Is religion more bad than good?

Atheists sometimes assert that the world would be a better place if people outgrew religion and it vanished into the dustbin of history.

scalesImplicit in the assertion is an extremely doubtful cost/benefit analysis. Ending religion would make the world a better place only if religion does more harm than good.

I say “extremely doubtful” because I don’t know how you would begin to dismantle history in such a way as to make an objective measurement. Nonetheless, atheists seem to know (there’s that word again) that religion does more harm than good. I frequently see claims to this effect on the internet.

I’m thinking about this topic after reading the latest exchange between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan in their ongoing debate over God’s existence. Harris writes:

Your determination to have your emotional and spiritual needs met within the tradition of Catholicism has kept you from discovering that there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry that is not contingent upon culture in the way that all religions are. …

I’m asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is. …

Rather than pick over the carcass of Christianity (or any other traditional faith) looking for a few, uncontaminated morsels of wisdom, why not take a proper seat at the banquet of human understanding in the present? … There is new wine (slowly) being poured. Why not catch it with a clean glass?

Sullivan expresses amusement at Harris’s use of the passive tense. The children “are taught”:

By whom? You? Who is teaching these finally liberated children, and on whose authority? And where is this discourse they will enter that is “contingency-free”? I have never heard or read or engaged in one.

Later, Sullivan presses on in a direction that took me by surprise:  he sings the praises of Roman Catholic tradition:

Yes, you will cite the terrible parts of [the Church’s] history, parts I have not shied from myself. But you have missed so much more. …

The more I questioned and asked, the more history and theology I engaged in, the more I used reason to inquire into faith, the more remarkable the achievement of Christianity appeared to me. … I felt blessed to have been given this gift, amazed at my good fortune. The thought of throwing it away for a “clean glass” that is itself an illusion seems absurd to me.

Why would I want to forget all of that precious inheritance – the humility of Mary, the foolishness of Peter, the genius of Paul, the candor of Augustine, the genius of Francis, the glory of Chartres cathedral, the haunting music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the ecstasies of Teresa, the rigor of Ignatius, the whole astonishing, ravishing panoply of ancient Christianity that suddenly arrived at my door, in a banal little town in an ordinary family in the grim nights of the 1970s in England?

You want to be contingency-free? Maybe you need a richer slice of contingency. There is more wisdom, depth, range, glory, nuance and truth in my tradition than can be dreamt of in your rationalism. In answer to your question, “why not leave all this behind?” my answer is simply: why on earth would I?

This is not the way I would have responded to Harris. Despite my commitment to theism and to Jesus Christ, I am not much of a church-goer. The church experience lost its most of its meaning for me a long time ago, I am sad to say.

Nonetheless, I am impressed by Sullivan’s appeal to the “astonishingly rich inheritance” of the Church. I have spent untold hours over many years investigating the “historical” Jesus. Thus I understand the power that history can exercise over the heart and mind:  how it can inform and enrich present experience.

And who can idly dismiss Sullivan’s point when he speaks of the candor of Augustine, the genius of Francis, the glory of Chartres cathedral, the art of Michelangelo, etc.? Only a very small-minded individual would deny that this is, indeed, an astonishingly rich inheritance.

Does such a rich inheritance prove that God exists? No. But I wish to address those folks who glibly assume that the world would be a better place without religion. Let’s have a full accounting; let’s take every debit and every credit into account in our cost/benefit analysis!

Yes, the Church has been responsible for some deplorable evils. Equally, the Church has been responsible for much great good.

Whether the good outweighs the harm is open to debate. But when Harris refers to Christianity’s “few, uncontaminated morsels of wisdom” he demonstrates appalling ignorance and insularity.

Advertisements

63 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Simen
    Feb 17, 2007 @ 23:02:52

    I don’t think we can easily find out how the world would be without religion so long as we have no world without religion accessible. Thus blindly asserting that ridding the world of religion would make it paradise is misled. However, it would certainly put a stop to conflicts rooted in religion. The trouble is distinguishing what parts of the conflict root in culture and what parts in religion, since they’re so intertwined.

    I think most of the great stuff that’s come out of religion would have been there anyway. I also think that at least some of the bad stuff that’s come out of religion would have been there anyway. Some conflicts are more difficult to get rid of, though. Since there are lots of incompatible religions, and out of all those religions there’s come lots of good, it’s obvious to see that good can come without a valid religion, since most of the religions must be false. It’s more difficult to see how some of the conflicts that arise specifically from religious differences would arise without religion. Then again, often religion is just a tool in some leader’s toolbox used in order to control the masses. In such cases, it’s equally obvious that the evils would have been there anyway.

    I don’t for a second by into the crap about how either evil or good requires religion. These are all part of human nature and would be there anyway. Some of the good things believers have done were because of faith, but many were not. The scientific discoveries that many believers have done through the years, for instance, have not been because they found remarkable ideas in scripture that turned out to be true but because they independently investigated it. SImilarly, some of the evils done by believers have been because of religion, but others have been because of instincts or culture. Some wars would have been between cultures instead of between religions. Some would not.

    I’d like to get rid of extremist religion, though. That, I am convinced, would only lead to a better world. Not much good has come out of that. The actions of religious extremists are done because of religion. Even if they might have found a substitute in the absence of religion, that’s a moot point. If and when they find substitutes, I’ll oppose them. For now, I’ll oppose the (extremist) religion that makes them do so.

    I disagree with this, however:

    You want to be contingency-free? Maybe you need a richer slice of contingency. There is more wisdom, depth, range, glory, nuance and truth in my tradition than can be dreamt of in your rationalism. In answer to your question, “why not leave all this behind?” my answer is simply: why on earth would I?

    This, too, is a bare assertion. I don’t see why the Christian tradition is any more rich on wisdom, depth, range, glory, nuance and (especially, since I think it is false) truth than other traditions. Christianity is a religion, but it’s not a particularly spectacular one save for the sheer number of its adherents. Neither the deeds nor the doctrine is original or somehow better than any other traditions’ deeds and doctrines. Only the sheer number of adherents differentiates Christianity and other religions, and there’s lots of differences internally in Christianity too. That’s to be expected, seeing as nearly a third of the world’s population follows it.

    Also, this:

    The more I questioned and asked, the more history and theology I engaged in, the more I used reason to inquire into faith, the more remarkable the achievement of Christianity appeared to me.

    I fail to see what’s there to be impressed about. Sure, if you believe it to be true, that’s perhaps something to be impressed about. But looking at the religion disregarding the question about its truth value, what’s so special about Christianity, and Roman Catholic Christianity in particular? Not much. It’s not particularly innovative. There haven’t been more great achievements because of it than because of other religions, at least proportional to the number of adherents. And, truth to be told, I find Norse and Greek mythology to be far more entertaining.

    I’m also unimpressed by theology. It seems like the art of making up fantasy worlds and studying them. This is opposed to Bible study, where one actually deals with a real source (albeit one I believe to be untruthful and know to be self-contradictory) and philosophy, where one deals with the fundamental questions both on the abstract and concrete level, but never confuse the two.

    So, to conclude: to remove religion, you’d have to replace it with something, because it, like it or not, has no many both useful and unuseful functions. Talking about simply removing it is meaningless without also discussing its alternatives, something Harris here seems to ignore. Since we have no access to a religion-free world, we don’t know how such a world would look like. Many of the evils present in the world would still be here. Some would not. Most of the good would probably be here, too, but again it depends on the replacement. I think it’s misguided to think that religion is required for these goods and evils to be there. Removing religion would certainly get rid of religiously rooted conflicts. Perhaps they would instead be rooted in culture. If that were the case, I’d oppose that. I don’t think religion will ever be completley eradicated, because people are still superstitious. It seems to be a natural tendency. When science comes closer to finding the answers to some of the questions people answer with religion, perhaps religion’s market lead will decrease. Religion is probably good for many things. One thing it’s totally useless for is understanding the nature of the universe. The accomplishments in this area that have been done by believers have all been in spite of their belief, not because of them. Scripture hasn’t provided insight into the fundamentals of the world. Then again, the Bible was probably intended as a cheap answer because nobody knows anyway.

    Reply

  2. JewishAtheist
    Feb 18, 2007 @ 01:11:11

    I agree that it’s not obvious that the world would be on balance better without religion. I think people go wrong when they forget that a big chunk of the population, probably a majority, are not going to think for themselves regardless of whether it’s religion, an authority figure, a culture, or something like communism that tells them what to do and how to think.

    From an atheistic perspective, religion is simply false and advocating for a system based on falsehood is distasteful. I think it’s relatively clear from world history that secular states, whether most people are religious or irreligious, are superior in most ways to theocratic states, but I don’t think we can infer that a world without religion would necessarily be better.

    Reply

  3. JewishAtheist
    Feb 18, 2007 @ 01:11:57

    (By “secular states” I’m not including anti-theistic states like China.)

    Reply

  4. addofio
    Feb 18, 2007 @ 13:36:13

    If Harris actually believes that “there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry” that is somehow not dependent on culture “in the way that all religions are,” he is only revealing his ignorance. Humans do not exist or do anything independently of culture. Period. Culture is the “culture medium” within which our minds grow and develop. Seeking a human being, or a human endeavor, that is not in some way contingent on culture would be like seeking to find music without sound. Sound is the medium that carries the music, within which the music is found; music is not to be somehow freed from sound, and humans are not to be freed from culture.

    Alternatively, Harris could have meant that this mode of inquiry is contingent on culture in a way different from the way religion is contingent on culture, but even that would be highly questionable–a remarkable claim that would require substantiation. I doubt that is what he meant. I suspect he thinks that this “mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry” is “culture-free”. Which is suspiciously close to believing his own way of thinking is “culture-free”. Which would only mean that he is blind to his own culture and the cultural influences on his thinking, the ways in which his thinking is dependent on culture. People who are heavily immersed in the culture of the “hard” sciences are particularly prone to that error.

    As to the original question–would the world be better off if religion were eliminated–it probably depends to some extent on what one means by religion. Consider the following

    God is . . . our name for that which is greater than all and present in each. God is a symbol expressive of ultimate mystery, meaning and power, . . . .

    Forrest Church, from a sermon preached at All Souls UU Church 6/5/05

    If religion is taken to be about God in the sense Forrest Church offers us, I don’t see how we would or could be better off in a world in which human beings have no concern for larger meaning. But not to worry, because that’s not going to happen, regardless. As long as people are born, and we experience ourselves and watch others come into connsciousness, or die, and we have to deal with that ultimate mystery–as long as our brains are wired to find and create meaning in the world around us–there will be those among us who are concerned for larger meaning, who ask and tussle with the big questions.

    I think there are problems which have recently become closely identified with “religion”–ethnic violence and certain rigid and irrational modes of thought, to mention two. However, these problems, while they may be exacerbated by certain types of religious thought, are not “caused by” religion. Atheists are not automatically more rational in their thinking than persons who identify themselves as religious, and ethnic violence seems to have deep roots in the human psyche. Ultimately, it’s about power and domination, us against them. Religion may provide a handy rationale for outgroup violence, but other rationales have been and are used, and religion has also provided powerful concepts influencing us away from violence of all kinds. Osama bin Laden on one hand, Ghandi and Martin Luther King on the other.

    In some ways I think that by identifying the problems with religion, and then debating the virtues or vices of religion, we simply distract ourselves from tackling the actual problems. In fact, by dichotomizing ourselves into two groups and labeling the groups, we risk simply falling into the same ingroup/outgroup dynamic we perceive and condemn in religious conflicts.

    Reply

  5. Simen
    Feb 18, 2007 @ 14:17:04

    Humans do not exist or do anything independently of culture. Period. Culture is the “culture medium” within which our minds grow and develop. Seeking a human being, or a human endeavor, that is not in some way contingent on culture would be like seeking to find music without sound.

    By this reasoning, mathematics and logic are also dependent on culture. Our understanding of them might be, but they are indepdentent of culture. Our understanding is colored by our culture, true, but there are ideas that are independent of culture.

    I think Harris’ point is that religion is mostly determined by culture, while non-religion doesn’t need any cultural input (excepting the cultural influence we have in us at all times, even when thinking about, say, math) because it is the position we have at birth, and the one we should take until someone has proven otherwise.

    Reply

  6. aaron
    Feb 18, 2007 @ 17:33:28

    I have found myself in discussions on whether the world would be a better place without religion — I think you could fill an entire blog on weighing the evidence, so I’m not sure this one thread will take us too far. That being said, while it’s easy to point to Jihad, Crusades, Inquisition, etc. as evidence that religion does more harm than good, I particularly agree with the point Simen raises, that even where religion is the “cause” for conflict, many times it boils down to tribal clashes/conflicts between cultures/power struggles that would exist regardless of whether religion existed. I’m not sure that we should therefore ignore the role of religion in these “bad deeds,” but I think it’s reasonable to consider it among the causative factors rather than the cause.

    Beyond that, I would think that any discussion of this subject should consider, touched on by commenters here, whether religion has added to or detracted from humanity. Areas to consider would be scientific knowledge, human rights, art, and ?.

    Religion has largely been the enemy of scientific knowledge to the extent such knowledge is seen as being in conflict with the religion (just ask Galileo or victims of the Taliban), and has served to propagate ignorance (see Fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. who support Young Earth arguments and can’t believe we’re descended from apes). This is certainly one of the more disturbing features of religion’s influence on humanity.

    It also should be asked whether religion has improved human rights. The history here is more conflicted, as people have frequently used religion to justify both progress and standing in the way of it. One example that comes to mind is slavery. I would be inclined to say that the rights of women have been hurt from religion, though it can be argued that a “might makes right” mentality likely would have resulted in some form of patriarchal society evolving even without a religion to declare that the role of women is subordinate.

    Religious art has certainly contributed some beautiful expressions, but as noted above, it’s hard to believe that artists wouldn’t have found different outlets for their creativity had religion not been their subject. I can’t imagine, for example, that Michaelangelo’s genius would never have surfaced without the existence of religion.

