Morals and Ethics

mug-0As one ventures ’round the ‘web, a topic that arises time and again is the endless debate — or perhaps war might be a better term — between the poles of theism and atheism. I’ve determined, at least as far as my participation elsewhere, to recuse myself from that war. I’ve served my time on both sides, and I’ve pretty much heard it all, said it all, bought many tee-shirts and a couple of souvenir coffee mugs.

So this isn’t about the war itself, but about a topic that frequently arises as part of that debate: the idea of morality and/or ethics. A sub-question is whether those are different things, but the main question is how we define morality and how we ground that definition.

Here’s my stab at defining the difference along with some ideas about morality.

moral dilemma

Also: Slippery Slopes!

One thing to keep in mind is that philosophers and all sorts of very excellent thinkers have devoted large portions of their lives to this study and have come up with no pat answers.

This is one of those areas in life where no single answer exists and where your view of reality has much to do with how you answer those questions.

Consider the trivial case of answering the question: What is the square root of 4? That question has two equally valid answers: -2 and +2. Higher degree polynomials can have more than two equally valid answers, not one of which is more “correct” than the others.

If simple math questions can have multiple answers, it seems silly to think the same wouldn’t be true of major questions about human existence.

In the interests of full disclosure I want to mention that I have found within me a striking antipathy towards (strict) atheism. I’ve always had a strong antipathy towards strict theism — the denial of science that often obtains there is bad enough, but this business of killing for your religion is repulsive and reprehensible.

WWII[But for the record, the Crusades — often pointed out as the murderous low point of Christianity — resulted in maybe as many as three-million deaths. In contrast, WWI resulted in at least 15-million deaths and perhaps many times that number (accurate numbers are challenging). WWII, our worst murder excess to date, resulted in 40-to-60-million (or more). The Crusades are actually pretty far down the list when it comes to mass murder.]

I was surprised to discover how strong my antipathy was towards atheism. It may be that I see atheism as extreme by definition (and I just generally dislike extremism). An analogy to science might help here:

A scientific theory is rarely completely established as correct. Instead, theories zero in on correctness as evidence mounts. Science progresses from an idea about reality to increasing confidence that idea might be correct. Think of this as a sphere with absolute knowledge at its dead center and decreasing certainty as you move away from center.


The mug speaks the truth!

Science seeks that center, but often never quite gets exactly to it. But when a theory is invalidated — proven false — it collapses to a different single point, called “Nope!”  The large “fuzz” of potential correctness is in contrast with that single point of falsity.

Likewise, atheism seems to me to represent that single point of falsity. It is uncompromising. It contrasts itself with the large, fuzzy space of all the expressions and varieties of spirituality. As such I see it as extreme, as a form of “fundamentalism” (which we might define as the idea your doctrine is literally correct).

So just be advised that, emotionally, I don’t like atheists. One of my resolutions for this year is to not follow bloggers who post about religion with any frequency. I find it hard to resist engaging, but I really don’t want to (it’s so pointless). It just seems smarter to avoid the temptation.

I wanted to put that out there so you know where I stand. I’m a Decisive Agnostic with spiritual leanings. As far as theism and atheism goes, I’m an aggressive agnostic — perhaps even a little militant.


Wyrd Salad!

This apparent digression may be important in understanding my views in what follows, because morality is a frequent, even central, topic in discussions about atheism.

Let me start by considering the two terms: morals and ethics.

Some conflate them, considering them essentially the same thing. Among those who see them as different, a variety of definitions seek to separate them.

One heuristic approach I found interesting is: Morals are how you treat people you know; Ethics are how you treat people you don’t. This is similar to a view that morals concern personal matters, ethics concern business matters.

My view, which is not an uncommon one, is: Morals come from metaphysics; Ethics come from physics. (Specifically: logic and experience with reality.) There is some consonance here with the idea that morals apply to personal life while ethics pertain to business. (Another way to put it is that morals come from god but ethics come from man.)


And my way!

It has been said that governments that seek to be moral inevitably fail and end up acting immoral or amoral. But governments that seek to be ethical can succeed. Not being terribly interested in political theory, it’s not something I’ve pondered much, but it sounds reasonable. I throw it out as a possible discussion point.

There is also the idea of social mores. These, in contrast to morals or ethics, are entirely relative to a given society. The permissible length of skirts, the necessity of hats, the use of chemical recreation, even the eating of animals, are all social mores. (Religions and governments do often seek to legislate these as religious or social law.)

This brings us to the idea of relative morality. (The idea of relative ethics seems less coherent which points out the difference in the concepts as well as the presumed logical or experiential grounding of ethics.) Many argue that morals, like social mores, are entirely relative to a given society.


Or Khan he?

Yet the goal of moral (or ethical) analysis is finding absolutes that are not relative to society. Or, perhaps rather, that are relative to any society, that always apply. Moral philosophy is the pursuit of these absolutes. Immanuel Kant is one focal point of this endeavor. I’ve read that a great deal of moral philosophy since is either a refutation, an illumination, or an extension, of Kant.

Some relativists seek to decouple the idea of “good” from morality. If, as with social mores, morals are relative, then they are not really a matter of goodness versus badness but what a given society thinks.

I completely disagree. One distinction between morals and ethics for me is that a moral judgement — almost by definition — is a judgement about goodness. Even taking religion out of the equation, morality is still about good versus evil. A moral “code” is one that judges between right and wrong as intrinsic values.

Homer devil-angel

How to choose!

It’s just a lot harder to define good and evil, or right and wrong, outside the context of some kind of metaphysics or spirituality. Essentially, the idea that the universe has some kind of meaning directly leads to the idea that moral rules — not unlike math rules — are there waiting to be discovered.

If so, how do we go about discovering them?

I think that morality, ultimately, is grounded in the idea of equality — that all people are equal on some basis. Note that the physical world, the animal kingdom, and evolution, all say exactly the opposite: that individuals are clearly not equal. It is self-evident, considering any group of people, that no two individuals are the same.

The Golden Rule, perhaps the simplest moral statement ever, depends on the notion of equality. Some might apply its concept to members of the animal kingdom, although rarely to many insects or bacteria. The key lies in seeing others as somehow our equals.


One and all!

The idea of god presents an easy answer: we are all alike in god’s eyes. If we are all god’s children, then to treat any person as lesser than ourselves is to mistreat equals, to mistreat family.

Atheism has a harder time establishing a basis of equality. The physical world argues against it. A universe without (intrinsic) meaning seems to make the concept local and subjective (which is why many atheists are by necessity moral relativists).

The closest (sensible) argument I’ve heard from atheists about objective morality involves game theory. Which is a slightly suspect, even controversial, area of mathematics. Even so, game theory still implicitly assumes an equality between players. There is no onus that Player A ought to win over Player B due to being a superior entity.  The two players are assumed to be, in some fashion, equals.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. No doubt I’ll return to it on future Sundays (but maybe not immediately, so don’t hold your breath).

human mind

Cogito, ergo something!

In closing I’ll offer one approach to a basis of equality that might apply to the physical world. Simply, it’s the startling fact of human consciousness. I don’t mean being simply awake or self-aware. I mean that thing we all experience every waking moment, that movie — starring ourselves — that runs throughout our lives.

Many believe this isn’t special, that humans are just an endpoint on a spectrum of animal consciousness. Some even believe that machines can be as conscious (if not more so) than humans. If so, then equality is local and subjective, and morality is probably an incoherent concept.

Ethics, which does align well with game theory (such as it is), is probably all we’ve got. In this context, any behavior you chose, subject to social and legal ramifications, is yours to decide. You have to pick and walk your own path.

machine mind

Cogito, ergo computation?

But if consciousness is something special, even if it’s just an astonishing confluence of physical factors, that might offer a basis on which to see all humans as equals, as family. Once you do, morality comes along for the ride.

I’ve never met an atheist who has come at it this way. Perhaps the idea of the specialness of human consciousness is uncomfortably close to the idea of a soul. Perhaps it’s too much in conflict with the hope of machine intelligence (there does seem some alignment between atheists and that hope).

