) — I see no reason to think he considers the ancient argument itself to be unsound. Furthermore I strongly share his position that the supernatural changes nothing regarding morality.

    Let’s say that a god does quite directly tell us that various sadistic things which we naturally find repugnant, happen to be “moral” and will thus help us get into a heaven. This information would still just be one of many factors for us to weigh regarding how we lead our lives and structure our societies, not alter the standard equation which we already face. Note that even if this deity does directly spell out dynamics for the term “morality,” this will surely not be the exact same “morality” associated with the discussion which we are having here.

    This observation does, however, help me emphasize the theme to my only other comment so far (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/moral-realism/comment-page-1/#comment-15382). Why not set aside the socially fluctuating concept of morality (which is thus “unreal”), to instead search for a more basic idea which might indeed be conceptually real? This is my general complaint — that philosophers have been sitting on a fundamental aspect of what we are (namely “What’s “good/bad” for us?”), but by means of a question that isn’t basic enough to actually get the job done. When might we directly theorize the aspect of consciousness which creates good/bad existence, and so provide a solid ideology from which to “properly” lead our lives and structure our societies? Surely the hour is growing late!

    Labnut I do happen to be an extreme atheist, naturalist, physicalist, monist, determinist… but I’m by no means “militant.” I would love to demonstrate my theory to you regarding that which was created by your “God,” or my “evolution,” given that I do know that your quest to understand happens to be no less sincere than my own.

    Email: thephilosophereric@gmail.com

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  13. Labnut wrote:

    I have just returned from evening Mass, where the homily was about the need for us to be open to love and compassion for the world’s unfortunate. That we should be sensitive and observant to their needs. And that we should react, by each of us doing all the little things to help, that is in our power. That the combined power of all our small actions can make a profound difference to the suffering.

    I looked around our full church, at the faces of the congregation and saw the expressions of rapt attention. I could see they believed this and sincerely intended to act on this belief. And then I thought about the many suffering people whose lives we touch in some beneficial way.

    ———————————————————————–

    I don’t see why an atheist could not have exactly the same belief and engage in exactly the same acts. Indeed, we know, in fact, that they do. How many of the “Doctors without Borders” are atheists? How many people in the Peace Corps are atheists?

    And I don’t see what it has to do with moral realism. Are you suggesting that a person who thinks that moral obligations are ultimately grounded in social agreements, rather than gods, cannot feel strongly obligated to help people in need?

    With respect to the Euthyphrom being neutral as to which version of God one is talking about, I have explained why, already, in the post where I said it. Regardless how you think of God, he either has a reason for requiring these actions and prohibiting those actions or he does not. If he does, then their goodness can be established independently and he he does not, then they are completely arbitrary.

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  14. Labnut, the Euthyphro dilemma is independent of the nature of gods as long as one thinks that gods are the source of morality. It matters not, in terms of the argument, whether we are talking Zeus and the Olympians or Yaveh.

    I also need to gently object to your comment about “suffering” atheism. I am an atheist, and I think we are capable of exactly the same feelings, as well as moral sentiments, of religious people. And I venture to say that if someone here had use that phrase with respect to religions you would, rightly, object. Cheers.

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  15. Labnut: “this is the real face of a living morality. This is the real face of a beautiful and inspiring religion. I gladly endure the unpleasantness of atheism because I know I am doing something worthwhile, because I am part of something unutterably beautiful and noble.”

    But certainly you know that one can based on a morality see that particular religion as be immoral and ignoble (for the usually listed reasons)!

    So there is a contradiction here.

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  16. You know Labnut, before my last comment I openly wondered if your were going to make a liar out of me :-). In all seriousness though, yes I’m happy that you have your wonderful church, and certainly realize that you are one of the fortunate. Observe that interactions with the philosophy community apparently haven’t been quite enough to prevent even Massimo from looking for the same validity (though I do hope that he doesn’t decide that his Stoic friends are good enough to leave us entirely!). Furthermore Marko does seem to be mischaracterized right now. I can at least say that I didn’t know how ugly things were going to get when I brought my newborn son to a doctor for the treatment I had as a baby (though I’m sure that girls get many orders worse in other cultures!).

    Every bit of this demonstrates my ultimate point — if we have no theoretical framework from which to assess good/bad for the conscious entity, then how are we to figure out how to effectively lead our lives and structure our societies? Short answer: Poorly!

    Utilitarianism, hedonism, epicureanism… such selfishness does indeed have a bad name. But ironically its truth mandates that we instead display altruism to others so that we might thus gain their cooperation. I suspect that acadamia will soon acknowledge what “our God” created, or selfishness as a true aspect of our nature. But then would such acknowledgement land us in some kind of repugnant “Derrik Parfit” type of scenario? I don’t generally think so — apparently he and the various utilitarians that he’s vanquished have had very little grasp of any associated “subjectivity.” (So this one’s for you Coel!)

    In Parfit’s “mere addition paradox” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mere_addition_paradox), he simply doesn’t acknowledge that different subjects are indeed different subjects! Regardless of anything else, if my happiness does happen to be promoted by the suffering of millions, then this will theoretically be good for me specifically — and so if I choose to shield them, this will inherently be to my own detriment. Furthermore, what if the negligible happiness of millions could be promoted through the horrible torture of hundreds? Well if they’re all considered to be in the same society, then perhaps the tremendous unhappiness of the tortured will be enough to make it technically bad for the whole? But also notice that we need not even consider the whole; we could arbitrarily decide the subject to be the millions with a negligibly promoted happiness. Thus the torture of hundreds would most certainly be good for that separately defined subject!