    No conclusions here, just the thought that this would be another interesting discussion to have with you over beers (ideally the beer would be Westvleteren 12, which is made by Belgian Trappist monks and happens to be one of the best beers in the world). 😉

    Reply

  7. addofio
    Feb 18, 2007 @ 19:56:14

    Simen, not only is mathematics a cultural product, it is a cultural product par excellence. In fact, as cultural products go, it’s of relatively recent origin, far more recent than language. As a teacher of math, and as a teacher of teachers of math, I assure you that math is not just found lying around in the natural world. It has been, and continues to be, developed through a long and arduous cultual process. And logic–yup, cultural. That doesn’t in any way invalidate them, or the truths they help us discover. But their development is cultural, and has a long cultural history.

    When you say “religion is mostly determined by culture”, do you mean that on’es religious beliefs are largely determined by the culture into which one is born?

    And what do you mean by “non-religion doesn’t need any cultural input”? I can’t even make sense out of that. By the time a person is in a position to understand the whole idea of religion or non-religion, the enculturation has already happened. Without enculturation, no language develops, the brain doesn’t even develop properly, and there’s no possiblility of thinking about these ideas, as we know from studies of feral children. There is no neutral, un-culturalized human state.

    Reply

  8. Simen
    Feb 19, 2007 @ 02:17:07

    One’s religion is mostly determined by culture. Non-religion can, but mostly is not determined by what culture you happen to live in. It is, if not culturei ndependent, at least not tied to any particular culture.

    Reply

  9. juggling mother
    Feb 19, 2007 @ 16:32:30

    would the world be a better place without religion?

    That rather depends on what there is in it, not what there isn’t!

    I can think of many bad things that has happened because of religion. I can think of many good things that have happened because of religion. I could not possibly try to imagine how the world would be had there never been any religion as our history is so bound by it, and i can not really imagine an immediate future withourt it, as it’s extremely unlikely!

    i believe that in the eventual future religion will die out – although probably not spiritality, so depending on your definition of religion…….

    I certainly think the world would be a lot better off without a number of religions and religious movements. But that is not the same thing at all.

    On the whole, I believe that religion has probably restricted humanity’s potential, so the perfect secular world would be better than the actual religious one, but who can say we would get the perfect secular one? As theists so delight in pointing out (erroneously in most cases), Stalin’s russia was secular and can not be pointed to as a great example of humanism & progression.

    however, I certainly hope that religion will gradually lose it’s hold on the world in time. The thought that we will still be bound by hierarchial religions in years to come is quite depressing to me.

    Reply

  10. Stephen
    Feb 19, 2007 @ 17:14:08

    Simen:
    I don’t for a second by into the crap about how either evil or good requires religion. These are all part of human nature and would be there anyway.

    I agree. I think atheists show their bias when they speak as if all evil is attributable to religion; and I think theists show their bias when they speak as if all good is attributable to religion.

    I’d like to get rid of extremist religion, though. That, I am convinced, would only lead to a better world.

    Again, I agree. The enemy of truth is not religion, but ideology.

    Religion is probably good for many things. One thing it’s totally useless for is understanding the nature of the universe. The accomplishments in this area that have been done by believers have all been in spite of their belief, not because of them.

    I don’t fundamentally disagree, but I’d like to nuance your statement a bit. As I understand it, the early scientists were Christians who believed there was an intrinsic order to the universe because the rational intelligence of a Creator lay in back of it all.

    Earlier in human history, people believed in many deities, who fought one another for dominance and frequently acted capriciously. That worldview caused people to view events as random and beyond human control, so it was not conducive to the invention of science.

    Thus it was because of monotheism and the belief in a dependable God that the first scientists began looking for the “laws” of nature. But I concede your point: religion began to undermine scientific inquiry when science began to cast doubt on cherished religious dogmas.

    Scripture hasn’t provided insight into the fundamentals of the world. Then again, the Bible was probably intended as a cheap answer because nobody knows anyway.

    I think the early chapters of Genesis, and various other biblical texts, must be regarded as myth and interpreted accordingly. Myth is a very difficult category for modern Westerners, who greatly prefer direct, propositional statements. However, myth does not equal falsehood: it can communicate insight in the oblique, metaphorical manner of art.

    If we don’t make the (fundamentalist) mistake of reading the texts as literal history, the opening chapters of Genesis are not “cheap”. They offer a provocative, and arguably insightful, perspective on the cosmos and human nature.

    btw, I’ve added your name to my blogroll, since you’ve become a regular contributor to the dialogue here.

    Jewish Atheist:
    I think it’s relatively clear from world history that secular states, whether most people are religious or irreligious, are superior in most ways to theocratic states.

    I agree with your statement, because I strongly support limits on the power of government, and protections for individual rights and freedoms. I’m too much of an individualist not to! Theocratic governments inevitably force the individual to obey the dictates of the state (because the state ostensibly acts on God’s authority).

    Addofio:
    Humans do not exist or do anything independently of culture. Period.

    I touched on the issue very briefly, because I wanted to keep the post focussed. But that is actually the point Sullivan stresses most in his response to Harris. He argues that all knowledge is contingent, whereas Harris appeared to assert that science is contingency-free.

    One of Sullivan’s readers suggested that Harris did not mean to speak in absolutes: he meant to say only that science is relatively contingency-free, by comparison to religion.

    Harris meant, in part, just what Simen says: science is, “if not culture independent, at least not tied to any particular culture.” Harris points out that there is no Japanese science or American science or German science — just science.

    Still, I think Sullivan was right. Harris’s assertions went beyond that point, because he genuinely believes that science is objective and neutral.

    Reply

  11. Stephen
    Feb 19, 2007 @ 17:39:23

    Addofio:
    As long as people are born, and we experience ourselves and watch others come into connsciousness, or die, and we have to deal with that ultimate mystery–as long as our brains are wired to find and create meaning in the world around us–there will be those among us who are concerned for larger meaning, who ask and tussle with the big questions.

    I emphatically agree. Whatever its detractors may say, religion properly addresses itself to questions that lie outside the domain of science. When we reach the limits of scientific inquiry — precisely when we reach the questions of deepest significance to the human heart — religion steps in with an attempt at an explanation.

    [Mathematics] has been, and continues to be, developed through a long and arduous cultual process.

    This is precisely the position Sullivan defends when he says that all knowledge is contingent. It is contingent on history — on the knowledge we have inherited from our forebears. It is also contingent insofar as it may be undermined or even overthrown by future discoveries.

    Aaron:
    Religion has largely been the enemy of scientific knowledge to the extent such knowledge is seen as being in conflict with the religion (just ask Galileo or victims of the Taliban), and has served to propagate ignorance (see Fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. who support Young Earth arguments and can’t believe we’re descended from apes).

    This is a good opportunity to express my usual caveat. I write from a Canadian perspective, and I always have to bear in mind that many of my readers are Americans. It’s a different social context south of the 49th parallel! People who believe in a young earth and deny evolution are a tiny fringe element of Canadian society, even though many Canadians are Christians.

    People have frequently used religion to justify both progress and standing in the way of it.

    As you and Simen have both said, good and evil both originate in human nature, not in religion per se.

    p.s. I will gladly take you up on that monk-brewed beer!

    Juggling Mother:
    On the whole, I believe that religion has probably restricted humanity’s potential, so the perfect secular world would be better than the actual religious one, but who can say we would get the perfect secular one?

    I’d be willing to wager that we won’t get the perfect secular world (except I have no wealth to wager!).

    One of the points I think the Bible gets right is that human beings are deeply, incorrigibly corrupt. That’s why the power of the state must be limited: whether the state is theocratic or secular, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Utopia is often dreamt of, and often promised, but no one ever delivers the goods. The only options open to us are imperfect religion or imperfect secularism. Or a combination of the two — a secular state and private religion.

    Reply

  12. 49erDweet
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 05:00:24

    Interesting comments and responses, Stephen, but that one word used by Simen and seemingly agreed to by you has me fearful as to the intellectual integrity of you both – the word, “extremist”. Definitions of that term over the past several decades have seemingly changed. In Barry Goldwater’s day it had already ‘morphed’ into a semi-pejorative, and today it is bandied about referring to almost anyone deeply holding a POV contrary to a writer’s own personal views – no matter the issue, it seems.

    Honest commentators would learn to avoid that particular term and instead be clearer in defining which elements of an opposing individual’s opinions are unsettling. By and large it is a cheap trick to merely apply labels, rather than reason and intellect, to the points of a discussion.

    Otherwise, quite an enjoyable exercise in discourse and persuasive conversation. Thank you.

    Cheers

    Reply

  13. Simen
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 10:29:40

    Extremist, as in “one who holds extreme views”. If you say “ban all religion!” you are an extremist. If you say “revolution!” you’re an extremist. It doesn’t have to be an opinion you disagree with. For instance, I hold that at present the best for the earth would simply be that the whole human race went extinct. That’s an extreme view. Of course I don’t want it to happen, but still. Religious extremists in all varieties are bad for society.

    Reply

  14. 49erDweet
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 11:56:48

    “one who holds extreme views” seems such a reasonable term, Simen, until one attempts to further define “extreme”.

    Is it ‘extreme’ to think one way or another about issues? It can be in the mind of some, but possibly not so much for others. Is a non-violent “extremist” worse for society than the violent variety? Or is it all the same? And if so, why? Lots of nuanced idealogical “worms” wiggling in that mess, I think.

    It just seems to my ancient mind as if anarchy is readily fostered whenever labels are too easily applied. But maybe its only me. I wish you well.

    Cheers

    Reply

  15. Simen
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 12:17:10

    Humans are especially good at applying labels. The problem is too not misapply them, or mistake them for the whole truth. A human is not a label, even if the label fits perfectly.

    “one who holds extreme views” seems such a reasonable term, Simen, until one attempts to further define “extreme”.

    Many positions can be arranged into a spectrum. Take, for instance, the state. On the one hand you have anarchists, who want no state at all. On the other hand, you have the communists, who want the state to be everything. Those are both extreme views. In between are all those views that say that the state should be neither nothing nor everything.

    Would you not agree that if you believe you have a book that is the literal, full truth, and that everything it says should be law, you have an extreme view?

    Reply

  16. Stephen
    Feb 20, 2007 @ 15:20:43

    • 49er:
    First, I’m glad to see you back. I’ve been keeping an eye on your blog, anticipating a report on the charity event.

    Second, I acknowledge that you have a point. Some people might say that anyone who believes Jesus was born of a virgin is an extremist. That isn’t what I mean by the word, but you’re right: we’ve left all possibilities open.

    At least one of my readers believes in a young earth. I admit, I find that view a little out there. Even in my evangelical years, I did not see any reason to interpret the genealogies in Genesis as proof of a young earth. But the person I have in mind makes a substantive contribution to the dialogue around here. An extremist? Nope, I wouldn’t say so.

    My definition of “extremist” begins when someone wants to impose his or her beliefs and mores on others. Take Tim Hardaway (a former NBA player) as an example:

    “I hate gay people. … I can’t stand being around that person, knowing that they sleep with somebody of the same sex.” He’s creeped out by the thought of a gay NBA player, naked in the locker room with him. He says he wouldn’t speak to a member of his own family if that person were gay.

    I think Christians are entitled to regard homosexuality as a sin. But freedom of conscience cuts both ways. Other people are also entitled to their beliefs and behavioral norms. They don’t cease to be human beings worthy of respect, which is the drift of Hardaway’s rant.

    The question of losing one’s sense of proportion is also relevant. It is extreme to fixate on what consenting adults do in private. Homosexual sex is a victimless “crime”, if I may put it that way.

    The foundations of Western society are not in jeopardy over this issue, but some American Christians elevate homosexuality to that level of significance. Other behaviours cause real and direct harm: that’s where Christians should focus their energies. When people lose their sense of proportion like this, that’s “extreme”. I oppose religion of that sort.

    Finally, 49er, I would like to turn the question back your way. I think you’re reacting to something specific, but you haven’t told us what it is. Perhaps Simen and I will be in complete agreement with you on the issue — you haven’t given us a chance to find out.

    Reply

  17. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 21, 2007 @ 22:02:39

    I’m coming in at the eleventh hour on this one. More bad than good? Like others, I can’t offer a full assessment, but I do have something to say.

    On the one hand, religion satisfies deep human needs; things like a sense of belonging, a system of belief around which to organize one’s life, and a community in which members can support one another and the needy.

    On the other hand, while people rely on religion to provide for these needs, religion is not the only resource through which these needs can find fulfillment. Secular organizations can do as well.

    Personally, I think that it is good for people to believe in what is true. So, insofar as any given religion is true, it is good. Insofar as any religion is false, it is bad.

    Reply

  18. addofio
    Feb 22, 2007 @ 01:22:26

    Michael

    I’m not entirely sure why, but I’m not entirely comfortable with your “if true, good; if false, bad” formulation. Perhaps it’s because it reduces religion to a set of propositions. This is a limited perspective on religion that I’m beginning to suspect that people raised in Chirstianity-based cultures are particularly prone to. (Sorry for the tangled syntax, but it’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll leave it.) Somehow the Christian emphasis on belief seems to push thinking in that direction. But many religious traditions place much more emphasis on experience or ritual or community, rather than belief; to reduce them to nothing more than a belief system represented propositionally is to seriously misrepresent them.

    Ultimately, I think the original question is unanswerable–religion has been too intertwined with human culture from the beginning of human history and probably before.

    Reply

  19. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 22, 2007 @ 09:05:27

    addofio,

    I apprecieate your concern and your statement:

    many religious traditions place much more emphasis on experience or ritual or community, rather than belief; to reduce them to nothing more than a belief system represented propositionally is to seriously misrepresent them.

    You make a good point. I agree that ritual and community are important. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I was only saying that those things can be found in non-religious contexts. So, for me it comes down to whether the teachings of the religion are true. Good information is better than misinformation, and I think people generally make better choices when what they believe is true.

