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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On the moral authority of religion and science

In the light of the recent discussion of these issues sparked by Sam Harris - and reminded by the fact that I am giving a paper at this year's AAP Conference - I dug out my paper from last year's conference. This extract seems salient:

What I want to say has two components. First, it is not true that the actual religions have any special authority in the realm of ethics — though they might have if their supernatural claims had actually been true. Second, it is not true that science has no authority in this realm.
The situation is this: science cannot tell us the ultimate point of morality, but neither can the actual religions. Let me explain what I mean.

The ultimate point of morality cannot be obedience to the will of a god or a group of gods. This would raise the notorious Euthyphro problem: does conduct become morally correct because it is in accordance with a god's commands, or should we obey the god's commands because they track the independent requirements of morality? If the former, we seem to be stuck with the idea that murder and rape are wrong only because of the arbitrary commands of a powerful being (this being could have made murder morally right simply by commanding it). If the latter, then why not find out what the independent requirements of morality actually are, i.e. the requirements that are independent of the god's will?

So what is the ultimate point of morality? I don't see how either religion or science can tell us! Some candidates include: Individual flourishing (for which we'd need a definition that is not already moralised); social survival or something like escape from a Hobbesian state of nature; the reduction of suffering; or the maximisation of overall happiness. There may be other candidates, or perhaps we could adopt some combination. But we can reach a conclusion on this kind of question only by rational reflection on our values, the realm of secular ethical philosophy. When we so do, we can never step entirely out of all our values at once, so there always remains an irreducible element of what we really do most deeply desire the world to be like. As Hume argued, "oughts" can not ultimately be derived from reason alone without that element of desire — but nor can they be derived by solely from revelation.

However, once we know what morality is aimed at, a god or angel or wise ancestor could be a reliable moral advisor. I.e., such a cognitively superior being might well be able to tell us what kind of moral code (social or personal) best conduces to, say, human functioning (again, in some sense that is not already moralised).

If prophets were genuinely receiving information from a god or other supernaturally knowledgeable being, this might well have included such reliable information on how we should act to obtain our ultimate moral goal or goals.

The difficulty is this: in the real world the holy books seem no more reliable about ethical matters than they are about empirical matters such as the age of the Earth. Sophisticated religious adherents tend to interpret the holy books more in keeping with what they know from elsewhere about what conduces to flourishing (or social survival, reduction of suffering, and other such goals). Far from being authoritative, the holy books end up needing to be interpreted in the light of secular wisdom about what actually conduces to such goals as flourishing or happiness.

I conclude that one of the actual religions could have a degree of moral authority if it were actually tapping into the knowledge of a cognitively superior being such as a god. In principle, however, science can have exactly the same kind of moral authority.

Once again, science cannot settle ultimate "ought" questions, such as what should morality be aiming at. But if we can answer that question, perhaps through some process of rational reflection on our values, science can, in principle, give us information about how to achieve our goal. Say that we are trying to come up with a set of virtues to teach our children and aspire to ourselves, with the aim of advancing human flourishing (again, in some sense that is not already moralised). In principle, what we now need is information about the world, including information about human nature.

As to the latter, various fields of science (and not just the controversial field of evolutionary psychology) can now study human nature, and the outcomes may have implications for how we should try to constrain our own conduct. As we learn more, this can feed back into our moral understanding. Hume believed in moral progress, as understanding increased and civilization developed; and, in principle, I see no reason to think that he was wrong about this.

However, science, like the religions, is limited in the ethical realm. Given the current state of sciences such as psychology, the quality of any advice coming from science leaves much to be desired. We do not have an exact science of what best contributes to, say, individual and collective human flourishing.

For the moment, at least, we must rely to a large degree on such things as historical experience, folk understandings of what makes people happy, our own experience as individuals, and so on. Moral philosophers need to reflect on all of these things. They can also reflect on religious texts from various traditions, of course, since these may contain some wisdom, albeit seemingly not supernatural wisdom.


And a bit later:

Once we have an answer to the ultimate questions in the ethical domain, science can investigate such questions as how human flourishing or the minimisation of suffering (for example) is best achieved. However, we also need to rely on personal and historical experience, etc., since the most relevant sciences (such as psychology) are relatively imprecise and at an early stage of development. Religion has failed to give us reliable information about these questions, though it could have done so in principle if it had obtained the information from a cognitively superior being such as an angel or a god.

Thus, science and religion are both are unable to answer the ultimate questions in the ethical domain. However, in principle, both can answer less-than ultimate ethical questions, as well as empirical questions. The poor record of religion in answering empirical questions, and the poor record in improving on other sources (such as literature and human experience) in the ethical domain suggests that the actual religions are not in receipt of information from cognitively superior beings.


NewEnglandBob said...

Nicely said.

Russell Blackford said...

Added a bit after NEB commented ... but along the same lines.

Christian Munthe said...

In agreement, although I believe that the ambition of (some variations of) religion to justify moral claims on supernatural propositions is much more difficult to actually carry out than what is popularly believed.

One thing, though, for me, the general points are more or less primary level philosophy stuff (not your writing, Russell, but the core points that you press). Isn't it just a bit embarrassing that someone has to make this clarifications at a philosophy conference?

Christian Munthe said...

Now that I read it again, I have one smaller query. I get the feeling that you could have a theory about the point of morality that imply neither any claims about the meaning of moral thoughts/utterances, nor any moral claims. You could say, for instance, that seen as a human social institution, morality has the point of managing certain aspects of our social interaction so that certain serious coordination problems do not arise. All you need for that is the idea that moral convictions as a rule connect to motivation, and then the metaethicists can fight it out what that implies for the semantics, etcetera. Moreover, there are numerous sets of norms that could perform that sort of function, so we normative ethicists still have questions to ponder that go beyond functionality.

Remains the question if lack of functionality of a particular moral institution should be seen as a sign of invalidity of irrationality (if not falsehood). You could do that, as Wong and maybe Mackie seems to do. But you could also say (as perhaps Hume does) that there is nothing like that, but societies with such moralities will simply diminish and perhaps disappear or change their morality. Thoughts?

Becoming Gaia said...

You say (and I agree) "there always remains an irreducible element of what we really do most deeply desire the world to be like. As Hume argued, "oughts" can not ultimately be derived from reason alone without that element of desire".

But does that not say that if science studies and quantifies "what we really do most deeply desire the world to be like" then "oughts" CAN BE derived by reason from that foundation?

Johan Mårtensson said...

When you talk about the Euthyphro problem, I think you confuse two things. Assuming that the requirements of morality is indeed independent of the will of God, the point of morality may still be obedience to the will of God, namely God´s will that we should do what is morally right independetly of his will. The Euthyphro problem is about the sources of moral rightness not about the sources of moral motivation.

Bowdie said...

Sure, it might be aimed at a slightly younger crowd, but this Science Bookswill make a scientist of me yet.

יאיר רזק said...

I disagree.

You previously referred to morality as a hammer. Now you say once you define what kind of nail you want to drive, science can pick the right hammer. I'm right with you.