    Is this business repugnant? Is it immoral? HELL YEAH! But is it real? Yes, apparently this is what our God/evolution created as the essential motivation which drives the conscious entity. Denial of such realities will change nothing. I believe we must acknowledge this aspect of what we are in the quest to “properly” lead our lives and structure our societies — we’ve been playing an “unreal morality” game for far too long!

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  17. Massimo:

    I hesitate to wade into this whole Euthyphro business, but let me just point out that the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commenwealth, Jonathan Sacks, thinks that there is quite a difference between the Jewish conception of the divine and Plato’s Athenian milieu re: Euthyphro. From Sacks’ 2005 book To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility:

    Plato’s dilemma is elegant because it forces us to make a choice between two invidious possibilities: religion is either opposed to ethics or superfluous to it. In fact, however, Plato’s dilemma belongs to a particular time and place, Athens in the fourth century BCE. The culture of Plato’s day was mythic and polytheistic. The gods fought and committed appalling crimes. Kronos castrates his father Uranus, only to be murdered by his son Zeus in turn. Greek myth is amoral or pre-moral, and what Plato represents is one of the earliest attempts to think morally by breaking free from the mythological past. Looking back with the hindsight of history, we can see that for Plato, to be moral was to liberate yourself from the world of myth – much as Abraham, in Jewish tradition, could only arrive at truth by breaking his father’s idols. In their different ways, Abraham and Plato were both iconoclasts.

    In Judaism, the Euthyphro dilemma does not exist. God commands the good because it is good. Without this assumption, Abraham’s challenge over the fate of Sodom – ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?’ – would be incomprehensible. God and humans are equally answerable to the claims of justice. But the good is what God commands because God-the-lawgiver is also God-the-creator-and-redeemer. Morality mirrors the deep structure of the universe that God made and called good. Plato’s challenge arises because the Greek gods were not creators. Matter was eternal. The gods had no special authority except for the fact that they were held to be powerful. Plato was therefore correct to challenge the popular cults of his day by, in effect, drawing a principled distinction between might and right. The gods may be strong, but that is no reason to invest them with moral authority. For the Bible, however, God who teaches us how to act in the world is also the maker of the world in which we act. This means that in monotheism, morality means going with, not against, the grain of the cosmos and history. God himself empowers his prophets to challenge kings – even himself – in the name of justice or mercy. To be sure, there are occasions – most famously, the binding of Isaac – in which God seems to demand pure obedience; but this itself suggests that the story may be more subtle than it seems. Taken as a whole, Judaism embodies divine faith in the moral capacity and literacy of humankind. [see the aggadah of The Oven of Akhnai here- God himself is challenged by Torah]

    Aquinas’ answer was that, insofar as the good itself resides in God, the standard is internal, not external.

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  18. First, it is not at all surprising that a magazine that deal with science and philosophy bends back to questions of moral realism. It is an important question. What the parts of a cell are, what role quarks have, and how to make stronger metals are all interesting questions. But they do not come close to answering what we should do.
    Science has a certain fascination with popular culture so people might want to say they know this or that about science to prove how smart they are. But really smart people eventually get around to questioning what they should do. And much to the chagrin of scientists, science doesn’t answer this question. So we have certain amount of acrimony against philosophers coming from some corners of science.
    Philosophy deals with centrally important questions, science does not. There I said it. It’s a conclusion I am willing to defend.
    Moral realism defines? I agree that there is some ambiguity that still should be sorted out. These sorts of discussions are key. I don’t think it is right to say that every mathematical realist is a Platonist. I think mathematical truths are really true but I don’t think I am a mathematical Platonist.
    The moral realist does not think you can look out with a telescope and see “the good” any more than the person who thinks math is “really true” thinks you can look out with a telescope and see the number 4.

    There are mathematical truths and moral truths. And these truths have a hook in/attachment to reality. (“truth” by definition is that which accords with reality) For example if you have 2 peas and add 2 more peas you will, in reality, have 4 peas. This is true regardless of what you hink you have. Whether you think this may be true or false has no bearing on the mathematical truth and the truth that in “reality” you have 4 peas. Whether you can see the number 4 in a telescope is not relevant.
    Do you not think that is “really” the case? That is in reality, regardless of what we may think happens, if you have 2 peas and you add 2 more, you will then have 4?
    The same is true of moral realists. Holocausts were evil whether people believe they were or not. Of course, we do not literally see the evil itself. The objective realist thinks that certain actions are morally evil regardless of what we think. That is morality has a hook/connection in reality just like math does.

    Of course, mathematical truths can often be empirically demonstrated. Moral truths cannot – at least not directly. That is why it seems a “queer” sense if you do not believe in any higher being having a hand in the development of our sensibilities.

    Finally, I think the relativist might want to be considered a realist. Our feelings are real. Keeping our beliefs in line with reality is an important concern for many – myself included. So jettisoning realism will not be palatable to many.

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  19. labnut,

    Your comment is a splendid piece of writing, even if I disagree with the conclusions you draw from your experience. The ability to move the emotions is a basic function of language. That’s certainly one reason religious beliefs hold sway over many people.