    Reply

  20. Stephen
    Feb 22, 2007 @ 12:31:20

    Snaars:
    While people rely on religion to provide for these needs, religion is not the only resource through which these needs can find fulfillment. Secular organizations can do as well.

    Atheists would like to think that we lose nothing when we forfeit religion. On principle, I don’t think life works like that. I think every significant shift involves both gains and losses.

    And here’s a concrete example. One of the things I’ve noticed is that this generation doesn’t sing as much as previous generations did. This is true at the everyday level, but arguably it’s also true in commercial music. Rap / hip hop, whatever its merits, has substituted rhythmic speech for singing.

    I find that intriguing. How much of the classic blues, country, and jazz music which preceded rock were rooted in church experience? Is the loss of singing in the public sphere a consequence of a shift away from faith / church?

    In any event, I have yet to see an atheist substitute for hymn writing and singing. And this is only what people should expect: whatever people may gain from atheism, there are also losses associated with the shift away from faith and church.

    People generally make better choices when what they believe is true.

    I don’t fundamentally disagree. Here I’m playing devil’s advocate. (Can someone be devil’s advocate when they’re defending God?)

    Not very long ago, I would have agreed with you 100%. Probably because my own convictions are less certain than they once were, I’ve been having second thoughts.

    As a concrete example, consider incest. Traditional religion in most cultures disapproves of incestuous relationships. Modern science tells us that there’s a good reason to avoid producing children with a near relative — it leads to birth defects.

    Presumably the ancients noticed the correlation, but they put it down to God’s moral judgement, and turned it into a religious command. (That’s a very humanist way of looking at ancient scriptures, but I suspect it is at least partly correct.)

    Maybe it’s a true belief: maybe God does frown on marriage between brothers and sisters. Or maybe morality has nothing to do with it. But, if the belief is false, it still benefits society.

    You may argue that it’s good to avoid incest, whatever the motivation; but best of all, if we avoid incest based on the true harm associated with it. So here are some other examples.

    I wonder if it is actively harmful to believe that my fellow human beings are created in God’s image. I wonder if it is harmful to think that there is an objective difference between good and evil, and to be encouraged to act for the good. I wonder if it is harmful to think that this world is not the end of personal existence, and our fate in the next world turns on how well we treat others in this life.

    The loss of religion may entail a loss of some of these other concepts as well. Is society better off as a result, or do false beliefs sometimes benefit society? I’m not sure — I understand that what you say is generally true — but I honestly wonder if the correlation between the true and the good is as strong as you make it out to be.

    Reply

  21. Simen
    Feb 22, 2007 @ 12:48:43

    In any event, I have yet to see an atheist substitute for hymn writing and singing. And this is only what people should expect: whatever people may gain from atheism, there are also losses associated with the shift away from faith and church.

    What’s so good about those that you can’t get elsewhere?

    I wonder if it is actively harmful to believe that my fellow human beings are created in God’s image. I wonder if it is harmful to think that there is an objective difference between good and evil, and to be encouraged to act for the good. I wonder if it is harmful to think that this world is not the end of personal existence, and our fate in the next world turns on how well we treat others in this life.

    I think it depends on how you act according to it. If the belief doesn’t affect your actions, it’s not harmful but not good either. Acting good by definition is good. If you do it for “the wrong reasons”, it’s still good. It becomes a question of whether you should count intent (as most legal systems do) or not when judging an action.

    Reply

  22. dorsey
    Feb 23, 2007 @ 10:45:46

    If belief doesn’t affect your actions, then it’s not belief.

    Reply

  23. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 23, 2007 @ 19:20:53

    Atheists would like to think that we lose nothing when we forfeit religion.

    This is not exactly my own view.

    Belief in god is a world-view. Just about everything about one’s perception of the world and one’s self can be tied into it: sense of meaning, purpose, beauty, art, morality, community, and anything else that seems important about who and what we are. What is more, a belief in god can be a source of comfort, and when the belief is taken away it can cause us to revisit issues from the past.

    Loss of faith can be a disruption to one’s psyche. When I reached the point where I no longer believed, I went through an extended grieving process, which was exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t fully recognize what was happening to me. In some ways, I’m still dealing with it, which is one of the reasons I am drawn to these kinds of discussions.

    People who have always been atheists do not seem to have such problems, and as time goes by I am becoming more secure and comfortable with my beliefs.

    I still appreciate art and music, even art that has been inspired by a belief in god. Ultimately, I think everything that believers value, that they say comes from god, really originates in the human heart.

    What people fail to recognize is that a rejection of the god-concept is not a rejection of meaning, or love, or art, or things that make us special, or distinctions between good and evil, or anything else. But it does require a re-organization, or a shift of understanding of those things, and that is a process that could take time.

    Also, religion provides for other needs associated with community, and is not always and everywhere easily replaced, as I can personally attest. In my previous comment, I only meant that I believe secular institutions could do as well. Because atheists are far outnumbered, and because these needs are more often than not met by religious institutions in our communities, atheist equivalents are few and far between. I am no longer comfortable in a church or synagogue or any other place of worship. I have not yet found a viable alternative that satisfies my need for community, and until I do, I will continue to lose out.

    Is society better off as a result, or do false beliefs sometimes benefit society? I’m not sure — I understand that what you say is generally true — but I honestly wonder if the correlation between the true and the good is as strong as you make it out to be.

    I don’t think I made the correlation out to be so strong. Besides, do you want to believe in something just because it benefits society? I say, change society so that it better handles reality.

    Incidentally, I know that many atheists are moral relativists. My own view is that morality is not subjective. To be subjective – by definition – is to be dependent on what a person or group believes. Since morality does not depend on what a person or group believes, morality is objective, not subjective.

    Reply

  24. Simen
    Feb 23, 2007 @ 19:33:09

    Incidentally, I know that many atheists are moral relativists. My own view is that morality is not subjective. To be subjective – by definition – is to be dependent on what a person or group believes. Since morality does not depend on what a person or group believes, morality is objective, not subjective.

    That’s a bare assertion. How do you justify that? To me, no matter how hard I look, it looks like there’s nowhere to find any objective moral values.

    We do have some moral values in common, though. That’s because of evolution.

    Reply

  25. Stephen
    Feb 23, 2007 @ 21:38:08

    Simen:
    What’s so good about those that you can’t get elsewhere?

    Let me respond with an analogy. Someone might ask, “What’s so great about Mozart that I can’t get something equivalent from Bach?”; or “What’s so great about jazz music that I can’t get something equivalent from hip hop?” I might not have a very precise answer to that question. But I would say that if you only listen to Bach, or only listen to hip hop, you’re rejecting some part of the musical experience that is available to you.

    I use the analogy because I don’t want to get holier-than-thou with you. Arguably atheism isn’t inferior to religion; but atheism is certainly other than religion. I think there are elements of human experience that religion speaks to, and atheists cannot supply a substitute for.

    An atheist may say that he doesn’t need those things. That’s fine by me — to each his own. My point is, merely, you’re giving something up, even if you are gaining other things in the process.

    • Dorsey:
    I guess you were responding to Simen, not me, but thanks for the comment.

    Michael:
    Thanks for the thoughtful, even-handed response.

    Do you want to believe in something just because it benefits society?

    I’m not sure the answer to that question is self-evident. The fact is, we have make society work. A shared mythology, even if it is a complete fiction, may be a social good. Would you torpedo it whatever the cost to society?

    Or look at it another way. I live in accordance with a narrative that includes God and a revelation of God through Jesus of Nazareth. You live in accordance with a very different narrative that includes neither of those things (though you recognize there is some wisdom in some scriptures).

    I presume that your narrative is partly true, but partly false; and mine is likewise both true and false.

    I assume that some narratives are better than others. And by all means, let’s conform our narratives to the “facts” as they become known to us. (Though even that statement is problematic, because all “facts” are already interpreted in accordance with our prior narratives!)

    But we cannot live in the absence of one narrative or another, even if we know full well that our narratives are partially false. So I don’t think we can implement your suggestion, even if we agree that it’s the best way to order society.

    Morality does not depend on what a person or group believes, morality is objective.

    Like Simen, I’m interested to know how you would flesh out that statement. I know a little about your beliefs, that some metaphysical things actually exist. But I have only the vaguest understanding of it.

    (This is why I asked, on your blog, whether you have in fact lost eternity. Arglor was regrettably quick to shut down that line of questioning!)

    Reply

  26. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 24, 2007 @ 10:47:33

    Simen said: [That morality is objective and not subjective is] a bare assertion. To me, no matter how hard I look, it looks like there’s nowhere to find any objective moral values.

    We do have some moral values in common, though. That’s because of evolution.

    Yes, I made a bare assertion. My argument is in the form of a denial of the consequent:

    1. If p, then q
    2. q is false
    3. Therefore, p is false

    Substitute ‘morality is subjctive’ for p, and ‘morality depends on what a person or group of people believes’ for q. In order to convince you of the truth of the argument, we would have to get into a discussion of 2 above, and that would probably take up quite a bit of space here.

    I think that no matter how you try to justify morality’s being dependant on what someone believes, you will fail. I think it makes more sense to understand morality as being dependent on states-of-affairs, than on what people believe.

    For now, I will just point out that evolution is not dependant on what a person or group of people believes, so if what you say is true – that at least some of our values stem from evolution (I believe you are right) – then thoe values are objective, not subjective.

    Stephen said: Like Simen, I’m interested to know how you would flesh out that statement. I know a little about your beliefs, that some metaphysical things actually exist.

    Depends on the context, what is meant by the words ‘metaphysics’ and ‘existence’. Those terms are bandied about by all sorts of spiritualists, new-agers, palm readers, con artists, and so on, ad infinitum – but they have technical meanings in academic philosophy. Any casual discussion of those things is bound to get bogged down by misunderstanding, and would only detract from the conversation.

    This is why I asked, on your blog, whether you have in fact lost eternity.

    There is abundant evidence that we all grow old and die. There is no good evidence that our lives continue after death. I believe I will die, and I do not believe in an afterlife.

    Reply

  27. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 24, 2007 @ 10:50:21

    😳 I’ve noticed lately that I tend to misspell the word ‘dependent’. 😳

    Reply

  28. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 24, 2007 @ 11:11:15

    The fact is, we have make society work. A shared mythology, even if it is a complete fiction, may be a social good. Would you torpedo it whatever the cost to society?

    You are suggesting something like Plato’s Noble Lie.

    I don’t think it’s up to me to torpedo it or not. Most people will not be convinced.

    My questions are: if we are talking about a lie, can you personally believe it if you recognize it for what it is? And, why can’t we share a mythology, such as the one science gives us, that doesn’t involve supernatural/impossible things?

    Reply

  29. Stephen
    Feb 24, 2007 @ 15:39:17

    If we are talking about a lie, can you personally believe it if you recognize it for what it is?

    Nope, I readily concede that point. I’ve been there myself: once I saw that certain elements of conservative Christianity are false, there was no escaping into denial. Some people are prudent enough not to approach those questions with an open mind, lest the ground should open up beneath their feet.

    Why can’t we share a mythology, such as the one science gives us, that doesn’t involve supernatural/impossible things?

    I thought science is opposed to mythology, and claims to be objectively true.

    Or — a slightly different point: science is reductionist. Science denies the spiritual and the transcendent. I think most atheists would deny the metaphysical. Many would deny there is any objective morality. Some deny there is any such thing as the self. Everything is boiled down to brute matter.

    But I take your point. At least in theory, it would be possible for science to develop a mythology. I would even say that it has developed a mythology — unwittingly — insofar as some convictions are held with greater confidence than the evidence to date warrants.

    In practice, scientists are in the business of debunking mythologies and denying that mythos has any utilitarian value. And that’s how we ended up exploring this subject: I’m arguing that mythology has a utilitarian value, contrary to the usual atheist position.

    Evidently you take a non-standard line: like me, you are outside of the box. Presumably there’s a reason you ultimately look to philosophy as a source of meaning rather than the hard sciences.

    Reply

  30. Simen
    Feb 24, 2007 @ 18:27:57

    Michael (aka Snaars) said:
    I think that no matter how you try to justify morality’s being dependant on what someone believes, you will fail. I think it makes more sense to understand morality as being dependent on states-of-affairs, than on what people believe.

    For now, I will just point out that evolution is not dependant on what a person or group of people believes, so if what you say is true – that at least some of our values stem from evolution (I believe you are right) – then thoe values are objective, not subjective.

    I think that no matter how you try to justify morality’s being dependant on what someone believes, you will fail. I think it makes more sense to understand morality as being dependent on states-of-affairs, than on what people believe.

    For now, I will just point out that evolution is not dependant on what a person or group of people believes, so if what you say is true – that at least some of our values stem from evolution (I believe you are right) – then thoe values are objective, not subjective.

    But morality arises from the interplay between nature and nurture. Slavery was once considered moral. After a victory, raping the women living on the captured land wasn’t considered immoral. And so on.

    Anyway, I consider morality to be dependent on the subject. This is because I find no sources in nature of morality. Morality only makes sense in relation to a goal – increasing happiness, decreasing suffering, increasing chances of survival. Nature itself has no goals (as far as we know). Goals depend on a subject. Therefore, as far as we know, morality is subjective.

    That doesn’t mean that no moral values are better than others. It all depends on what our goals are.

    We’re reluctant to assign moral value to actions done by an animal. For instance, an animal killing a sexual competitor is not “evil”, at least not in my eyes. However, a human doing the same thing would certainly be “evil”. Actions themselves aren’t good or bad.

    Reply

  31. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 24, 2007 @ 20:45:13

    Stephen said: Some people are prudent enough not to approach those questions with an open mind, lest the ground should open up beneath their feet.

    lolrotfl … they are certainly wiser than I. 🙂

    I thought science is opposed to mythology, and claims to be objectively true.