Perhaps it just the resistance to the idea of humans as special, or the universe as special, since this does lead to strong considerations of teleology (the study of the intrinsic meaning and purpose of reality).

In the end, after thousands of years of consideration, we are still left to find our own answers (-2 or +2). Clearly the question is a very difficult one. That’s a point on which we can all agree!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

55 responses to “Morals and Ethics

  • siriusbizinus

    A great post, and I’d like to make a few points.

    1. I get having to avoid that which can vex you. While I’ll miss having you around my blog, I get that there are times when dealing with certain areas of thought can be frustrating.

    2. I would suggest that atheism ought to be tempered with recognition that there is a difference between reasonable certainty and absolute certainty. Such is the reason why I can’t discount people who claim to have a subjective experience of God. The distinction still is rife with animus though. I really wish it wasn’t though. Life is too short to get hung up on it.

    3. I remember in law school when my ethics professor asked the class about the difference between morals and ethics. I tend to be on the line of morality deals with personal decisions, and ethics tend to center around a profession or area of thought. Ethics tend to be more formal, while morals are utilized in a more ad hoc fashion. Still, the different categories you list are useful. Maybe the difference depends on how the terms are used in a discussion.

    Clear as mud, huh?

    4. I also remember when I took a stab at that secular justification for a golden rule. If the assumption is made that all people are equal, really there is no practical need to justify it (I know, a lame answer to a philosopher). There really needs to be a justification for it, though.

    I would think that maybe one needs to understand what fairness is, and why it is necessary to morals and ethics. The reason why I think it is this way is because the golden rule, human equality, etc. are all means to describe this thing that is fairness. We ask what is fair, but often I don’t think it’s fully described.

    Take externalities, for example. Suppose there’s a farmer who grows food to feed the entire community. He uses a pesticide that causes cancer when it is mixed with water and consumed in large enough doses. He doesn’t know that, though. So he sprays his crops, and it seeps into the town’s aquifer. Is he acting immorally? What if he suspected he was causing people to get cancer? What if he was willfully blind to the fact that it caused cancer? Does the town bear any burden of moral blame?

    5. Another idea I’ve been mentally kicking the can around on is this notion that morals might be applicable to communities as well as individuals. I don’t think Kant would approve of the idea, but I can’t escape this sense that maybe some moral values exist but don’t really expand to everyone. If there’s a different way of thinking about them, I’d really be interested in finding it.

    6. I actually laughed out loud when I read that Genghis Khan shirt. I want it now.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you. In turn, you raise some great points.

      1. Yours is one blog I was reluctant to drop. I thought at first I could just ignore posts with atheism as the topic, but just the titles or opening lines generated thoughts that tugged me towards engaging. I only follow bloggers I like and regard, but that has the effect of making me want to engage with them on serious topics (as I would any friend). Ultimately the only choice was to reluctantly close that door completely.

      2. A good point. Theism shades into agnosticism, passes through, and shades then to atheism. I do think there is much less space for expression of atheism than theism (so many ways to be spiritual) and — per the science analogy — as a negation it does seem to represent a fairly definite view. It’s really gnosticism that bugs me.

      (Incidentally, you can number me among those who seem to have experienced god personally. Or to have experienced some really weird coincidences. Given that I’m more inclined towards Spinoza’s (and Einstein’s) impersonal “god” this is really confusing. I tend to file them under “coincidence” but part of my mind… wonders.)

      3. “A rose by any other name.” I wonder if ethics are similar to the letter of the law (which is codified) while morals more reflect the spirit of the law (which isn’t). Ethics address the specifics, while a moral compass informs decisions not specified. In a sense, morals are more like adjudication — relying on judgement.

      Exactly as happens with law, sometimes the letter of the law doesn’t anticipate new situations or is in conflict with “the right thing.” Allowing the cop and the judge to use their judgement provides for unanticipated situations and reasonable conflict resolution.

      4. As you say, there is an assumption of equality. Philosophically that has to be grounded in something. Fairness is an interesting topic; it seems that some animals have a sense of what is fair. But it’s also a concept that needs definition and grounding.

      But I think that both Hemingway and Kant (to name two) ultimately said, “Well, you just know.”

      I don’t think unintended acts can be judged immoral. Intent seems a key aspect to me. Confusingly, even good intentions can lead to immoral acts. (Is torture of an enemy to try to determine life-saving information moral? (No, says me.)) If the farmer blinds himself to the consequences, I would call that immoral. I’m not sure why the town would incur moral blame?

      5. Do you mean to the actions of communities, or something like how police can justifiably kill someone whereas regular citizens (usually) cannot? (Or how the state can execute.) I do think the state — or its agents — do sometimes have special powers. Hopefully these come with oversight, checks and balances, and judicious use. War against invaders might be an example.

      6. I wanted to find one the other way around: Immanuel Kant, but Genghis Khan! There is a coffee mug with that version, but the only image I could find doesn’t show all the text — you have to extrapolate from what does show.

      Great discussion!

  • dianasschwenk

    I feel so simple compared to you Smitty. 🙂 ❤
    Diana xo

  • Doobster418

    Haven’t read this yet because, for some reason, your blog fell off of my “following” list. That seems to be a random occurrence. But now it’s back on and I will read it next chance I get.

  • makagutu

    this is too long and you say you don’t like atheists and don’t like to engage with them. Maybe it will be pointless for me to do so

  • Doobster418

    I finally got around to reading this. “One of my resolutions for this year is to not follow bloggers who post about it with any frequency.” Ah, so you’re the one who stopped following my blog.

    I know you and I have gone around and around in the comments section of several of my posts and we both often end up frustrated by the other. I am an atheist in that I don’t believe in the existence of God. But I’m not 100% sure that I’m right. And there are those who do believe in God, but who admit they are not 100% that they are right.

    My quarrel is with those who are 100% certain that they are right, whether atheist or theist, because there is no certainty on this matter. As you said, “This is one of those areas in life where no single answer exists.” No single correct answer, anyway.

    In any event, I thought this was good post as were SB’s and your comments. And with that, it’s getting to be my bedtime. Have a good evening, Wyrd.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yep, I guess I’m the one.

      One point: the nature of reality, whether it is merely physical or whether it has a teleology, this question does have a single correct answer. It’s like being a little bit pregnant. God either exists or not. The universe either just happened or was caused to happen. If god exists, there is a huge question regarding what god is, but if god doesn’t exist, that question shrinks to that single point of “Nope!” I mentioned. Whether the universe was made to happen or just happened is a specific question with a specific answer, although, again, either answer leads to very large questions about that happening.

      Those who consider such questions do so in the context of “if this then perhaps that.” No one worth talking to is 100% certain on any of these matters. It’s more a matter of speculative philosophy and logic and science. As I pointed out in the post, even science is rarely — if ever — 100% certain.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “My quarrel is with those who are 100% certain that they are right, whether atheist or theist,…”
      I assume this means you have a quarrel with Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Maher?

      • Doobster418

        I do, actually. Whether one believes that God exists or that God does not exist, no one can be 100% certain. I am 100% certain that I don’t believe that God exists, but that’s all I’m certain of. And a belief is not a fact and a belief isn’t a “truth.”

        So while I’m more sympathetic to the views of Hitchens, Dawkins, etc., I don’t ascribe to their conviction that they are, without a doubt, right. But what does put me off are those Christians — and there are many — who believe, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that God does exist, that the Bible is God’s word, and that there is no room for doubt or lack of certainty whatsoever. And that those who don’t see that as being a certainty are blind to all of the evidence and, as I said, have nor morals, cannot distinguish good from evil or right from wrong, and deserve to spend an eternity in hell. It’s a good thing I don’t believe in an afterlife because, otherwise, that might bother me!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You are “sympathetic” to extreme atheist views but “put off” by extreme theist views. That’s fine, just don’t try to sell me on the idea that you see both sides the same way. It seems pretty clear you don’t.

        I am, without qualification, put off by both sides equally. I learned a long time ago the futility of arguing with extreme theists. What’s new to me is how much I’m put off by extreme atheists (and the sense that many atheists appear at least somewhat extreme to me for reasons covered in the post). There seems no point in discussing it with them, either.