    The function of religion has always been to provide a closed, structurally cohesive culture, either identifiable with the culture at large, or, in pluralistic societies, as a substantial sub-culture that counters perceived threats of the larger culture. That’s its strength; but also, for many of us, its weakness.

    As society opens into pluralism and encounters differing, oppositional cultures, whether for economic or political reasons, structural cohesion *inevitably* breaks down. It has to. The possibilities and opportunities offered by previously unknown cultural formations aren’t simply tempting, but many of them are actually clearly more successful than those offered by the previous religious beliefs. The culture of jazz not only offers an opportunity for the release of certain inhibitions, it offers more successful means for finding romantic others without limiting futher opportunites. (I use this example because white fundamentalists for some decades continued to object to the very existence of jazz as ‘devil’s music.’ If white fundamentalism presents a closed, cohesive, morally centered culture, then of course jazz could only be perceived by it as an ‘immoral’ threat.

    ‘But that’s pop-music, what’s that to do with morals?’ – *culture is ethics*. What we dance to (or whether we dance) is as much about our ethos as what laws we agree to.

    That’s why we have a meta-ethics, that tries to determine how there is any ethics at all (given differing cultures), as well as ethical theories, that try to determine normative possibilities within a pluralistic field. (Closed societies do not have ethical theories, they have sacred texts and recognized interpreters expounding moral directives.)

    I’ve long held a double ethic – a social ethic that allows me to pay my taxes, observe various laws, even when I’m not in agreement with them, etc. – and a personal ethic that determines how I act. As an American paying taxes, I’m complicit in the of atrocities this government has commited across the world – all Americans are. Most of us continue, because failing to do so not only gets us in trouble with legal authorities, it cuts us off from our society, denying us what little voice we have in public discourse.

    In my personal ethic, I try to determine what I can do within my local communities, how I might respond to the people immediately around me. (Buddhism is always about what is just right here, as it is.)

    Such situations thus create the need for a philosophy of ethics.

    jarnauga111,

    “morality means going with, not against, the grain of the cosmos and history.”

    An old punk-rocker, I don’t mind going against the grain of cosmos and history. If god doesn’t like it, too bad.

    (But if god is not superior to our understanding of good, he is not unlimited.)

    Like

  20. Hi Aravis. You’ve asked:

    Could you explain how a theist, who believes that all morals come from divine commands, could be an anti-realist about morals?

    I do suppose that I take Labnut at his word. Furthermore even if there were tremendous evidence to believe in a given deity (unlike what we seem to have), no I don’t consider such a message to be such an absolute mandate. I believe that each of our terms are just humanly fabricated inventions, not “platonic reality.” Even if this “God” were to teach us English and print such a definition out on our foreheads, this should still not reference the exact same “morality” concept that we’re now discussing. Observe that even WE don’t know what exactly it is that we’re discussing — we’re simply throwing ideas around regarding something that we don’t even consider objectively real!

    I might also mention that in the dueling essays which you and Daniel Tippens presented regarding hospice care, where we commenters were firmly instructed to not “go meta,” it was my second comment observing that we weren’t actually provided a formal “morality” definition from which to build our comments (a comment that was rejected for “going meta”), and this seemed to inspire Massimo to finally present such a formal definition himself. He said:

    “So rights (and duties) are, naturalistically, simply legal and cultural agreement [which we] make with each other about how to behave in a society.”

    (By the way, in my rejected comment I theorized the origins of morality essentially as a social dynamic from which to manipulate others, and thus wondered if either of you also considered morality to have such manipulative origins. No worries however. You may also recall my second such “going meta” rejection, which I sent you directly. I was quite happy with your response!)

    So yes I truly do not like this arbitrary and non fundamental “morality” business, and especially given that it seems to dominate what I consider to be a very important field, or “ethics.” Of course I must also acknowledge that if my ideas are as solid as I believe, then you could potentially be a tremendous asset for me. Therefore I’ll now directly ask what you think about trying to get more fundamental that “morality”? I know that you’ve recently joked about being “Hedonist,” and I won’t soon forget that when Massimo was discussing his Stoicism, you casually claimed an “Epicurean” title. Perhaps this was some “Freudian Honesty”? So then what do you think about “qualia” as a fundamental, or even biological, definition of good/bad for the conscious entity?

    Like

  21. Massimo,
    Labnut, the Euthyphro dilemma is independent of the nature of gods as long as one thinks that gods are the source of morality

    I believe I can, in reply, make a strong case, but the format of this blog intentionally limits deeper discussions(for good reasons, I might add). I may make my case over at Aravis’ excellent blog, Apophenia(http://daniel-kaufman-rpur.squarespace.com/) where we are already enjoying a good conversation.

    My real concern is this remark

    I also need to gently object to your comment about “suffering” atheism. I am an atheist, and I think we are capable of exactly the same feelings, as well as moral sentiments, of religious people. And I venture to say that if someone here had use that phrase with respect to religions you would, rightly, object.

    I agree that atheists are capable of the same moral sentiments, after all the great majority of my friends are atheists and I choose friends who reflect my values. But do they choose to act on those sentiments? Some individual atheists do, and I know some of them. Nevertheless, it is a simple fact that the great majority of those at the front lines of compassion are religionists. For example, the two large operators of soup kitchens in my locality are Muslim and Catholic.