    Claims to be objectively true, yes. Opposed to mythology … depends on in what sense the word ‘mythology’ is used. According to Wikipedia:

    Myth is not intimately connected with religion. Myth in this sense does not imply that a story is either objectively false or true, it rather refers to a spiritual, psychological or symbolical notion of truth unrelated to materialist or objectivist notions.

    The word ‘myth’ does not necessarily imply falsity. Science does present us with an origin narrative, a creation myth if you will. There just happens to be a mountain of evidence that science’s myth is the most true one of the lot. It is the most objective account of origins we have, and is more likely to be refined than flatly falsified.

    Or — a slightly different point: science is reductionist. Science denies the spiritual and the transcendent. I think most atheists would deny the metaphysical. Many would deny there is any objective morality. Some deny there is any such thing as the self. Everything is boiled down to brute matter.

    I don’t know about most atheists.

    Again, a lot of misunderstanding can occur around the word ‘metaphysical.’ When I use the word, I use it in a sense entirely apart from occultism.

    If atheists deny the metaphysical, then they shouldn’t. All of science is based on metaphysical assumptions, for instance: there are regularities in nature which can be discovered, observed, and described.

    Until the advent of modern science, metaphysics and science were part and parcel of same thing, under the rubric of ‘natural philosophy.’ Topics of interest in metaphysics today are ontology, philosophy of religion, identity, philosophy of mind, free will, causation, …. The list goes on, basically includes things that probably can be known but that are not the domain of any of the other sciences, or that are prior to the sciences.

    In practice, scientists are in the business of debunking mythologies and denying that mythos has any utilitarian value.

    Sometimes scientists set out to do that, but I think more often they just discover that there are better ways of thinking about the world. Darwin didn’t set out to disprove or debunk creationism – he just found out that there was a better idea – evolution – that fit the facts better. Scientists (and philosophers) are critical thinkers – but they have to be creative too, to solve intractable problems over the very incisive criticisms of other scientists (and philosophers)!

    I’m arguing that mythology has a utilitarian value, contrary to the usual atheist position.

    I’m not really in disagreement with you, except that I think atheists more often than not recognize the utility of religion.

    As for myself, I don’t particularly mind or care that people have beliefs that differ from my own – in fact, the world would be pretty boring if we all believed the same things. My only problem with religion is when it promotes intolerance, bigotry, closed-mindedness, and the like (noting, as we have discussed before, that those things do not accompany all religions and that thos things can happen apart from religion).

    I don’t count you among that group, Stephen, and I get along well with you and other theistic friends and relatives. I like and respect you whether you believe in god or not, because you’re reasonable and fun to talk to. I learn something every time we get into discussion, and my contribution is appreciated even though not necessarily agreed-with – which is good, because who wants to talk to someone who agrees too much?

    Evidently you take a non-standard line: like me, you are outside of the box. Presumably there’s a reason you ultimately look to philosophy as a source of meaning rather than the hard sciences.

    Outside the box = a high compliment! 🙂

    Actually, I don’t think philosophy provides meaning, any more than science does – except insofar as performing any worthwhile activity provides meaning. Philosophy and science are tools for coming to a better understanding of the world. People find meaning in doing things they like, and in creativity, art, relationships, contemplation, a sense of being part of something larger than themselves … things like that.

    The way I see it, we are all humans and have the same human needs.

    Reply

  32. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 24, 2007 @ 21:15:03

    Simen said: Slavery was once considered moral. After a victory, raping the women living on the captured land wasn’t considered immoral. And so on.

    These illustrations only show that people can disagree about morality – not that morality, itself, has actually changed. We have reasons for thinking that slavery and rape are moral evils – and the slaves and raped people would probably agree for the most part. Or, are you arguing that if enough people believe rape and slavery are okay, then it is really okay to rape or enslave someone?

    Morality only makes sense in relation to a goal – increasing happiness, decreasing suffering, increasing chances of survival. Nature itself has no goals (as far as we know). Goals depend on a subject. Therefore, as far as we know, morality is subjective.

    I’m wondering if you might be willing to elaborate, or to refer me to a text that describes your position, because I think you’re getting at something important that I’m not understanding. I agree that nature doesn’t have a goal, with the possible caveat that it seems most living things survive to reproduce, and that could be considered a goal.

    Morality could be an objective set of rules for attaining certain types of goals. I don’t know, I’m not used to thinking about morality in your terms. If my goal is to assemble a bicycle, my activity of assembling the bicycle is not likely to be morally relevant to anything. Perhaps I would be attaining a moral good by making a child happier. However that may be, if morality is dependent on goals, then I would think they are special goals that have moral relevance, and that the rules would still turn out to be objective.

    We’re reluctant to assign moral value to actions done by an animal.

    That’s because, for someone/thing to be rightly praised or blamed for their actions, they must have a level of responsibility in relation to the action we would praise or blame them for. The moral agent must have had a choice to perform or not perform the action. Most animals don’t seem to have the level of consciousness we would look for.

    Reply

  33. addofio
    Feb 25, 2007 @ 12:42:43

    A couple of points.

    Stephen: you are attributing attitudes and goals to “science” in a rather broad-brush way. As I’ve read discussions on your blog and elsewhere that contrast science” with “religion”, more and more often I’ve thought that perhaps if people are going to look to “science” about matters having to do with human beings, our beliefs, our social systems, etc., that perhaps the sciences that should be referenced would be the social sciences. There is actual research showing that when a scientist is thinking about something outside his or her own area of expertise, they don’t do any better than any other educated adult. If one is considering the origins of the universe, physicists have a lot to say that is squarely in their area of expertise, but if discussing morality–not so much.

    Simen points out morality is relative to goals; I would add, or modify, that to “Morality is relative to values”. Goals themselves may be good or bad (relative to a given value). Values may be only implicit in statements about morality (I think it is wrong to kill another human being), or they may be explicit (“I value human life and therefore it is wrong to kill a human being”, or “I value obedience to the will of God as revealed in the Bible, and there it says. . ., and therefore it is wrong to kill a human being.”) Science, as science, can only tell us about what is–it by its very nature it can’t tell us what to value, though it can inform us about consequences of our values, or means of attaining valued goals, or even perhaps explain why we value this vs. that. But in the end we must turn to other realms of thought–philosophy, religion, what we learned in kindergarten–for our values.

    Scientists, being human beings, all have value systems, and may confuse their personal value systems for a “scientific basis for morality”–but regardless, the fact that particular values are held by (hard, committedly reductionist) scientists doesn’t make them somehow more objective. And science being a social endeavor, it has social norms (e.g., it is wrong to fake one’s data.) This norm is a logical consequence of the goals of science–but it still obtains only as long as one accepts those goals.

    Michael–you accept Simen’s point that much of our morality is a consequence of evolution, but then go on to say this would make it objective. That strikes me as an odd definition of “objective”. I’m not sure how to express this clearly, but it strikes me as akin to basing one’s morality on acceptance of a religious myth as factually true, only to discover that it is not factually true. If I have a certain set of values–if I believe, for instance, that it is simply wrong for a mother to kill her own child–and am informed and become convinced that I only believe that because of some biological thingy in my brain put there by a process of evolution–somehow that undermines my belief that it is objectively wrong for a mother to kill her own child, it doesn’t strengthen it.

    Ok, that was moe than a couple 🙂

    Reply

  34. Simen
    Feb 25, 2007 @ 13:55:02

    Or, are you arguing that if enough people believe rape and slavery are okay, then it is really okay to rape or enslave someone?

    No. I don’t think that morality is decided by concensus. I hold that morality is ultimately dependent on the subject, i.e. it is ultimately as subjective as taste. Morality is relative to goals such as “increase happiness”, or as addofio says, “honor what we value”, such as life. Goals are ultimately decided by the subject, though there may be an objective standard we can use to determine what actions will help us attain our goals.

    Some say this effectively is the same as “anything goes”. They claim that this moral subjectivism would mean that society would fall apart. If nothing is right or wrong, how can we judge someone doing what we consider wrong?

    Well, how did courts develop, really? People with common values and common goals got together to try to figure out how best to honor those values and attain those goals, and then agreed to enforce it.

    It’s only natural that we condemn those who don’t honor or values or try to help us reach our goals. That doesn’t mean that their actions are inherently wrong. Basically, everyone tries to enforce the values they hold.

    Ultimately, though, the criticism falls flat on its face. It’s a fallacious appeal to consequences (“P implies to Q; we don’t like Q, therefore ~P). I don’t think that nature itself has any goals, or any values. Values arise because subjects decide there are values. Our assignment of values to things, people and actions is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that we’re reluctant to admit that it has no objective or even rational basis. Our tendency to avoid pain is irrational; however, it’s still good. It’s nature mechanism for helping us avoid danger. Irrational in this instance isn’t bad, because there is no standard to measure against.

    Reply

  35. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 25, 2007 @ 22:34:09

    Addofio, thanks for making that point about science and social matters – although you were addressing Stephen, it made a lot of sense to me.

    Adoffio and Simen, I think we are more in agreement than not. This might be one of those arguments that arises simply because we are using the same words but with subtly different meanings or intent.

    Adoffio said: Michael–you accept Simen’s point that much of our morality is a consequence of evolution, but then go on to say this would make it objective. That strikes me as an odd definition of “objective”.

    The definition of objective that I am using is “not subjective.” And by subjective I mean “dependent on what a person or group believes.” Moral principles are grounded in reality, not belief.

    … it strikes me as akin to basing one’s morality on acceptance of a religious myth as factually true, only to discover that it is not factually true. If I have a certain set of values–if I believe, for instance, that it is simply wrong for a mother to kill her own child–and am informed and become convinced that I only believe that because of some biological thingy in my brain put there by a process of evolution–somehow that undermines my belief that it is objectively wrong for a mother to kill her own child, it doesn’t strengthen it.

    You’re right, adoffio, in the sense that evolution doesn’t provide a reason for behaving morally. But, we’ve been conflating moral principles with the way people reason about moral principles – two different things.

    In my comment on the matter, I did not say that our beliefs are objective because of evolution. I said that some of our values probably stem from evolution (beliefs v. values). Evolution has not created in us flawless moral instincts, but it has made us who and what we are. Morality stems from who and what we are, and our physical and social needs. Humans seem to have generally the same values, as illustrated in Maslowe’s heirarchy of needs.

    By way of analogy, I think humans have evolved to take advantage of objective moral principles, akin to the way birds have evolved to take advantage of the objective principles that govern flight.

    So, evolution may help explain why we behave morally, but it does not give us direct knowledge of objective moral principles, any more than observing flight gives us direct knowledge of aerodynamic principles.

    Simen said: I don’t think that morality is decided by concensus. I hold that morality is ultimately dependent on the subject, i.e. it is ultimately as subjective as taste. … though there may be an objective standard we can use to determine what actions will help us attain our goals.

    I think you are using the word ‘subjective’ in a slightly different manner than I was arguing. I’m going to rephrase what I think your argument is, and if I am wrong then you can tell me.

    You have said that morality depends on a goal, and that goals depend on a subject, and that to depend on a subject is to be subjective, therefore morality is subjective. But I’m still not sure what you mean by ‘depending on a subject.’

    You may or may not be saying that morality depends on belief. You say that morality is not determined by consensus or majority opinion. If you are not saying that morality depends on belief, then our views may be compatible.

    However, certain paradigm cases indicate that morality is not as subjective as taste. For instance, it seems like Nazi genocide is wrong. It seems like it is wrong, always and everywhere, for anyone to torture an innocent child solely for pleasure.

    the criticism falls flat on its face. It’s a fallacious appeal to consequences (”P implies to Q; we don’t like Q, therefore ~P)

    With respect, the argument form is valid and I have committed no fallacies. I didn’t say ‘I don’t want morality to be subjective,’ or ‘I would feel sad if morality were subjective,’ or anything like that. I have merely asserted that morality does not depend on the belief of a person or group.

    In order to refute the argument, you would have to show that morality depends on the belief of a person or group of people. I’ve hardly defended the argument because I haven’t fully grasped the nature of your criticism. Once I understand your criticism and weigh it, perhaps I’ll be convinced – but I probably won’t :-).

    Values arise because subjects decide there are values.

    It seems like we don’t arrive at most values so casually. I think values come about from objective needs, such as those I cited above in Marlow’s heirarchy.

    Our assignment of values to things, people and actions is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that we’re reluctant to admit that it has no objective or even rational basis. Our tendency to avoid pain is irrational; however, it’s still good.

    There is more than one sense of the word ‘rational.’ I think it’s rational to act for survival and self-interest. There’s no strictly logical reason for doing so, but that’s no surprise because logic doesn’t give us reasons for anything. Logic can tell us nothing about the existence of an objective reality one way or the other. Logic cannot tell us that the earth revolves around the sun, or even that the earth and sun exist. Logic cannot tell us whether objective morality exists, either.

    Reply

  36. Simen
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 03:17:53

    However, certain paradigm cases indicate that morality is not as subjective as taste. For instance, it seems like Nazi genocide is wrong. It seems like it is wrong, always and everywhere, for anyone to torture an innocent child solely for pleasure.

    It feels that way. I think it’s a subjective feeling. There are those who still, today, agree with it and regret that it wasn’t allowed to be completed. These are people who aren’t mentally ill – their minds are perfectly normal, except that they hold a view the majority doesn’t. I think they’re totally wrong, but I don’t think the wrongness is inherent. I think my view on this case is “better” in the sense that it will lead to a workable society, but again it’s only in relation to a goal that I can judge their actions.

    Nature, as far as we know, has no purpose or goal. Even in the theistic view nature has no goals other than to be the environment where humans can live. Our only justification for setting goals for ourselves are our primitive tendencies to avoid pain, seek pleasure. These tendencies are artifacts of our basic brain structure, and this behavior is common to all animals who can experience pain and pleasure. It’s so common it almost seems justified, but it’s really not. Nature has no built-in notion of morality or goal as far as we know.