But you hasten to add that science cannot determine which nail to drive, that this can only be done through "rational reflection on our values". In what sense can we rationally reflect to choose the goal "morality" is about? Morality, I thought we agreed, was just a tool, there is no purpose it is "really" about. We have values, moral theory is the tools to manifest them, that's it. There isn't really any room for reflection here.

The apparent room for reflection is in understanding our values, phrasing them explicitly and so on. That's great, but it is also a scientific project, in principle. Like your last paragraphs say, the sciences involved are immature so for now we must "rationally reflect", but that's just a placeholder - in principle, science can tell us our ultimate goals, and that what matters.

In other words, I'm with Becoming Gaia.

Tony Smith said...

Re "(...) there always remains an irreducible element of what we really do most deeply desire the world to be like."

I frequently have cause to admonish that this is at the heart of the is-ought problem as people keep avoiding looking at the world that is because they trap themselves in belief in their own peculiar (and often partially borrowed) view of the world they desire.

Re flourishing and weaker goals, I see "exploring possibility space" as what the universe does, life accelerates and we accelerate further. This provides a very strong case for anti-authoritarianism and against any more global homogenisation than is either needed to protect against dominance by genuinely contested positions or to support an emergent platform from which further possibilities can be explored more effectively, an obvious example of which is the internet protocol.

Of course determining what is "genuinely contested" then becomes the problem and one which our political processes seem to me to be doing quite badly with. Prima facie, much of science is not genuinely contested, but relatively little else is.

Brian said...

Russell, what's your answer to someone who says the Euthypthro is a false dilema? I was speaking with my boss a while ago, he's a secular Jew, and when I mentioned the Euthyphro, he said God wills it because it's God's nature. He thought you can't artificially separate God's moral desires from God's moral nature as he reckoned the Euthyphro was doing. I tried to point out that if it's God's nature, then morality is separate from God, but he kept replying that it's instantiated in God according to believers or something similar. In the end I gave up and said that lots of philosophers think Euthyphro works.

He doesn't think himself there is a god or it's the source of morality. His reply is something I commonly here from believers (or read on the net in any case). Sometimes it's easy to pull apart, other times it's quite well knotted. Anyway, how do you reply?

Russell Blackford said...

Brian, I'm not sure I understand the argument you're conveying to us. God wills us to do something because it's God's nature. Fine. But what if God wills us to murder and rape? We're not going to say that murder and rape are good; we're going to say that this is an evil God, or a God with an evil nature. I don't get how your friend thinks he's overcome that point.

Btw, there are of course much more complex theories about how God and good relate to each other. Some of these are more coherent than the simple divine command theory discussed in the post. But these theories don't make obeying God the point of morality. The standard line is to say something like this: God created us in a certain way; given how he created us, he knows what is needed to flourish; because he loves us he wants us to flourish; therefore he commands us to act in those ways. This picture is coherent, though it seems to be against the evidence. But for my purposes it doesn't claim that the point of morality is obedience to the will of a god. The point here is to flourish, though God will give us authoritative direction on how to do it.

Still, you might want to argue that there could be evidence that would push us in the direction of adopting this total package, including flourishing (rather than something less ambitious like avoidance of suffering) as the goal of morality. I'm certainly not committing myself to that, but maybe religion would have a stronger claim to being able to tell us the ultimate goal of morality if it had a better track record.

I agree with Becoming Gaia's point: if we could agree on the goal, we could (in principle) work out what is needed. However, the goal is something rather vague and contested, and no amount of rational discussion seems to be able to produce more than rough agreement - if we even have that! I'm sure that most of us would think it's something in the vicinity of human well-being, but think of all the variations on this (why stop at human? do we have an agreed conception of well-being? is that conception already moralised, so the whole thing becomes circular? is there an asymmetry between positive well-being and suffering? etc., etc). Even secular thinkers are bogged down in getting complete agreement, though we may have enough agreement to say that some moral systems work pretty "well" by any standard that we'd find plausible and some have gone off the rails and work badly. This last point is what I think we can charitably interpret Sam Harris as saying. If so, I agree and think it's an important point.

But it gets worse because there are many people who will think the goal or goals of morality are something most of us would find implausible, and there may be no way to get them to change their minds - they are arguing from different fundamental premises.

Russell Blackford said...

As for whether the process of rational reflection is itself "science" ... well, you all know that I don't think there's a sharp boundary between science and other areas of rational inquiry. All the tools are available, in principle, to everyone, and all the knowledge obtained should ultimately be consistent.

You could use the word "science" to cover the entirety of rational inquiry (you could use "philosophy" for the same purpose, which would actually be more historically justifiable). However, that's not what "science" has meant historically. It's been about a new approach to inquiry into the physical world that was not named until about 1833. The idea was to name something distinctive.

We see this distinctive approach crystallising into something like its modern form with the work of Galileo (in particular) and others in the early 17th century, though it took another two centuries to be bestowed by William Whewell with the name we now give it. This approach involves distinctive methods such as heavy use of mathematical models, specially designed instruments, and repeatable experiments (and arguably a strong dependence on hypothetico-deductive reasoning).

Rational reflection on our own values is not distinctively scientific. You can say that it's part of "science" if you want to use the word "science" to cover the entirety of rational inquiry, but the question I was asking was not about the authority of rational inquiry; it was about the authority of a distinctive sub-set of this.

Brian said...

But what if God wills us to murder and rape? Apparently God wouldn't because God's nature is moral and he wouldn't will something immoral. Here you might reply, 'A ha! so God is just conveying what is moral and is not the source', which works I think. Perhaps I was just bamboozled by my bosses arguing style. Doesn't Swinburne have a similar reply to Euthyphro?

Russell Blackford said...

Christian, I'm with Mackie and Wong and Hume.

Yes, I realise that you were distinguishing between what Wong might say, perhaps supported by Mackie (who does talk like this) and what Hume might say. But I don't know that there's a clear answer here. The story of how morality actually came to be is probably very messy, and we don't have the full answer. The question of how, if at all, it is justified will also be messy, and it won't necessarily be the same thing. Wong, Hume, and Mackie, as I understand them (and it's some time since I read Wong's work) all see morality as largely "about" solving coordination problems.

We could say that that's its function (analogous to the function of the hammer to drive nails of a certain kind, etc.). But it's not as if we deliberately created it with that precise function. It arose in a more ramshackle way than that. Even if it fills that function in the way societies operate, there's still a question as to what we want it to do and whether we can improve it for that purpose. There's always a level that goes beyond the facts to raise questions about our values.

So, my short, vague answer is that Mackie is right - morality does operate something like that and we can probably reach some rough agreement that we want t to do so. But Hume would also be right (and Mackie would doubtless agree with him) if he added that we are not compelled by reason alone to want morality to want to operate in any particular way. Reason alone can't even tell us whether to prefer getting our fingers scratched to the destruction of the whole world, says Hume, and I think that's correct. But reason with some normal desires mixed in certainly can.

Russell Blackford said...

Brian ... to be honest, I don't know what Swinburne says on this, but your boss's response doesn't work for the reason you suggested. Still, there are the more sophisticated theologies that I mentioned in my comment and vaguely alluded to in the paper (which was actually about NOMA and went well beyond this stuff).