    The reason is simple enough, religion has, at its core, the business of moral motivation while atheism has no inherent moral content(understandably). Thus there is an extensive network of churches that make it their business to motivate moral, compassionate behaviour. Lacking an inherent moral content, atheist organisations, on the other hand, find it easy to make it their business to destroy religion. This is a stark and shocking contrast.

    It need not, and should not be like this. Humanity deserves something better. What is required of us is that we work together for social justice because in that way we create synergy and mobilise every possible resource. The needs of humanity demand that we do this. For that to happen atheism must discover, as religion has done, a powerfully motivated moral purpose. Science has spectacularly failed to provide one.

    Furthermore, we live in liberal democracies. They have an underlying ethos of freedom to choose, of respect for the right of others to choose and tolerance for their choices. Atheist organisations, by choosing to destroy religion, are acting in denial of this most basic liberal ethos. This does not mean we may not criticise each other. We may and we should, respectfully and tolerantly. Society depends, for its well being, on a creative tension between contrasting viewpoints and interest groups. This is a healthy state but when one faction sets out to destroy another it is no longer healthy, it is pathological.

    You should read this moving article by NY Times’ columnist, Nicholas Kristof – ‘He’s Jesus Christ‘ (http://nyti.ms/1dsCYw6)
    Somehow Kristof smuggled this article past the NY Times editorial policy. Or maybe not, it is even more astonishing to find this article on the NY Times – ‘Looking Away From Abortion‘ (http://nyti.ms/1gZ7IHs). Perhaps the NY Times has also discovered the meaning of creative tension.

    Like

  22. jarnauga,

    “In Judaism, the Euthyphro dilemma does not exist. God commands the good because it is good.”

    I’ve heard that before, but the good rabbi is simply engaging in wishful thinking when he says that the dilemma is specific to Plato’s place and culture. To say that “God is good” is simply to fall straight into one of the two horns: it means that there are standards of goodness that are independent of God, which implies that goodness is independent of the gods, so they are not its source.

    “Aquinas’ answer was that, insofar as the good itself resides in God, the standard is internal, not external”

    This is Aquinas’ making up a somewhat nonsensical answer: what does it even mean that goodness itself resides in God? The only way I can interpret it is that God decides what is good, which is the other horn of the dilemma.

    Eric,

    “‘Could you explain how a theist, who believes that all morals come from divine commands, could be an anti-realist about morals?’

    I do suppose that I take Labnut at his word”

    This isn’t a question of taking Labnut at his words, Aravis was asking for an account of how one could subscribe to a divine command theory of morality and yet not be a moral realist. From a philosophical perspective, that’s just not possible/coherent.

    Labnut,

    “it is a simple fact that the great majority of those at the front lines of compassion are religionists”

    Besides the fact that this is entirely irrelevant to my comment about your “suffering” atheism, there are two obvious responses: a) there are many more religionists, and many more religious organizations, than atheist ones. A number of atheist organizations do engage in charity work. b) Religionists are also at the forefront of a ideological violence and repression across the world. You can’t just pick and choose the good stuff and ignore the bad one.

    “The reason is simple enough, religion has, at its core, the business of moral motivation”

    That’s one interpretation. Another is that religion is about people’s fear of disappearing into nothingness and their desperate need of someone telling them otherwise. It’s likely a combination of both. But this, again, has nothing to do with “suffering” atheism.

    “Atheist organisations, by choosing to destroy religion, are acting in denial of this most basic liberal ethos”

    There are just as many atheist organizations bent on “destroying” religion (usually they phrase it as “replacing it,” I am not aware of any violent atheist organization) as there are churches and mosques bent on eradicating the infidels (usually with a heavy use of violent rhetoric).

    Like

  23. Hi Marko,

    Incidentally, not all species are like that …

    Agreed. A moral system is a property of a species and is based on evolutionary programming particular to that species. It is clear, for example, that bonobos have different moral values to us.

    There is no way to judge an ethical system in any way except by implicitly using another ethical system. But both systems are completely arbitrary, …

    You are right that (given the falsity of moral realism) there is no way to judge any moral system objectively. But I would not use the word “arbitrary”, rather I would say that morals are subjective and contingent on our evolutionary heritage.

    Circumcision is rather an emotive issue, but I agree that by all the standards of medical ethics it is not ethical to cut healthy tissue off a healthy baby who cannot consent, lacking any medical need. That is not a fringe opinion, it is the position of many medical associations and child-rights groups. For example the “official view of the Royal Dutch Medical Association is that non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors is a violation of children’s rights to autonomy and physical integrity”.

    Excusing this on the grounds that it is vastly less harmful than FGM is rather like excusing fiddling your tax return on the grounds that it is vastly less bad than the ENRON fraud. In the UK it is illegal to tattoo a minor, even if the parents wish it, for reasons of consent, and the same principle should apply to circumcision.

    Of course there’s not a cat in hell’s chance of politicians making an issue of this, for obvious reasons, but one can hope that religions might move to circumcision being done at the age of majority, for those that want it. That is not anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish (there are Jews who agree) it is pro-child.

    Hi labnut,

    The strange thing is that we believe in the realism of the laws of nature. … They will continue to function after our local supernova fries us to a crisp.