    You say that it seems like Nazi genocide is objectively wrong. But in this, and any other cases, there are perfectly healthy individiuals who nonetheless disagree. Even if you could find a moral judgment that’s common to all individuals, would it be evidence of objective morality? In this sense, evolution is a good explanation. It doesn’t provide a basis for morality, per se, but it provides a reason why we do make moral judgments.

    With respect, the argument form is valid and I have committed no fallacies. I didn’t say ‘I don’t want morality to be subjective,’ or ‘I would feel sad if morality were subjective,’ or anything like that. I have merely asserted that morality does not depend on the belief of a person or group.

    I wasn’t referring to your position specifically. Your assertion is valid in form, I’m sure, but I’m not sure how you would defend it.

    It seems like we don’t arrive at most values so casually. I think values come about from objective needs, such as those I cited above in Marlow’s heirarchy.

    Perhaps I should have said that values arise because of the basic needs of a subject and when the subject consciously or unconsciously makes a decision that there is a value.

    I’ll try to state my position a bit more succintly. Moral judgments are done by subjects, I hope we can agree. Judgments are made in relation to goals (for simplicity, it is our goal to satisfy and protect our needs and values). For instance, maximizing pleasure or minimizing pain can be goals. These goals are rooted in part in our neurology, but only in the way that we’re pre-programmed to avoid some types of food – it is still a subjective opinion. To justify a non-objective morality, you’d have to find some kind of goal that is independent on a subject. As far as we know, there is no goal inherent in nature. If we can’t find a justification for our goals any more than we can find a justification for our subjective taste, we must conclude that morality is subjective.

    I think you can apply your argument to taste as well as morality. It seems like some types of food is objectively good or bad, since everyone or no one likes them. For instance, it would seem like human excrements are something nobody likes to eat. Yet there’s no justification for it. In nature, there’s no good or bad taste.

    So, I’m saying morality is ultimately as subjective as taste in food.

    Reply

  37. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 08:49:10

    Simen, you are saying morality is relative to a subject, and I don’t strongly disagree. My argument is that morality is not relative to a belief, and I think that’s a good distinction to make. I don’t think that someone’s believing that a behavior is moral actually makes that behavior moral.

    A couple of points:

    1. Paradigm cases seem to actually fix the definition of what it is to be moral. A Nazi may not be mentally ill, but he is mistaken. Ask him if it would be moral for someone to systematically exterminate all Nazis. If he answers truthfully and thoughtfully, he’ll probably say it is. (If he doesn’t, then he’s probably mentally ill after all).

    2. You’re right, I can make the same argument about taste. Taste is somewhat subjective, but not as strongly as most people think. There are poisons, after all – and there is proper nutrition and malnutrition.

    The things that are ‘just a matter of taste’ probably correspond to morally neutral decisions in the analogy.

    Reply

  38. Simen
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 10:13:51

    I’ve got a problem with this:

    A Nazi may not be mentally ill, but he is mistaken.

    I find the Nazi position disgusting personally, but I cannot blindly accept that it is wrong outside of my mind, i.e. for me it is wrong because it goes against my personal view on morality, but I don’t see how I can justify my views on morality any better than a Nazi.

    When we all have the same goals and values, we can empirically test moral hypotheses and decide objectively whether one is better than the other. However, our goals and values aren’t really justified. Some of them derive from our nature (we don’t want pain, we like happiness, we value freedom). However, there are those who do get off on pain. Our values are largely arbitrary.

    So you’re correct that an action is not moral because a majority believes it is moral. An action itself, I want to argue, is never moral or immoral. It only makes sense to think of its morality as the opinion of an individual.

    Reply

  39. addofio
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 11:40:52

    A couple of quick points:

    Michael, I wonder if you aren’t equating “subjective” and “arbitrary”. A position may be subjective but not completely arbitrary or groundless.

    Second, I’m beginning to suspect that the important question is, what do we do about the fact that people do not in fact agree about what is moral? To many Islamic Arabs, honor killing is moral; to me it is definitely not and in fact is repugnant. And there are more subtle cases: when I was in the Peace Corps, I had to proctor exams. I caught some kids cheating, and told them I would report them. They gathered round after the exam and begged me not to turn them in. Their argument was that they were helping each other, and that I should help them (these were high-stakes exams with significant economic significance in their lives.) At one point, one of them said to me something like “What if I were your brother? You’d help your brother, wouldn’t you?” meaning I’d not turn my brother in. When I said no, I would in fact turn my brother in, the students were shocked. At first they refuled to believe me–they thought I was a reasonably good and kind person–and when they realized I was serious, they subtly recoiled from me; I had violated a fundamental value of theirs. To me, the principle of not cheating trumped the principle of helping one’s brother–in fact, to me helping someone in such an illegitimate way preferetially because they are related is a bad thing, nepotism. To them, “helping a brother” (a word that meant something closer to our word “kin” or “tribseman” to them) was/is one of their most fundamental values. The differing values logically led to different actions with different consequences. I turned them in. Was I right? Objectively? Or wrong, objectively?

    The problem is, even if morality is or could be “objective”–we don’t know what the objective “right” or “wrong” is, or at least we often don’t agree about it, especially when two values are in conflict. When everyone agrees–not a problem. When we don’t–how do we resolve that? We’ve developed a whole set of social mechanisms for resolving such conflicts–but the final resort is force. We would like to avoid that (many of us, at any rate), and if we could just get everyone to agree on some set of standards, we could possibly avoid resorting to violence, and I see the appeal to an “objective basis for morality” as an attempt to get people to agree–but it doesn’t in fact work, in that different people put forward different “objective” standards or moral principles. I see this as a serious human dilemma, urgently in need of some resolution before we wipe ourselves out, but I have no productive suggestions to make.

    Reply

  40. Stephen
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 11:44:05

    I’ve been following the thread with interest, wondering what I have to contribute. Here are a few thoughts.

    • Simen / Michael:

    I am (somewhat perversely) sympathetic to the argument Simen is making. Let’s discuss those Nazis a little further. Their worldview seems to assume that the law of the jungle prevails. If I want to survive — even more, if I want to prosper — I can best achieve that objective by setting my jackboot on the other guy’s throat.

    Let’s demonize and exterminate the other: it serves my self-interest. Over and over again, people have made this same calculation, and they continue to do so today. Even the President of the USA arguably follows that strategy.

    Is it immoral? Not from their perspective, because morality boils down to self-interest. In President Bush’s world, the good is whatever is good for America.

    I think Simen’s point of view is a variation of utilitarianism.

    First, Simen argues that morality is ultimately subjective. Each actor determines morality; there is no objective standard by which we might correct him or her. I appreciate the fact that Simen is consistent in holding that position, even when Nazis are introduced to the discussion.

    Second, Simen implicitly seems to advocate utilitarianism. Society should aim to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This would become the (artificial if not arbitrary) standard by which people’s actions might be deemed either moral or immoral.

    (Simen, I assume you will correct me if I’ve misunderstood you.)

    The argument interests me because I am a theist. I continue to think that morality must come from outside the human race. If there is no objective, external moral rule, then man is indeed “the measure of all things” (Protagoras). The end of this process is aptly articulated in an Old Testament phrase: everyone does whatever is right in his own eyes.

    Simen’s utilitarianism (if I’ve interpreted him correctly) provides one way of circumnavigating the problem. It establishes a moral principle that is external to any one individual, or even a group like the Nazis. We would have to think in terms of the global good.

    That appeals to me because, as a Christian, I think the global good is precisely what God has in mind. I don’t think God favours the USA over all other nations; nor Iran, for that matter. If God is the Creator of all, he wants the whole population to prosper to the extent such a thing is possible.

    Michael is likewise arguing for a morality that is external to the human race, and I am open to the argument. But I remain sceptical that evolution is an adequate ground for morality.

    We’ve had this discussion before: I think the primary lesson of evolution is the adversarial struggle for survival. That brings us back to the Nazi calculation in short order: “our” elevation necessarily entails “their” subjugation.

    I know, you think there are other elements of evolution that I’m dismissing from view: stellar examples of cooperation and even symbiosis.

    But this returns us to Simen’s question of subjectivity. Whose interpretation of evolution is correct? Why should the Nazis respect your kinder, gentler worldview, if it isn’t self-evidently true? Why should a theist like me agree that you’ve found adequate grounds for morality apart from God? It seems to boil down to your opinion — your decision to privilege some (arguably exceptional) elements of evolutionary history over others.

    • Addofio / Michael:
    I do indeed have a lot of respect for the social sciences. I find much of what Freud and Jung taught very stimulating, though modern psychology dismisses them as unscientific. And I think sociology is a profoundly insightful discipline.

    I also like to tout the fact that 40% of scientists are theists, according to a well-known survey published in Nature magazine. So I’m aware it is not strictly fair to tar all scientists, or all atheists, with the same brush.

    I was really thinking of popular discourse. In the blogosphere, and in my face-to-face interactions, atheists seem determined to debunk religion. And they are completely closed to mythology as Michael defined it from Wikipedia.

    Again, it’s a definition of mythology that I support, and which I apply to certain biblical texts.

    Perhaps it’s presumptuous of me to speak of “most” atheists. Better educated atheists are presumably capable of more nuanced views than the atheist of popular culture. (The same pattern holds true of religious folk, of course.)

    Reply

  41. Simen
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 12:47:48

    Subjectivism is a meta-ethical theory (a theory about ethical theories). It basically says that no action has any inherent moral value; all we can say is how good it measures up to the standard we choose to use, and that choice is ultimately subjective.

    Now, we can combine this with all kinds of ethical theories so long as they don’t claim to be objective. As I’ve said before, we measure actions by our goals and we do have some goals and values in common. However, we must also take into account the fact that we (our legal systems, at least) also take into account intent and circumstances. If you plan to murder someone, and then do it, you’ve done something worse than if you kill someone in self defense or accidently. If we take a pure utilitarian view, if the action removes value from society, it is evil regardless of circumstances and intent. Self defense can be dealt with by saying that your death/major injury would also cause loss of value and so the killing was the better of two evils. I’m less sure about intent. It seems as though we must accept that an action is evil no matter whether it was intended or not, and that an accident is not any better than a deliberate, planned attack. This is certainly contrary to how our legal systems work, and it also goes against my personal (again, subjective) views on morality.

    On the other hand, we could argue that punishing someone for an accident has negative impact on society, because the person did not consciously choose to do something bad and so instead of encouraging the wrongdoer to keep away from wrong actions, it will only lead to friction, while a purposeful wrongdoer must be punished harder to ensure he doesn’t do it again. If we accept this, an action is wrong regardless of intent, but intent has a consequence wrt. the possible punishment.

    We could go on about this for days. Since we share some values, it is possible to objectively find a moral code that best protects those values while the values themselves are still only what a group of individuals with subjective opinions arrived at. Utilitarianism is as good an idea as any. Is it better? Perhaps.

    Advancing the good of society is probably something we all want. How best to achieve this goal is still (and forever, I guess) unknown.

    As I’ve said before, although I think morality is subjective there are nonetheless some common values we have, and from the valeus we can agree on we can build a workable society. The reason most societies share some ethical views can be found in evolution. Evolution is not a basis for morality, it is an explanation for why we feel as though an action is good or bad. Saying “we feel this is good because evolution has determined we should feel this is good [because it benefits the group]” is circular, and so it’s only a statement of fact and not a basis for morality.

    Reply

  42. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 26, 2007 @ 23:21:43

    I was going to write a long response, and then decided to search the internet for an article that expresses my opinion, because it’s less work for me. 😉 Here it is.

    The article should answer most of the questions, but I’ll highlight a few points in case people don’t want to read the whole thing.

    Simen said:

    When we all have the same goals and values, we can empirically test moral hypotheses and decide objectively whether one is better than the other. However, our goals and values aren’t really justified. Some of them derive from our nature (we don’t want pain, we like happiness, we value freedom). However, there are those who do get off on pain. Our values are largely arbitrary.

    I don’t agree that our values are arbitrary, and I think the evidence supports my position. All humans have moral values in common, with rare but notable psychopathic exceptions.

    If someone gets off on pain, then it’s not pain for them. Pain is subjective; morality isn’t. Pain is a feeling that people dislike and avoid. People don’t subject themselves to sensations that they dislike, unless there is a larger payoff.

    So you’re correct that an action is not moral because a majority believes it is moral. An action itself, I want to argue, is never moral or immoral. It only makes sense to think of its morality as the opinion of an individual.

    The consequence of your position is that morality does not exist. If you are right, then might makes right. There’s no point in trying to figure out what’s moral – there’s no point in figuring out ethical systems – because whatever a person does is moral, as long as they want to do it; morality is just a matter of taste.

    If you won’t agree that it is always wrong, everywhere, for anyone to torture an innocent child for the pure pleasure of it, then I guess I can’t convince you.

    Addofio said:

    Michael, I wonder if you aren’t equating “subjective” and “arbitrary”. A position may be subjective but not completely arbitrary or groundless.

    Actually, I’m well aware of the distinction. It just so happens that arbitrariness is a consequence of moral subjectivism, as I see it. I think moral subjectivism fails to give a good explanation of what makes an action right or wrong. Simen seems to agree (see the quote above), but I won’t try to speak for him.

    I’m beginning to suspect that the important question is, what do we do about the fact that people do not in fact agree about what is moral?

    Moral disagreements arise because cultures tend to emphasize some values more than others, but most often the disagreement boils down to matters of fact, not value.

    Take abortion as an example. People on both sides of the issue agree that murder is wrong. They disagree on whether the destruction of the fetus is murder. The answer is not a matter of opinion. Destruction of a fetus either is murder, or it isn’t. Someday, when we know enough about fetuses and about murder, we will have the answer to whether abortion is wrong.

    Stephen said:

    Simen’s utilitarianism (if I’ve interpreted him correctly) provides one way of circumnavigating the problem. It establishes a moral principle that is external to any one individual, or even a group like the Nazis. We would have to think in terms of the global good.