        FWIW, I’d say you’re wasting your time arguing with extreme theists, but if you’re getting something out of it, then enjoy yourself! Back in the day I used to enjoy a good battle just for the sake of the battle.

        But nuf sed. The topic here is Morals and Ethics… any thoughts on that?

      • Doobster418

        Just to clarify, I am an atheist, so yes, I can relate better to the views of atheists than I can to those of Christians. And while I don’t share their sense of certainty, I can relate to the views of even extreme atheists, even though I am not an extreme, militant, or “new atheist.”

        As to morals and ethics, I’ve posted my views on those matters on my blog any number of times.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        So you only came here in reaction to my aside about atheists? Okay, then. I guess we’re clear on where we stand. 🙂

      • Doobster418

        No, I came here to read your post and to get your take on matters related to morality and ethics and atheists and theists. You articulated your views quite effectively and I appreciate what you had to say, even though I don’t agree with everything you said. My original comment was solely to express that while I am an atheist who is confident in my belief that God does not exist, I am not certain, as some of the “extreme” atheists are, that I am right. And I do believe that, in relation to the question of whether or not God exists, while there may be an ultimate answer, no human who is still among the living knows with 100% what the answer that question is. And since I do not believe in an afterlife, I believe I will never know the answer to that question.

        As to morals and ethics, I embrace your notion that morals are personal and ethics are societal (or business-related). But I don’t buy the notion that morals are God given and that without God one cannot be moral.

        And just for the record, Wyrd, while you hold antipathy toward atheists, I do not hold antipathy toward most Christians or people with religious beliefs. I only hold antipathy to those Christians who are so arrogant that they believe anyone who does not believe as they do is wrong.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But I don’t buy the notion that morals are God given and that without God one cannot be moral.”
        Which brings us to the point of the post!

        How do you define morality in the absence of metaphysical beliefs? What does morality mean in a physicalist context?

        You’ve mentioned the Golden Rule and reciprocity in the past, but how do you ground them and what makes these compelling? With grounding, aren’t these arbitrary beliefs? Why should someone subscribe to the arbitrary beliefs?

        “I only hold antipathy to those Christians who are so arrogant that they believe anyone who does not believe as they do is wrong.”
        But you are sympathetic to those atheists “who are so arrogant that they believe anyone who does not believe as they do is wrong.”

        Why don’t we resolve to henceforth completely drop the topic of your atheism from conversation here. Can we agree to that? Take it as a given that I’m entirely clear regarding your views on the matter.

      • Doobster418

        I am sympathetic to the views of atheists more so than those of theists, but I do not agree with either atheists or theists who are so sure that they, alone, are right and that anyone who doesn’t believe as they believe is wrong.

        “Why don’t we resolve to henceforth completely drop the topic of your atheism from conversation here?” Deal.

      • fan

        Maher flip flops from stating with for a certainty that no gods exist to labeling himself agnostic ( at which point he derides atheists). While I don’t like using the atheist/theist/agnostic trichotomy categorization personally I don’t think there are any issues with using it. The other atheists you listed actually have a pretty consistent history of intimating a lack of certainty but stating, they think, a reasonable certainty than no god’s exist. I’ll find some quotes if you’d I like. I don’t really care for their approach in discussion’s or “outreach”, and I’m curious if the poor assumption you made regarding them (which is quite common with those figures for some reason) had anything to do with the unfortunate tendency of atheists from western cultures to be more aggressive towards Christian religions (and the more well-known atheists are very aggressive such as the ones you listed).

        I’ll go over how I like to define things. I like using gnosticism and agnosticism as descriptions of “knowledge, or lack of knowledge” of a given claim. I like to use theism and atheism as description of belief or lack thereof with respect to gods. Agnostic atheist/theist would be a person who has/lacks belief that any god(s) exist(s) but doesn’t claim with a very high degree of confidence that the position is true. I also distinguish between gnostic (knowledge or very high degree of confidence) and the hypothetical 100 percent certainty often used. Its common for one to have a beliefs that one is highly confident is true or factual but not absolutely certain of. The 100 percent certainty position isn’t used nearly as often in truth claims. At least thats my impression from my experience with people.

        As morality and ethics go. I wonder. Is it really necessary for it to be “grounded” (what does that really mean anyway) . We can establish are morals pretty easily from observation. We observe are own feelings towards how we treat other’s when we are treating them, whether they are consistent, and how prevalent those reactions and feelings are in others, and that we indeed have said feelings (or not). I’m not saying to do so is “good’ but we can observe our own nature and the nature of others without believing anything regarding the metaphysics, or “foundation” (the idea of needing a foundation to feel poorly or pleasured/satisfied from our actions and relationships is really odd to me).. Ultimately, “goodness” and “badness” in society tend to be distinguished by how the norm feels about a behavior. To the individual, “good” and “evil” reflect how the behavior makes that individual feel. I feel bad if I hurt someone ergo I won’t hurt them (simple). Just that, you have a nature. What kind of ‘grounding’ would be necessary for that nature to exist and to continue to exist and why assume the grounding is necessary to develop any particular nature. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t but I haven’t heard any sound and valid arguments that it is.

        This for instance is a little odd to me…
        “The idea of god presents an easy answer: we are all alike in god’s eyes. If we are all god’s children, then to treat any person as lesser than ourselves is to mistreat equals, to mistreat family.”

        First of all, we aren’t all alike, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t all equal. Those are separate concepts.
        Anyway more question I’d like answered but are rhetorical as well (I guess I’m a crappy writer); How does does it follow that if god feels that mistreating equals is bad than it is bad? If you feel that way because God does then it would seem that you made independent value judgment about that what you perceive to be Gods judgment, and what is so bad about moral imperatives depending on the individual making them anyway.

        I suppose I am a relativist, but I believe the strong tendencies for people to be altruistic, and empathic, and to respect the golden rule to be objective in the sense that its largely inherent and genetic. If moral tendencies originate (at least the empathetic and altruistic ones) largely on a genetic level than morals imperatives would exist in a form independent and outside of minds (standard definition of objective really), but I don’t relate to the importance of that at all. I guess I don’t, and can’t be made to feel that objective morality is somehow better or more real due to it being objective which is my fault. If God is one entity with its own mind then Gods view of morality would clearly be its own subjective morality. So I would think that while a kind of objective ethics or morality can exist, a god’s existence would negative objective moralities existence (assuming God directed biological evolution to create human morality)

        You actually stated in other post that if God were a creationist trickster god you wouldn’t follow him or something to that effect. I’m assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that this would mean you would also have not problem making moral judgment that contravened God’s in the trickster god scenario? I think this is a pretty good indication that god’s existence isn’t likely to actually add anything to morality or to ethics let alone ground them.

        As per humanities specialness. Humans are special. The most valued animal for me personally (the one that matters most) is well…other humans We are our own unique species. that share a very strong genetic and biological background that intimately connects us in our relationships and the way that we tend to feel and behave (how could it not). Chimpanzees are also special and there own unique species. So are spiders. . I guess at the end of the day I simply view intelligence, altruism, empathy, and, awareness (consciousness) as very valuable and important but I don’t think that humans have a monopoly on either of these things or on consciousness which is why other animals are a part of my moral framework. Granted I don’t think that all animals have that I value most (stated above). Spiders don’t but there unique in there own right. To me its clear that my “meaning” or purpose comes from me, other people’s, in turn, comes from themselves. Creating our own emotional meanings/purpose in a godless universe wouldn’t necessarily be arbitrary, but how would something being arbitrary relegate it to being less valuable anwyay? This is where I might be talking past you (and you me); I hope we don’t talk past one another. Frankly I have a hard time wrapping my head around why the objectivity/subjectivity of morality is so important to people, which is why I’m prone to ramble endlessly about it when I find an article that challenges me by insisting that the objectivity of morals is something important to them or that moral grounding is of importantce (still not sure what grounded means in that context, morals can be practiced and reinforced through associations maybe?) or somehow more rational or logical.

        You know what you value, why would objectivity/subjectivity change that? I could see how one might be more convenient for community (if not any given individual). I simply just don’t see one as better and one is worse. I do apologize for the long post. Part of my problem in understanding/relating may be that I view my moral framework as more descriptive than prescriptive. Idk.