    This argument misunderstands what “laws of nature” actually are. They are simply descriptions of nature, ones that can be summarised in one equation or one sentence. They have no “normative force” and are not entities going around directing matter.

    Hi Massimo,

    A number of atheist organizations do engage in charity work.

    While I agree entirely, it is also important to point out that atheism is merely what someone is NOT (not a theist). Atheists only organize as atheists for particular political ends such as promoting secularism. When atheists do charity, they mostly help charities, not atheist charities.

    I’ve never seen a “non-smoker” version of Christian Aid, but that doesn’t mean that non-smokers are less charitable. Christians like labnut like to judge charity by which banner is being waved when doing it, even though Jesus told them not to.

    Like

  24. Labnut: “Nevertheless, it is a simple fact that the great majority of those at the front lines of compassion are religionists. For example, the two large operators of soup kitchens in my locality are Muslim and Catholic.”

    I remember a photo of Paul Ryan (a Catholic, and a Republican representative from Wisconsin) working in a soup kitchen to show his “compassion” for the poor, but is the architect of a federal budget that would do harm to them. The positive moral points that Ryan scores are reversed into the negative by what he does when not working in a soup kitchen.

    The point is you have to to look at the whole person and their context to evaluate their morality.

    Like

  25. Massimo:

    I’m not a theologian and I don’t really have a dog in this Euthyphro fight. I will say, however, that both Sacks in terms of his assertion that God as creator as the key and Aquinas seem to point to the same response, namely going between the horns of the dilemma by identifying God himself with the Good. That means that that goodness is neither a nominalist tag nor a realist external standard, but a reference to God’s essence itself. That provides one sort of answer to Euthyphro. The problem with it comes about in terms of the notion of the unitary nature of God. If God is goodness, then he is also all the attributes we ascribe to him, all of which are equivalents, which is problematic. Aquinas responds to this by asserting that the perfections of God (goodness, omniscience, etc) necessarily appear separately to finite creatures but pre-exist in a united fashion in God. (Summa Theologica 1a 13, Article 4 (Whether names applied to God are synonymous).

    Perhaps answers like these are ultimately unsound or unsatisfactory to our modern sensibilities, but I think it important to point out that, at least in Judaism and Christianity, this problem has not been ignored.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. I think you are dwelling too much on Plato’s forms to understand what people who are moral realists believe. I am a realist about morality and about “tallness.” I don’t think we can see perfect tallness with a telescope. But I do think the Sears Tower is taller than the Eiffel Tower.

    This belief is either true or false. It being true or false is not decided on my believing it or others believing it. Reality determines if it is true or false. If from base to top the Sears Tower has more length than the Eiffel Tower, then my belief is true.

    A realist of a subject thinks reality is the arbiter of the truth of claims made in subject.

    The same is true of certain mathematical truths. If when I add 2 to 3 it is five then my claim “2+3=5” is true. It is not my subjective belief that makes the claim 2+3=5 true.

    Likewise genocides are wrong regardless of what we may think. They don’t become good if only people who like them are alive.

    I don’t understand what all the talk about “accessing realms.” But I do agree it may be very difficult for someone (who believes everything about us came about through evolution and had no other guidance) to believe they would have reliable beliefs about morality.

    This is because unlike tallness or even math we have no physical indicia that demonstrate the truth of what is right or wrong. We can see if something is longer. We can see if there is more or less of something. We can’t directly see the good or evil. Accordingly, as Sharon Street, Richard Joyce, Thomas Nagel, and Mark Linnville have argued (even Mackie was on to this a bit) even if morality is a feature of reality we would have no way to believe we reliably know what it dictates.

    But how we would know the dictates of morality is a separate question than the question of whether morality is a feature of reality.

    You have not presented an argument that morality is not a feature of reality. Do you think it must not be a feature of reality because we cannot sense it empirically? That is, the only things that exist in reality are those we can empirically detect? Why believe reality must be that way?

    To the extent we don’t know if there is really a moral way to act we should assume there is. After all if there were not really a right wrong way to act then you don’t act wrongly regardless. So the question is how can we know (or at least justifiably believe) what way we should act?

    Liked by 1 person

  27. I have found that “mind independent” in this area generally means that the truth is not dependent on our beliefs about it. It is dependent on reality. Just like the truth of whether one building is taller than another is not dependent on what we believe or care about.

    But sometimes ambiguity sneaks in. We can believe in “mind independent” moral realism and still think intentions play an important role in judging whether behavior is ethical. ( mens rea) Also we can believe that the universe would have no morals if no minds existed.

    I think you may want to deal with what “truth” means to you. I think the correspondence theory of truth is probably the most widely held understanding of truth – and for good reason. Coherence theories of truth I think tend to stray from what people mean by something being true. You seem to casually shrug off the correspondence theory of truth and adopt a coherence theory. That makes following what you mean difficult.

    IMO You’re too quick to jettison reality as a grounding for your beliefs without giving a satisfactory defense.

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  28. Massimo,
    I am not aware of any violent atheist organization

    Well, let’s see – the Soviet Communist Party was explicitly atheist and set about destroying the Christian church in the Soviet Union with great violence. Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party is explicitly atheist and it too set about destroying the Christian church with great violence. Right now it is once again subjecting the Christian church to strong persecution, arresting supporters, imprisoning clergy and destroying churches. And let us not forget the poor Buddhists in Tibet who have endured extreme suffering. What is more the Muslim provinces of China(Xinjiang, Gansu, and Ningxia) are suffering violent persecution.