    Stephen, utilitarianism isn’t a creed that people try to abide by, it’s an attempt to describe what makes actions morally right, wrong, or neutral.

    Ethics is not yet perfected, but it probably balances consequentialist theories such as utilitarianism with non-concequentialist theories of moral rights.

    Reply

  43. addofio
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 10:09:21

    So, Michael, was I objectively right, or objectively wrong, to turn in the students who cheated on the exam? If one of the cheating students had in fact been my sister or brother–what then? The facts are in: what is the verdict?

    I don’t think differences of opinion about morality always boil down to questions of facts; in fact, I think more often than not, they are precisely differences in value systems. I think the abortion issue will never boil down to a question of facts–it is at heart a religious question in the sense that it depends on essentially religious beliefs about souls, human beings, etc. The question of whether or not a just-fertilized egg contains a human soul will never resolve down to a matter of fact. Nor will the difference between murder and killing.

    On the other hand. . . it’s hard for me to believe that morality is purely arbitrary. Of course, I may be just programmed by evolution and my culture to believe that. The whole question reminds me of the the question I pose to my long-suffering prospective math teachers every year: is math created or discovered? There are good arguments on both sides, and yet neither answer seems entirely satisfactory.

    Reply

  44. Simen
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 10:14:33

    Michael, that article is dead wrong. Perhaps I should make this into a full-blown blog post, because I’ve got much to say. From the article:

    Subjectivism claims that what makes an action right is that a person approves of it or believes that it’s right.

    This is wrong. I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: something is not right or wrong because someone believes it’s right and wrong. Their belief is but a personal opinion on the matter. If morality is subjective, no action is right or wrong, just like no food really tastes good or bad.

    For one thing, it implies that each of us is morally infallible. As long as we approve of or believe in what we are doing, we can do no wrong.

    This flows from the false premise above. As I said, nobody can be “really” wrong or right, it’s only a matter of personal opinion.

    But this cannot be right. Suppose that Hitler believed that it was right to exterminate the Jews. Then it was right for Hitler to exterminate the Jews. Or suppose that Stalin believed that it was right to assassinate his enemies. Then it was right for Stalin to assassinate his enemies. Subjectivism sanctions any action as long as the person performing it approves of it or believes that it’s right.

    This is wrong. Subjectivism sanctions no actions. It was indeed “right” for Hitler to do what he did, in the sense that it was his opinion on what is right, but in the majority opinion it was “wrong”.

    But what Hitler and Stalin did was wrong, even if they believed otherwise. So believing something to be right can’t make it right.

    Here lies my problem. This is an assertion. “What Hitler and Stalin did was wrong.” Sure, I think so, but I’ve yet to see any good justification for it. Exactly what is it that makes me right and Hitler wrong? Majority opinion? In that case, it’s a kind of relativism, a theory the article itself condemns. The personal opinion of the author? In that case, it’s subjective. If not, I’d like to see the justification.

    Not only does subjectivism imply that everyone is morally infallible, it also implies that moral disagreement is next to impossible. Suppose Jack says that homosexuality is right, and Jill says that it’s wrong. You might think that Jack and Jill disagree with one another. But you would be mistaken. According to subjective relativism, Jack is saying that he believes that homosexuality is right while Jill is saying that she believes that homosexuality is wrong.

    Jack and Jill are in disagreement. Just like they can disagree on the taste of a pizza, they can disagree on the moral status of homosexuality. This is true whether morality is subjective or not.

    But this doesn’t constitute a disagreement because neither is denying what the other is saying. In order for Jill to disagree with Jack, she would have to say that Jack doesn’t believe that homosexuality is right.

    This is wrong. They are in disagreement. That doesn’t mean they have to be right. They could be in disagreement on the aestethic value of a painting, for instance. Neither of them would be right unless you postulate some supernatural aesthethic agency that maintains the value of all paintings in the world.

    Subjectivism, then, fails to meet the criteria of adequacy for ethical theories: it sanctions obviously immoral actions, it implies that people are morally infallible, and it denies that there are any substantive moral disputes. Because it is inconsistent with our considered moral judgments and our experience of the moral life, it is not an acceptable ethical theory.

    Subjectivism sanctions no actions. The article says some actions are “obviously” wrong, but it fails to identify why they’re wrong. Subjectivism doesn’t deny that there are moral disputes. It may run counter to our naive experience of moral life, but this article and many like it fail to identify the mechanism that makes some moral opinions right and others wrong.

    It does make sense to discuss ethics, even if they’re subjective, because we need some common values.

    Reply

  45. Stephen
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 14:08:31

    • Michael:
    Let me quote from the article you linked to:
    Anthropological evidence does not furnish proof of relativism. We do not know of societies in which bravery is despised and cowardice held up to honor, in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue.

    I have to wonder if this, too, boils down to utilitarianism. It is generally beneficial to a society if its citizens are courageous; generally deleterious if its citizens are cowardly.

    What looks like an objective moral standard may be nothing more than socialization: society imprints the value of courage on me. Society does so because it is in the best interests of society that I be courageous — even though it may be contrary to my personal interests.

    And lets consider “foolhardiness”. If one soldier tries to attack 500 enemy soldiers, is he courageous or foolhardy? I think it’s the same character trait, applied to different circumstances. Whether it’s a virtue or a vice depends on the likelihood of success — a rather utilitarian calculation, I would argue.

    Here’s another quote from the article:
    Consider the statement, “Unnecessary suffering is wrong.” … Whenever one is made to suffer unnecessarily, a wrong has been committed. To anyone who understands what suffering and wrong are, this statement should be self-evident. If you do not believe that this statement is true, the burden of proof is on you to provide a counterexample.

    I’m more sympathetic to this reasoning. I know from personal experience how awful it is to suffer — for example, I’ve had kidney stones. I can see that others experience the same sort of anguish when they suffer. I would have to be terribly selfish to be indifferent to their suffering. If I deliberately inflict suffering on them for my own gratification, that would be perverse and evil.

    Of course, the TV show “24” is conditioning people to believe that torture is sometimes (often?) justified for a greater good. (What a coincidence that it’s on the air just when US policy is pro-torture!) But presumably this would be excused as purposeful, not “unnecessary” suffering.

    Ultimately, like you, I prefer to believe there are some objective moral standards. But I don’t understand where your moral principles come from.

    Is morality one of those metaphysical entities you believe in? Would it still exist if the whole human race died? Or if the cosmos collapsed in on itself?

    I admit, I have only a vague notion of where my own moral principles come from. I ascribe them to God: to God’s character, or to God’s intention for all of creation. Since I believe in a metaphysical realm, it doesn’t seem such a stretch to believe morality is somehow validated there, in the world of spirit. But this explanation leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

    Again, how do we know right from wrong, on your view? Is it a kind of intuition humans have? Does it emerge via cross-cultural consensus? For me, knowledge of right and wrong is somehow part of our very being, though we often perceive it only dimly.

    Religion may not have very clear explanation, but it corresponds to your intuition: there is an objective right and wrong, and we are able to discern it. Without religion, how do you defend such ground?

    Reply

  46. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 19:34:12

    Addofio said: So, Michael, was I objectively right, or objectively wrong, to turn in the students who cheated on the exam?

    Addofio, you know I don’t have the answer to that. Perhaps there were other options available to you that you didn’t consider – such as consulting a superior – I don’t know. You know far more about the situation you were dealing with, and I’m sure you did the best you could.

    But your question misses the point. Just because we don’t know the answer, doesn’t mean there is no correct answer. To use an analogy from mathematics: the value of pi, expressed in decimal notation, either has a last digit, or it doesn’t – and no one (as far as I know) knows.

    Just because we have moral questions, that in no way implies that there are no correct answers.

    Simen said: If morality is subjective, no action is right or wrong, just like no food really tastes good or bad.

    and then Simen said: This [that moral subjectivism implies that each of us is morally infallible] flows from the false premise above. As I said, nobody can be “really” wrong or right, it’s only a matter of personal opinion.

    Simen, if there is no right or wrong, then we are morally infallible because we can do no wrong. The only way to do wrong is to be mistaken about what our preference is. So, the article is correct insofar is it points out that moral subjectivism makes everyone morally infallible.

    Here lies my problem. This is an assertion. “What Hitler and Stalin did was wrong.” Sure, I think so, but I’ve yet to see any good justification for it.

    You are looking for some sort of logical necessity. There is none. Nothing exists out of logical necessity. Morality exists because humans are moral beings. Morality is related to our needs, as illustrated in Maslow’s heirarchy. All humans have the same basic needs.

    What Hitler and Stalin did are considered paradigm cases. The evidence shows that, when people are aware of the facts of such cases, they universally agree that a moral wrong was committed. You yourself agree.

    A Nazi may very well disagree in the case of what Hitler did, because he has an irrational prejudice. If you describe other cases of genocide to the Nazi, he will probably agree that some genocide is wrong.

    More importantly, if you ask the Nazi why it is right to kill Jews, he will have some kind of moral reason for doing so, thereby proving that he is a moral being, with values not unlike everyone else’s.

    Exactly what is it that makes me right and Hitler wrong? Majority opinion? In that case, it’s a kind of relativism, a theory the article itself condemns.

    Hitler was wrong because he caused the unnecessary suffering and death of millions upon millions of people, and violated their moral rights.

    Jack and Jill are in disagreement. Just like they can disagree on the taste of a pizza, they can disagree on the moral status of homosexuality.

    No, Jack and Jill can’t be in disagreement, unless one makes an assertion about the preferences of the other. They certainly can’t disagree on the moral status of anything, because no actions are moral or immoral if moral relativism is true. Jack says he prefers pizza, Jill says she’s on a diet. Jack is a homosexual, Jill is digusted. Neither of them can be wrong if moral subjectivism is true. They may think they are disagreeing about something, but really they are merely stating their own preferences.

    this article and many like it fail to identify the mechanism that makes some moral opinions right and others wrong.

    Just because we haven’t identified the mechanism doesn’t mean no mechanism exists. I have only a passing understanding of microwave technology, but I can tell you my food is hot when it comes out of the microwave.

    Just as I can tell you that microwaves excite water molecules to produce heat, I can tell you that our moral values are the result of the fact that we are complex, social creatures with similar needs. Being moral helps us to meet those objective needs. Morality is not dependent on the beliefs (or preferences) of any person or group.

    Reply

  47. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 19:45:55

    Stephen said: Would [morality] still exist if the whole human race died? Or if the cosmos collapsed in on itself?

    I don’t know, but arguably, yes it would. Even if every human died, it would still be true that it would be wrong for one human to inflict unnecessary suffering on another human.

    I admit, I have only a vague notion of where my own moral principles come from. I ascribe them to God: to God’s character, or to God’s intention for all of creation. Since I believe in a metaphysical realm, it doesn’t seem such a stretch to believe morality is somehow validated there, in the world of spirit. But this explanation leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

    My own opinion is that whether God created us as moral beings, or whether we evolved as such, makes little difference. You know, of course, that I don’t believe in God, and you know my opinion of divine command theory. I don’t think morality can possibly arise from god’s will, or her character either.

    Reply

  48. Simen
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 20:20:42

    Simen, if there is no right or wrong, then we are morally infallible because we can do no wrong. The only way to do wrong is to be mistaken about what our preference is. So, the article is correct insofar is it points out that moral subjectivism makes everyone morally infallible.

    Only in the sense that we can do no right either. The point is, I can do something that goes against what I believe is right. If I believe it is wrong to steal, I may nonetheless decide to steal knowing full well that it is wrong according to my beliefs. I may feel guilty about it. According to my opinion on morality, I did something wrong.

    This is the same way that I can think pizza tastes good, yet I can say it tastes bad. I’m wrong according to my belief.

    You are looking for some sort of logical necessity. There is none. Nothing exists out of logical necessity. Morality exists because humans are moral beings. Morality is related to our needs, as illustrated in Maslow’s heirarchy. All humans have the same basic needs.

    We have the same needs, yes. Yet you haven’t demonstrated that it is objectively good to satisfy our needs, merely that humans tend to agree with that statement. This quickly leads to an infinite regress; whenever you say something is right because of such-and-so, I can ask why such-and-so is right, and so on.

    What Hitler and Stalin did are considered paradigm cases. The evidence shows that, when people are aware of the facts of such cases, they universally agree that a moral wrong was committed. You yourself agree.

    Do you deny that there can be a Nazi who knows the facts about the Holocaust yet feels it is right?

    Anyway, if something is true because a majority believes it, you’re not advocating objective morality but relative morality.

    More importantly, if you ask the Nazi why it is right to kill Jews, he will have some kind of moral reason for doing so, thereby proving that he is a moral being, with values not unlike everyone else’s.

    Yes, I do not deny that humans have values, just like they have taste, only that some values are objectively right while others are not.

    No, Jack and Jill can’t be in disagreement, unless one makes an assertion about the preferences of the other. They certainly can’t disagree on the moral status of anything, because no actions are moral or immoral if moral relativism is true. Jack says he prefers pizza, Jill says she’s on a diet. Jack is a homosexual, Jill is digusted. Neither of them can be wrong if moral subjectivism is true. They may think they are disagreeing about something, but really they are merely stating their own preferences.

    Well, what is the problem then? They think they disagree. In fact, they do disagree, but on a false premise. You don’t believe in God. Would you deny that two theologians can disagree on the nature of God because there is no God? Of course they can disagree, it’s just that they disagree based on a false premise. In the example above, Jack and Jill disagree based on the false premise that morality is objective.

    Just because we haven’t identified the mechanism doesn’t mean no mechanism exists. I have only a passing understanding of microwave technology, but I can tell you my food is hot when it comes out of the microwave.

    I can apply this to God, too. Just because we haven’t identified the mechanism, it is still possible that God exists and interferes with the world.