        My view on theism as it relates to morality from a practical standpoint: If a person only respects and values his own life and no others then I doubt that believe in a god would change his character but it could very well change his behavior or emotional responses/attachments to others. If he valued said god, then I suppose his values and emotional responses might gradually align with what he believes his gods morals are. I think theism and religion can and do have a positive impact on many peoples lives (well what I’d call positive anyway) but I have yet to hear a good argument that either theism or religion are responsible for or are required for a ‘golden rule’ type morals or ethics. If there’s one thing I’d like to leave with its that neither atheism or theism should be taken to considered inherently dogmatic, irrational, or extreme. Most of the time, I’d like to think theists and atheists may be comfortably/very certain, but recognize that they can’t really know the answers to “deeper reality” type questions such as “does a god exist”. I doubt its a practical question regardless of the answer anyway which makes it easy to fixate on. When it comes down to it, Its really easy to for me to go on and on morality and defining epistemological terms regardless of context and after I’m done I have a monologue with not a lot of meat in it. This awfully long, and maybe shouldn’t go through moderation, but I respect your reasoning and approach to subjects and really want to see if you respond. I really do wish I could express myself concisely as you and siriuzbizinus; you’re a very adept writer imao.

  • authorbengarrido

    “I think that morality, ultimately, is grounded in the idea of equality — that all people are equal on some basis. Note that the physical world, the animal kingdom, and evolution, all say exactly the opposite: that individuals are clearly not equal.”

    What happens if the second part of this is true and the first isn’t? What sort of morality falls out of inequality?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, we know the second part is true, so I take it you’re asking how to define morals if we decide people are not equal. If morality is grounded in notions of equality, but we find no basis for declaring all people equal, then we may be stuck with a perception that humans are no different from animals, and there is no objective morality possible (as seems the case in the animal kingdom).

      People who have moral issues with human treatment of animals are often elevating animals to a quasi human status, which is why they feel animals should be treated better. Some use life itself as the equalizer. And one sometimes hears the phrase, “All god’s creatures.” Here there is a sense of equality-by-fiat.

      Alternately one can adopt a “caretaker” stance, that “higher” life is charged with taking care of “lower” life. This is another way of looking at our treatment of others, of animals, and of the planet in general.

      Basically, morality bridges from “is” to “ought” with the additional component of “goodness” as a guide. It has a very strong sense of doing the “right thing” and rejecting the “wrong thing.”

      • authorbengarrido

        A deterministic view of inequality is basically Social Darwinism, but admitting to inequality does not require an assumption of inherent inequality.

        I could also see a morality that is indifferent to both equality and goodness pursuing an non-deterministic inequality as a means to self-preservation.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m not sure what a “non-deterministic inequality” means, but a system that isn’t built on the idea of goodness isn’t a moral system. Morality is fundamentally about goodness.

      • authorbengarrido

        Isn’t goodness subjective? Most moral philosophy tries to set up an objective standard of good. Actually, in what I proposed, survival is good.

        Non deteministic inequality- think of a tryout for a baseball team. Deterministic inequality would be choosing the players based on their parentage, race or something else completely out of the individual’s control. This is exactly how the hierarchy of races and any system of aristocracy works.

        A non deterministic system would choose players based on their ability to hit, field and run. This is how a meritocracy works.

        Both systems assume inequality among players trying out, they just go about discriminating differently.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Isn’t goodness subjective? Most moral philosophy tries to set up an objective standard of good.”
        Those two sentences seem to contradict each other. If a moral philosophy seeks objective truths about goodness, then goodness would not seem (at least not entirely) subjective. There is some subjectivity involved in morals and goodness, but that doesn’t make them entirely subjective.

        As the human race evolves we do find things that are pretty objective. Defining slavery, rape, child molestation, or murder, as wrong, for example. Whether based on a “children of god” foundation or a personal sovereignty foundation, we recognize these things as objectively wrong. As such, it’s unlikely the human race would ever redefine these without serious backsliding of civilization.

        However, the main point there is that morality and goodness are linked. Moral judgements are about what is good. A “moral compass” steers one to doing the “right thing” (a concept which seems sadly lacking in today’s world).

        “Actually, in what I proposed, survival is good.”
        Sure, but survival is an animal trait. All living things want to survive; that’s almost part of the definition of what it means to be alive. Human morals and thought need to elevate us above the animals.

        Consider the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. That an incredibly moral act of self-sacrifice. Fire fighters and police who daily risk their lives to help others is another example of morality in action.

        “A non deterministic system would choose players based on their ability…”
        Which is just as deterministic; it just determines on other traits, and traits that are arguably (easily so) more relevant to putting together a good team. Exactly as you say:

        “Both systems assume inequality among players trying out, they just go about discriminating differently.”
        Yep, exactly.

        I’m not sure how you connect this with morality, though. It is entirely reasonable to have requirements for specific tasks such as sports and jobs. It’s a given that humans have differing capabilities. In fact, that’s what a moral code seeks to address in creating a level playing field for everyone. The physical inequality of humans is self-evident. It’s only in seeing everyone as equal that we can form a moral foundation.

    • fan

      I may have misunderstood grounding as “necessary belief for ethical/ moral views and nature” rather than understanding it as “an explanation”. There are physical explanations for basic social tendencies (kin selection, group selection), but I’m not sure how much will ever be known about how/if/to what degree our biological history produced widespread altruistic/empathetic tendencies. I’m pretty ignorant on the subjects actually, and intend to educate myself a little more on them on them. I guess the view that makes sense to my physicallist tendencies can be illuminated by this fun article (combine monkeysphere with kin selection and/or group selection) article. It seems pretty simple but is easy to speculate on. I doubt you want me expounding on my understanding of kin selection or group selection (I don’t want to tell people what they already know), but the consequences of either mesh pretty well with observed monkeyspherish human behavior (particular kin selection). Granted: people are quite different from monkeys. Your understanding of the subject could very well be better and you may have a better understanding if the proposed selection mechanisms are viable as pieces of the explanation for personal and business interactions, feelings, and beliefs. I’m certainly open to discussing my interpretation/understanding of the relevant ideas.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I may have misunderstood grounding as “necessary belief for ethical/ moral views and nature” rather than understanding it as “an explanation”.”

        Yes, I use it in the latter sense.

        Give me some time to read and digest your longer comment. I’ll get back to you in the near future. (Caveat: I’m enjoying retired life so “near future” may be longer to me than many! 🙂 )

  • Hariod Brawn

    On a part of this wonderfully crafted article, I take a different stand to you Wyrd, insofar as that whilst you say morals are a judgement about goodness, I would say they are instead actions based on knowledge. In other words, there are no morals, in the same way there is no colour red, there are only the appearances of both, and in actuality those appearances represent something instantiated discretely from them, and that is not any goodness, which itself is a judgement, a by-product.

    You say that morals “come from metaphysics”, yet that makes no real sense to me. To the extent that one can say that morals ‘exist’ – briefly allowing for a middle ground in our views – then they do not arrive, nor are they derived, from any otherness, but only from what already is, which is retained knowledge. That knowledge itself determines our actions and responses, not any metaphysical otherness. Of course, we may need to establish what both of us mean by the term metaphysics.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m not sure I’m understanding you, Hariod, so my answers may be off-target. We may have to go a few rounds (of beers, not boxing) to get me up to speed…

      “…whilst you say morals are a judgement about goodness, I would say they are instead actions based on knowledge.”
      I’m not sure I’d state my position quite that way. Morals are beliefs that lead to judgements about goodness. I’m having trouble equating morals directly to actions. We do agree that, whatever they are, they are based on our knowledge.

      “In other words, there are no morals, in the same way there is no colour red, there are only the appearances of both,…”
      I’m afraid we have a fundamental disagreement there, my friend. I think there absolutely is a color red — it’s photons with a certain frequency. Red has a physical, factual basis. The experience of redness is based on that physical basis.

      But maybe we’re saying the same thing here? That our apprehension of morality is based on our experience of the world?

      “…and in actuality those appearances represent something instantiated discretely from them,”
      I got lost… who is “them” in this case? You say red and morals are only appearances instantiated from them… From knowledge? I’m sorry, I’m just not sure what you’re saying.

      I do agree goodness is a judgement (I’d call it a moral judgement). The question is what that judgement is based on. Experience? Belief? Logical analysis?

      “Of course, we may need to establish what both of us mean by the term metaphysics.”
      I skipped to the last line of your paragraph, because you’re right, this is a key point. For me in this case it refers to something beyond or above the physical. I use it inclusively of religious and spiritual belief or any higher level of reality (Plato’s world of perfect forms, for example). I use it in its most literal sense: “above physics.”

      “…then [morals] do not arrive, nor are they derived, from any otherness, but only from what already is, which is retained knowledge.”
      Let me ask this: How real do you think ideas are, Hariod? Where does the idea of geometry or mathematics come from? Do these ideas, in some fashion, exist (and have always existed) and await discovery (and if so, where do they exist)? Or do we invent them as we explore the physical world?

      Is that, perhaps, the crux of what we’re discussing here?

      • Hariod Brawn

        I will take your 5 points each in turn Wyrd, so please refer back to them by number rather than have me copy and paste everything.

        1. You did say that “a moral judgement — almost by definition — is a judgement about goodness”. So, okay, you’re (now) appearing to make a distinction between ‘a moral’ and ‘a moral judgement’. What is this distinction? If, in agreeing with me in your comment, you say that morals are based on our knowledge, then why is there any need to introduce the concept of ‘goodness’? I think we can just leave it out as being redundant can’t we? If I know I won’t kill or steal, as I do, and as you do too, then is it not true to say that neither of us relate that to any measure of goodness? We could do, after the fact, but in acting in accord with what you are calling ‘moral judgements’ and what I am calling simply ‘retained knowledge’, then there is no actual thought about goodness occurring during the action.

        2. Does ‘red’ exist outside the representations the mind makes following sensory contact with photons of a certain frequency? No, a subjective redness results, but where is the colour of red prior to this sensory representation? When you say that you “think there absolutely is a color red”, then where “is” it? It does indeed have a “physical, factual basis”, but to manifest it requires our sentience, without which, there is no red nor redness, so the “physical, factual basis” as photons of a certain frequency is causally insufficient.

        3. “Them” refers to morals and the colour red. What is instantiated discretely from them is knowledge. It is instantiated by virtue of it being retained in memory, which itself has a physical dependence, origin and causal efficacy. Morals (as redness is to photons), are an interpretation of this instantiation. They are appearances which have no discrete instantiation of their own other than as interpretations.

        4. We’re agreed on our respective definition of metaphysics Wyrd. We’re not agreed that what you’re calling ‘morals’ and what I am calling ‘retained knowledge’ “come(s) from metaphysics”.

        5. I think it’s awkward introducing the term ‘real’ Wyrd, but I will answer in this way: Ideas, as apprehended by the human animal, exist with the animal, only with the animal, and are subject to that animal’s decoding of information. Prior to this decoding we can reasonably speculate, using inference and deduction, that certain patterns can reliably be extracted from the universe, and which upon decoding we think of as ‘ideas’ – or symbols for those extracted patterns. You ask about geometry and mathematics. Can we say that these things exist as ideas outside of the human animal? If so, in what sense might they exist as such? These are your unanswered questions. For me, I would say they do not ‘exist as ideas’ outside of the human animal. Are they perhaps not patterns extracted by the animal, in the way that Australia is a pattern which is extracted from what is in fact a continuous, unending surface? Australia is reliably there in some ways, but absent in others; it has no fixed border, only an arbitrary, ever-shifting one. Retained knowledge is not free-floating like Australia; it is, in any instance and until revised, fixed and has a physical cause, which, unlike Australia, is (theoretically at least) measurable in neuronal activity.

        All of the above may be wrong mate; please feel free to prove it so.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I like the numbered points! Makes it much easier to respond. Lay on, MacDuff!

        1. The two paragraphs (in the post) that touch on goodness (the one with the line you quoted and the preceding one) are in response to those who decouple the idea of morality from the idea of goodness. I think they’re inseparable. Personally, yes, I would agree ‘it goes without saying,’ but given that some do try to decouple the two ideas, I wanted to address that.

        What is the distinction between a moral (belief) and a moral judgement? One is a principle, one is an action. Addition is a principle, but 2+2=4 is an action.

        “If I know I won’t kill or steal, as I do, and as you do too, then is it not true to say that neither of us relate that to any measure of goodness?”
        I can’t speak for you, but I relate not killing or stealing to goodness. I absolutely consider goodness and badness with regard to particular actions.

        An example: There is a very popular and critically acclaimed TV show, Breaking Bad, which has as central protagonist, a meth maker-dealer. Just about everyone loves the show because it is unusual and, by all accounts, very well written and acted. But I won’t watch it because I place such a strong “badness” value on meth. There is no amount of “interesting” or “quality” that overcomes that value judgement.

        2. I think we see the primary reality of “red” differently. To me, the primary reality is the photons of a certain frequency. This can be verified with an instrument that detects red photons. Note that there is no experience of “redness” here, and red photons can be detected without ever having experienced it. For that matter, objects or plants might respond to red photons without humans being involved.

        X-rays are also photons of a given frequency, and we can detect them but never experience them. The reality of light, be it radio waves, microwaves, visible waves, x-rays, or gamma rays, is the photons — that’s where light is.

        The “something it is like” to experience red is something that happens in our mind once those photons interact with our bodies. Call it a “shadow” of actual red. To me that is less “real” than the photons.

        3. Tell me if this an accurate re-phrasing: “There are no morals, and no color red, but only the appearances in our mind of both.” Am I understanding fairly?

        I’d say that’s true (isn’t it kind of Kantian?), but that’s true of everything. I’m not sure where that really leads us. (And, of course, I disagree there is no color red. The search for objective morality is based on the premise of the reality of (at least the idea of) morals.)

        4. Okay, we can disagree! I’m not clear on what morals-as-appearances ends up meaning to you in terms of your own moral compass or how you ground your sense of them.

        Also, are you denying all forms of metaphysics (per my definition) or just denying that morals descend from them?

        5. I think this is the crux of our differing views. I do believe, very much, in the reality of ideas, which I think are discovered, not invented.

        A (pure) circle is an abstraction with no possible physical reality, but it’s such an obvious idea as to be discovered early in human thought. Look at it this way: Is it possible that mind that never directly experiences a physical circle come still come up with the idea? The idea is so simple that I think so.

        That we exist in a physical world with extension and shape leads naturally to geometry. That we live in a world with distinct objects (e.g. sheep) that we can unify as a class (e.g. “sheep”) allows us to count them. Counting leads naturally to all of mathematics.

        Australia is a label applied to an object (I use “pattern” more for repeated objects than for one). That the object changes slightly over time doesn’t seem to affect matters much to me. Most objects do.

        Taking this a bit further, Australia is a concrete instance of a pattern we label “giant island” or “land mass.” Those are abstractions we discover through experience with the physical world. The labels would differ among languages, but the idea, the abstraction, is constant. It’s possible that, if there was just one continent and the sea, no islands, one might still find the idea of an island.

        If an architect designs a building which is never built, is the building real? What if the building is built, but time wears it away to nothing. The plan remains; is the building real? Even if all copies of the plans are destroyed and the building is never built, is the idea of the building still real? If the architect never designs that particular building, but could have — how real is that building? Does the plan for anything (and everything) somehow pre-exist and merely await discovery?

        I’m inclined to think so, but that’s just my view.

      • Hariod Brawn

        1. “. . . I relate not killing or stealing to goodness. I absolutely consider goodness and badness with regard to particular actions.” My point is that in not killing, and in not stealing, we do not constantly address notions of goodness, as if going about repeating “I am not killing, no stealing, and it is good”.

        On your distinction between a moral (belief) and a moral judgement: “One is a principle, one is an action”. As before, is not killing and not stealing an ‘action’ as distinct from what you call a belief (not to do so)? I can’t see that it is, though ‘belief’ is your word Wyrd, and I call it (retained) knowledge. For me, a ‘belief’ is a ‘beloved idea’.

        2. I think we just disagree here. The photons are not inherently red, the frequency is not red, though their effects on light measuring devices and human sentience may be apprehended as red when, as you say, the photons are at a particular frequency. You say, in effect, that the photon is where the red is, and that that is its ‘primary reality’. That suggests a fixity of a certain quality which can be measured and deemed ‘red’, and as if ‘red’ itself was an enduring, unchanging, invariant quality rather than a loose umbrella term.

        “The energy and frequency of a photon are tied together, if one varies, so does the other, in direct proportion. Since a photon’s energy can vary depending on circumstances so can its frequency. Energy is not invariant; different frames will see the same photon with different energy, hence with different color. This is the mechanism of the relativistic doppler effect, which is what causes the color shifting of the remote galaxies which are moving away from us.”


        3. Yes, you understand the (admittedly provocative) phrasing. Whether or not the assertion can be applied universally doesn’t alter the argument. To talk about morals as if somehow they have an existence ‘out there’ which we can adopt and apply, now becoming our own, seems nonsense. At least the chair you are sitting on has some referent in the physical world that corresponds to your apprehending of it.

        4. I’m not sure where you got the phrase ‘morals-as-appearances’, but it seems okay. What actually appears in any supposed moral or immoral action is just action, nothing we can point to as if to say ‘that is a moral’. And of course, the judgement about morals shifts dependent upon time and place, even though the action remains constant. Here in England, we’re currently busy rounding up and vilifying everyone who had sex with a fifteen year-old during the sixties and seventies. And yet taking a short hop to mainland Europe we find that the age of consent in Austria, Germany, Portugal and Italy it is 14, and in France, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Greece it is 15. Until recently, Spain had one of the lowest ages of consent on the continent at just 13. So, the morals appear as an overlay relative to extant cultural norms, and do not exist fixedly in their own right.

        No, I am not denying all forms of metaphysics Wyrd. I am very open to the possibility that consciousness/subjectivity is a fundamental property of the universe for example. I think your notion that morals descend from metaphysics is perplexing though. Again, I don’t think morals have any objective reality. Knowledge and action do, but morals? Even if God exists she seems to have scant regard for them in her creation. I think they’re human thought constructs that we’ve reified.

        5. Much of this goes back to the concept of ‘reality’ which I’ve already said I want to avoid as it’s a long and almost certainly futile discussion (atheism vs. theism anyone?), and I couldn’t take a meaningful part in it. The term always brings along its opposite, which is an equally troublesome concept – what precisely is ‘not real’? Some of what we’re discussing goes back to past debates about untangling concepts from what is actual. It’s part of the problem of language, in as much as we can easily mistake a word symbol for an actuality – phenomena with particular appearances in themselves. I don’t think morals have that.

        Thank you for being fair and tolerant of my position Wyrd, as you always are with me, even though we disagree on things at times. I go through life adapting that position in line with what experience brings to me, what others such as yourself bring to me, so please accept that all I’ve said here is just how I see things currently, and I said before, all of the above may be wrong. Now, what have you got chilling in the fridge?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I think we’ve reached the point of recognizing we see things differently. I’d like to respond to your points, but I’ll try to keep it a brief summary.

        1. I’m sitting in my chair not killing and not stealing (and not thinking about goodness), but I’m not presented with the opportunity to kill or steal. If I am presented with such an opportunity, I might well make a decision. And I have been in situations where the “larcenous” heart of my past whispered suggestions into my ear but where thwarted by my current position on the matter. Which is that, no, sorry, we don’t do that anymore — it’s wrong.

        This is where the belief kicks in. Sitting here in my chair, taking no action in terms of killing or stealing, there is only my beliefs, my principles. It is only when presented with a situation that I act on those.

        I think we might be using ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ in similar fashion. I use ‘belief‘ in the epistemological sense.

        2. None of what you’ve presented about photons changes anything I’ve said — I’m very aware of the physics involved. That doesn’t change the fact that a given “measurement” of a given photon has a definite frequency (aka energy). That observers in other frames of reference get different results doesn’t change anything. For them the photon may be some other color, but it will definitely have that color. If that photon could be seen and experienced, those different observers would perceive different colors.

        3. Yeah, I think a fundamental point of disagreement involves the reality of ideas.

        4. As I pointed out in the post, there are social mores, which are absolutely relative to a given society. Our view of sexuality usually falls under mores. Parts of my country also view consent as largely tied with puberty. This comes from a past where producing lots of off-spring was important and life was short. Animals generally will breed as soon as the capability exists — there are no morals at that level, just nature.

        Many modern views are based on the perception that the brain isn’t fully cooked until the early 20s. People literally aren’t in their “right minds” until then.

        The morality involved depends on your view of the importance of progeny versus personal sovereignty. In general it depends on a view of what is right and wrong for society and the individual.

        One thing: “Even if God exists she seems to have scant regard for them in her creation. I think they’re human thought constructs that we’ve reified.”
        We often visualize god in the Abrahamic sense — the all-knowing, all-powerful, above all personal god. And that almost certainly is a human invention. But I think there is plenty of room for other conceptions or even a less human-centric view of the god of Abraham. I mentioned, as a first principle, the idea of a creator and a view that we’re all “children” of that creator. Morality can descend from that first (metaphysical) principle.

        Fundamentally (for me), it turns on a notion of equality (which may require a metaphysical view).

        5. See #3. 🙂

        “Real” is certainly one of those terms that needs to be defined when used seriously. (For real, man!) I’ve tried to show what I mean by the reality of ideas. A phrase I’ve used a lot in discussions lately is, “As real as the rules of baseball.” An important part of that phrase is, “as real as”!

        We may not always agree, but when we do, we drink beer. (Of course, even when we don’t, we drink beer! 😀 ) Great discussion, as always, Hariod! If nothing else (and there is plenty else), it’s fun to test and explore ones ideas with an acute and interesting mind!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        A “brief summary” … ha! I think for me, “brief” mostly applies to underwear. It would have been even longer had I included this aside about light:

        As an aside: A single photon isn’t enough to stimulate the cones (light color receptors) of the eye, but it can stimulate the rods (light intensity receptors) of a healthy dark-adapted eye. Frogs, who don’t see color, can see individual photons more easily. They appear as tiny, brief flashes of white light regardless of their frequency.

        Our ability to see color (with our cones) requires a certain intensity. That’s why moon light, or bright star light, makes the world look black and white (or at least mutes the colors). At some point there aren’t enough photons in play to stimulate our cones.

        Further (and if you don’t know this already, this may blow your mind), we only have cones in the center of our retina. We only see color directly in front of us. Our sensation of color in our peripheral vision is generated by our brain remembering those colors. (Not unlike how the brain covers up the visual “blind spots”.)

        You can prove this easily. Sit facing forward while a friend behind you brings objects with the same shape but different colors just into the edge of your vision. It helps to move the objects, we sense motion more easily. If you play fair and keep your gaze ahead, you will not be able to tell what color the object is.

        I used to lay in the dark listening to my stereo. Out of the corner of my eye, I’d see this bright white light. I knew there was no white lights on, so I’d turn my head to look, and it would turn out to be the red “On” light of the stereo.

        This is why star gazers are told to look at dim stars off-center. This brings more rods into play. This takes away the ability to judge the color of the star, but the whole point is that dim stars offer too few photons for the eye to make that determination in the first place. (Whereas a device could do it easily.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Of course, the most important part of our discussion is this:

        Saugatuck Brewing (Michigan) Bonfire Brown Ale

        Great Lakes Brewing (Ohio) Edmund Fitzgerald Porter

        Sand Creek (Wisconsin) Badger Porter

        Newcastle (England) Scotch Ale

      • Hariod Brawn

        Many thanks for all of the above Wyrd; I appreciate your thoroughness and precision of thought . . . (even though you’re wrong – just kidding!). Seriously though, you are a deeper thinker and far better read than I am, so I fully respect everything you say.

        Now, what is this – a wind-up? You’re listing four beers, three of which I almost certainly can never sample. Well, guess what, you may have all the morals, but I have all the Innis & Gunn! [Runs towards the fridge laughing feverishly]

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, gosh, thanks! [blush] We do have great conversations. Tina and I have a good one going one post back (SF Hardness).

        Hey, Amigo, you asked what was chillin’ in my fridge; I just answered. 😈 And now you know how I feel about Innis & Gunn, which I can’t find sold anywhere around here. 😦

      • Hariod Brawn

        Of course! I forgot I asked about the supplies! You seem well stocked. Well, for the next hour or two anyway. 😉

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Hmmm, now you have me wondering whether my blog made the cut. I’m not an aggressive nonbeliever, but we’ve had our spirited debates on related topics. I’d hate to lose you as a pen pal.

    On morality, have you read any of Jonathan Haidt’s materials on moral foundations? He covers it in his book ‘The Righteous Mind’, which you might find interesting. It informs a lot of my current views on morality, that it arises from foundational instincts (which might evolve through game theory survival mechanics), is molded by culture, and that different people can passionately and earnestly disagree on moral judgments. Given that, I think our meta-morality, our position about other people’s morality, is almost as important as our morality itself.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I haven’t read Haidt’s book, but looking in looking it up, it sounds like I’d agree with a great deal of it. I’ve argued before about the legitimacy of “left” and “right” views, and the polarization of debate today has long been a major stick in my craw.

      I’m sure he’s right about the primacy of intuition and the secondary nature of our rational arguments designed to support it. But I sorrow over that fact — being a lover of rationality and the dialectic — and think that if the human race is ever to truly advance, we need to evolve beyond that. Or at least learn to control it better.

      As Leon Wieseltier said on Colbert: “Human life is never going to suffer from too little feeling. We all feel all the time. We’re mortal creatures; we have hearts.” And: “The role of the mind is to actually question some of the assumptions and dogmas and prejudices of the heart.”

      I think that’s a really worthy goal!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I agree. I don’t think Haidt advocates abandoning reason.

        But I think the main thing to understand is that reason is a tool of emotion. The very desire to be reasonable is itself an emotion. Without emotion, reason is nothing. It is program logic without a goal.

        We tend to regard people who use their reason in pursuit of goals we emotionally agree with to be rational, but that doesn’t mean that people we disagree with aren’t being rational in relation to their goals. It can be a tough concept to wrap our minds around.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…is that reason is a tool of emotion. The very desire to be reasonable is itself an emotion. Without emotion, reason is nothing.”
        I wonder how many times Kirk (or McCoy) tried to explain that to Spock. That was kind of the underlying point about the whole Spock-Kirk-McCoy triumvirate. There’s one whole episode (The Galileo Seven) that centers on it!

        There was a book that was famous a while back: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Then someone else keyed off that and wrote: All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek. And it’s surprising how much truth there is to both ideas. (Plus some of my very early science training came from science fiction.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think Star Trek has always had an uneasy relationship with logic and emotion. Originally, Vulcans were presented as a purely logical race (presenting it as though it was a coherent concept) but gradually and unevenly evolved into a race with a highly disciplined culture. ST:TNG featured Data who wanted to have emotions, but never noted that his desire to have emotions….was actually an emotion.

        Someone who once went to a seminar on dealing with difficult people, told me that the instructor divided the world into three types of emotional maturity: 4 year olds, 8 year olds, and 12 year olds. 4 year olds (no matter what their chronological age) obviously had no self control. My experience is that we all have our 4 year old and 12 year old moments, but some are definitely more one than the other.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, the arc of Vulcans on Trek seems, to me, symptomatic our own shift towards besmirched protagonists. I wrote a post rant about it a while back. The back story on Vulcans, as you no doubt know, is that they were once a fierce and very emotional race that nearly wiped themselves out. But Surak preached about a better way — logic and rationality — and Vulcan was saved. (Gee, no parallels or allusions there, eh? 😀 ) IIRC, Spock was reluctant to discuss any of this because it pointed out how emotional his people had been in the past (and McCoy would never have let him hear the end of that).

        I don’t know how Vulcans were explained in the first season of TOS, but the second season premiere was Amok Time, where Spock experiences his first pon farr. In the third season, in The Savage Curtain, we do meet Surak. I was fine with Roddenberry’s Vulcans; I rather liked them. But under Rick Berman they began to change and ultimately became almost like villain-allies or something. The post I linked above explores that descent.

        I’ve been thinking about ‘desire’ since you mentioned Haidt. I’m not sure desire is always an emotion. It’s a kind of hunger, an emptiness that demands filling. Even a computer program can have a “desire” to fill a perceived need. Data, as you say, was all over the map as far as supposedly lacking emotions (Spielberg’s robots in AI were even worse that way — just one reason I disparage that movie). But I’m not sure I agree that desire is necessarily an emotion.

        Heh! That’s a cute idea about emotional maturity. Indeed we vary depending on the situation! The key may be the ability to behave as a 12-year-old rather than to be stuck in 4-year-old mode all the time.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I read or heard something the other day that said that Vulcan philosophy could be considered a kind of stoicism. It’s not so much about feeling no emotions as feeling the right emotions. Not sure Roddenberry would have agreed.

        I agree that in later series and movies they kind of devolved into smart-alec condescending killjoys, a development I’m not quite at peace with myself.

        Distinctions between intuitions, desires, and emotions seem artificial to me. They seem like different degrees or intensities of the same thing. I think that’s what Hume meant by “the passions”, all of that stuff that we just feel. But maybe it’s just an emotional desire on my part to oversimplify 🙂

        Your note about computers having desires is insightful. In fact, I see desires as our evolved programming. We don’t decide to have desires, we just have them (despite whatever evolutionary reason they exist), much as a computer doesn’t logically arrive at its programming, it just receives it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…Vulcan philosophy could be considered a kind of stoicism. It’s not so much about feeling no emotions as feeling the right emotions. Not sure Roddenberry would have agreed.”
        I’m pretty sure I don’t, although I think I see what whoever said that is getting at. But Vulcans (supposedly; ha!) try to suppress all emotions, and Stoics had a very strong belief in predestination (which I’m pretty sure isn’t shared by Vulcans). Whoever said that might be keying off the modern sense of “stoic” — Vulcans certainly are stoic!

        “Distinctions between intuitions, desires, and emotions seem artificial to me.”
        Could be. I’ve never really thought about it. I might love my country or my lady all the time, but I only get emotional about it sometimes. If I’m hungry, I desire food, but that doesn’t seem emotional to me. Intuition seems like something distinct — more thought-related… I dunno; I’ll have to ponder it further. Good question!

        “…a computer doesn’t logically arrive at its programming…”
        Not so far anyway! That does bring up the interesting idea of whether we can “program” our own desires in some fashion. I’ve heard it said (whether this is true or not, I have no idea) that a single dose of crack cocaine can rewire a person’s mind into addiction. But then they used to say LSD caused genetic damage, and that was total bullshit. I’ve often wondered if it was deliberate propaganda.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think the person who compared Vulcans to stoics was Massimo Pigliucci (he’s been on a stoicism kick in recent months), and he was almost certainly talking about the modern versions.

        On reprogramming ourselves, it could lead to extremely strange consequences. I think you know about this scene from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but just in case…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        LOL! Yes! I always loved that scene!

        A fun little quiz you can spring on fans of HHGttG is to name all eleven forms in which it’s been realized.

        It’s been: [1] a BBC radio program (twice); [2] a BBC TV show; [3] a record album; [4] novels; [5] a play (several, actually); [6] a board game; [7] a video game; [8] a movie; [9] an audio book; [10] a comic; [11] towels.

        Yes, towels. With lines from the text on them. Especially: “Don’t Panic!” This is, of course, hysterical to anyone who knows where their towel is.

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Wow, quite a post. So many ideas, so little time. Well you know how I feel about the theist/atheist debate. I just popped in to say I like your distinction between ethics and morals, which I did not make in our email correspondence. I hope I wasn’t terribly confusing in that email as I was using those two words interchangeably and loosely. In other words, I was speaking completely past your point in saying there can be morality without God. Also I didn’t assume true or correct—or whatever you want to call it—morality/ethics, just some working model of it that atheists might ascribe to.

    Morality, so defined, seems much broader and has to do with our understanding of our place in the universe. In saying that, there is a presupposition that we actually HAVE a place. I would probably use words like “harmony” to describe this, though I would risk being off-putting. Ethics can be invented to suit our purposes and need not be reflected in the world. Am I getting this right?

    If not, then the following probably won’t make sense:

    Atheists might never see your point since they assume that God doesn’t exist, ordering that means something for us doesn’t exist, and what I might call working models (maybe social contracts for instance) are what constitutes ethics for them…there’s nothing above and beyond (They might not make the distinction between ethics and morality that you’re making here either, or they might allow it and just say there is no morality so defined, only ethics). I see that our invented ethics can work for the most part, and as you mention, might even be preferable, but I would say that there are always holes in these invented ethical codes. To me, those holes point to a need for a higher grounding, but one that may not and is likely not to be encapsulated in laws or formulas. Atheists could say any number of things about this, but they’re likely to simply dismiss that need for a higher grounding that involves God.

    I don’t see many ways to argue here, except in perhaps pointing out that there is some higher grounding already in operation, and that nature (in the scientific sense, not in the “we are one with nature” sense) is not sufficient to explain where this higher grounding comes from. This argument is good for me, but probably won’t be for others. You seem to have done this with equality, or maybe an innate sense of fairness. In other words, we don’t see equality in the world, so where did it come from? The problem is, someone could just say there’s no grounding for this so-called innate equality, and that we simply made it up. They might go further and point to the fact that we disagree about it.

    Whatever, you already know all this. 🙂

    Anyways, it doesn’t seem like the two perspectives can really argue coherently with each other. (Of course, perspectives don’t argue; people do.) In my case, there never was an argument that convinced me. I never was “convinced” of anything really. And if I say such things are found in intuition as self-evident, that will come across as very weak, though it’s true. (Even though here I mean nothing like “women’s intuition”.)

    I say just wear this t-shirt and hope someone understands:

    Well, I meant to just “pop in” but that didn’t work out.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “I hope I wasn’t terribly confusing in that email…”
      Not at all, but I’m reminded here that I owe you a reply! (The problem with setting something aside “for the moment” is that it gets buried under all the things that come along. On the one hand, I feel like I’m running behind schedule, but on the other, hey, I’m retired. There is no schedule!)

      “Morality, so defined, seems much broader and has to do with our understanding of our place in the universe. […] Ethics can be invented to suit our purposes and need not be reflected in the world.”
      That’s a fine way to put it WRT morality. I would hope our ethics have some reflection in the world (rather than being totally arbitrary), as they do concern our worldly purposes. It also seems (and this is a new idea I’m nibbling at, so it could be weak) more of a tendency towards ethical rules but moral principles (that’s the broadness you mention).

      Antitrust and insider trading laws are good examples of ethical laws. ‘Murder is wrong’ is a good example of a moral principle.

      “[Atheists might] say there is no morality so defined, only ethics”
      Agreed. And by that definition they’d be right, although I define ‘metaphysics’ broadly enough to include a lot of possibilities. Atheists can get really testy about the idea of not having morals, so they often conflate morals and ethics or define morals differently. (I guess ethics isn’t enough.) As you say, the problem then becomes how one grounds ethical behavior in a physicalist reality.

      If the universe is just a machine, then any morals or ethics are fairly arbitrary. I continue to think, either way, grounding relies on some view of equality or personal sovereignty.

      “The problem is, someone could just say there’s no grounding for this so-called innate equality, and that we simply made it up.”
      Yep. I think the fact that all humans have (as far as we can tell) equal consciousness is one way to establish that. To the extent that animals approach that kind of consciousness (and there are some that do seem close), this invokes ideas of moral treatment of those animals.

      “And if I say such things are found in intuition as self-evident, that will come across as very weak, though it’s true.”
      And yet, people as far-ranging as Hemingway and Kant seem to have said exactly that. That idea leads to an interesting and very long discussion about why that might be. But it could be an uncomfortable discussion for atheists because there also seems a strong intuition of god in humans. Why would moral intuition be valid but spiritual intuition is not?

      (A very common report from those taking hallucinogens is strong feelings of spirituality. Is the chemistry just tweaking a part of our wiring capable of those feelings, or giving us access to something real — something many feel without hallucinogens.)

      And then there’s the whole thing about the reality of ideas… 😛

      I like the tee-shirt. I never realized Donald Rumsfeld was channeling Kant. XD

  • reocochran

    I am very comfortable around agnostics, my one brother is and my Grandpa born in Sweden always was. But funny thing was, when he would say goodbye to us, as my family was all piled into a station wagon, he would pat my Dad’s hand or shoulder (with the window rolled down) and say, “Drive like a Christian, Robert.” (This probably was either ‘tongue in cheek’ or in deference to my Dad, who found being an Episcopalian satisfying while in college. Lacking a male role model, his Dad being in a Veteran’s Hospital, he wandered into a church and the ‘father’ (they used to call them fathers or priests in this denomination) took to my Dad.) He was excited to convert my Mom, once they were married. Both were not the kind who would preach nor were they ones that were full of prejudice, we have discussed the acceptance of science with God, in my Dad’s version of the ‘truth.’

    My Aunt and Uncle really made me angry, when my Grandma died my parents had a glass of wine, while I was being put to bed with their little girls, (I was the oldest cousin) my Aunt and Uncle prayed with us, for my Grandmother’s soul and for my parents’ too. My Grandpa, at the time, had become friends with a woman he eventually married, they didn’t even bother to include him in the prayers. Anyway, they still insist on sending me money at holidays, which I accept, along with gift cards and religious tracts. Each of the messages include these powerful words: “Have you found Jesus yet?” and “Are you Saved?”

    My Aunt and Uncle believe the “Tribe” of Abraham are slaves, therefore African Americans are meant to be ‘servants.’ Although one of my three cousins is still married to a Christian (in their eyes and definition) my other cousin is married to a Jew and the other one a Catholic. Although Jews are meant to be going to the Promised Land, (as they have told me so… ha ha!) Catholics like my Grandmother and my Mom’s friends, are NOT going to Heaven.) My Aunt and Uncle watched my brothers and I while my parents went to Washington, D.C. to march for Civil Rights. The prayers they were telling us, my brother who was close to 6 or 7 went in the bathroom every night. He also mails back any money or gift cards they send his way.

    I know this is silly to say, but I cannot turn down “Manna from Heaven!”

    Not going to explain why I keep writing, maybe as a small favor to my Mom, who barely writes letters, they are usually so simple a third grader could write them. I know my Mom loves her only sibling, my Aunt. So, as a small defense mechanism, I send them a copy of the sections of the Bible that my church includes in their monthly newsletter. I have read the Bible three or more times, so it is not a total lie (maybe one of omission?) but I tell them not to worry, I have some Scripture readings to read given by my church. It is Presbyterian, so they feel we are all going to Hell in a handbasket,

    Must be nice to really KNOW which direction we are going, huh? I am so sure! Smiles!

    I love the way you defined morals and ethics. I will try to remember this, since it is so clear and straight forward. Thanks for allowing me to circle around the subjects you brought up in this post. It was partly a rant, too!

  • Lisa

    What struck amount this column is the emphasis on humans. Science is now saying that some apes have officially entered the stone age and we are finding out more about animal communication. I would be interested to read a blog on morals and ethics expanding to other conscious forms of life.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      (How did you end up on a two-year-old blog post? 🙂 )

      I’m not sure I buy the premise that apes have entered the stone age. That sounds like something the popular news might have misunderstood. Can you cite a (scientific!) reference I can read (like a research paper)?

      That said, speaking as an absolutist, I would tend to think moral principles apply universally to any lifeform. But morals requires a conscious intentionality, or holy writ, that I very much doubt exists (so far) in any other Earth lifeforms, so I’m not at all sure the idea of morals and ethics in apes is a coherent concept.

      Essentially, what’s needed is either an ape religion or an ape Immanuel Kant!

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