We shouldn't deny that there's some sophisticated theology around, and that some of it really is better at solving the problems than the more popular ideas of religion. After all, theologians are usually smart people, and they had hundreds of years to identify problems themselves and to work on them. Just because it looks cleaner to you and me to conclude that God simply doesn't exist and the whole edifice of theology is probably a house of cards, doesn't mean that the house of cards wasn't designed very cleverly. I think it falls down in this instance, but not for totally straightforward reasons.

Brian said...

I don't doubt for a second that some theologians are very clever, and centuries of intricate layering of distinctions and threads makes theology an intricate knot to unravel. Sometimes when I read something written by a theologian I can see how it all falls apart and other times it just feels wrong, but I can't tell why. Not sure if that's because of my lack of critical thinking skills and requisite knowledge or because the theologians have constructed a coherent edifice that in its own little universe seems to make sense.

Robert N Stephenson said...

All interesting, challenging and even well thought out, but in all cases, and I do mean all, everything loses it point and meaning and even relevance when it hits the human mind.

There will always be something missing with this set of conundrums, and it isn't so much God and the delivered perceptions of what that might even mean, it is more the concept - the deep concept that exists in us all but is expressed in many thousands of different ways.

The many hammers to match the many nails.

Russell, it is true philosophical science is at its heart not all that different from dedicated (as opposed to doctrinal) theology. Speak to a theologian of the Church of Christ denomination and you will have theology not all dissimilar to your moral views or so the science of morality. Likewise the view of 'God' is closer to a Gaia vision and concept than to some bearded entity in the sky, as in 'The Invention of Lying'

I want to align myself with you, and do find myself nodding agreement often but there is an essence that one day you will have to deal with in order to create, not so much a completeness, rounder and less judgmental argument - or presentation.

If I were top send someone to you with the question 'What is God?' what would your answer be? The ability to answer this within a moral (stated or otherwise) structure that address key social concerns is the difference between sound argument and cleverly disguised rebuke.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Russell, it might be interesting for you to move away from the religious justifications for an anti-view.

The concepts of God you use are the justifications of individuals for their brand of belief rather than the idea or concept of God itself.

Steven Hawking probably had the best description of the concept from a science point of view.

Now, if you removed the ant- stance and thus diluted what can sometimes be seen as barely restrained anger you will probably see a better and more beneficial understanding for moral ethics.

You will not escape the God type rules though, no matter how you come at this. Remember God was the replacement word for King, and today we could easily replace God with Government. There will always be a judicial type structure to hold moral ethics to some form of account, and governments have proved even more useless in this ethics issue than even Neanderthals and the ethics of hitting each other with sticks.

I also think it disheartening to hear philosophers getting disjointed over points of order where regardless of where you want to put your pointer you will find vastly different views. Philosophers are not a homogeneous group, which means views and beliefs will vary greatly - then why do you, a philosopher seem to think that religion for some reason is a homogeneous entity?

As I said before, something is missing. I can't tell or show you what that is Russell, you have to find it - but maybe change how you ask the questions a little, the just maybe you will get the answers that you need.

Johan Mårtensson said...

Russell. You wrote the following which I think captures a reasonable an fairly coherent view of the relation between God and morality:

"The standard line is to say something like this: God created us in a certain way; given how he created us, he knows what is needed to flourish; because he loves us he wants us to flourish; therefore he commands us to act in those ways."

This is more or less the standard scholastic view, which Occham opposed.

Then you say:

"This picture is coherent, though it seems to be against the evidence."

This puzzles me. What kind of evidence is relevant in this case? You think you have evidence that God has willed something that is against our flourishing?

יאיר רזק said...

@ Russell:
"As for whether the process of rational reflection is itself "science" ...

If this is directed at me, then you misunderstood me - I never meant to imply that rational reflection is itself a science. My point was precisely that it was a pre-Scientific method,that we use to investigate an in-principle scientific question because we just don't have a scientific alternative yet (the science is not yet mature).

Which is why science (in principle) is indeed the moral authority.



Christian Munthe said...

Russell: we seem to sing in unison on this. The function of morality need not be something that we have been conscious of at all, I agree. Rather, it would appear to be a more plausible hypothesis that this function has been evolutionary selected for (or rather that lack of such function has been selected against). Especially Hume's theory in the Treatise seems to lend itself to such a picture exceptionally well. And, as far as I have been able to understand, this general idea gets some confirmation from the (admittedly simplistic) game theoretical modelings done within evolutionary research.

So, how does this connect to validity/rationality? I asked Wong some years back about his notion of the 'adequacy' of a moral system (i.e. approximately its functionality); whether the criterion of adequacy couldn't be claimed to be a universally valid moral norm. His answer was that he didn't like to see it as a moral norm, since it was too general and unspecific. His point was, I believe, that moral norms need to connect more saliently to actual options, etc., since otherwise they can't connect to motivation very well. But this distinction between the epistemological level and the normative level continues to worry me, although I sometimes tend to think that maybe the Humean stance would be to claim that just as the distinction between emotion and cognition isn't that clear, we shouldn't expect a clear border separating the issue of the nature of morality and the (proper) content of morality...

Richard Wein said...

The argument Brian mentions is one frequently made by Christian apologists. It's described by Wikipedia:

Euthyphro's dilemma considers two possible positions that a theist might take. This response supposedly takes a third position. Actually I think it can be argued that it accepts the first horn of the dilemma (which I think is the line Brian took), but I suppose it depends on just how the dilemma is worded. Either way, I think it avoids the undesirable (to the theist) consequences of the dilemma, as usually described. But it doesn't resolve the fundamental issue that the dilemma points to: what is the ultimate source of morality? The response claims that God's nature is good. But this claim seems meaningless unless we have some prior standard for measuring goodness. If we don't need a prior standard, then we are free to claim that anything we like is good.

Robert N Stephenson said...

I have said this to many Atheists and of course Christians as well - the removal of, say the God, concept does not automatically create a different moral position, as much as the inclusion of God didn't create one.

Only the scientist would say they have the answer - the theologian continue to investigate and search. This is simply based on the few weeks I have followed writing here.

While you preach to each other on this high plain how does this relate to the people who live their lives away from, dare I say this, fictional reality conjecture.

At the moment I am waiting for a mathematical principle to explain the nature of reason and ultimately of morals and said morality. Are you now scientists, and is this not what has often been the arguing point behind reason and logic?

This theoretical scientific 'truth' is only valid under set conditions; so the generalist stance that the moral argument speaks for all reasonable persons and their understanding of morality is extraordinarily complex when just a simple and even basic study of archeology and paleontology will reveal the seeds of moral creation.

Action-Reaction principles. Positive and Negative force. While it is good to venture into this lofty world of complex reasoning's and conjecture it does ignore the base nature of the human existence.

You do not need to be a scientist to understand the reasons behind 'killing each other is bad' though, to follow much of this discussion it does feel as if you want to create a very high place from which to view existence. Again the question - what is the mathematical principle behind this logic form? and why is science the arbiter of reason and morality when it has been the creations of science that have caused the greatest questions faced by moral positions - in fact science has consistently found ,morally superior ways to promote death has it not?

Is what is suggested and hinted at here little more than replacing the concept of 'God' with the concept of 'Science Knows All?'

No matter who you quote, I still find such a question reasonable - like I find the question of, how does the development of scientific morality hope to serve the general population who struggle to feed themselves and survive. Does this not have a place in the new scientifically based morality?

NewEnglandBob said...

Robert N Stephenson wins today's prize for putting the most straw man arguments into his posts as well as the most incorrect assumptions.

Robert N Stephenson said...

What I think is perhaps not relevant, but what are the answers? I have read a great deal thus far and everything seem theoretically interesting. But how does saying straw man actually answer any concerns?

Is it possible to actually answer questions when put, or deal with issues that have a sense of reality about them? Yes, there are strong philosophical and scientific argument put forth here, but at present I only see a 'God' replacement... now, how is that any better.

Note, my God concept isn't the same as what has been presented here at all, so the moral ground I discuss from isn't anything God given, or God enshrined. I am not keen on accepting a theoretical replacement as the new 'Truth' whatever that may mean.

The other concern is the inability, as I have seen and read, to deliver an argument (Don't like the word as it has baggage, but you know it is meaningful discussion) where there are answers.

I also cannot accept the concepts of 'ought' - even of a medical science level such thinking is already loaded without anything extra being added. A re-assessment of language may also be in store. Look up the studied of 'should' which is the extended version of ought, oughta, gotta and shoulda.

Forgive me if I have a different understanding here. from memory I allowed that.

Can you clearly specify the basis of moral grounding - your moral grounding? Is it a collection of ought statements? If so, why so?

Or, is it too difficult to understand that there are more than just two, three of even four schools of thought at play here, and what would make the scientific standpoint any more valid than any others?

Questions - honestly put by someone trying to understand the concepts in play here.

Richard Wein said...


I think it's important to distinguish between the function (purpose) for which a thing came into existence and the function (purpose) to which we might choose to put it.

The purposes for which hammers come into existence and the purposes to which we choose to put hammers are generally the same, because hammers are made for a specific human use (more or less). Hammers are made for driving nails and they're normally used for driving nails. The same sort of correspondence does not exist in the case of morality, and this is one respect in which Russell's hammer analogy breaks down.

Insofar as morality is a biologically evolved adaptive trait its ultimate function is self-propagation, as is the function of all adaptive traits. The ultimate function of eyes is to propagate more beings with eyes. But in that case we can also point to a more proximate function, namely seeing. In the case of morality it's more difficult to say what proximate function(s) it has. Perhaps one of its proximate functions is to promote co-operation between members of a tribe. In any case, those are merely the adaptive functions for which morality came into existence. The rationality of a moral code must be judged by how well it serves our goals, which may differ considerably from those adaptive functions and from person to person.

I think Russell's position would be clearer if he gave examples (even just hypothetical ones) of rational moral values and the reasons people have to promote them.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. In case there's any confusion, I'd like to add that when I mentioned the "rationality" of a moral code or value I meant the rationality of promoting it, not the rationality of believing it. This corresponds to the distinction philosophers make between reasons for action and reasons for belief.

Also, it might have been better to use the term "moral system" in place of "moral code". "Mortal code" sounds like a set of cognitive moral beliefs. As Russell pointed out in a previous discussion, a moral system (or value) needn't consist of cognitive beliefs, like "X is wrong". It can consist of non-cognitive stances or attitudes, such as disapproval of X. I must say, though, that I have doubts about the practicability of promoting a moral system without any cognitive moral beliefs.

GTChristie said...

With all due respect for Blackford's considerable knowledge and fine gifts as a philosopher, I am disappointed by this post.

Notice we are all doing philosophy here. But what kind?

I don't think we benefit much by discussing the relative merits of science as a "moral authority" as compared to religion. (Unless the main point is to supplant religion with science, in which case one must maintain that science has some moral standing -- contradicting the frequent claim that science is amoral. (If anyone wants that standing, fine -- but then you're committed to taking moral responsibility for science accordingly as well. What is science's track record when it comes to acting as a moral agent? Does anyone really want to go there? Perhaps we should.)

Meanwhile I think what we need in secular meta-ethics is better philosophy, not simply (or only) more or better science.

In various arguments "contra" religion, many scientific thinkers have pointed out its "poor track record" in producing "facts" about the world, as if religion should be held to a standard of factuality about physics and biology (for instance) in its explanations of the world. There is some validity in that argument as far as it goes, since religion is not a good fact-inducer by today's scientific standards. But that's beside the point in ethics. Unless Hume was wrong, there are no prescriptive moral facts, period -- religious or scientific. Show me one and I will show you how you are confusing meta-ethical facts with practical prescriptions (as crude relativists do, for instance).

Historically at one long-past time, religion was the ONLY guess about facts that humans had. But that is no longer the case. The best religion can do today, given our modern scientific frame of reference, is to abandon any positions it may hold concerning "physical facts" and make itself at least "not inconsistent with science."

That does NOT require religion to abandon any of its "moral authority," however. That would require a set of arguments different from religious authority on "facts about the world." Religion isn't really (properly) about facts anyway, anymore. To argue about its merits as a moral framework, we must use specificially moral arguments or else we are speaking past the issue.

A "not inconsistent with science" stance is now appropriate to religion, just as secular philosophy has adopted that, gradually, over the last 400 years. (Although even that is still a work in progress in some philosophical quarters).

But why is ANY discussion in ethics framed as "science OR religion"? Why is this discussion not, straight-out, framed as secular philosophy? After all, we're philosophizing, are we not?

Again: the role of religion or science in ethics is a philosophical issue. The relative merits, as discussed, are philosophical positions, supported by philosophical argumentation.

But if philosophy it is (rather than just one opinion against another), the philosophy that results from a "science vs. religion" framing of meta-ethical inquiry creates a sideshow, distracting us from more useful (and resolvable) questions. Examples: "what CAN science tell us about human nature?" and "if human nature is X, what does that necessitate or entail (if anything) for ethics?" I think those are higher quality questions which make any "science vs. religion" debates look rather useless and comically small by comparison.

GTChristie said...

These higher quality questions are where the action really is (or should be!) in secular philosophy.

Unrecognized by scientists and religionists in the last few decades, philosophy has been stealing a march on both in developing a robust meta-ethics. Consensus has not been reached, but new directions have become quite clear in the aftermath of the philosophic debacles in ethics of the 20th century (such as crude relativism, post-modern nihilism, logical positivism, existentialism and more).

in secular debate of moral questions (even if people think they are doing science or religion, they too are philosophizing).

Clear-eyed philosophers today are thinking about the role of science in society, of ethics in science, what represents "human progress," etc. We are concerned not with making ethics scientific per se (for gradually we are abandoning the classic concern with "axioms" and "rules"), but concerned rather with making ethics "not factually inconsistent with science" while examining moral questions philosophically.

Indeed, some of today's moral quandaries are actually produced by science: bio-ethics, transhumanism, new technologies of war, whether we should be spending money on Mars while people are starving on Earth, pollution of the environment by technological products etc etc etc etc etc ...

Frankly many people are skeptical of any scientific arrogation of "moral authority" to itself. Historically wherever "moral authority" is lodged, that itself becomes a value. (Witness "the church" treated as a value in itself, rather than "holiness," to see what I mean.) For such reasons, science (while valuable) ought not become itself a value. Scientists morally shot themselves in the foot with the atomic bomb when it came to values, for instance ... but I digress.

The thread above, in my opinion, is tangential, distracting, and barely germane if the discussion is about meta-ethics. To me, it is disturbing to see nominal philosophers framing meta-ethical issues within phrases such as "the moral authority of science" and the "track record of religion in describing the world" when the actual state of philosophy today transcends these issues mostly by leaving them aside. And we leave them aside primarily because they rarely (possibly never) produce statements that can be true or false.

GC's Properly Worthless Two Cents
We should be concentrating instead on cleaner/clearer (answerable!) questions such as "where does moral motivation come from," and "is ethics species-instinctive or actually a high-order process?" and "are there any moral universals across all cultures, times and places?" and "what can science KNOW about morality?"

None of those questions, scientifically informed though they certainly must be, grants any peculiar "moral authority" to science. Philosophers properly use science as a tool -- as it is ideally suited to be. Science can clarify any facts that may have some bearing upon a secular philosophy of ethics. But I don't believe we make any progress by configuring science to BE a philosophy of ethics. I'll be polite here and assiduously avoid calling that idea any derogatory names beyond "unhelpful." Especially not anything that rhymes with "thumb" or "cupid." I'll just keep those to myself.

In other words, I think the above discussion does not contribute much to our understanding of meta-ethics, much less "how we ought to live." I suspect the actual theme at work above is not meta-ethics, but yet another schoolyard dustup about religion versus science. And historically that has not produced much progress in ethics, however rewarding it might feel to scientists declaring some (moral???) triumph over religion.

GTChristie said...

In my own work, I simply ignore religion. I am pursuing, after all, a secular philosopy of ethics. For what then do I need religion? Contrast? A straw man? If I needed to refer to it, I would. But I never do.

When it comes to science, I find it more useful to maintain a "not inconsistent with science" stance as an argumentative standard -- while concerning any "moral authority of science" I am quite opposed on moral grounds (beyond the scope of this comment, but hinted at above).

So I appeal to everyone to become proper philosophers first, scientists and religionists later -- if you can philosophically justify either, once the philosophy is done.

יאיר רזק said...

GC: My position is that meta-ethics is philosophy, but ethics is science. Once you decide what it is that you want to call ethics, figuring out facts about it is science and establishing ways to achieve things in that domain is technology or engineering. In that sense, science has moral authority. This does not undermine the importance of philosophical inquiry into morality.

Discussing whether religion or science can contribute to our morality is certainly a philosophical discussion worth having. I agree the main focus should be on answering the "higher quality questions", but discovering whether and how science and religion can contribute to that is surely an integral part of obtaining said answers.

As for your central philosophical claim in your posts, whether there are scientific prescriptive moral facts depends on what you call morality. If you equate morality with some moral sense or instincts - which, it seems, you do - then there actually are scientific facts about what this sense prescribes to its owners. I'm not sure this is a particularly useful way to define morality, but hey - it's at least a fairly clear one.

Christian Munthe said...

RichardW: it is quite strange evolutionary to say that just because the function of an organism is self-propagation, the function of each part of that organism is to propagate such organisms. Rather, the parts contribute to the function of the organism by having other functions. So, the heart has the function of pumping blood, and that contributes to the organisms ability to procreate, and therefore there continuous to be organisms with hearts. If you were right it would follow that if by some mighty strange event my heart and lungs switched activities (the heart transporting air into my bloodstream, and the lungs pumping the blood), they would both have the same function.

So, the idea about morality is that it performs (has performed) a function (making coordination problems less common and easier to solve) that tends (tended) to contribute to the fitness of human beings capable of having a morality. Then we also have art among our social institutions, but art hardly performs (performed) the same function as morality, although quite possibly contributing to the propagation of those social groups capable of having art.

GTChristie said...
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GTChristie said...
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GTChristie said...
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GTChristie said...

If you equate morality with some moral sense or instincts - which, it seems, you do

Actually I don't. Ethics is a cultural process.

Elsewhere I have also said meta-ethics is ABOUT ethics, and there can be facts about ethics. (But many of these are facts about people, cultures and the cultural processes that create values). Meanwhile practical ethics is prescription ("oughts") but these are not factual statements, nor derivable from meta-ethical facts.

Your schematic of the relation between meta-ethics and ethics is exactly opposite mine.

And to me, both are philosophy in action. Neither meta-ethics nor prescriptive ethics IS, itself, a science per se. They're both philosophy.

Anything science can demonstrate ABOUT morality is "meta-ethical." And my position is, I doubt that science can BE (or speak AS) a morality, since it must then provide a physical basis of the truth of a moral statement. I don't see how that's possible.

Science is logical, but it takes formal logic (not science) to derive (deduce) conclusions from moral premises. To constitute a moral science those premises must be facts that are at the same time both moral in character and physically instantiated -- or else it isn't science.

Since I have never seen a moral object, I say it isn't science.

That is: a moral conclusion is not a scientific conclusion even if it's a formally logical conclusion because there are no moral facts (objects) from which to derive the conclusions. In this I agree with Hume.

Becoming Gaia said...

@GTChristie - Moral motivation comes from the desire to see your own wishes fulfilled.

@Christian Munthe - There are numerous quality scientific papers and quality books exploring the fact that humans possess a "moral sense" that has been evolutionarily selected for (since it appears pretty much "designed" ;-) as a facilitator of cooperation. I would even go so far as to claim that the Kantian imperative is but a single word -- COOPERATE! (to achieve the maximum possible of your goals)

-- Visit my blog at http://becominggaia.wordpress.com/ and follow me on NetworkedBlogs

Robert N Stephenson said...

GT so far has made the most sense to me and does seem to be more practical in actual view. The removal of religion and God reference for this type of discussion is essential as it is to also remove some kind of scientific 'proof' of moral or ethical positions.

The argument as sometimes put is about dethroning God and proving someone or thing wrong, when in truth the positions is meant to be one of exploration and solution finding.

But to date the ability to argue in lower levels of thinking is an inability to communicate to a broader audience. That is what concerns me most

GTChristie said...

I have been questioning the primacy of emotion (desire) as a moral motivation. It's a difficult path. As it happens, that particular taxonomy ("only emotion can move the will") in ethics comes from Hume as well, reinforced by Adam Smith who thought the same.

To see my rather intuitive, very early and very raw notes on the role of emotion in ethics, go here and use your browser search function on "emotion" to find the aphorisms. Or just read all several hundred aphorisms. LOL.


Robert N Stephenson said...

Emotions in a way move the will, but emotions themselves are governed by thoughts, and the thought-emotion transition is said to be one of the tree quantum states in action.

The will can be connected to the thought, or the movement of the thought and the emotions are the reactions or expressions of the thought/will

I will have to say the so far in this philosophical discussion there have been references to things that no longer fit into current as of the 90s, medical science regimes. The use of modern linguistics and modern cognitive understandings do seem a bit behind.

To believe emotions create will, or even thought is very 1980s...

There are even cognitive therapies run by leading psychiatrists that use thoughts/emotions understanding. I will concede the concept of the will can come before and after emotional reaction but it is all dependent on what is perceived as the will.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Thank you all for your patience with me as I explore the logic behind most of this. In the end I can agree with the whole concept, though not totally because there obviously needs to be an improvement in psychological understanding, the measurable practices of social acceptances and stances.

Though some may think my view is from a religious stand point, it is not, I am not a religious man (Christian for sure, but not religious - there is a difference)and all my views and position are made based on social justice and social well being, so that is why I ask questions. Even if they go unanswered I suppose in a way they are answered.

One day the argument in place will be stronger or perhaps more robust but it does have to go through some maturity first, like all concepts. One of these factors is only adjusting how, or the change in the language used, to deliver the core principles.

I have learned much these last couple of days and I thank you again.

Remember, it will be people like me, the not so bright you will have to sell the whole idea to in the end.

GTChristie said...

To believe emotions create will, or even thought is very 1980s...

Yeah, that's actually also very 1750s through 1920s too.

Even the idea of "the will" as anything other than an illusion is suspect, going back almost 2000 years. A few years ago Francis Crick announced he had found the location of "free will" in the brain. What he actually identified was the fact that before one is conscious of a decision, the brain pre-charges to execute it. The decision itself remains elusive. And I think that's because "willing" is a metaphor. Francis Crick, chasing a metaphor. I laughed until I cried. Especially since I don't believe there is such an identifiable thing as "willing" and Crick (who should be a skeptic) got tangled up in it.

You really are not such a bad philosopher, Rob. You have the instinct and the interest, you do think hard and the rest is just a matter of style.

Some of us went to school for this stuff for 7 or 8 years and get a bit flaky when we see a long-standing standard definition mangled.

Proof that anyone can be a philosopher: everyone is.

Richard Wein said...


"RichardW: it is quite strange evolutionary to say that just because the function of an organism is self-propagation, the function of each part of that organism is to propagate such organisms. Rather, the parts contribute to the function of the organism by having other functions."

I'm not saying that self-propagation is _the_ function of eyes (for example). I'm saying that it's _a_ function of eyes, the ultimate function. (And by self-propagation I really mean propagation of similar eyes, not propagation of the whole organism, but of course the eyes can't exist without the rest of the organism.) The more proximate function of eyes is seeing, which contributes to self-propagation. There are also intermediate functions, like helping the organism find food, avoid predators, etc. It seems reasonable to me to think of functions being nested in this way, with more proximate functions supporting functions which depend on them. We can think of a hammer as being both for driving nails and for making things, with the former function supporting the latter.

It's quite common (though some people don't like it) to describe genes as "selfish". They're selfish in the sense that they tend to propagate themselves, and they evolve to be better at propagating themselves. It makes sense to think of adaptive traits as being selfish in the same way. Genes produce adaptive traits, which in turn assist in the propagation of the same genes. So we can think of adaptive traits as being genes' way of propagating themselves, or think of genes as adaptive traits' way of propagating themselves.

No doubt this way of looking at things seems strange at first. But it makes sense.

"So, the idea about morality is that it performs (has performed) a function (making coordination problems less common and easier to solve) that tends (tended) to contribute to the fitness of human beings capable of having a morality."

I think you're missing my main point, which was that we need to distinguish between the function morality _has_ performed and the function we _want_ it to perform. The rational moral system for us to choose is the one that best performs the function we want it to perform. By analogy, if we were designing new eyes for ourselves, it would be rational to design eyes which are good for reading, driving cars, etc, rather than eyes which are good for avoiding predators.

Richard Wein said...


I think the problem is Russell's use of the term "moral authority" (and related terms like "moral advisor"). It seems by this he means an authority on what moral system would best serve a given set of goals (and perhaps also on what our goals actually are). But this is very different from how most people would understand the term.

It seems to me Russell is reducing morality to a matter of practical advice, without completely letting go of the illusion of moral truth as people generally understand it, i.e. as prescriptions that we are obligated to follow regardless of whether they serve our own goals.

Russell Blackford said...

Bear in mind, folks, that the paper was written before our recent discussions of meta-ethics and was actually about NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) - the doctrine that religion has some kind of teaching authority in matters of ethics and the meaning of life, while science has teaching authority in (but only in) matters of empirical knowledge. Part of my argument was that neither can have what we might call ultimate authority - i.e. the authority to determine our deepest values on which moral systems are based, or by which they are criticised or justified. Another part was that once we have those values in place science has at least much prospect as religion of giving us information about how we can pursue them.

This seems fairly trite to me, to be honest, but it has a real-world impact in that, if I'm correct, the NOMA principle is wrong and should not be promoted.

It wasn't meant to be a groundbreaking contribution to metaethics, though I do stand by the points that I made. It was more, I suppose, me trying yet again to nail what is wrong with NOMA. My first attempt is over here:


And publishing a chunk of it here was, I guess, just a way of jumping up to exclaim that I'd remembered that I was talking about this sort of stuff before Sam Harris. Or something like that.

Russell Blackford said...

Anyway, keep the discussion going. This is all good stuff.

I hope it's now clear what I had in mind by moral authority. I.e. it's clear that I meant something a bit vague but quite familiar. ;)

The context was the claimed "magisterium" of the Church: its supposedly God-given authority to teach us what to do and how to live. The fact that such bodies make such claims is a pretty important practical issue.

I was kind of prescinding from questions about whether any of that involves claims of ultimate moral oomph. I.e., I did not mean by "moral authority" the kind of ultimate, inescapable, objective, non-institutional reasons for action that morality itself purports to give (which moral judgments assert as part of their semantic content) if we believe, say, Richard Joyce. The expression "moral authority" could certainly have that meaning in a discussion of realism versus anti-realism, or of moral semantics, or of moral error theory, but the paper was not about those sorts of questions.

Or have I misunderstood the point being made by the metaethicists on the thread?

GTChristie said...

to Russell:
"Moral authority" as a term did set me off. LOL. Probably there should be some handy term that denotes "ability to inform" without connoting "power to decree" -- ie, a milder word than "authority" in describing the role of reason vs faith vs intuition vs whatever in forming a moral framework. "Authority" connotes a monolithic and exclusive role which it seems (from your clarification) you did not intend.

A Bit of a Rant
I say philosophy is what is done when people discuss these issues and yet sometimes I detect in various comments a restricted (even sometimes dismissive) view of philosophy, as if only certain types of questions are properly philosophical while others must be answered some other way. (Yari made a comment along the way that seems to put philosophy in a box like that: "this is philosophy, that's science." Wellll... maybe.

While philosophy cannot DO science and IS not faith, it's what people are actually doing as we deliberate the meanings and merits of various ideas. Yet philosophy gets roped off sometimes by those who seem to think of it as an institution (or just a tradition). It is much wider than that for those who (like me) think of it as an activity more than a domain or field. My take: Philosophy goes everywhere and is done by everyone.

When a scientist forms testable theories, gathers observations, designs experiments to validate theories and analyzes data, she is doing science. At the moment when that activity moves over to interpretation of findings (distinct from analysis of data), expressing "what it means in the real world" rather than within its own theoretical context, she is doing philosophy. (That's my boundary statement -- LOL.)

People who think of philosophy as a roped off institution also tend to claim their interpretative exercises as still "within specialty" (considering them part of data analysis). Then let "philosophers" fight over what it all means to "philosophy." As if philosophy is just a consumer, not a producer or processor, of information. The specialist theologian, biologist, astrophysicist etc often does not see herself as a philosopher when purveying the interpretation.

I draw philosophy's circle much larger -- beyond the well understood (traditional) definitions. At minimum, wherever "interpretations" occur, if/when they are not domain-specific (theology, biology, sociology, neurology etc) and are also discussed for their significance outside that discipline, that is clearly philosophizing. Scientists and theologians, on this view, do much more philosophy than is typically recognized. Not all philosophy is done by philosophers.

[Until there is a recognizable science "ethicology," my caveat to that statement is: presently if you do ethics, you are a philosopher. You've selected in.]

Stephen Hawking, for instance, remarking on "the mind of God" (thus using a cultural, rather than scientific, metaphor) is clearly outside his formal discipline at the time, legitimately translating his own domain into terms of the culture at large. That is a welcome activity. He is perfectly justified in showing how his findings are relevant to our daily lives (and metaphors). But it is too often not recognized that he is doing philosophy right then, not science. The line occurs where he steps away from his specialty and "interprets" its significance for the surrounding culture. That's fairly easy to recognize. And I call that philosophy.

"Philosophy matters because philosophy is what is done."

GTChristie said...

Given that view on my part, I get a bit testy when a clearly philosophical essay nowhere acknowledges philosophy as the activity in hand. If it's interpretive of theology, biology, astrophysics (etc), it's philosophy. No wonder some people think philosophy is useless. They don't even know when they're doing it. LOL.

I will always hold out for a dominant (alpha lead) role for philosophy in ethics. Here I stand. (Notice I did not call it "moral authority.")

Even if there were a science called "ethicology," once its findings were in, it would remain a philosophical exercise to interpret significance or meaning for the wider culture. Frankly I'm irritated, then, when some article on ethics proceeds for pages without mentioning the discipline, especially if the terms in use have technical meanings within philosophy, many worked out over generations and some across thousands of years, rich literature unacknowledged. Arrrgh. Grumble grumble. But maybe that's just me.

Now, Back to Our Scheduled Show
I would love to think that nothing (institutional) has "moral authority" (in the strong sense) other than reason itself.

I don't know if that makes me old-fashioned or new-fashioned, but I've noticed that seems radical to some people.

Ahem. Clarification noted, Russell. Actually we're all getting somewhere.

Becoming Gaia said...

Let's see if I can get GTChristie's head to explode . . . . :-)

Philosophy, properly practiced, is but the science of thought for science (and the scientific method) is just our thoughts for exploring the world.

And I hope that GTChristie doesn't believe that I don't believe that I'm practicing philosophy. What else would my silly degree be for?

NewEnglandBob said...

Those practicing philosophy should keep on practicing, so they can get it right! :) :)

Becoming Gaia said...

GTChristie said "Unless Hume was wrong, there are no prescriptive moral facts, period -- religious or scientific.

No. Hume merely said "oughts" can not ultimately be derived from reason alone without that element of desire. But we do have that element of desire so we should be able to derive "oughts" from reason alone.

GTChristie challenged "Show me one and I will show you how you are confusing meta-ethical facts with practical prescriptions (as crude relativists do, for instance)."

OK. How about "You ought to do that which fulfills your goals/desires (in order to full your goals/desires)". Is that not simultaneously a tautology, a meta-ethical fact, and a practical prescription? Where's my confusion?

Becoming Gaia said...

New England Bob - Is that like practicing safe sex?

Becoming Gaia said...

Russell said "We could say that that's its function (analogous to the function of the hammer to drive nails of a certain kind, etc.). But it's not as if we deliberately created it with that precise function. It arose in a more ramshackle way than that. Even if it fills that function in the way societies operate, there's still a question as to what we want it to do and whether we can improve it for that purpose. There's always a level that goes beyond the facts to raise questions about our values."

Which is precisely my point. Unknowingly, we have converged towards a function that best satisfies our desires (that function being "maximally satisfy my desires") -- but we certainly haven't converged that closely . . . yet.

NewEnglandBob said...

"Is that like practicing safe sex?"

Sure it is. If you do it enough then there will be some instance where one can no longer become pregnant* or pick up a disease*.


Robert N Stephenson said...

For anything to really take shape of form it does rely on the individual interpretation of the view or position put before them.

For every 1 million people you will have at least 1 million variations of the concept being presented. Regardless of how you do look at the structure of morality it really is being applied to a fluid that is always moving and always working through moments of murkiness to clean and back again.

whether it is a religious based morality or this alternative through science it will always shift from mind to mind like a Chinese whisper.

The only real way to treat this fluid world of minds is to remain flexible in thought and be prepared to follow ebbs and flows from time to time. To be rigid is to be a paper boat on the surface just waiting to be water logged and sink.

GTChristie said...
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GTChristie said...

I left out a step in this argument:
[If] "you ought to do things that fulfill your desires," then Ted Bundy is justified in saying "I desire to do [whatever it was] to women."

Rephrase to correct:

[If] "you ought to do things that fulfill your desires," then Ted Bundy can say "I desire to do [whatever it was] to women" and then conclude he ought to do [whatever].

GTChristie said...

[Reposting with some corrections]

OK. How about "You ought to do that which fulfills your goals/desires (in order to full your goals/desires)". Is that not simultaneously a tautology, a meta-ethical fact, and a practical prescription?

Thanks for the "challenge." I think everyone here now will get a chance to see whether good old fashioned fuddy duddy philosophy can still handle moral theory. LOL. And if it can't, we'll see that too.

On your moral statement:
1) Is it a tautology? Yes.
2) Is it a meta-ethical fact? No.
3) Is it a practical prescription? Yes.

Why is the answer "No" to #2?

a) To be meta-ethical, the statement would have to be a fact about ethics (describing what ethics is). It is not clear that "ought to fulfill desires" belongs among the facts that describe what ethics is. Unless you reformulate it so this prescription is a fact about ethics, the statement is not meta-ethical.

b) An "ought" is not a fact. To state a prescription as a fact is to assume that which you are trying to prove. (That's why your statement overall is a tautology.)

c) If an "ought" could be a fact, then every prescription known to humanity could be a premise (see b, above) rather than a conclusion. If "don't kill people" (ex nihilo, without other argumentation) can be a premise in ethics, then so can "kill everyone" be a premise. Unless ethics is about "anything goes," (LOL: some people think it is!) I fail to see how "ought as a premise" leads to anything useful, much less to anything reliably good.

d) Even if all the above were not the case and you can stipulate as a fact about ethics OR as a premise in moral theory (which is actually the domain you're in, by the way, not meta-ethics) OR as a practical prescription that "you ought to do things that fulfill your desires," then Ted Bundy can say "I desire to do [whatever it was] to women" and then conclude he ought to do [whatever]. He really did sincerely and deeply desire that and did not think it was wrong. If we toss out all the distinctions inherent in (a)-(c) above, we cannot argue against desires most people would object to. ("Damn the philosophers! Hang 'em! That's just wrong!) And nobody could ever be morally right (I suspect) Y'see.

Maybe you could fix all that. But that's not what you asked.

Now to counter such objections, you might be able to re-define meta-ethics. [My definition is simple: "the philosophy about what ethics is" -- what is yours?].

OR you could create a sufficient moral theory, univerally true in all times and places, that begins with some (scientific -- that's what you're after here, right?) proof that "fulfillment of desires" IS (not "ought to be") one of the primary "goods" or "values" in ethics, statable as a fact -- demonstrable. (Hint: your problem here is not with desires, which do exist, but with fulfillment -- is that a fact? Or a value?)

OR you could take all the moral thought of the last 2500 years, show how some theories that contradict yours are false, and then demonstrate that "fulfillment of desires" is in itself morally commendable -- always.

I don't think you're there yet.

No you can't make my head explode. LOL.

On any assessment of confusion on your part ... I decline. After all, you could be onto something and we just haven't seen the convincing argument(s). Yet. =)

GTChristie said...

GTChristie said "Unless Hume was wrong, there are no prescriptive moral facts, period -- religious or scientific.

No. Hume merely said "oughts" can not ultimately be derived from reason alone without that element of desire. But we do have that element of desire so we should be able to derive "oughts" from reason alone.

The problem with desires is, they are not always good. So the bit you state here must be qualified by something more about desires (as in, how to choose or evaluate which desires are good and which are not). Theoretically what you say is correct: IF a desire can be qualified as good, that would provide an element of desire which informs our reason and we might be able to deduce a moral prescription from it. The problem again is how to qualify a desire as good. Conundrum.

Hume's being correct about the is/ought problem is what I referred to there. IF there ARE real moral facts, then we can deduce moral conclusions from them -- and his is/ought problem disappears. In that sense, he would have to be wrong about the derivability of "ought" from "is." What he pointed out was, in all of his reading, none of the facts he had seen in moral arguments contained any moral premises. That's all he actually said. But when people began looking for moral facts -- truly empirical facts with moral dimensions built-in -- nobody could find any. So his objection stands. If anyone finds any, that will change the picture. So, unless he was wrong, there is no "ought" from "is." But everyone so far has proven he was correct -- especially GE Moore, who determined that entities cannot have a physical property called "good" which would be necessary to derive a morally good prescription from a fact.

Familiarity with that bit of history would make my statement above more intelligible. I admit it's a shorthand for all of the above -- a bad habit of mine, to assume everybody brings the same understanding of phi history to the conversation. My bad.

Philosophers often forget how simple the is/ought objection actually was, to start with. Even my own shorthand statement above subscribes to the idea that he actually meant "NO ought from is." He, himself, only pointed out we would need a moral is, to derive from it a moral ought. And again, the problem he raised (by implication) was to find a moral is. In 270 years so far, nobody has produced one.

I think he was onto something.

Roger said...

"God wills us to do something because it's God's nature.... But what if God wills us to murder and rape? We're not going to say that murder and rape are good; we're going to say that this is an evil God, or a God with an evil nature. "

However, murder and rape are not good by definition: murder is the illegal killing of another human being; rape is illegal forced sexual intercourse. God can- and according to some religions does- give believers the right to kill people or to force people to have sexual intercourse with them perfectly legally. If god is good by definition and god authorises something then it is good by definition and it obviously cannot be murder or rape in such instances.

Russell Blackford said...

Actually, the elements of rape and murder can easily be stated with no assumptions about whether they are good or bad. In common law countries there are definitions from case law and from statutes which do exactly that. There are also commonsense definitions (which the law more or less tracks and tries to spell out).

E.g., rape can be defined as having sex with a woman in circumstances where she is not consenting and a reasonable person would realise she is not consenting. Murder can be defined as intentionally killing a human being (defined as someone who has been born) in all but a specified range of circumstances (warfare, self-defence, execution according to law, etc.). Even if there are marginal cases, the paradigm examples are clear.

It's then a separate issue whether these things are banned within a legal jurisdiction or forbidden by a society's moral norms.

When we talk about whether God might demand that we murder and rape, we're usually talking about something like the above. We're not talking about whether God might demand that we murder and rape in some sense that God at the same time proscribes. Why would anyone want to talk about that? Sure it would involve God saying something incoherent, but there's nothing incoherent about the idea of a being with all the attributes of God demanding (and not proscribing) murder and rape, as defined by common sense. God can do that unless God is defined as having the property "good" and this is defined in terms of some standard external to God's approval.

All of which confirms that our concept of goodness is prior to our concept of "approved by God". If God approved of murder and rape, and demanded that we do it, we wouldn't say that murder and rape are good. We'd say that we're stuck in a universe with an evil God.

Of course that raises questions of moral semantics and moral realism. But the one thing we can be sure of is that God's approval is not our concept of goodness. It might be a proxy if we knew enough about God, but that's all.

Roger said...

"the elements of rape and murder can easily be stated with no assumptions about whether they are good or bad... It's then a separate issue whether these things are banned within a legal jurisdiction or forbidden by a society's moral norms."
Except that some religions say that their social norms- which are god's orders and so unquestionably good universal norms- should be the basis for legal jurisdiction. Once you make that assumption- as both christianity and islam do- the definitions of rape and murder follow from that assumption. Both are sure that God's approval is their concept of goodness. Both rest on the presupposition that "god is good" and "god knows best". As a result, many christians and muslims thought killing a believer for their beliefs was murder, killing a nonbeliever for their beliefs was not and used that as a practical basis for their behaviour.

NewEnglandBob said...

Yes, Roger, Christians and Muslims do think that but they are dead wrong, and, as quite often shown, they are acting without real morals.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Roger, Christians haven't been on the bandwagon of Christian based laws for a very long time - and it was show quite a few times that Christian based legal systems do not actually work - there is evidence to show that.

Even the Christian Democrats (I think that was them) in Italy failed this kind of rule when they were in power a few years back.

It is now growing as a wide belief amongst Christians that the faith has nothing to do with law and rule and that it is best separated from the state, as the two in unison have again and again failed to deliver adequate policy and even living conditions.

Some countries are still trying in the Christian sense, but history is clear on the failures. And Christian haven't called for non believer deaths since around 1400s or so (no a prescibed rule anyway)

Islamic views are different again, and not they have not had any reformations - (readjustments so it can take account of how the modern world thinks), so it holds on to some really ancient law and rule ideas.

Burt to be honest I can't speak on Muslim beliefs for obvious reasons. And the Christian area I speak on isn't as wide as I'd like, but it does need to be clear that atheists in many areas actually do have some Christian support -- now that is a weird state of affairs regardless of beliefs