    In the world’s largest ever social experiment religion was crushed and banished by the atheist regimes of the Soviet Union, Communist China and Pol Pot. Churches were destroyed wholesale and countless religious believers were executed. With the crushing of religion the prime source of moral thought was lost. This unleashed what is in all likelihood one of mankind’s worst periods of cruelty. It is estimated that 120 million people were killed by these atheist communist regimes.

    From these large scale social experiments we know exactly what is the outcome of atheism. It is an awful, horrifying prospect.

    And yet, impossibly, Christianity survived these worst ever persecutions that far exceeded what the Romans could do. And today Christianity is growing in Russia and China with renewed vigour.

    And let us not forget what Sam Harris said:
    Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them
    Sam Harris, The End of Faith, pp.52-53.
    This is precisely what the atheist Communists did in the Soviet Union and Communist China. Sam Harris could easily have been a strategy advisor to the Communists. We will never know exactly how many Christians were murdered because murderers do not publish their figures. But we do know from a great number of accounts that the number is very large indeed.

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  29. Labnut, so we are playing the Stalin card now? You think the USSR qualifies as an “atheist organization” within the context of what we were talking about? As you know perfectly well, I’m the first one to remind my atheist friends that the problem is ideology, not religion, and secular ideologies are just as dangerous, as in the case of Stalin’s. But our discussion was about charity and such, not about institutionalized ideologies. If you want to play that game, historically religion has had more than its share. But why would you want to play that game?

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Joe:

    I am a realist about morality and about “tallness.” I don’t think we can see perfect tallness with a telescope. But I do think the Sears Tower is taller than the Eiffel Tower.

    This belief is either true or false. It being true or false is not decided on my believing it or others believing it. Reality determines if it is true or false. If from base to top the Sears Tower has more length than the Eiffel Tower, then my belief is true.

    ————————————————

    Given that statements concerning size are relative to frames of reference, I don’t see how one could be a Realist about tallness, in the sense of “Realist” intended by philosophers.

    As for your statements regarding the correspondance theory of truth, you need to read the literature. The theory is plagued with problems, for which no one has found adequate solutions. This is why so many philosophers have turned to deflationary theories of truth.

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  31. Hi Coel, unless you use “programmed” to describe the constitution, motions, and interactions of planets and stars, your use of that term to describe biological, psychological, and sociological phenomena is not appropriate. It is too laden with purpose and correspondence (gene to phenomena) to be accurate. I guess this is the last time I will mention it, so as not to blow a fuse. But I wish you’d choose a different term.

    Also, not sure why you think Bonobos have different moral values? Their social behavior can be seen more or less within the breadth of human social behavior.

    Hi DanK and Massimo, on Euthyphro, if the point is that moral rules within overall existence must be arbitrary because there is nothing which impinges on God and so it is up to his tastes, then I would agree. But I still don’t see how that alters the fact that within any universe he creates, the moral rules there are not arbitrary for the inhabitants of that universe.

    For example we can agree there are no moral rules in this universe. But if I make a sub-universe with all sorts of creatures, I could design them with the intent that they act in specific ways, and if they do not, mark them in some way as defective (and perhaps “punish” them). It would seem then that moral rules actually exist for them, even if they do not for me or anyone outside their sub-universe, right?

    To DanK, Marko,Jarnauga111, and Coel, I was going to let the issue of circumcision go, but a bit too much has been said. Keep in mind that I am not jewish, was circumcised anyway (common practice), and not against it.

    If the concept is that morality can be objective, based on appeals to human interests, Marko presented the common argument against both FGM and MGM from that angle. With no rancor intended, DanK and Jarnauga seemed too glib in their dismissal of the connection, avoiding discussion how MGM differs from FGM on those points. No one I know of ever argued for “foreskin rights”, just rights of children not to be surgically altered for no medical reason. It may sound humorous but probably not to the many males who lost more than a foreskin to that operation, and in some cases (especially within poorer countries) their lives. As it is, most FGM practices are not the extremes, and almost all physical danger comes from lack of medical knowledge/equipment and not the nature of the surgery itself. In any case, Coel rightly pointed out how less relative damage does not constitute an argument for acceptability.

    I am sincerely interested how the framework concept applies to assessments of M/FGM practices, particularly given the numbers who felt they have lost something and others nothing from the same event. Replies offsite are ok.

    This is #5 so I can’t respond.

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  32. Hi Joe,

    And much to the chagrin of scientists, science doesn’t answer this question [of what we should do]. Philosophy deals with centrally important questions, science does not. There I said it.

    Someone was bound to argue that on this thread, so here is the reply! 🙂

    By “science can’t tell us what to do” people mean that science cannot generate normativity and prescribe ethical values. They are entirely right.

    That’s because ethical values are, at root, how people feel about things. Since science is not a person with feelings, science doesn’t prescribe values. Only humans can do that. Similarly, philosophy is not a human with feelings, so philosophy doesn’t prescribe values either! People are right when they say that science “cannot tell us what we should do”, but nor can philosophy. Philosophy cannot prescribe your ethical framework for you — that’s your choice.