    Just as I can tell you that microwaves excite water molecules to produce heat, I can tell you that our moral values are the result of the fact that we are complex, social creatures with similar needs. Being moral helps us to meet those objective needs. Morality is not dependent on the beliefs (or preferences) of any person or group.

    I agree with you on one thing. If we have the same moral system, we can objectively determine what is moral relative to that moral system. However, that does not make that moral system objective. What actions satisfy some criteria is objective; the criteria are not.

    While we can determine ways that are objectively better than others to satisfy the objective needs of humans, we cannot objectively determine that satisfying those needs is good. What mechanism is it that makes your opinion (and mine, for that matter) that satisfying human needs is right, right? How do we justify it? The difference is that I believe that there is no objective justification, while you insist that there is, but you seem not to know it, or you know it but fail to identify it.

    Reply

  49. Stephen
    Feb 27, 2007 @ 21:55:46

    Michael:
    I’m sure you aren’t being deliberately obtuse, so I must not be expressing myself clearly. In any event, your last two responses to me have been disappointingly cursory.

    Morality is related to our needs, as illustrated in Maslow’s hierarchy. All humans have the same basic needs.

    Invoking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t helpful. I think you will agree with me that Jesus and Socrates both acted morally when they chose death rather than compromising their principles. But such a decision contradicts Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which regards personal security as the most fundamental concern.

    Maslow’s hierarchy makes sense at a general level, but ultimately it’s flawed. All around the world we see people who have little by way of property or personal security: and yet they continue to believe in God. That contradicts Maslow’s hierarchy, which suggests that people only seek “actualization” after they have achieved security. Is it immoral of them to turn Maslow’s hierarchy upside down like that, as Jesus and Socrates also did?

    I must add that morality must encompass the whole of the cosmos, not just the human inhabitants of earth. What about a scenario where human beings hunt dodos or elephants into extinction? If it serves human ends, does that make it moral?

    You maintain that morality is objective but, with respect, you haven’t made much of a case. You pointed to evolution, and I identified a serious flaw in that reasoning. You didn’t respond. Now you’ve pointed to Maslow’s hierarchy, but that won’t do the job either.

    I point to God because God is an objective third party: neither Nazi nor Jew, neither American nor Iranian, neither hunter nor dodo. In your view, divine command theory is illogical — OK. But:

    • How do you arrive at a morality that is objective if it is not external to us humans?
    • Alternatively, if it is external to us humans, how is such a thing possible apart from God? Do morals have independent metaphysical existence?
    • Finally, if morals are external to us humans, how do we know what they are?

    You’re not answering my questions. I can only assume that my communication has been poor.

    Reply

  50. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 02:09:04

    I’m going to admit that I have no argument left after this comment. Simen’s view has a lot going for it.

    Stephen said: your last two responses to me have been disappointingly cursory.

    I apologize. If I did not respond directly to a comment of yours, it was either because I assumed you would read an answer in my general comments, or because I did not realize that you desired a response. The fault is mine I’m sure – I probably didn’t read as thoughtfully as usual because of time constraints.

    Invoking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t helpful. I think you will agree with me that Jesus and Socrates both acted morally when they chose death rather than compromising their principles. But such a decision contradicts Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which regards personal security as the most fundamental concern.

    The point of the heirarchy is that we all have common needs. I don’t see that such a decision contradicts the heirarchy. Socrates and Jesus valued something more than life, and made the choice that they felt was appropriate. The heirarchy does not include values, but needs. The heirarchy does not say that everyone must satisfy their needs, only that these are needs that everyone has.

    All around the world we see people who have little by way of property or personal security: and yet they continue to believe in God. That contradicts Maslow’s hierarchy, which suggests that people only seek “actualization” after they have achieved security. Is it immoral of them to turn Maslow’s hierarchy upside down like that, as Jesus and Socrates also did?

    Jesus and Socrates didn’t turn the heirarchy upside down. I think you missed my point. The heirarchy says nothing about what anyone ought to do, and it says nothing about what anyone ought to believe. The term ‘actualization’ is neutral toward religion.

    I must add that morality must encompass the whole of the cosmos, not just the human inhabitants of earth.

    For simplicity’s sake, I have talked about human morality. Other creatures are morally relevant, insofar as they are able to suffer, make moral decisions, and so on – but that didn’t seem pertinent to the discussion.

    What about a scenario where human beings hunt dodos or elephants into extinction? If it serves human ends, does that make it moral?

    No, that doesn’t make it moral, not remotely. It seems I’ve seriously failed to make my position clear. I’m wondering what was in my comments that led you to believe that I would hold that position.

    You maintain that morality is objective but, with respect, you haven’t made much of a case. You pointed to evolution, and I identified a serious flaw in that reasoning.

    The only thing I’ve said – or tried to say – about evolution in relation to objective morality is that as a species we have learned to adhere to objective moral principles in the same way that birds have taken advantage of aerodynamic principles. It explains why we have an innate – yet imperfect – moral sense. If you raised an objection, I missed it. I glanced back through the thread but it’s quite long now, and I couldn’t find it.

    How do you arrive at a morality that is objective if it is not external to us humans?

    The same way that we have objective principles of aerodynamics, apart from birds and airplanes. It’s based on reality. Humans (moral agents, if you prefer) have real needs, which give rise to values and relationships. It’s quite a complex system, which is why it is frequently difficult to tell right from wrong. But it’s not a matter of choice, taste, or belief.

    Alternatively, if it is external to us humans, how is such a thing possible apart from God? Do morals have independent metaphysical existence?

    First explain to me how it is possible with god, and then I’ll tell you what the difference is. 😉 I’m being flippant – I hope you’re not offended. It’s very late for me.

    Seriously, how do morals exist if there is a god?

    I’m not sure why you think the question is so crucial. How do laws exist? How do scientific theories and models of the world exist? The short answer is that moral rules are abstract. They’re not binding on anyone – we have a choice to follow them or not.

    Finally, if morals are external to us humans, how do we know what they are?

    The same way we discover other principles. Ethical matters are analyzed, and attempts are made to determine what makes actions morally right, wrong, or neutral. Ethical theories are created and evaluated according to criteria such as consistency, completeness, simplicity, and the principle of negative evidence, and non-arbitrariness.

    Simen, your position seems very reasonable, and seems to have more going for it than mine. The only thing that bothers me is the consequence, which to me seems inescapable, that moral judgements are groundless if moral subjectivism is true. I don’t believe that moral judgements are groundless, and so I will give this some more thought. For now, this is my last word, which I’m sure will not convince anyone.

    Simen said: Yet you haven’t demonstrated that it is objectively good to satisfy our needs, merely that humans tend to agree with that statement.

    This is a good point. After some thought, I’m not sure I really have to show that it is objectively good to satisfy our needs. Perhaps I only have to show that we have objective needs and that it is the nature of moral agents to satisfy those needs – a subtle yet possibly workable distinction.

    This quickly leads to an infinite regress; whenever you say something is right because of such-and-so, I can ask why such-and-so is right, and so on.

    Simen, you are an incisive and insightful thinker. This comment cuts right to the heart of the matter. Why is something right?

    My only answer is this: it strikes me that the question “why” can be asked over and over about anything. “Why is the sky blue?” Because light is refracted through the atmophere, under the proper conditions. “Why?” Well, the sun gives off light, and light has certain properties. It’s like a wave, or a particle. “Why?” Er….

    Whenever we ask “why,” we quickly reach a point where explanations break down. Yet, this does not mean that the sky isn’t objectively blue. Blue is a real, objective color, and the sky is objectively blue if the right atmospheric conditions pertain. Similarly, it seems as though some actions really are morally right, wrong, or neutral.

    Do you deny that there can be a Nazi who knows the facts about the Holocaust yet feels it is right?

    No, I don’t. You missed the point, or maybe I didn’t express it well. People do not have direct control over their own feelings and beliefs. I think a rational Nazi could be persuaded that some paradigm case in the same class as the holocaust was wrong. The most obvious thing to ask him would be whether it would be morally permitted for Jews to systematically exterminate all Nazis and their families, including children. If he agreed that the paradigm case was a moral evil, this would show his judgment to be inconsistent. The fact is, virtually everyone but a nihilist will agree that some paradigm case in the class is a moral evil. This is not to say that the majority decides what is evil – this just helps us fix the definition of what is morally evil.

    Anyway, if something is true because a majority believes it, you’re not advocating objective morality but relative morality.

    I’m not advocating anything of the sort. Paradigm cases actually help to fix the definition of what it means for something to be immoral.

    I can apply this to God, too. Just because we haven’t identified the mechanism, it is still possible that God exists and interferes with the world.

    Well, actually your statement is true. God may exist and interfere with the world – but there is no evidence that this is so. There is evidence that morality exists. The evidence that morality exists seems to me to count against moral subjectivism – but I understand your argument and I know that you disagree.

    I don’t think we have to justify that satisfying our needs is right. If we don’t satisfy our needs, we die, or live unfulfilled lives. What other justification is needed?

    Reply

  51. Simen
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 03:09:07

    I can agree that the consequences if morality is subjective can seem too much to bear. However, I can only point out that it does not invalidate ethical discussion or moral criticism as long as we (as humans do) share some part of our moral standards. If we share the moral rule that “one must not cause unnecessary pain”, then I can legitimately criticize you if you cause unnecessary pain, and so on.

    The most obvious thing to ask [the Nazi] would be whether it would be morally permitted for Jews to systematically exterminate all Nazis and their families, including children.

    This would be a mistake. According to the Nazi’s wicked sense of morality, Jews are not really human and so it is OK to kill them, while Nazis are human and so it would be bad to kill them. This isn’t an inconcistency any more than it would be inconsistent for me to say it is morally permitted to kill animals for food but not humans for the same purpose. According to me, animals are not human and so to some degree the same rules don’t apply. According to the Nazis, Jews aren’t human. I think you’d have difficulty showing that Jews are really worth as much as other humans, because the concept of value is subjective.

    I don’t think we have to justify that satisfying our needs is right. If we don’t satisfy our needs, we die, or live unfulfilled lives. What other justification is needed?

    Then you’d need to show why our survival is good.

    One note about morality and God: if God is the source of morality, then morality is indeed outside of morality, but it is no more “objective” because it depends on a subject – God – and His opinion. If our criteria for “objective” is “not dependent on personal opinion of any conscious being”, morality from God fails this test. However, if we define “objective” as “true even if the universe was never created” or “true even outside the universe”, morality from God passes.

    I rest my case. I think we have evidence for morality, but I think the existence of an objective moral law is an assumption unsupported by evidence we can safely cut with Occam’s razor. I’ll try to write up a blog post explaining my position and what I think of the implications. My position doesn’t seem to be a popular one, favored by few philosophers, but I fail to see why that is because I’ve yet to see a real objection that isn’t based either on false assumptions or an appeal to consequences.

    Reply

  52. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 08:27:35

    I know I said that my last comment would be my last, but I can’t let this pass:

    According to the Nazi’s wicked sense of morality, Jews are not really human and so it is OK to kill them

    The Nazi is disagreeing on a matter of fact, not morality. I made this point earlier in the thread.

    Reply

  53. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 08:43:41

    And this: Then you’d need to show why our survival is good.

    Please explain why I would have to show this.

    Reply

  54. Simen
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 09:27:25

    The Nazi is disagreeing on a matter of fact, not morality. I made this point earlier in the thread.

    The Nazi thinks the subjective concept of “value” doesn’t apply to Jews. The “value” of a Jew is not a matter of fact. That a Jew is human is a matter of fact, but that the Jew’s “value” is not.

    And this: Then you’d need to show why our survival is good.

    Please explain why I would have to show this.

    You say that survival is good. You don’t explain why it is good. Sure, for an intelligent species, survival is seen as good, but that’s just their opinion. This is what I meant with the infinite regress comment. You rest your morality on something you take to be good, such as survival, but you have not justified your belief that “survival is good” is an objective statement, and not just a subjective feeling intelligent beings happen to have. See, whatever you say is good, even if it is agreed upon by all intelligent beings, is still just a matter of taste unless you can show that this is good independent on your feelingso n the matter. Subjective morality solves this dilemma by stating that our moral opinions need no more justification than our subjective taste in food or aestethics. However, if you’re gonna insist that morality is objective, you need to justify it.

    Reply

  55. Simen
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 11:42:04

    If you will excuse my advertising, I’ve written up my view and its consequences, and responses to some criticisms here: http://importreason.wordpress.com/2007/02/28/moral-subjectivism/ .

    Reply

  56. Stephen
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 13:08:53

    Michael:
    I think you’ve missed the point of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It isn’t just a list of universal human needs. It organizes human needs hierarchically (hence, “Maslow’s hierarchy“). Wikipedia explains:

    The basic concept is that the higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus once all the needs that are lower down in the pyramid are mainly or entirely satisfied.

    I was quite justified in saying that Jesus and Socrates turned the pyramid upside down by accepting death. If you want to base morality on Maslow’s hierarchy, Jesus and Socrates represent a problem for you.

    I’m not sure why you think the question [whether morals exist independently of humans] is so crucial.

    I’ll utilize Simen’s argument here. You claim that morality is objective, based on objective human needs. Simen asks, how do we know it is moral for humans to meet their needs?

    The reason this question arises is because your supposedly objective morality is, in fact, self-referential. The good is whatever meets human needs.

    That’s why I asked about humans hunting animals into extinction.

    The self-referential nature of your argument also gives rise to Simen’s rebuttal. Humans think it’s good to meet their needs — Simen concedes the point. But how do we know humans are right about that? You answer with another self-referential perspective:

    If we don’t satisfy our needs, we die, or live unfulfilled lives. What other justification is needed?

    To which one might ask, Who cares if humans die or live unfulfilled lives? Humans care, that’s who. It’s just another way of saying, The good is whatever is good for humans.

    Let me problematize your position further. Why should our reference point be the whole human race? Why shouldn’t I pursue the goal of fulfilling my own needs at the expense of my neighbor, if an opportunity arises? Why shouldn’t the Nazis pursue the fulfillment of their needs at the expense of Jews, gypsies, et al.?

