Tuesday, March 02, 2010

An Exchange in the Times

Following on from my recent post here is an exchange of letters from the Times which shows how pertinent these issues are today.

Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality

Chief Rabbi - Jonathan Sacks

Do you have to be religious to be moral? Was Dostoevsky right when he said, If God does not exist, all is permitted? Clearly the answer is No. You don’t have to be religious to fight for justice, practise compassion, care about the poor and homeless or jump into the sea to save a drowning child. My doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was a committed atheist. He was also one of the most reflective writers on morality in our time.

Yet there were great minds who were less sure. Voltaire did not believe in God but he wanted his butler to do so because he thought he would then be robbed less. Rousseau, hardly a saint, thought that a nation needed a religion if it was to accept laws and policies directed at the long term future. Without it, people would insist on immediate gain, to their eventual cost. George Washington in his Farewell Address said “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”


Were they wrong? Yes in one sense, no in another. Individuals don’t need to believe in God to be moral. But morality is more than individual choices. Like language it is the result of social practice, honed and refined over many centuries. The West was shaped by what nowadays we call the Judeo-Christian tradition. Lose that and we will not cease to be moral, but we will be moral in a different way.
Consider what moves people today: the environment, hunger and disease in third world countries, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

These are noble causes: nothing should be allowed to detract from that. They speak to our altruism. They move us to make sacrifices for the sake of others. That is one of the distinguishing features of our age. Our moral horizons have widened. Our conscience has gone global. All this is worthy of admiration and respect.
But they have in common the fact that they are political. They are the kind of issues that can only ultimately be solved by governments and international agreements. They have little to do with the kind of behaviour that was once the primary concern of morality: the way we relate to others, how we form bonds of loyalty and love, how we consecrate marriage and the family, and how we fulfil our responsibilities as parents, employees, neighbours and citizens. Morality was about private life.

It said that without personal virtue, we cannot create a society of grace.
Nowadays the very concept of personal ethics has become problematic in one domain after another. Why shouldn’t a businessman or banker pay himself the highest salary he can get away with? Why shouldn’t teenagers treat sex as a game so long as they take proper precautions? Why shouldn’t the media be sensationalist if it sells papers, programmes and films? Why should we treat life as sacred if abortion and euthanasia are what people want? Even Bernard Williams came to call morality a “peculiar institution.” Things that once made sense – duty, obligation, self-restraint, the distinction between what we desire to do and what we ought to do – to many people now make no sense at all. This does not mean that people are less ethical than they were, but it does mean that we have adopted an entirely different ethical system from the one people used to have.

What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you. Sexual life was the pursuit of desire. Abortion and euthanasia were freely practised. The Greeks produced much of the greatest art and architecture, philosophy and drama, the world has ever known. What they did not produce was a society capable of surviving.
The Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short-lived. By now, by contrast, Christianity has survived for two millennia, Judaism for four. The Judeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.

Greek Morality

Bryan Hammersley London N6

Sir, The Chief Rabbi denigrates the moral philosophy of the Ancient Greeks in extolling the allegedly superior virtues of Judaeo-Christian ethics (“Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality”, Faith, Feb 27). He states that “for the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you.” I expect some Greeks thought in this way, as they would in all societies. It is absurd to imply that they all held this view. Plato, for example, was frequently concerned with the personal conduct of the individual. Sextus the Pythagorean wrote: “Wish that you may be able to benefit your enemies.” How was this merely political?

Lord Sacks describes the Athens of Socrates and Plato as “extraordinarily short-lived”, implying that, unlike Judaeo-Christianity, its ideas had no staying power. Greek civilisation continued through the Roman Empire, until it was violently destroyed by the Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. For instance, the famous library in the Serapeum at Alexandria, which is believed to have contained half a million books, was destroyed on the orders of Theodosius the First, a Christian Roman emperor, as part of his empire-wide destruction of all things pagan.
The Christian religion was imposed by force on the populations of Europe over very many centuries, so it is hardly surprising that it continues to have many adherents. Many works of Greek philosophy were destroyed in Europe and are only available now because they were retained in the Islamic world. They continue nevertheless to be admired.

I think it's worth pointing out at this juncture that to house half a million papyrus rolls would require forty kilometres of shelving. Accordingly Mr Hammersley's next task should be to work out why the enormous structure required isn't mentioned in any account of the Serapeum and hasn't turned up in any excavations of the site (after he has finished objecting to his local hospital's planning application of course). He is however right to bring to the fore, the especially relevant teachings of Sextus. This stoic advised that those who found it difficult to practice celibacy should castrate themselves, extolling them to 'cast away every part of the body that misleads you to a lack of self control, since it is better for you to live without the part in self control than to live with it to your peril'. If only this message had got through to Tiger Woods, Ashley Cole and John Terry.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

92 comments:

The Perplexed Seeker said...

You should totally send a reply to the Times about the 40km of shelves.

Humphrey said...

Maybe James should do it as I cribbed it from his article.

James said...

Done.

If it isn't used (and the nature of these things is that it probably won't be), I'll post it here.

Nick said...

Sacks' article is bizarre. The greek ethic was short-lived, yet we live by it today? Bernard Williams was not tough enough on this guy.

Justin Martyr said...

Do you have to be religious to be moral?

Of course not. Most atheists are moral. The $64,000 is whether or not atheists can be moral and rational. Is there a rational argument for atheistic morality? I have not seen any.

Nick said...

Justin, what do you mean by a "rational argument"?

Do you mean a deductively valid argument which establishes certain ethical commandments?

Or do you mean one in which the premises are also known to be true?

TheOFloinn said...

The question of whether atheists can be moral presupposes something called "morality" as external to their own being.

Nietzsche's answer was No. Any such morality was simply the residual dregs of a dying slave religion. He thought this was a good thing. He called the English atheists, who thought they could eat their moral cake without having the divine baker, "flatheads."

Sartre, Rorty, Dewey, and others worried about they same problem. More recently, Stanley Fish stated that while an atheist can behave morally, atheism cannot derive morality. It will always be in some sense parasitic on its predecessor culture.
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/

Paul, in Romans 2, was more positive on atheists.
For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified. For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people's hidden works through Christ Jesus.

Regarding the ancient Greeks, Thucydides summed it up well in the reply that the Athenians gave to the Melians in their unprovoked attack on that neutral city: The strong take what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

We mustn't let those voices that we find congenial obscure the larger picture of ancient life. We consider Socrates wise. The Athenians put him to death.

Justin Martyr said...

Justin, what do you mean by a "rational argument"?

Do you mean a deductively valid argument which establishes certain ethical commandments?

Or do you mean one in which the premises are also known to be true?


I'd settle for one in which the premises are more likely to be true than false.

Tim O'Neill said...

“Is there a rational argument for atheistic morality? I have not seen any.”

I realised I no longer had a belief in any God or gods about 25 years ago. Like many atheists, I then gave some serious thought to how I could live ethically without some external moral authority dictating what was right or wrong. For the last quarter century I’ve done so by asking myself before taking a decision or making a choice “Who will this affect? Who could this hurt? What are the potential longer term effects of this?” Asking these eminently sensible, rational, human questions has served me pretty well.

It was also interesting to note how little my moral behaviour changed using these rational questions as my ethical guide compared to when I was a devout Christian. That leads me to conclude that it’s these questions that are actually the rational basis of all human ethics and any “religious morality” is simply this rational basis with some variant cultural religious window dressing draped over it.

I gather others may think that believing all morality is dictated by an invisible Iron Age desert spirit who will burn us if we break his rules is more “rational” than my simple questions, but I’m afraid I simply can’t see how.

TJW said...

"For the last quarter century I’ve done so by asking myself before taking a decision or making a choice “Who will this affect? Who could this hurt? What are the potential longer term effects of this?” Asking these eminently sensible, rational, human questions has served me pretty well."

Those questions don't look 'rational' to me. They look vague and subjective.

Anonymous said...

Humphrey, quick question: where did you get that....interesting letter about Hammersley's issue with hospital expansion?

Tim O'Neill said...

Those questions don't look 'rational' to me. They look vague and subjective.

"Vague"? Pardon? What is "vague" about contemplating the specific potential consquences of a specific action or decision? That is about as far away from "vague" as you can get.

And "subjective"? This would be "irrational" because ... ?

These are perfectly rational questions. More to the point, these are also questions that people who do believe in God or gods also ask themselves. Their religious window-dressing is superfluous to this very rational human practice, though it does help to culturally reinforce some of the generally accepted answers to those questions.

TheOFloinn said...

I’ve done so by asking myself before taking a decision or making a choice “Who will this affect? Who could this hurt? What are the potential longer term effects of this?” Asking these eminently sensible, rational, human questions has served me pretty well.

But why should the effect on others get in your way at all? There has to be some reason why those are good questions to ask. (There are. A Thomist could even name the virtues behind them - and suggest some additional questions.)

others may think that believing all morality is dictated by an invisible Iron Age desert spirit who will burn us if we break his rules is more “rational”

This is the orthoprax [right practice] approach of Islam and Orthodox Judaism. Morality consists of following a set of rules set out explicitly or found by qiyas in the text of a book.

The traditional approach in Christianity has been orthodox [right beliefs]. The traditional Christians held that their texts contained basic principles - sometimes expressed allegorically or in parables - that served as a basis for reasoning about the world.

Traditional theology held that the good is that which is in accord with nature, and that human nature is essentially rational. Thus, the good is that which is in accord with reason.

Your questions therefore follow from Thomistic theology. Given that Western Civilization marinated in these ideas for a thousand years, it is no surprise that they still "feel" right to some moderns.

Unfortunately, the modern world holds that there are no such things as essences or natures, so there goes the basis for using reason to assess the good; and perhaps it is only a matter of time before the glow of the embers fade. Nietzsche noted this: after the death of God will come the death of Reason.

Nick said...

And, Justin, what is the conclusion that the probably-true premises are supposed to lead towards?

This is important. We need to get clear on what counts as "morality" before we can declare that no rational argument leads towards it.

Tim O'Neill said...

"But why should the effect on others get in your way at all?"

Because I'm not a hermit and live in a society where we all, to varying degrees, weigh our immediate self-interest against the effect of our actions on the common good. I try to do so consistently, and not because I think some invisible being is looking over my shoulder.

Your questions therefore follow from Thomistic theology.

Nope - it's the other way around.

Given that Western Civilization marinated in these ideas for a thousand years, it is no surprise that they still "feel" right to some moderns.

That western civilisation also marinated in millenia of totally irrational prejudice against homosexuality. That irrational prejudice doesn't "feel right" to me at all, so I reject it totally.

Which is why when I ask beleivers who maintain same-sex relations are "wrong" why they have to fall back on "Ummm, because God said so in this holy book (written by ancient people)".

Nick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick said...

TheoFloinn,


But why should the effect on others get in your way at all? There has to be some reason why those are good questions to ask

You go FAR too quickly, here. First off, there does not "have" to be some reason for an individual person to take a certain consideration as important. Many of our deepest values do not and should not recieve such critical scrutiny.

Second off, even if there "has" to be some reason, it can easily be cashed out in terms of expediency and instrumentality. We calculate the effects on others because we want to know how to best navigate our social world, and this is crucial information. Alternately, we do so because we care about them.

You need to do a lot more than insist on the primacy of Thomism to show that human values need ultimate rational grounding. That Kantian dream has long been abandoned by most, and few find their values undermined for it.

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Nick,

And, Justin, what is the conclusion that the probably-true premises are supposed to lead towards?

This is important. We need to get clear on what counts as "morality" before we can declare that no rational argument leads towards it.


I would accept either of the following:

A1: There are objective moral standards (e.g. Platonic realism)

A2: A rational self-interested person should alter his behavior in ways that are congruent with what we mean by morality. (e.g. group selection or Carrier's happiness defense).

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Tim,

Like many atheists, I then gave some serious thought to how I could live ethically without some external moral authority dictating what was right or wrong. For the last quarter century I’ve done so by asking myself before taking a decision or making a choice “Who will this affect? Who could this hurt? What are the potential longer term effects of this?” Asking these eminently sensible, rational, human questions has served me pretty well.

That is a hypothetical imperative. If you don't wish to harm others then act morally. But why don't you wish to harm others? Is that a subjective preference? Then your atheistic morality collapses into relativism. If there is an objective basis for your decision not to harm others then you've only shifted the goal posts. Why is it bad to harm others? What evidence do you have for that proposition?

Tim O'Neill said...

But why don't you wish to harm others? ... Why is it bad to harm others?

I am seriously astounded that you need to ask such elementary questions. If you *genuinely* can't think of any reason not to harm others apart from a potentially punative invisible man looking over your shoulder then you really aren't giving this much thought. And you're rather scary.

Justin Martyr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Martyr said...

Hi Tim,

I think we're seeing some atheistic cognitive dissonance. I take my faith in God as self-evident but most atheists demand a higher standard of proof. Are atheists allowed to take foundational moral premises as self-evident? If so, then is my faith off the hook too? If not then why the double-standard?

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Nick,


I'm enjoying being at the receiving end of your Socratic dialogue, but I'm getting bored waiting for your next post so I'll just jump into this thread.

Many of our deepest values do not and should not recieve such critical scrutiny.

I'll make you a deal: you concede that your deepest values are based on subjective preferences and I'll withhold any scrutiny. Do we have a deal?


Second off, even if there "has" to be some reason, it can easily be cashed out in terms of expediency and instrumentality.


I've found that the category of "enlightened self-interest" arguments have a surface plausibility but not withstand a deeper scrutiny.

Tim O'Neill said...

Are atheists allowed to take foundational moral premises as self-evident?

I let those who are into word games work out if "self evident" and "obvious after very little thought on the matter" are the same thing.

Again, if you *seriously* can't think of any reason to behave in an ethical way simply because it preserves the common good then perhaps you are a sociopath.

Or perhaps you're pretending no such reason can be arrived at without any God or gods because to do so undermines the whole religious basis for morality.

"God" simply becames one of the many and various cultural sanctions associated with socially-agreed ethical behaviour, much like blood feuds, ostracism and policemen.

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Tim,

We are doing philosophy here. Developing an examined mind. It's not good enough to say "my sense of introspection tells me that there is a reason to be good." That's not philosophy, that is our pre-philosophical unexamined thinking. We are lovers of wisdom so let's move from unexamined thinking to mature philosophy.

Here is my position: Of course I believe in objective moral values like 'do not murder'. But if God did not exist then I would concede that my moral intuitions are a delusion foisted on me by evolution.

What is your position? Do you have scientific evidence to back up your pre-philosophical intuitions? If not then explain to me your epistemology. Why are moral values a justified basic belief? Furthermore, how do you respond to the following defeater: if God does not exist then our moral intuitions are merely delusions from evolution.

Karl said...

Tim,

Again, if you *seriously* can't think of any reason to behave in an ethical way simply because it preserves the common good then perhaps you are a sociopath.

Why should we care about the common good at all? We are all going to die someday and if we have no eternal soul; well, my world ends with me and your world ends with you. From a purely logical perspective, the best course of action in that situation is to undertake actions that ensure we live as long and as comfortably as possible; even if it means brutally and ruthlessly exploiting other people. So in essence, yes, a sociopath would be acting in the most logical way within the belief system you have so far described.

"God" simply becames one of the many and various cultural sanctions associated with socially-agreed ethical behaviour, much like blood feuds, ostracism and policemen.

And that doesn't stop blood feuds, ostracism and policeman from existing. Or making some of these things a necessity for a functioning society. Now I don't know about you but I wouldn't to live in society that doesn't have a police force.

TheOFloinn said...

if you *seriously* can't think of any reason to behave in an ethical way simply because it preserves the common good then perhaps you are a sociopath.

'Tain't that, McGee. It's where that common "good" came from in the first place. You can't really define what is "good" in terms of "the good." Besides, Socrates was killed over the common good. So were millions of Ukrainian kulaks.

Tim O'Neill said...

It's not good enough to say "my sense of introspection tells me that there is a reason to be good."

I've said nothing remotely like that. I'm amazed that I have to spell it out that there are very sensible and highly practical reasons to be "good". Try this - imagine a society in which everyone acted with pure self-interest all the time. Would you like to live in that world? No, neither would I.

I'm astounded that this eminently sensible reason to balance self-interest with the wider common good (which is what all ethics is after all) gets ignored and people pretend that we have no other reason to be good other than the dictates of imaginary beings.

Socrates was killed over the common good. So were millions of Ukrainian kulaks.

Are you seriously saying that because some despot or some group's assessment of the greater good has been wrong this whole basis for ethics is false? Please don't tell me you're saying something so silly.

Humphrey said...

"Humphrey, quick question: where did you get that....interesting letter about Hammersley's issue with hospital expansion?"

I wanted to see if he had written any other letters to the Times, and the first one that came up when I searched was one to Haringey council. Actually, without knowing the details of the application, I think I'm initially with Hammersley on this one as it's in a conservation area ; though you can still build an extension which is up to 4 metres beyond the original rear wall and 4 metres in height, so if it does that then it is within the guidelines. The purpose of a Conservation Area is not simply to stop all development in it's tracks.

Objecting because it is in a residential area doesn't wash though. Most private hospitals in London are in residential areas. It's just one of the many things we have to put up with. There is one at the end of my road for a start.

Nick said...

Justin,

A1: There are objective moral standards. (Plato)

Ah, so we pre-load the dice here so that the only argument which is to count as a rational argument for atheistic morality has to demonstrate objective moral standards: standards that are mind-independent, "there anyway". This is a massive false dilemma.

But, wait, it's a TRIlemma:

A2: A rational self-interested person should alter his behavior in ways that are congruent with what we mean by morality. (e.g. group selection or Carrier's happiness defense).

I don't know how to evaluate this one, except to say that I needed to know what YOU meant by "morality", not what current evolutionary theory says is good for group selection.



Finally, I will concede that my values are "based on" subjectivity, but only insofar as my subjectivity is intricately bound up with many others (ie my peer-group, my culture, my family, etc.). What do you think follows from this?

Pavel said...

Justin Martyr wrote:
Here is my position: Of course I believe in objective moral values like 'do not murder'.

'Do not murder' is not a moral value, but a moral imperative (or perhaps you'd prefer the word commandment). The moral value behind this imperative/commandment is the right of other human beings to life. It's the value you cherish and the value Tim cherishes when he asks questions such as 'Whom could this hurt?' that guide his deliberations.
Whatever Tim's actual reason for cherishing this value may be, I don't see why you think your reason would be any more rational than his.
Moreover, one could argue that cherishing this value follows directly from the Kantian categorical imperative, conceived as a universal, rational and entirely scular basis of morality. Now you may ask why should someone subscribe to such a principle. Kant would say: because one is rational. Choosing principles like that is part of what it means to be rational. And you do NOT need to transcend rationality in order to justify choosing principles like that.

TJW said...

"Vague"? Pardon? What is "vague" about contemplating the specific potential consquences of a specific action or decision? That is about as far away from "vague" as you can get.

What’s vague are some words in your questions. A word like “hurt” is more ambiguous that you acknowledge. For example, a fundamentalist theist might regard allowing people to make their own choices ultimately harmful because they believe that in the long run the individual will suffer for eternity if they make the ‘wrong’ choices. A secular liberal might regard any limits on a women's right to do whatever she wants with her body is a form of harm whereas others might argue that to allow abortion is harmful not only to the fetus but also to the mother. Using a word like harm or ‘hurt’ won’t assist in resolving ethical dilemmas because people will interpret it however suits their case.

And "subjective"? This would be "irrational" because ... ?

I didn’t use the word irrational. I believe that discussions involving ethics involve more than the simple application of reason. I think that calling something subjective is a valid criticism because presumedly your questions were there to assist you to come to the correct moral conclusion, rather than a simple subjective preference.

"These are perfectly rational questions. More to the point, these are also questions that people who do believe in God or gods also ask themselves. Their religious window-dressing is superfluous to this very rational human practice, though it does help to culturally reinforce some of the generally accepted answers to those questions."

You’re the one that deemed your questions ‘rational’ but offered no reason why I or anyone else should agree. Denigrating religious alternatives by labeling them mere window dressing dictated by an invisible Iron Age desert spirit does nothing to enhance your claim and makes you look insecure.

Humphrey said...

If I thought there was no God I would spend my weekends throwing rocks at pregnant women and torturing small animals. Frankly I would do this now, but I'm afraid the sky fairy is going to be mad at me.

In all seriousness though, I think it has been recognised as a legitimate problem (and here I'm thinking of Henry Sidgwick) that ethical systems that lack the concept of a God who takes an interest in moral affairs will inevitably suffer from what is known as the dualism of practical reason.

On the one hand it is self evident that we have reason to pursue our self interest, on the other it is also self evident that we often take an impartial point of view (the point of view of the universe) from which we give equal weight to all the beings in the universe. There appears to be no way of reconciling them, unless we adopt a hypothesis of religious belief. Deciding what is right and wrong is accessible to anyone who takes an impartial view. But what is the justification for doing what is right when it is demanding and goes against my happiness and self interest?. There doesn't appear to be one in a subjective moral system.

Doing good is hard. Morality requires, at least, that every human need should count morally, whenever it occurs. This makes the moral life very difficult. I should be fund-raising for starving people instead of going to watch Avatar in 3D (which is awesome by the way), but if I act in my self interest, I'll go see the movie instead.

The moral life and my happiness are not consistent with one another and in the truly moral life they will come apart. The most you can get with enlightened self interest is being 'fairly' good when people are looking, but morality requires taking the point of view of the universe and acting with unconditional commitment.

Another problem is moral motivation. More of us will accept the claims of sentient life upon us if we care about sentient life. Not just with feelings of sympathy but with the recognition of fundamental value. Again, its hard to arrive at this in a subjective moral system forged on happiness and self interest.

Of course you could argue, legitimately, that taking the truly moral path makes you feel good and leads to fulfilment; but that generally because we feel there is an ultimate point to behaving so; which, under metaphysical naturalism, there isn't.

Karl said...

Tim,

Try this - imagine a society in which everyone acted with pure self-interest all the time. Would you like to live in that world? No, neither would I.

But there are people who would like to live in such a society and there are philosophies dedicated to that ideal. Ayn Rand and Objectivism (an atheist philosopher and an atheist philosophy) immediately spring to mind. You still haven't explained why such a system or belief is illogical or irrational beyond simply saying I don't like it.

Are you seriously saying that because some despot or some group's assessment of the greater good has been wrong this whole basis for ethics is false? Please don't tell me you're saying something so silly.

Actually Tim, the point is under your frame work you can't actually say they are wrong because you have reduced morality to basis of individual feelings and ideals. With that being the case Hitler, Stalin and any other despot was no more or less moral then you are. Even Dawkins admits this: What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.

http://byfaithonline.com/page/in-the-world/richard-dawkins-the-atheist-evangelist

Tim O'Neill said...

But there are people who would like to live in such a society and there are philosophies dedicated to that ideal. Ayn Rand and Objectivism (an atheist philosopher and an atheist philosophy) immediately spring to mind.

Nope. The Randbots want to live in a society where they live that way and so can take advantage of everyone else who are trying to live co-operatively. A society where everyone truly lived that way wouldn't be a society at all - it would be feral chaos and total anarchy. Then it would collapse totally.

You still haven't explained why such a system or belief is illogical or irrational beyond simply saying I don't like it.

I didn't say such a system was "irrational". I am saying it would result in chaos. What's rational is balancing self-interest with the common good. That's the rational basis for ethics and it requires no Invisible Magic Man.

You can add the Invisible Magic Man as one of the sanctions and social strictures to help enforce these communal ethics, of course. But the communal ethics don't require any magical beings. They are just cultural window dressing.

you have reduced morality to basis of individual feelings and ideals

SHARED individual feelings and ideals. And "reduced" is the wrong word.

With that being the case Hitler, Stalin and any other despot was no more or less moral then you are.

Garbage. Common assessments of what is and isn't upholding the common good don't have to be cosmic absolutes to be generally accepted.

Again, if you can't think of some rational bases for why what Hitler did was wrong without bringing some "God" into it then (a) you aren't trying hard enough, (b) you are a weird sociopath or (c) you're being deliberately obtuse to try to avoid conceding the point.

Let me help: did Hitler's actions make for a society where everyone felt equally safe and harmonious? Yes or no?

Tim O'Neill said...

But what is the justification for doing what is right when it is demanding and goes against my happiness and self interest?. There doesn't appear to be one in a subjective moral system.

It may well go against my short-term or immediate happiness and self-interest, but generally we do these demanding things that are right despite that because they strengthen or maintain a wider social context - our family, our community, our country etc.

And in the longer run that benefits us.

Today a guy walking down the street in front of me as I was hurrying to catch a bus dropped his glasses without noticing. I could have ignored this and kept rushing for my bus. Or I could have stopped and picked them up, thus probably missing my bus.

Clearly it was in my pure self-interest to ignore this total stranger's misfortune and catch my bus. But I stopped, picked up his glasses, went after him and gave them back to him. Of course, I missed my bus.

Why did I do this? Partly out of empathy - I would like someone else to help me out like that if I was in his shoes. But partly out of a regard for the common good. Sure, helping him doesn't ensure that someone will help me in a similar situation in future. But it does goes some small way to reinforcing the social bonds that keep the whole mechanics of my society ticking along.

That's more than good enough for me.

Humphrey said...

I'm more interested in those moments when our tendency to follow our own self interest and our tendency to 'take the point of view of the universe' or 'follow the common good' get radically dis-aligned. This is the point at which what we would regard as the most impressive moral actions occur.

The classic examples are those who chose to hide Jews during the holocaust despite the great risks involved. There have been some interesting studies of these which indicate that, in a number of cases, the people concerned didn't even particularly like those they were hiding. They just felt compelled to do it as it was the right thing to do.

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Nick,


I don't know how to evaluate this one, except to say that I needed to know what YOU meant by "morality", not what current evolutionary theory says is good for group selection.


I hinted above that you probably didn't want to go the group selection route. I've explained in more detail here. The quick version: the group level of selection only dominates the individual level in the eusocial species. That means ants, bees, termines, naked mole rats and a couple others. Human beings are not a eusocial species. Thus the appropriate model is multilevel selection. Sometimes acting for the good of the group is the dominant strategy. Other times acting at the individual level of selection is the dominant strategy. Moreover, as the evolutionary biologist George Williams points out, group selection does not deserve its feel-good reputation. It means that systematic acts of genocide against other groups are moral acts. Needless to say, the moral implications of genocide, while evolutionarily rational, are abhorrent.



Finally, I will concede that my values are "based on" subjectivity, but only insofar as my subjectivity is intricately bound up with many others (ie my peer-group, my culture, my family, etc.). What do you think follows from this?


If your peer-group and culture were religious would you be religious?

Justin Martyr said...
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Justin Martyr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Martyr said...

Hi Tim,

I'm amazed that I have to spell it out that there are very sensible and highly practical reasons to be "good". Try this - imagine a society in which everyone acted with pure self-interest all the time. Would you like to live in that world? No, neither would I.


You are familiar with the prisoner's dilemma, aren't you? Because your argument here neglects its logic or implicitly denies that prisoner's dilemmas ever happen.

Note: Before you point to tit-for-tat, it only works with a small number of players and information conditions much stronger than we typically see in the real world. Its not the prisoner's dilemma that will get you, but asymmetrical information. See the Folk Theorem for repeated games.

Matko said...

My, my, everybody here jumped suddenly from philosophy of mind to ethics!

I consider these debates a time waste, but let me give my two cents. Because moral philosophy isn't my current preoccupation, what am I about to write could be faulty.

From a meta-ethical point of view, I consider secular ethics not irrational but non rational, that is, non-cognitivistic. I hold to Hume's fork, which states that prescriptive facts cannot be derived from descriptive ones. An ought cannot come out from an is. Ethical statements are cognitively meaningless; the don't refer to such concepts like good or evil, but express the subject's emotions and preferences – the non-rational part. Hume's idea anticipated much in contemporary meta-ethics, as positions like emotivism demonstrate, and non-cognitivism, like other forms of moral nihilism, is still viable as a meta-ethical position (moral realists would disagree.)

So based on this, when Tim states, "I want help the poor and feed the homeless", the statement isn't derived from an objective moral prescription like, "You ought to help the poor and feed the homeless.", but for, and reducible to, Tim's emotional states, feelings, and subjective preferences he projects onto the world.

RD Miksa said...

Good Day Tim,

Just my unimportant two cents reference this point of yours:

"I'm amazed that I have to spell it out that there are very sensible and highly practical reasons to be "good". Try this - imagine a society in which everyone acted with pure self-interest all the time. Would you like to live in that world? No, neither would I."

The problem with your challenge is that someone can still agree with it, but still wish to promote his self-interest, thus leading to the promotion of the common good externally, but only so that it can be abused from an internal and concealed perspective. Essentially, a very Machiavellian approach.

So, for example, I have a co-worker (and this is a true story) who is known as a good conservative family man with a wife and four children who externally promotes the common good and seems selfless. When concealed, however, he was an extreme philanderer that promoted his full self-interest in this respect.

Thus, in this one instance, we have an individual that meets your criteria of promoting the common good when he is known and visible, but seeks pure self-interest when he was personally unknown and concealed.

Just a quick thought.

Take care,

RD Miksa
Radosmiksa.blogspot.com

Karl said...

Tim,

Nope. The Randbots want to live in a society where they live that way and so can take advantage of everyone else who are trying to live co-operatively.

That still doesn't change the fact there are people who believe it is moral to look out for number one nor have you given any reason for it not to be moral beyond your own personal preference. Additionally, what is immoral about someone promoting his own self-interest under the guise of the common good (like the Randbots) from a purely materialistic perspective?

I didn't say such a system was "irrational". I am saying it would result in chaos.

But isn't the universe itself chaos-completely random with no underlying plan or purpose-according to atheism? And that any order we give to that is merely an illusion?

You can add the Invisible Magic Man as one of the sanctions and social strictures to help enforce these communal ethics, of course.

So you say, but what happens when those communal ethics, social strictures and sanctions run counter to your personal moral code? In other words, is something still wrong even if a society condones it or actively encourages it?

SHARED individual feelings and ideals. And "reduced" is the wrong word.

The Nazis had shared individual feelings and ideals which the acted upon. The Communists had shared individual feelings and ideals they acted upon. Are they not being moral by your stated definition of what morality is? And what, pray tell, is the right word?

Garbage. Common assessments of what is and isn't upholding the common good don't have to be cosmic absolutes to be generally accepted.

Really? You haven't given us cause to think otherwise beyond the fact you simply don't like the idea. You have said sanctions and social strictures to help enforce these communal ethics and SHARED individual feelings and ideals are the foundation of ethics. All are things that people in Nazi Germany acted on. You keep making these vague appeals to the 'common good' and the 'greater good'; well there were more people in the ethnic groups Hitler supported then those he went against and if he had succeeded he would have made those ethnic groups much more comfortable. Is that not working for the greater good?

Again, if you can't think of some rational bases for why what Hitler did was wrong without bringing some "God" into it then (a) you aren't trying hard enough, (b) you are a weird sociopath or (c) you're being deliberately obtuse to try to avoid conceding the point.

You are trying very hard to avoid the issue. You have not given any reason as to why sociopathic behavior is not immoral other then it hurts other people. In case you did not realize, people are already getting hurt and killed merely so you can live comfortably. Your wife have any diamonds? It is pretty much a guarantee that at least one person died and another was horribly crippled for that jewelry. In fact, there precious few products and services in our society that somebody didn't pay for in blood. So what is immoral or illogical about taking it one step further?

Let me help: did Hitler's actions make for a society where everyone felt equally safe and harmonious? Yes or no?

Let me help you: Is it even possible to create a society like that? Has any society ever had it where everyone felt equally safe harmonious? Does not our current society exploit others who less fortunate (corporate sweatshops in third world countries, for example) for the greater good and comfort of our citizens? What is wrong about a society being more aggressive and ruthless about it (like Nazi Germany)? And why should we care about everyone else? After all, they are just going to die one day, their minds and consciousness obliterated, and when the last person who knew them died and the last record of their existence are destroyed it will be like they never existed. So what is the point in helping them?

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Pavel,


Moreover, one could argue that cherishing this value follows directly from the Kantian categorical imperative, conceived as a universal, rational and entirely scular basis of morality. Now you may ask why should someone subscribe to such a principle. Kant would say: because one is rational.


You have asserted that it is rational to accept the categorical imperative. Can you go beyond mere assertion and make a logical argument on its behalf? One whose premises are more likely to be true than false?

jamierobertson said...

Tim,

And in the longer run that benefits us.

Er... so, you "altrustically" gave the man his glasses back because it gave you a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Isn't that just self-interest all over again, but with a slightly longer time-frame?

Pavel said...

Hi Justin,
You have asserted that it is rational to accept the categorical imperative. Can you go beyond mere assertion and make a logical argument on its behalf? One whose premises are more likely to be true than false?

This seems to me to be very much like asking me to produce a logical argument for the principle of non-contradiction.

Justin Martyr said...

This seems to me to be very much like asking me to produce a logical argument for the principle of non-contradiction.

Ask and you shall receive. I will do an indirect proof: assume the converse and show that it leads to a contradiction.

1. ~(A & ~A)
2. assume: (A & ~A)
3. A [from 2]
4. ~A [from 2]
5. Therefore: ~(A & ~A) (from 3,4]

Nick said...

Justin: I agree that group selection cannot be the basis of morality, but that means I still don't have a definition of "morality" from you. You can't just say "objective principles", because anything could be an objective principle. We need actual rules here.

As for your question:

"If your family and peer group were religious, would you be religious?"

You have to look at what you're asking. You're asking if people very different from my family and friends would produce a very different person. This is of course true in one sense, but no, "I" would not be religious. "I" would be a member of a different family and consequently a very different person. You can't play with people like they're just collections of variables (religious/nonreligious). These variables determine their very identities.

IN any case, I can lay some related cards on the table: My deepest values ARE subjective. I mean, of course they are. They move ME to action, they give ME strength and purpose. They don't do these things for anyone else, and they're not etched in stone on any cosmic tablet. They are mine, and if others share them in any way, I can reason with them.

What I was reacting to was the suggestion that Tim, or anyone else, has to "justify" those deep values. Anyone who thinks that my love for my family stands in need of some higher-order rational justification is suffering from a very morbid intellectualism.

See Bernard Williams for an extended defense of this idea:

http://tinyurl.com/yzmjeb8



(Also, I can't believe Hitler came out in this thread. Disgraceful. This is one of the better blogs online, people, we can do better than that.)

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Nick,

I'll respond to the rest of your post in detail later, but this merited a quick comment:
(Also, I can't believe Hitler came out in this thread. Disgraceful. This is one of the better blogs online, people, we can do better than that.)

There needs to be another corollary for Godwin's law. It is disgraceful when people start dropping the H-Bomb in a thread about X-Box versus Playstation. But is appropriate when the topic of discussion is about morality of horrific acts.

devolves and people start dropping the H-bomb. But when the topic of the thread is about the

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Nick,


You have to look at what you're asking. You're asking if people very different from my family and friends would produce a very different person. This is of course true in one sense, but no, "I" would not be religious. "I" would be a member of a different family and consequently a very different person.


That is not what I'm asking. I'm asking if family and culture is a source of justification. (I think they are a source of prima facie justification).


IN any case, I can lay some related cards on the table: My deepest values ARE subjective. ... What I was reacting to was the suggestion that Tim, or anyone else, has to "justify" those deep values.


That's all you had to say! Now you are off the hook. Well, not entirely. Suppose someone else has different subjective values. E.g. they want to kill and oppress members of minority ethnic groups. Are your beliefs better, more true, or more valid than theirs? If so, then how do you score this? And where does the scoreboard come from?

Angry Atheist said...

Poor Tim is floundering, please go a bit easier on him!

Pavel said...

Justin, am I mistaken, or does your proof rely on the principle it is trying to prove?

Justin Martyr said...
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Tim O'Neill said...

Poor Tim is floundering, please go a bit easier on him!

What?

Justin Martyr said...

Justin, am I mistaken, or does your proof rely on the principle it is trying to prove?

Not the way you think! The method of proof I used was proof by contradiction (AKA reductio ad absurdem). With a constructive proof you start other premises and "build up" to whatever you are trying to prove. With a proof by contradiction you assume the negation of what you are trying to prove. Then you show it leads to a logical contradiction. Two different methods of reaching the same point.

Pavel said...

Justin, I understand perfectly the sort of proof that you used. However, your proof either establishes an absurdity or not. If not, your proof is invalid. If it does establish an absurdity, your proof is circular, since the absurdity rests on the principle of non-contradiction that your proof set out to prove in the first place.

PS. Check out what Aristotle says in Metaph. Gamma.4, 1006a6-8.

Justin Martyr said...
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Justin Martyr said...

Pavel, I just did a valid proof by contradiction. I did not assume the truth of the first premise. It is undetermined. It is only when you derive the falsehood that you can conclude (by the principle of bivalence) that the first premise is true. The argument is non-circular.

Now, if you want to argue that I am relying on the laws of logic in order to do a logical proof, that is true. E.g. in step 3 I write 'A' but if the law of non-contradiction is false then I can't assume that. It could also be '~A'. Just as there is a problem of induction, there is also a problem of deduction. We can't defend the validity of deductive logic in non-circular terms.

But let's bring it back to the categorical imperative. The laws of thought are essential building blocks of logical inference. Even if the categorical imperative is (A) self-evident, and (B) logically consistent, it is not part of the rules of logical inference in the same way (except possibly in certain realms of deontological logic).

The upshot: the burden of proof is on you to deduce the categorical imperative.

Justin Martyr said...

.g. in step 3 I write 'A' but if the law of non-contradiction is false then I can't assume that. It could also be '~A'. Just as there is a problem of induction, there is also a problem of deduction. We can't defend the validity of deductive logic in non-circular terms.

I need to expand on this a bit. It is true that this is circular, but I have shown that logic is consistent with itself. Logic consistently plays with its own rules of consistency.

This is not need to prove the consistency of the categorical imperative, but even if it did, you should still be follow a similar route.

Nick said...

Justin,

Ah, you're asking if family and culture is a source of justification. I do not know the full answer to this question, but I think that it must be something like a (qualified) "yes". Insofar as I have a family and am part of a culture, my own values (as I think Charles Taylor has effectively argued) cannot exist independently of those sources. In a very real way, I am entangled with these other people, and when I assert my values I also assert the general value of that entanglement. There is something contradictory in the person who has deep values but who fails to respect the people who play a positive role in determining the very conditions of those values.

As for Hitler, I still disagree. When the topic of discussion is morality (as it was when he was brought up, see Karl's second comment), examples of the most abhorrent, most exceedingly rare conduct cannot be illuminating. We should look instead to ordinary moral life to discover its nature, and then see how rare cases fit (or fail to fit) with that analysis.

Justin Martyr said...

Ah, you're asking if family and culture is a source of justification. I do not know the full answer to this question, but I think that it must be something like a (qualified) "yes". Insofar as I have a family and am part of a culture, my own values (as I think Charles Taylor has effectively argued) cannot exist independently of those sources. In a very real way, I am entangled with these other people, and when I assert my values I also assert the general value of that entanglement.

This line of evidence becomes a moot point once you concede that your moral values are subjective. I was only pursuing when I understood your argument to mean "I believe in objective values, and that cultures and families have values that are generally aimed at this objective moral realm." Since we are just talking about subjective preferences I do not care where we come from.

I have to repeat my question from my last post to you: Suppose someone else has different subjective values. E.g. they want to kill and oppress members of minority ethnic groups. Are your beliefs better, more true, or more valid than theirs? If so, then how do you score this? And where does the scoreboard come from?

Tim O'Neill said...

Er... so, you "altrustically" gave the man his glasses back because it gave you a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Only partly because of that. But yes, it did make me feel good. Of course it did - humans have been acting in this way for the good of the group since before we were humans. It's a survival thing: groups made of members that sacrifice some self-interest work better and afford better chances of survival to their members than groups where it's dog-eat-dog.

But ultimately I did it because I *consciously* want to live in a society where things like this are done. And I'd be a hypocrite if I felt that way but didn't do such things myself. By doing such things I am doing my small bit to reinforce that kind of society.

Finally, I did it because I have an ideological belief that, as a humanist, such things should be done out of empathy and out of that desire for a certain type of society. My humanism often catches me when I find myself about to do something selfish that may harm others and makes me stop.

Isn't that just self-interest all over again, but with a slightly longer time-frame?

The societal benefit side of reinforcing a society where such things are done is a benefit to *me*. So yes, it is "just" self-interest on a longer time-frame in a way. There's something wrong with that?

All this boils down to a perfectly rational basis for morality that doesn't involve any deities or mysticism. Just humans being what they are - social animals that work better co-operatively than as lone wolves.

And all this seems pretty bleeding obvious.

Justin Martyr said...

Tim,

Your understanding of group selection is wrong. The only species for which the group level of selection dominates are the eusocial species (ants, bees, termines, the naked mole rate, ...). Humans are governed by multilevel selection. Groups that cooperate prosper by virtue of wiping out less cooperative groups. Thus selfish genes are selected out of the population. But within each group the rational evolutionary strategy is to become a free rider upon society. Lie, cheat, steal, kill, or do anything that maximizes your self-interest. See here for a fuller discussion.

Karl said...

Nick,


As for Hitler, I still disagree. When the topic of discussion is morality (as it was when he was brought up, see Karl's second comment), examples of the most abhorrent, most exceedingly rare conduct cannot be illuminating. We should look instead to ordinary moral life to discover its nature, and then see how rare cases fit (or fail to fit) with that analysis.

One, actions like genocide are not rare cases and if you doubt me take a look in the history books. Torture, judicial brutality, genocide and ethnic cleansing, total war, etc... none of these are exactly rare occurrences in human history nor are they unheard of today and they will continue to happen in the future. Nor is Hitler really the most abhorrent; Joseph Stalin is responsible for an estimated forty million deaths and Mao Zedong sixty million compared to Hitler's six to ten million. Hell, the Mongols under Genghis Khan killed forty million people with swords a few hundred years ago.

Second off, the reason I brought up those dictators and the reason TheOFloinn mentioned them too is because of Tim's repeated mentions and appeals to the common good; rational is balancing self-interest with the common good; SHARED individual feelings and ideals.

The fact of the matter is that Hitler, Stalin and Mao were balancing their self-interest with what they perceived to be the common good. Both the Nazis and the Communists acted on their shared individual feelings and ideals. So by the criteria Tim has given they were acting in a moral manner. Of course, when confronted with this Tim's response was merely to call such reasoning 'Garbage' and to pop the question did Hitler's actions make for a society where everyone felt equally safe and harmonious? Yes or no?. Which is a rather interesting question since there has never been a society in which everyone has felt equally safe and harmonious; including our current one.

The end result is that Tim doesn't have basis for determining right or wrong beyond personal preference. And when challenged on this he keeps insinuating his opponent to be a sociopath; the kicker is that he hasn't done anything to prove sociopathic behavior is immoral beyond saying he doesn't like it.

Nick said...

Hi again Justin,

Suppose someone else has different subjective values. E.g. they want to kill and oppress members of minority ethnic groups. Are your beliefs better, more true, or more valid than theirs? If so, then how do you score this? And where does the scoreboard come from?

If my values are based on empirical truths and theirs are not, then yes, mine are "better". If my values cohere better with my other values, then yes, they score more points. The genocidal maniac who believes that Jews were created by evil scientists bases his values on false beliefs. The genocidal maniac who nonetheless has a great love for children is in severe conflict: he wants to kill/oppress children and also not to do so. His values are clearly problematic in a way that mine (I hope) are not.

It is perfectly possible to show such a person that they are being irrational, by showing that their values are in conflict OR if their values rest on false information. Most commonly, genocidal types base their values on historical and biological theories that are demonstrably false by any standard of evidence.

Now, you might say that a truly crazed maniac won't listen to such appeals, but this is not the point. The point is that reason dictates that they listen, and that is all anyone can do. If they persist, I try to have them locked up, possibly even killed.

Nick said...
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Nick said...

Karl,

We are discussing moral conduct, no? Well, then, ask yourself: of all the conduct that anyone has ever displayed, how much of it has been genocidal?

You miss my point. I do not mean to say that war and hatred are rare: that would be stupid. I wish to say that the vast, VAST majority of conduct is not like this. Rather it is better described as "ordinary life": pursuing projects, taking care of family and friends, navigating the social world, providing for our health, etc.

All I ask is that if we are to analyze a social phenomenon, let's analyze it as it is. Otherwise, we're studying ethics like Richard Dawkins studies religion: hand-picking convenient, rare examples and falsely generalizing to the whole.

Karl said...

Nick,

Just a couple of things,

The genocidal maniac who believes that Jews were created by evil scientists bases his values on false beliefs. The genocidal maniac who nonetheless has a great love for children is in severe conflict: he wants to kill/oppress children and also not to do so.

Severe Conflict? I take it you have never actually talked with a bigot; they tend to view their personal groups and those who despise as two entirely different classes of people. Case in point, the Nazis didn't view Jews as some lab experiment created by an evil scientist but as a parasitic race; the human equivalent of mosquito. How much compunction do you have against swatting a mosquito? Besides, I think history has shown that the vast majority of soldiers who killed children in genocidal actions had no trouble at all reconciling it with their desire to protect their children.

Most commonly, genocidal types base their values on historical and biological theories that are demonstrably false by any standard of evidence.

I find this a rather naive statement. Let me explain a thing or two about the German history. When Hitler came to power Germany was suffering through one of the worst economic depressions in history. It caused a wheelbarrow full of marks to needed to buy a loaf of bread. Their national pride was destroyed; they were constrained by the humiliating and vindictive Treaty of Versailles. Now, in Germany at the time a lot of Jews were bankers and businessmen, so they were in a little bit better straits then the common citizens; who were definitely envious (the grass is always greener on the other side and all that) and then top of that you have the usual racial xenophobia.

Now along comes Hitler and the Nazis; who promise food on the table, jobs and restoration of Germany as a major military, economic and political power in Europe. And they deliver; people go back to work (mainly in the military industries, but when you are poor a good paying job is a good paying job), they put food on the table; they restore the German pride. On top of that, they are taking care of this unpopular ethnic group (serves them right, those Jewish bankers were eating caviar while I had to raid to local farmer's fields for turnips so I wouldn't starve).

In other words Nick, when people like Hitler come to power it is because the people are tired of talk. They want action, they someone who can deliver their basic necessities to them. And if that person does deliver, do you really think anything you say is going to change their mind?

I will reply to your post addressed to me next.

Nick said...

Karl, why do you think I have to have something to say to the person who is "tired of talk"? I explicitly said that if a person is unwilling to listen to reason or pay attention to simple facts, there is not much else to do but try to lock them up.

Case in point: Jews are not mosquitoes. Nor do they, in fact, possess any features that mosquitoes possess. People can march off to genocide shouting "Jews are mosquitoes" all they want but it will never be rational to do so.

Your requirement that I have to have something to say to such people is bizarre: they have abandoned reason, and there is nothing left to do but make war on them, which people (rightly) did.

Karl said...

Now Nick,

We are discussing moral conduct, no? Well, then, ask yourself: of all the conduct that anyone has ever displayed, how much of it has been genocidal?

It happens on a regular enough basis that any proposed moral system needs to address it. Just look at this century: the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution and Stalin's Purges, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Rwandan Genocide, the Sudanese Civil War, the Armenian Genocide; hell I haven't even listed half the cases that have occurred in this century alone. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that one in four people either were a victim of genocide or participated in genocidal actions in the 20th century.

You miss my point. I do not mean to say that war and hatred are rare: that would be stupid. I wish to say that the vast, VAST majority of conduct is not like this. Rather it is better described as "ordinary life": pursuing projects, taking care of family and friends, navigating the social world, providing for our health, etc.

Vast? Nick most people have engaged in acts of violence at one point in there life or have thought about because they are taking care of family and friends, or pursuing projects. Even you have admitted that you would commit acts of violence to protect your self-interest: If they persist, I try to have them locked up, possibly even killed. What happens if you see a group of people as a threat?

why do you think I have to have something to say to the person who is "tired of talk"? I explicitly said that if a person is unwilling to listen to reason or pay attention to simple facts, there is not much else to do but try to lock them up.

Oh, I heard you. The problem is that you don't often know if someone is tired of talking until you try talking to them. Or do you have a psychic ability to see if somebody will not listen to your arguments in advance? Plus, you gave off a strong impression that you believed you could solve most situations like this with words:

It is perfectly possible to show such a person that they are being irrational, by showing that their values are in conflict OR if their values rest on false information. Most commonly, genocidal types base their values on historical and biological theories that are demonstrably false by any standard of evidence.

Remember?


Case in point: Jews are not mosquitoes. Nor do they, in fact, possess any features that mosquitoes possess. People can march off to genocide shouting "Jews are mosquitoes" all they want but it will never be rational to do so.

And you have just missed the point. It does not matter if the Jews possess the features that mosquitoes possess; what matters is if people perceive them to have the features mosquitoes possess. Which a skilled propagandist can and has done.

And rational? Please, rationality is simply an appeal to reason and experience and what is considered rational varies from person to person. There is no one set standard for rationality and while you might not view the Jews as Mosquitoes as a rational belief but that doesn't stop other people from viewing it as such. Who is to say they are wrong? Unless you have an objective basis for rationalism beyond personal opinion?

Your requirement that I have to have something to say to such people is bizarre:

Actually, I never said you had to say anything to them. You are the one who said It is perfectly possible to show such a person that they are being irrational.

Nick said...

Karl, firstly, did you want to actually address my argument that if we are to study X, we should study X's most common features? Or do you want to just rhyme off some more genocides? 'Cause if that's the game, I'm going to stop playing right now.

Secondly, let me spell out the discussion as I see it:

Justin asked me about what it is possible to do with someone who disagrees with my values. I indicated that it is possible to reason with them, based on simple facts and on possible conflicts within their own value system.

At no point did I say this would always be effective. I said it was possible. I said this because a common error is to say "if all values are subjective, then everything is allowed". Well, this is not necessarily true, as I've shown.

Now, you seem to take me as saying that we should have just talked to Hitler or to German Nazis. I am saying no such thing. I am answering a specific question posed to me by Justin about reason and subjectivity.

However, to repeat, if someone is interested in reason (that is, in examining the actual facts of the world and in confronting conflicts in their beliefs/values) then we can talk to them. If your soldier, however, wants to both consciously love children and intentionally murder them, he is a walking contradiction, outside the boundaries of reason. All we can do is lock him up.

Karl said...

Nick,

firstly, did you want to actually address my argument that if we are to study X, we should study X's most common features?Or do you want to just rhyme off some more genocides? 'Cause if that's the game, I'm going to stop playing right now.

I thought I did address it by listing those genocides proving they are not exactly an uncommon phenomenon. And should we discuss the most common features or the most decisive? Because one single act of genocide will have more impact on the world then what you do personally with your life. Just because there are more people without cancer then there are suffering from it doesn't mean cancer is not a serious issue for the medical community. Just as medicine has to treat all people, cancer patients or not, a moral code or system has to address all situations be it genocide, a major war or whither or not you have a quickie in the bathroom with the girl you just met. And if your moral system can't deal effectively with a major concept like genocide what makes you think it is going to be a more reliable guide on the day to day stuff?

However, to repeat, if someone is interested in reason (that is, in examining the actual facts of the world and in confronting conflicts in their beliefs/values) then we can talk to them. If your soldier, however, wants to both consciously love children and intentionally murder them, he is a walking contradiction, outside the boundaries of reason. All we can do is lock him up.

And I will repeat that you can't judge who will listen to your arguments beforehand. And what happens if somebody appears to be listening to your arguments but is secretly playing you for a fool by only pretending to agree while going behind your back?

Contradiction, you say? Let's see, atheism says there is no God. If there is no God then there is no underlying purpose to this universe; therefore the universe is chaos, a fluke nature with no rhyme or reason. So is not human reason a facade, a meaningless charade played over chaos? Yet atheism makes repeated appeals to reason; how is that for a contradiction? You can make a lot of things look contradictory when you put your mind to it. Yet just because you think they are contradictory doesn't mean they actually are contradictory and you don't seem to have a standard to judge the contradictory nature of people's beliefs beyond your own personal preferences; just like rationality and morality. In other words, it doesn't matter if you see another person's actions or beliefs as contradictory; what matters is if they themselves see their beliefs and actions as contradictory.

And why would you want to lock that soldier up? I guarantee that your nation has people like that in its army and security forces; people who will gladly kill anybody they are told all so you can have a peaceful life. How is that saying supposed to go? We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.

Tim O'Neill said...

Your understanding of group selection is wrong.

My understanding that a group that works co-operatively in a hostile environment is more likely to have an advantage over one where everyone is out for themselves and having to watch their back is not wrong. It's bleeding obvious.

And your "free rider" and "asymetirical information" arguments don't change that - that's why groups have sanctions and social taboos about people trying to take advantage of the co-operative agreement. Religious morality is simply part of that process - "You shouldn't take advantage of the system because even if none of the group/tribe/village are watching you, there's a magic man in the sky who can see everything and will punish you after you die."

Of course, some people still cling to the vestiges of that primitive idea and, amusingly, claim it's the only source of morality.

Karl said...

Tim,

My understanding that a group that works co-operatively in a hostile environment is more likely to have an advantage over one where everyone is out for themselves and having to watch their back is not wrong. It's bleeding obvious.

So they all hang together instead of separately? Marvelous improvement.

And your "free rider" and "asymetirical information" arguments don't change that - that's why groups have sanctions and social taboos about people trying to take advantage of the co-operative agreement.

Yes, but why should we care about those social taboos? Did you not say "God" simply becames one of the many and various cultural sanctions associated with socially-agreed ethical behaviour, much like blood feuds, ostracism and policemen? Since you obviously pay no mind to the God sanction, why should anybody else pay any mind to any of the other many and various cultural sanctions?

You shouldn't take advantage of the system because even if none of the group/tribe/village are watching you, there's a magic man in the sky who can see everything and will punish you after you die."

The obvious rebuttal to that is just because people use the treat of God's punishment to enforce social order doesn't mean God doesn't exist, isn't watching you and won't punish you. Since when did "Big Brother is Watching You" prove there is no Big Brother or agents who act upon his behalf?

Of course, some people still cling to the vestiges of that primitive idea and, amusingly, claim it's the only source of morality.

An idea being old and primitive isn't the same thing as an idea being wrong. But since you seem to have this aversion to old ideas let me point out democracy and a republic are old ideas from the primitive Bronze Age (at least Christianity has the good grace to be Iron Age in origin). Maybe we should replace Australia's parliamentary democracy with a more modern form of government, like a totalitarian state (only appeared first in the 1920s).

Nick said...

And I will repeat that you can't judge who will listen to your arguments beforehand.

I didn't say that you could.

If there is no God then there is no underlying purpose to this universe

Does not follow. Aristotle believed in universal teleology but not in "God".

therefore the universe is chaos

Does not follow. Most modern practicing scientists do not believe in an "underlying purpose" but do believe that the universe displays form.

So is not human reason a facade, a meaningless charade played over chaos?

Does not follow. Why would a chaotic universe entail that the laws of logic are meaningless? The very notion of "chaos" derives its meaning from the fact that there are such laws and that certain systems don't obey them.

Yet atheism makes repeated appeals to reason; how is that for a contradiction?

You haven't derived one. Reason cannot be grounded in a cosmic intelligence. If it were, then either it is arbitrary (because God could change it at will) or it binds the will of God, which is an actual contradiction.

you don't seem to have a standard to judge the contradictory nature of people's beliefs beyond your own personal preferences

My standard is the law of non-contradiction, which you just used in your little argument up there.

In any case, sorry dude, I'm gonna stop now. Three fallacious steps in a row is pretty bad. I understand that you will now respond with some more bizarre chains of argumentation and go on to think that you've caught me in some clever trap. I think I've answered Justin's question, though, which was all I wanted to do here.

Tim O'Neill said...

So they all hang together instead of separately? Marvelous improvement.

No, they all work together for mutual benefit and survival rather than making it everyone for themselves. If I duped you in post Ice Age Europe dressed in animal skins, which group would you want to be part of?

Since you obviously pay no mind to the God sanction, why should anybody else pay any mind to any of the other many and various cultural sanctions?

Because they believe in them. Clearly I don't believe in that particular one, but since we have other reasons to be moral and other social sanctions (eg policemen) that doesn't affect my behaviour at all. Religious morality is superfluous.

But since you seem to have this aversion to old ideas

I love old ideas. I just don't accept ones that I consider wrong.

Justin Martyr said...

My understanding that a group that works co-operatively in a hostile environment is more likely to have an advantage over one where everyone is out for themselves and having to watch their back is not wrong. It's bleeding obvious.


You have heard of the prisoner's dilemma, haven't you? Because you have consistently failed to grapple with the logic.

TheOFloinn said...

a magic man in the sky who can see everything and will punish you after you die

Some people never do get beyond the easy-to-understand childhood imagery. Theologically, it's not "magic," not a "man," not "in the sky," and the punishment is willfully self-inflicted.

TheOFloinn said...

Most modern practicing scientists do not believe in an "underlying purpose" but do believe that the universe displays form.

Science is no more competent to make such a judgment than chemistry is to judge a Mozart concerto. No science can examine its own premises. That modern scientists suffer a form of cognitive dissonance in denying telos while at the same time relying on it simply means that modern scientists are not all that well trained in philosophy. That nature displays telos is obvious; otherwise, there were would be no "laws of science." That is, there would be no reason why A would lead to B "always or for the most part" unless B was the telos of A. A tiger cub grows into an adult tiger, not into a tiger lily. A falling rock moves to the point of minimum achievable gravitational potential. An electric current "seeks" the shortest circuit. And so on. But we should avoid the term "purpose," since that implies conscious intent on the part of the tiger cub, et al.

The methods of science, which stem from the precise measurement of material bodies, are not suited to decide whether the universe is subject to laws of nature. The scientist must assume that it is.

Of course, some, like Dawkins, have decreed that seeing patterns is simply a result of human evolution. (They don't have to prove this, mind you; the assertion is sufficient.) He had it in mind that this dismissed seeing the hand of God in nature; but it also dismisses seeing laws of science in nature. If we only see patterns because evolution causes us to see patterns, then the patterns of electromagnetism or gravity or evolution are equally at risk of being cognitive illusions.

Karl said...

Nick,

I didn't say that you could.

Then maybe you ought to be a little bit more clear.

Aristotle believed in universal teleology but not in "God".

And there is a whole assortment of problems in Aristotle's universals as this Wikipedia article demonstrates.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_universals

Most modern practicing scientists do not believe in an "underlying purpose" but do believe that the universe displays form.

Actually, most modern scientists do believe in an underlying purpose. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/24/opinion/la-oe-masci24-2009nov24

And many people have pointed out the contradiction in that the Universe is supposed to be random according materialism yet it does display form. Just because they acknowledge that the universe has form while at the same time believing in no underlying purpose does not mean those beliefs are compatible.

Why would a chaotic universe entail that the laws of logic are meaningless? The very notion of "chaos" derives its meaning from the fact that there are such laws and that certain systems don't obey them.

But why do such laws exist in the first place? There is no place for them in a purely materialistic universe nor is there an adequate materialistic explanation for them.

Reason cannot be grounded in a cosmic intelligence. If it were, then either it is arbitrary (because God could change it at will) or it binds the will of God, which is an actual contradiction.

You don't know much about philosophy and theology do you? Aquinas postulated two kinds of truth - reason and revelation - are complimentary, for they both spring from the same source, that is, from God. "The power of reason by itself is insufficient, unless it be aided from on high by the inspirations and impulses of the Holy Ghost.

http://latter-rain.com/genko/reason.htm

And what is reason grounded in human intelligence? Is it not arbitrary (because human beings can and do change their minds at will)? And exactly how does it bind the will of God? The mainstream Christian view is God set the universe to run in an orderly fashion with clear defined laws and that He only bends these laws when deemed absolutely necessary.

My standard is the law of non-contradiction, which you just used in your little argument up there.

Really? You haven't exactly proven that there was any contradictions in what I said or any hard evidence to back it up; you merely stated there were contradictions.

In any case, sorry dude, I'm gonna stop now. Three fallacious steps in a row is pretty bad. I understand that you will now respond with some more bizarre chains of argumentation and go on to think that you've caught me in some clever trap. I think I've answered Justin's question, though, which was all I wanted to do here.

And I am going to repeat myself, you say they are fallacious but that doesn't make them so. And I have counted six instances of you dodging the point and evading questions which is pretty bad. I understand that now you will respond with some subjective argument that has no real grounding and go on to think that you have successfully dealt my arguments and Justin's arguments a death blow when you have done no such thing. I think I have had a good time here as it is more entertaining then playing another round of Red Alert 3. And see I can be a smartass and prematurely declare victory too.

Karl said...

Tim,

No, they all work together for mutual benefit and survival rather than making it everyone for themselves.

Unless you got an Elixir of Immortality up your sleeve they will eventually die. Working together for mutual benefit and survival doesn't exactly mean much in the long run.

If I duped you in post Ice Age Europe dressed in animal skins, which group would you want to be part of?

Oh, the mutually beneficial one, of course. That way I can use my knowledge from the future to take over, set myself up as despot and carve out my own little pocket empire by brutally exploiting the natives who think they are working for mutual survival while all they are doing is feeding my little power trip. You see, looking out for number one can be productive and beneficial to society in the long run and you still haven't explained why it is immoral.

Because they believe in them. Clearly I don't believe in that particular one, but since we have other reasons to be moral and other social sanctions (eg policemen) that doesn't affect my behaviour at all. Religious morality is superfluous.

But is it written anywhere they have to believe in them? I don't need the police to be moral therefore the police are superfluous. See the problem with that argument? Whither or not you personally don't need something is irrelevant to whither it actually exists or if it actually does serve a purpose.

I love old ideas. I just don't accept ones that I consider wrong.

Then quit tossing around the words 'primitive' and 'iron age belief system' like they mean something or prove something.

Tim O'Neill said...

You have heard of the prisoner's dilemma, haven't you?

Yes. And I know that you can't use it as some kind of voodoo rattle to make the kind of moral basis I'm talking about go away. Check out David Gauthier's work for ways that self-interest, co-operative contracts and game theory are all compatible.

Tim O'Neill said...

Some people never do get beyond the easy-to-understand childhood imagery. Theologically, it's not "magic," not a "man," not "in the sky," and the punishment is willfully self-inflicted.

Some people are also well aware of all this. At least as far as modern believers are concerned. For ancient believers it was a "man", he was "magic" he did live in the "sky" and he was very keen on doing the inflicting. The words games of theology designed to make these silly concepts more palatable to modern people came later.

Anonymous said...

The metaphysical grounding of morality must necessarily transcend human emotion and will if it is to have any normative force. Otherwise morality is reduced to personal preferences. Uttering the statement "murder is wrong" is analogous to the statement "I dislike lima beans". To act in one's own self-interest is just one preference among others. Some people may choose to live an altruistic life, but that too is one preference among others. Of course when told that this is the logical conclusion of one's principles, sane people reject this conclusion and hence the cognitive dissonance.

Karl said...

Tim,

Some people are also well aware of all this. At least as far as modern believers are concerned. For ancient believers it was a "man", he was "magic" he did live in the "sky" and he was very keen on doing the inflicting. The words games of theology designed to make these silly concepts more palatable to modern people came later.

For that accusation to fly we would have to ignore certain Biblical passages like Numbers 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent or 1 Samuel 15:29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind. The Bible makes it quite clear on multiple occasions that God is not a man and to think of him as a man in the sky is fallacious. Considering how it was written by those ancient people; well, I am pretty sure you can follow the logic train there.

Tim O'Neill said...

The metaphysical grounding of morality must necessarily transcend human emotion and will if it is to have any normative force. Otherwise morality is reduced to personal preferences.

If they are shared "personal preferences" that have the culmative effect of a better functioning social group, why is this a problem? Why does morality have to be based on something transcendent?

Uttering the statement "murder is wrong" is analogous to the statement "I dislike lima beans".

Wrong - it is absolutely nothing like that. The benefits of a society where wanton murder is shunned is clear to anyone except an idiot. A shared preference for lima beans has no such effect.

I'm still astounded as to why I have to keep explaining the bleeding obvious here.

jamierobertson said...

Tim, the point I think the posters above are trying to make is:

> Many "moral" actions ultimately just boil down to self-interest

> There's no apparent reason why "the benefit of the group" should make something moral... unless, of course, one is part of said group, in which case we're back to selfishness again. I know you keep stating that it's "bloody obvious" why looking after the group is "moral", yet you've never actually explained it. Now, admittedly I am playing devil's advocate here; I believe that it's morally good to look after someone else regardless of how I might benefit from it.

But if you're a humanist, why is this true? There are many very un-altruistic folk out there. What makes the moral principle of looking out for the group with no regard for self objectively better than one based on self-interest? Being a humanist, you admit there is no external objective moral arbiter - so why should I think that the moral code the murderer whipped out his ass one day is worse than the one you whipped out your ass one day? Isn't the slushy sentamentalism in your heart when you see a starving child simply an odd twinge of an evolutionary by-product? If your feelings are a rusty remnant of your Judeo-Christian culture, why keep them close if they cause you any sort of upset?

Angry Atheist said...

"If they are shared "personal preferences" that have the culmative effect of a better functioning social group, why is this a problem?"

The problem is you're begging the question, as you have been all along.

Justin Martyr said...

Hi Tim,

Yes. And I know that you can't use it as some kind of voodoo rattle to make the kind of moral basis I'm talking about go away. Check out David Gauthier's work for ways that self-interest, co-operative contracts and game theory are all compatible.

Then you should know the implications of the Folk Theorem of Repeated Games. It is not that rational self-interested actors can reliably reach a cooperative outcome. It is that in games with many players and information conditions typically found in the real world, rational self-interest leads to an inefficient Nash equilibrium. Rational self-interested actors can only reliably solve the prisoner's dilemma with a small number of players and strong information conditions.

The Perplexed Seeker said...

First of all, kudos to everyone for having an argument without it descending into a flame war. That's a rare thing.

Second, a question for both sides: does morality necessarily require [i]any[/i] justification, be it adaptive, theological or utilitarian? Can moral truths not simply be brute facts?

jamierobertson said...

Can moral truths not simply be brute facts?

Given that so many people disagree over the "moral" thing to do, probably not.