    If moral realism were true, one could look to philosophy or science to prescribe values. But moral realism is false. There are only human values and feelings. Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.

    Thus the question “what should we do?” — taken in the abstract — is misconceived. The basic problem is that people don’t sort out what that question actually means.

    The only properly posed questions are of the form: Given human nature, human feelings and values (and indeed my own values) what will best lead to human contentment; what will best lead to a flourishing society; how will my life turn out if I adopt X? And “what should we do?” questions are fine as a shorthand for that properly posed form.

    Those properly posed questions are descriptive. The answers to them are objective facts about how the world is. The questions are about human nature and human psychology, and about sociology and economics and politics. There is nothing there that is outside the remit of science — science excels at description.

    Humans are very complex, so hard to understand, and societies are complex interactions of complex humans. To make things yet harder, human nature and values are themselves malleable, being influenced by everyone else. But none of this is outside the scope of science.

    People are entirely right that one can’t marry science with moral realism, but marrying science to a proper understanding of morality as subjective is straightforward.

    Hi labnut,

    From these large scale social experiments we know exactly what is the outcome of atheism.

    Such events were not the “outcome of atheism”, they were an outcome of communist ideology. Communist ideology was totalitarian and so oppressed competing loyalties such as religion. Atheism was a product of their ideology, not the driver.

    Hi dbholmes, my phrase was behaviour “based on evolutionary programming …”. Programming seems an appropriate word for the recipe of instructions that are our genes. It’s not a denial of all the other influences.

    On bonobos, I was referring to sexual behaviour, which seems outwith human norms (and also clearly distinct from Pan troglodytes).

    Like

  33. #5, Massimo,
    so we are playing the Stalin card now?

    Yes, because it was an event of extraordinary significance that has a direct bearing on the atheism/religion debate. Violence is always a moral failure and the violence of Communism was a moral failure on a grand scale never seen before. We must ask how that could happen. Consider these cases:

    1. Strong institutions contain or limit moral failures.
    If the accountings systems are strong, dishonest people have limited opportunity to steal.

    2. Weak institutions are porous and enable moral failures.
    Dishonest people exploit weaknesses in the accounting system to steal.

    3. An institutional failure will not result in wrong if there is no moral failure.
    Honest people will not steal even if the accounting systems are weak.

    4. A moral failure combined with an institutional failure results in the greatest wrong.
    Where the staff are dishonest and the accounting systems are weak we can be sure they will ransack the place.

    From 1, 2, 3 and 4, above, we can see that the first line of defense against wrong is morality and the second line of defense are strong institutions. Where there are great wrongs there is first a moral failure and second an institutional failure.

    In the West we are blessed with good institutions that limit the wrong resulting from moral failures. But our institutions are porous and not sufficient to contain all the wrongs resulting from moral failures. And much worse, moral failures tend to progressively dismantle good institutions.

    In the Communist systems we saw the combined effects of moral failure and institutional failure on a grand scale. This was the perfect storm that caused such great harm. By dismantling religion they dismantled the main source of moral priming in their societies and this amplified the effects of their institutional failure. Indeed, moral failure enabled institutional failure.

    For all these reasons anyone who wishes to dismantle/destroy religion must proceed with great care. Communism is the paradigmatic example of what can go wrong. Here is the problem, atheism has nothing to replace the moral priming supplied by religion and Communism demonstrated this vividly. Science will not do the job(pace Harris) and our media has a most spotty record when it comes to moral priming.

    So then where will the moral priming come from if there is no religion? Atheism does not have a persuasive answer to this question. That amorphous thing called culture is not an answer. Moreover a moral system must have motivational power and this is exactly the one thing that atheism cannot supply. Religion may be imperfect but it supplies moral priming and it has motivational power, two things that atheism cannot supply.

    AC Grayling understood this problem and that is why he wrote the Good Book. That sorry attempt is resting in well deserved obscurity. We need grand and inspiring narratives to motivate us and we need believable leaders. Religion aspires to provide both while atheism aspires to provide neither.

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  34. Aravis Tarkheena
    “Given that statements concerning size are relative to frames of reference, I don’t see how one could be a Realist about tallness, in the sense of “Realist” intended by philosophers.”
    _____________________________________________________________

    That they are relative does not mean they are not real. There are 2 different senses the term “relative” can be used. A moral realist like myself can very well maintain that:
    1) accidentally killing someone while driving negligently
    is relatively less wrong, than
    2) intentionally running someone over with your car.

    The relativity that I reject is not that some actions are more wrong than others, or that buildings are relatively taller than others. It’s the notion that whether an act is right or wrong (or a building is tall or short) is relative to the community or person making the claim.

    I never got the sense that moral realists or others dealing in meta-ethics thought that to be a realist you must reject that some things are relatively worse than others. That would be a very hard line to defend, but a largely irrelevant one.

    Aravis Tarkheena

    “As for your statements regarding the correspondance theory of truth, you need to read the literature. The theory is plagued with problems, for which no one has found adequate solutions. This is why so many philosophers have turned to deflationary theories of truth.”

    ________________________________________________________

    This may be. I am not claiming I am on the cutting edge. But I hope you would agree that the correspondence view of truth is likely the most traditional view of truth. To the extent you do, perhaps we could have some discussion of this issue in the webzine. When I was studying philosophy (early 90s) the correspondence theory of truth was how truth was understood. Moreover I think it has a tremendous common sense appeal. That is why when we shed the idea and just start using the word “truth” as though it means something different I get a bit confused.

    People want their beliefs to correspond with reality. If we are going to deny that a proposition is true if and only if it accords with reality, then I am suddenly less interested in truth. You can call whatever you like “truth” but then “truth” may lose its significance.

    Coel:
    “That’s because ethical values are, at root, how people feel about things.”
    _________________________________________

    I’m not so sure of this. Why do you think this? Massimo seems to assert this as well but I am not sure I have heard a good reason supporting this claim.

    Coel:
    “If moral realism were true, one could look to philosophy or science to prescribe values.”

    __________________________________-

    I wonder if you think you could shape this into an argument. Are you assuming that all of reality must necessarily be revealed by philosophy and science? That seems a pretty big assumption. And anyway some people might think philosophy is the place to look to prescribe values.

    I guess I hear allot of people claiming that morality is not real but I am not getting very many reasons to adopt that view.

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  35. Labnut Not all atheists are Sam Harris. Not all atheist are New Atheists of any sort. This has been pointed out to you before. I wish you would stop. I don’t expect you will, though, so I keep my expectations low.

    Specifics of today? Tibetans are persecuted for ethnicity first, Buddhism second. That said, pre-1959 Tibet was NOT Richard Gere’s Shangri-La. Rather, it was the Himalayan equivalent of a medieval Christian theocratic bishopric-state, with Tibetan peasants as serfs to the lamas of the various monasteries.

    No, the quasi-ethnic cleansing by Beijing is not good, overall, but, in many ways, many Tibetans’ lives are better today.

    And, to go one better than Massimo, Christians committed cannibalism on the First Crusade.

    Jarnauga by name, and others. No, no, no. The only escape from the horns of Euthyphro is the one I mentioned earlier. No matter what color your divine critter is, or by what name you call him/her/it, you have to reject either omnipotence or omnibenevolence. Period and end of story.

    No, it’s not been “ignored.” Rather, there have been attempts to explain it away, and they’ve all failed.

    And, DB, sub-universes aren’t an escape either, as along as you’re trying to claim that the deity of the main, overarching universe is both omnibenevolent and omnipotent.)

    There is NO escape short of rejecting one of the two omnis, period.

    Then you’re back at my Star Trek clip. In the 21st century, let alone the 23rd, rather than for Arcadian shepherds, is Apollo a god? Not for me.

    I wish people would understand that. That said, to be honest, I’m not sure how much of this is lack of understanding, and how much is refusal to accept.

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  36. A lot of interesting posts, perhaps because of a general underlying agreement on many issues. My few scattered thoughts were on value, and on social ontology, a topic others alluded to. Value to an organism exists whether or not that organism is aware of it – it is real at the level of survival. Going up the levels, the value embodied in fiat currency is just as real – the codes used within the nervous system are effective by reason of the organisation of that system – the actual forms they take are contingent. And higher again, say the value of an individual’s ethical behaviour to the survival of the scientific enterprise (no faking, dissemination of knowledge, training of the next generation…). To a similar extent re Massimo’s example of etiquette – one can reduce the price of anarchy in a complex system in many different ways, nevertheless each solution increases value by, say, stopping people bumping elbows at a crowded table.
    So, morality is real at the level of large social entities and maximizes value at that level – we are all agreed there? And ethics tries to make sense of morality? It may be incoherent to say that the US is conscious, but surely not to say it has interests? As an algorithmic level, it is implemented by social interactions and by internalization of rules. Value may well not accrue to an individual by their right action, no more than it does for individual cells in the multicellular organism.

    The biconditional ethical precepts “if I value X, then I ought to Y” are where scientistic (we haven’t had one mention yet!) reality-based moral reasoning is possible. Given a finite lifespan, we can choose (or not) what longer-lived larger entities we wish to support eg “future generations of humanity”, “life”, “Stoicism”, but as with solipsism, there are no knock-down arguments.

    As to plausible repairs to divine command theory, John Danaher regularly discusses that literature eg
    http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com.au/2015/07/epistemology-communication-and-divine.html

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  37. #5
    Given that the topic of the present post happens to be “Moral Realism,” and that the overwhelming consensus here happens to be that for whatever the reason this stuff just isn’t objectively real, I would have thought that my four previous comments suggesting that perhaps we should regress back to an idea that might indeed be real, would have received some interest. Beyond PeterJ, who apparently does acknowledge modern philosophy’s failure in this regard (no word yet if he likes my potential solution!), I have been ignored. I do suppose that I’ve sought too much too fast. Observe that if my position were instead simply an ignorant one, then by now this should have been demonstrated publicly for all to see.

    So then who shall engage me in the mean time as my ideas become more familiar? My hope has been Coel — this professor/physicist/astronomer should have no qualms about altering a field outside of his own, and especially given his tremendous passion for philosophy itself. Furthermore I understand that he actually began as a utilitarian, though unlike myself had the intellect to intimately explore the position. Thus I suspect that the reason he renounced this utilitarianism, was because he was unable to overcome its immorality. But will he again take up the ideology of his youth, by instead renouncing morality? Perhaps he’ll also need a bit more time to adjust. Yes, I really must try to be patient…

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