    You have arbitrarily settled on the whole human race as your reference point. It won’t suffice: we need a point of reference outside of the human race. Only then are we dealing with a truly objective morality.

    • Simen:
    One note about morality and God: if God is the source of morality, then morality is indeed outside of morality, but it is no more “objective” because it depends on a subject – God – and His opinion.

    OK, and that gives rise to the problem Michael points to — a rational argument about divine command theory. (I’ll let Michael point you to a suitable reference.)

    But calling in an objective (i.e. disinterested) party is an accepted way of resolving disputes.

    I am invoking God as an arbiter between me and my neighbor, between Nazis and Jews, Americans and Iranians, hunters and dodos. God is a disinterested party: hence God’s opinion is objective in a way that no human committee can ever achieve.

    That’s the strength of divine command theory, however unsatisfactory it may be when we push it to the next level.

    Reply

  57. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 23:32:21

    Simen said:

    The Nazi thinks the subjective concept of “value” doesn’t apply to Jews. The “value” of a Jew is not a matter of fact. That a Jew is human is a matter of fact, but that the Jew’s “value” is not.

    No, excuse me, but now you are bullsh**ing. This has nothing to do with a “concept of ‘value’.” You said it yourself: “According to the Nazi’s wicked sense of morality, Jews are not really human and so it is OK to kill them”

    Nazis think Jews are sub-human. Nazis nevertheless believe that the senseless murder of humans is wrong.

    Stephen,

    I may not have done the best job in arguing against Simen, or in arguing for my position. But, the difficulties I face are not the ones you bring up in your last comment.

    Re Maslow’s heirarchy:

    Socrates, Jesus, and other shining moral examples are not a problem for Maslow’s heirarchy. In fact, they are to be expected if the heirarchy is correct.

    Self-transcendence is at the pinnacle of the heirarchy. I would argue that self-transcendence allows one to value things outside one’s self, more than one’s self and one’s own needs – which in turn makes self-sacrifice possible. Peak experiences would be a way such a value could come about.

    Peak experiences are unifying, and ego-transcending, bringing a sense of purpose to the individual and a sense of integration. Individuals most likely to have peak experiences are self-actualizing, mature, healthy, and self-fulfilled. All individuals are capable of peak experiences.

    The inclination for humans – or, more broadly, moral agents – to value things outside of themselves seems to be the most likely basis for an objective morality. It is in our nature to value things greater than ourselves.

    Socrates and Jesus gave their lives – noble, virtuous acts, to be sure – and once they were dead they were capable of no more sacrifices. So, the heirarchy is correct insofar as it points out that higher needs can’t come into focus unless the basic physiological needs are met.

    Stephen said:

    I’ll utilize Simen’s argument here. You claim that morality is objective, based on objective human needs. Simen asks, how do we know it is moral for humans to meet their needs?

    I don’t have to show that survival is good or moral. The fact that living things generally want to survive is an objective, objective, objective fact. There’s nothing self-referential about it. Living things act in self-interest to survive.

    I think we are laboring under a misapprehension of what objective means. “Objective” does not necessarily mean outside the bounds of human nature. It is an objective fact that healthy humans are born with two arms, two legs, a head, a beating heart, and so on. None of the human body parts are logically necessary – they just are, because that’s how humans work and all the parts work together. It is an objective fact that if a human body develops without vital organs, the body won’t survive. Similarly, I want to argue, healthy humans are born with needs, and a desire to live.

    Some of these needs are social, and these social needs lead to social valuations, which lead to morality. We are moral creatures because we are social creatures who would not survive and thrive unless we behave in such-and-such a way toward each other.

    This behavior is an objective code, because it does not depend on what any person or group believes – it is ultimately based on objective needs.

    Perhaps my view is mistaken. Certainly, it would take work to demonstrate it if it is true, and so it may be less easily accepted than Simen’s view.

    My position has one good thing going for it, which is that a workable ethics can be built upon it. I don’t think the same is true of Simen’s. Despite his assertion that we can agree on our “tastes” and thence have ethics, it seems a very hollow assertion to me. He goes on to say that the consequence of his position should not count against it, but I disagree. Theories are rejected all the time if they lead to consequences that are suspect.

    If I come up with a theory of optics which says that humans can not see, then there is something wrong with the theory, because we can see. If I come up with a theory that says bumblebees can not fly, then there is something wrong with the theory, because bumblebees can fly. If I come up with a theory that says the Holocaust is morally acceptable, then there is something wrong with the theory.

    Let me problematize your position further. Why should our reference point be the whole human race? Why shouldn’t I pursue the goal of fulfilling my own needs at the expense of my neighbor, if an opportunity arises? Why shouldn’t the Nazis pursue the fulfillment of their needs at the expense of Jews, gypsies, et al.?

    Paradigm cases are a reference point because they are universally agreed-upon. This is not arbitrary and it’s not cultural moral relativism. It fixes the definition of moral wrongness, in the same way that the freezing point of water fixes the Celsius scale of temperature.

    It’s worth noting that hot and cold are subjective valuations – the same temperature will feel warm to one person, cold to another. But that doesn’t mean that temperature is “a matter of taste.” Rather, we can find a reference point – the freezing point of water. Then we can set up a scale and measure temperature objectively.

    You shouldn’t pursue the goal of fulfilling all your needs at the expense of others because you would be causing great harm to others and violating their moral rights. This would violate objective moral principles, such as that needless suffering is a moral evil, and that it is morally wrong to violate someone’s moral rights.

    Yes, there are difficulties and vagueness in my argument. I admit that the force of Simen’s argument took me by surprise. I was prepared to argue against other forms of moral relativism, but not this one.

    I don’t think the difficulties in my position are insurmountable. They may be, but I’m still not convinced.

    Reply

  58. Stephen
    Mar 01, 2007 @ 07:58:59

    You shouldn’t pursue the goal of fulfilling all your needs at the expense of others because you would be causing great harm to others and violating their moral rights.

    I suspect this is merely a slip in the way you expressed your thought. But the sentence, as written, is tautological: it assumes what you’re attempting to prove. (We shouldn’t … because it would violate morality.)

    In the final analysis, you and I agree over against Simen: we both believe there is an objective morality.

    The strength of your position is the source of the assumptions you persist in making. The strength is, we all have a sense that certain things are wrong (e.g. torture) and certain other things are good (e.g. giving to charity). But your explanation of where that sense comes from cannot withstand logical inquiry, as Simen has demonstrated.

    And my point also has merit. I concede that every living thing desires survival — that’s an objective fact. But why shouldn’t I pursue my needs at the expense of my neighbour? You haven’t adequately met that objection.

    Darwin tells us that every organism can’t survive. It all comes down to a scarcity of resources, and an adversarial competition for them. Why shouldn’t me and my tribe of Nazis subjugate others to ensure that our needs are met, not somebody else’s? You have no objective answer.

    The answer is the subjective one: humans agree that this is a paradigm case of good vs. evil. But not on objective grounds: merely on some inner sense of right vs. wrong.

    An inner sense for which the theist has a better answer than the atheist. It exists in us because the Creator, who establishes (or at least upholds) what right and wrong are, has woven it into the very fibre of our being.

    Simen is ultimately wrong, but not on objective grounds. He’s wrong because he does not account for this subjective sense of right and wrong — your paradigm cases.

    Reply

  59. Simen
    Mar 01, 2007 @ 09:31:47

    Michael:

    No, excuse me, but now you are bullsh**ing. This has nothing to do with a “concept of ‘value’.” You said it yourself: “According to the Nazi’s wicked sense of morality, Jews are not really human and so it is OK to kill them”

    Nazis think Jews are sub-human. Nazis nevertheless believe that the senseless murder of humans is wrong.

    When I said “not really human” I should have said “not worthy of being considered equal to other humans”. This worth is not objective fact, it is subjective value. I don’t think the Nazi would deny that Jews are really of the same biological species as them.

    My position has one good thing going for it, which is that a workable ethics can be built upon it. I don’t think the same is true of Simen’s. Despite his assertion that we can agree on our “tastes” and thence have ethics, it seems a very hollow assertion to me. He goes on to say that the consequence of his position should not count against it, but I disagree. Theories are rejected all the time if they lead to consequences that are suspect.

    A theory shouldn’t be rejected because we don’t like its consequences. You say that the consequences of subjectivism are undesirable, and so you reject it. You’ve failed, however, to come up with an observation that subjectivism cannot explain and to show that the consequences aren’t logical. Yes, I concede, the fact that morality isn’t objective can seem to be (and may even be) an unfortunate consequence. We can’t reject a theory because its consequences are unfortunate. This reminds me of the theist who gets convinced that God is improbable yet still rejects atheism on the grounds that he wants God to exist. Looking for answers (in this context, an objectice moral standard) before you find the questions (i.e. observations that cannot be explained by subjectivism).

    If I come up with a theory of optics which says that humans can not see, then there is something wrong with the theory, because we can see. If I come up with a theory that says bumblebees can not fly, then there is something wrong with the theory, because bumblebees can fly. If I come up with a theory that says the Holocaust is morally acceptable, then there is something wrong with the theory.

    False analogy. First of all, as explained before the Holocaust is not morally acceptable, it simply is. Only when you see the Holocaust in relation to a moral system can the Holocaust be acceptable or not. When we see the Holocaust relative to the shared moral system most of humanity shares, we can say that it is wrong. This relation is objective, though the moral system itself is not.

    Further, we have observations that indicate that humans can see and so on. We have no observations that say that the Holocaust is objectively wrong. We have only the observation that most of humanity considers it so. This is not evidence against subjectivism. According to subjectivism, everyone or no one can share the same moral system, it will not cease to be subjective.

    As I’ve said before, evolution is an explanation here. Your paradigm cases are good evidence that morality is evolved. You need to understand that even if we accept objective morality, our subjective sense of morality must still have evolved unless we assume a creator. You can’t say that our subjective sense of right and wrong isn’t evolved without assuming intelligent design. That our moral sense has evolved is the only naturalistic explanation. If you reject it, your theory does not account for all observations.

    You can say that humans evolved an intution for an already existing, objective morality. I can say that there is no such thing. My position would be the default, since you have the burden of proof. You’ve not provided such evidence.

    So your paradigm cases aren’t evidence against subjectivism, because the only feasible explanation for our moral intuition lies in evolution, regardless of whether it took advantage of an already existing (vaguely defined) morality or simply evolved.

    Basically, I refuse to believe something without evidence. I find no observations that cannot be explained without objective morality, and I therefore refuse to believe in it. This is exactly the same reason I don’t believe in God, fairies, or an objective aestethic sense.

    Reply

  60. Trackback: Objective basis for morality?? « Addofio
  61. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 20:34:51

    Stephen, Simen, and Addofio,

    Thank you all for a very enlightening and challenging discussion, and for your patience. 🙂

    I have become passionate about this topic and want to thank you all for showing me some inconsistencies in the way I percieved moral relativism. I am doing some work on what I see as a problem. Maybe it’s arrogance to think I will be able to solve it, but nevertheless I feel I am close to building a good case.

    Basically, I refuse to believe something without evidence. I find no observations that cannot be explained without objective morality, and I therefore refuse to believe in it. This is exactly the same reason I don’t believe in God, fairies, or an objective aestethic sense.

    Your point is well taken (although I think there are relevent dissimilarities between arguments for god and arguments for objective morality.)

    I may not be able to prove moral relativism false, but I think I can show that it is at least possible that an objective morality exists. I think that such a theory, if workable, would have greater scope and more explanatory power than the subjectivism Simen presents. As a bonus, it would lack the undesireable consequences; I think Simen’s morality is not merely a weakened version, but a nonexistent one.

    Simen’s argument is useful in that it correctly demonstrates that one of our fundamental intuitions about morality – that we should be morally good because it is morally good to do so – is circular and mistaken. His theory also makes sense of moral disagreements, which would seem to count in his favor. If morality is objective, then it’s not obviously clear how moral disagreements come about.

    Stephen said:

    … the Creator, who establishes (or at least upholds) what right and wrong are, has woven it into the very fibre of our being.

    You also make a good point. If objective morality exists, then it arises as a consequence of what we are, regardless of how we came into existence. I’m not willing to go so far as to say the existence of morality indicates the existence of god, though.

    Simen is ultimately wrong, but not on objective grounds. He’s wrong because he does not account for this subjective sense of right and wrong — your paradigm cases.

    It certainly does seem to be a problem. Why should we have any moral sense at all, even a subjective one? Simen’s argument doesn’t say, and I too think this counts against his theory.

    I don’t have the answers, but I think I can build a stronger case. I plan to revisit the subject on my own blog in the indefinite future, and at that time I will welcome all comments. 🙂

    Reply

  62. addofio
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 21:55:27

    I took a look at Simen’s more complete layout of his position on his blog, and it has had the opposite effect from what he intended. Indeed, the very properties of being complete and clear worked against it for me.

    It seems to me that any system which places moral issues such as the Holocaust or fundamental questions of justice on the same level as matters of taste preferences must be fundamentally flawed. Which suggests to me that there simply has to be a better way of thinking about morality. Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions? Maybe morality needs to be thought about differently from truth (where the question of objectivity is of clear and direct and inarguable concern, though I have my own take on it)? Maybe there’s a third option (other than “morality objective”, “morality subjective”)? I don’t know. But I will say I’m more comfortable with “I don’t know” than with “moral preferences are equivalent to food preferences.”

    Reply

  63. Stephen
    Mar 03, 2007 @ 11:21:42

    Just popping in to commend everyone for making this a substantive, yet civil discussion. No one has changed their position; but each of us has developed a deeper appreciation of the strengths of other points of view.

    (Simen’s boat was probably rocked least, but the sceptical position is always easier to defend: by definition, it imposes a lesser burden of proof.)

    I look forward to further dialogue on Michael’s blog.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: