Saturday, October 11, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, CHPT 6.

It's a week late, but it's here.

I found this one of the most interesting chapters of the book, despite the fact that I knew much of what was in it already. Dawkins very effectively marshals much of the recent empirical work that has be done on the evolutionary roots of morality in order to refute the silly, but widespread, view that without religion society will quickly degenerate into a seething cesspool of depravity.

Many of the points Dawkins makes here I also make in The War For Children's Minds. He includes some that I don't, and vice verse

For example, I didn't include the Hauser/Singer work, and Dawkins does not attempt to deal with that very popular move - "The only reason Western civilization has not collapsed without religion is that the moral capital has not run out yet." I discuss the "moral capital" move - as used by U.S. neo-cons and the Bishop of Oxford - here.

I suppose I should provide at least one criticism of the chapter, or anticipate one that might be made. So here goes.

At the end, Dawkins says:

The springboard for this discussion of moral philosophy was the hypothetical claim that without a God, morals are relative and arbitrary. (p.267)

In fact, surprisingly, this chapter never deals with the objection that, without God, morals are relative and arbitrary.

Yes, it gives a causal explanation of why we have the moral attitudes and beliefs we do, which I am sure has much truth to it.

But the "springboard" issue - that without God, morals are relative and arbitrary - really turns on the questions: (i) are our moral beliefs are really true (rather than false, or meaningless, or whatever)? (ii), if so, what makes our moral beliefs true? and (ii) what grounds have we for believing them true?

Dawkins's causal story leaves these three questions pretty much unanswered.

It's one thing to explain causally why someone believes killing is wrong, quite another to explain how killing is wrong is or can be true (given, say, a purely naturalistic world view like Dawkins's), yet another to explain what grounds there might be for supposing killing is wrong is true.

Dawkins's critics will insist you need God to explain the latter two things, and that without God, there can be no genuine moral truth or moral knowledge. They will want to see Dawkins provide alternative, non-religious answers.

Trouble is, Dawkins does not bother to supply any such answers. And yet, at the end of the chapter, he seems to think has has (see the above quote). He thinks he is tackling the "springboard" issue.

That's odd (Dawkins may be muddling reasons and causes here [see part two of this essay]).

Note that Dawkins's causal story is actually compatible with a range of answers to these questions, including, I suspect the standard religious one.

What do you think?

POST SCRIPT at 15.53 11.10.08: To put this all into a soundbite: Dawkins answers the question, "Will we be good without God?" whereas the "springboard" challenge is "Can there be good without God?"

61 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

You know what I think.

Using "arbitrary" is a move designed to let the reader equivocate between subjective (a property of a mind or minds) and capricious (trivial or easily changeable).

And I've talked before about the vacuity of relativism. Relative to what?

The "arbitrary and relative" move just muddies the discourse: according to the minded God theory, morality is just as "arbitrary" and "relative" as it is under meta-ethical subjective relativism. Morality is just God's arbitrary choices, and moral truth is relative to God's mind.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I don't think Dawkins can do much better here. He at least explains why we have the moral beliefs that we have; in this case, causes are the only reasons we can have.

Tony Lloyd said...

I found this chapter both the weakest and the most revealing of the book. As you point out Dawkins aim in the chapter is to answer the theistic challenge to show a basis to morality. The “basis challenge” is nonsense, yet instead of saying that it is nonsense Dawkins tries to meet it.

If torturing babies is wrong and you and I both believe that torturing babies is wrong then you and I both believe correctly. We believe correctly dependent on whether or not torturing babies is wrong and totally independently of why we believe torturing babies is wrong, or how (and whether) we know torturing babies is wrong. the hypothetical claim that without a God, morals are relative and arbitrary relies on conflating P and our basis for believing P.

- “If we decide whether to believe P then belief in P depends on us” is necessarily true, but trite.

- “If we decide whether to believe P then P depends on us” is more often than not rubbish. Whether I believe that Everton will win their next game (“yes”) depends on me, Everton winning their next game does not depend on me.

Expanding the "basis challenge" to reveal the underlying argument we get:

1. Without an external authority decisions about morality depend on us
2. If “decisions about morality” depend on us then “morality per se” depends on us
3. Intermediate conclusion: without an external authority morality depends on us
4. God is the only external authority
5. Conclusion: without God morality depends on us.

The second premise is junk (and, incidentally, assumes relativism) and thus the intermediate conclusion is junk. Yet Dawkins tries to argue against line 4. Why?

Perhaps he is looking at the argument cast in a pragmatic way:

1. Without an external authority decisions about morality depend on us
2. If “decisions about morality” depend on us then we will behave contrary to morality
3. Intermediate conclusion: without an external authority we will behave contrary to morality.
4. God is the only external authority
5. Conclusion: without God we will behave contrary to morality.

But here, once again, the second premise is junk: this time it is empirically contradicted. The intermediate conclusion is junk: yet, again, Dawkins argues against the fourth premise.

Why does Dawkins argue as if the intermediate conclusion is true? Because Dawkins believes the intermediate conclusion is true: his views are just as authoritarian as those of theists he is arguing against. Here he just matches his “scientific” views in discussing morality:

1. Without an external authority decisions of fact depend on us
2. If “decisions of fact” depend on us then facts depend on us
3. If facts depend on us then they are not facts (in the sense of being objectively true or false)
4. Intermediate conclusion: without an external authority facts do not exist
5. Science is the only external authority
6. Conclusion: outside of science there are no facts

In all his writings Dawkins is not arguing against authoritarian dogmatism: he is just arguing that his authoritarian dogmatism is right.

Joe Otten said...

Tony, you may be right.

Stephen, it seems that to deal with the "springboard issue" you have to nail your colours to the mast of a particular ethical system, whether that be classical utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, some sort of virtue ethics, some sort of biblical deontology or whatever. Or even a null-ethical system such as non-cognivitism or egoism would do this.

Once you do this, the issue is resolved trivially. Your ethical statements are true, or false (or meaningless) according to your choice. But isn't this a sleight of hand? Which ethical system is true? Which is good? Each asserts itself to be true and good, and so there is nothing but an arbitrary choice to be made between them?

So are we stuck with the charge of arbitrariness, even if we have dealt with the charge of relativism?

I don't see how we can be so stuck. Of the various ethical systems, some are intelligent and compassionate, and some are total rubbish. So this clearly isn't an arbitrary choice.

My guess is that the reason we struggle with this point, is that ultimately our understanding of the concept of good is not based on a definition, but learned by example, and by reference to particular kinds of emotion. Ethical systems trade on this infantile understanding, and try to refine it in one way or another. But the basic meaning of the word good, is no more arbitrary than the meaning of the word table - which is also learned by example rather than definition.

And perhaps this does mean that ethics can be illuminated by looking at its causal influences - in evolutionary psychology, etc.

David B. Ellis said...

My view of morality is that its basis is subjective but nonarbitrary. Much of the confusion about meta-ethics results, it seems to me, from the mistaken equation of subjective with arbitrary.

To give a mundane and obvious illustration, if I touch a red hot burner on the stove I'm going to feel intense agony.

Is it a "bad" thing to experience agony? Something I should disvalue?

Certainly, and its precisely because of the subjective content of the experience that agony is to be disvalued---to look for an "objective" reason, something outside the intrinsic qualities of the experience itself, is absurd.

But its precisely this mistake theists make in requiring an external "objective" basis for morality.

Moral qualities, love, compassion, courage, temperance, and the like, are to be valued precisely because of what it is like to live life as an individual imbued with these qualities and what it is like for a group to be a society of individuals of this sort.

The basis of morality rests firmly on living experience (subjectivity) and there is no firmer ground for it to be found. To look for the basis of morality elsewhere is like a man frantically searching all over the house for his glasses and failing to find them because he's wearing them.

Of course, the obvious question then is: how do we decide moral disputes when two individuals, in their "living subjective experience" disagree on a moral issue?

I think some version of ideal observer theory provides us with the best tool for doing so. We approach closer to moral insight to the degree that we cultivate knowledge of the facts relevent to a moral question, an understanding of the subjective content of the possible attitudes and perspectives possible to different people on the issue, and the highest degree of objectivity one can obtain on the issue.

Obviously, no one perfectly embodies such an ideal state and so people will disagree---but to the degree that they develop these traits their moral views will tend to converge toward a similar conception of the right. The right being, according to this theory, those values which would be held by individuals perfectly embodying the ideal observer.

Anyway, that's the take I currently have on meta-ethics. Always subject to revision as I think and learn more.

David B. Ellis said...


In fact, surprisingly, this chapter never deals with the objection that, without God, morals are relative and arbitrary.


Given that the Euthyphro dilemma demonstrates that attempts to base morality on God's will or character are arbitrary, he's, at worst, no worse off than than they.

Though he should at least have pointed that fact out.

I find it hard to criticize anyone for not have solved the puzzle of meta-ethics---I don't think any of us have. At best we have partial, incomplete insights on the issue.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I think the subject of morality and ethics can be best understood in the context of social psychology.

On the subject of God’s role, Hugh Mackay, in his book, 'Right & Wrong; how to decide for yourself', provides a good argument on why morality based on God is flawed. Keep in mind that this is a ‘sound-bite’ from a lengthy and detailed discussion: ‘…since human beings are capable of devising their own moral codes: when religion claims the credit, this can easily lead to rigidity and zealotry based on the ideas that certain acts are right only because they are the will of God.’

There’s a couple of things I would like to comment on from a social psychology perspective. I've lived most of my life in Australia and there is a marked difference in behaviour towards strangers in country Australia and suburban Australia – I’ve lived in both for lengthy periods. In the country, people are much more trusting and friendly; in the city, there’s more coldness towards others, which is distinctly noticeable. I put this down to the fact that you can easily die in outback Australia if you become lost or isolated and the people who live there know that even if a stranger doesn’t. But the other factor is that there is a stronger social network and people who break someone’s trust simply don’t benefit from it unless they quickly leave town. I don’t think this is unique to Australia – I think anywhere, where people live in isolated communities, they are more aware of their interdependence. It’s just that, in Oz, it’s obvious by its juxtaposition to city life.

The other factor, when Dawkins was discussing Dostoevsky, is that some people still seem to believe that we are inherently selfish and so require reward and punishment to remain moral – hence the need for an ‘external authority’. In truth, we become socially isolated if we don’t conform to social norms of behaviour, irrespective of religious beliefs. There are people in positions of power or authority, even some celebrities, who can sometimes behave this way, but they are rare. For most of us, the fundamental need to have friends and social contacts creates its own altruism. Of course this doesn’t explain ingroup-ougroup behaviour, which is the real cause of evil, but that’s another topic.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

By the way, David B. Ellis: I like your art work.

Regards, Paul.

terence said...

On a related note, Massimo has an interesting post about cultural evolution and religion/morality:
http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/

Ken said...

I don't get to determine the value of the pound myself. Perhaps god does it.

Geert Arys said...

Of course, there is no "good" and "evil" without God. Both terms are hypothetical words defined in function of a hypothetical God.

If a society without God can show as much justice and be as peaceful as a religious one? If a human being still has a conscience without belief?

Of course they can. Do the theists have any proof of the contrary?

I must even say, religious societies and people did not put as much as a moral standard to reach, historically speaking.

Kyle S said...

If the only explanation of morality is a purely causal one, then we have no reason to accept it.

Evolution selects for survival not for 'good' moral agents. Would we expect a morality based on survival to be a good one?

Also, why think it is the best, or even near the best? We use reason all the time to challenge the conventions that evolution set up like our poor ability to do probability etc... We also apply our reasoning in technology to increase our survival through fertility treatment, life saving surgery, drugs. Why not think that we could come up with a far better morality?

Psiomniac said...

kyle s,

Suppose a plausible evolutionary explanation could be given for morality. You say that we would have no reason to accept it. By 'it' I presume you mean morality itself rather than the explanation, since if it were plausible and supported by the available evidence then we ought to accept such an explanation.

But why should a causal explanation of something impinge on our acceptance of that thing in use? It is as if you were saying that as soon as the evolutionary psychologists give a full causal account of language, people will not want to communicate any more.

You might reply that you were careful to stipulate that this would arise only if the causal explanation were the only one available. But why would it be? The mode of explanation required depends on the question you are trying to answer. If you look for a causal explanation for the origin of morality, that is what you might find but why should it provide a reason to be moral? 'Why should I follow a given moral code?' is a completely different question.

You also put forward a false dichotomy when you say "Evolution selects for survival not for 'good' moral agents." Why not both? Perhaps survival in cooperating groups is greatly enhanced by making good moral agents.

Could we do it better? well, in general despite the examples you cite, evolution is smarter than we are.

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

I only read this book when it came out but a comment David B. Ellis reminds me of a thought I had, I hope my recollection of this is not too hazy.

I note that Dawkins barely touched on the most basic challenge to "religious morality" (yes I know it that an oxymoron) namely the Euthyphro Dillemma.I recall this received a treatment of a couple of lines and was not even labeled as Euthyphro. I always thought this an odd omission although there is no reason for any writer to exhaustively cover all the objections to god, but still it is a very basic one.

Perhaps, as I can read into what some commenters here are possibly implying, it is because one can apply another version of Euthyphro to Dawkin's own views of morality, even if he does not clearly state them. "Science as the only external authority" as one commenter mentioned. Of course Dawkins would not be so slipshod as to say 'it is good because science says so' etc. and I am sure he is aware of the is-ought distinction etc (can't remember if he discusses this though). Still much of this book does imply such a view as another commenter says he is arguing for his (Dawkin's) own version of authoritarian dogma. (When it comes to morality I think Euthyphro can defeat any version of "authoritarian dogma").

Alex said...

You put your finger on it Stephen. I was just pondering the same thing in relation to Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell."

Kyle s said...

I'm not saying that either our morality is aimed at 'good' or at survival, I am claiming that a causal explanation in terms of evolution will be inadequate because evolution is aimed at survival, further argument needs to be made to show that the morality produced by evolution is 'good'.

Then, I claim, that in fact there is good reason to suppose that we should simply ignore it. Evolution does not produce the best. Humans have reached nowher near perfecftion in rationality, so why expect that we have reached some kind of high point in morality.

I'm not saying that if you give a causal explanation of morality that people will stop making moral judgements, but that any moral judgements that are explained in terms of evolution will fail to hold sway. Why think that evolution would bring about a 'good' morality? This relates to the whle is-ought problem, that has already been mentioned. Just because it is the case that evolution has supplied us with this morality, it doesn't mean that we should continue to practice it. To relate that back to language, it simply means that it is not a good argument to claim that we should communicate in a certain way simply because evolution has designed us to communicate that way.

Psiomniac said...

kyle s,

From my perspective, you seem to be attacking a straw man.

You say that a causal explanation in terms of evolution will be inadequate. This misses the point of my initial reply to you.

Such an explanation would be adequate to the task, which is explaining what the evolutionary origins of the cognitive predispositions that lead to morality are.

You want to conflate this task with another quite different one. This is to answer questions like: 'How do we find the best moral system?', or 'why should we follow what morality says?'.

I think your position is based on something like a category error.
The straw man element is this: you are arguing against attempting to answer questions that can only have meaning within a value system from outside the system. You correctly note that this runs up against is/ought. The trouble is, nobody here is making such an attempt.

If you want to find out where morality comes from or why it is that we see the forms of moral systems we do, then evolution, psychology, anthropology, game theory and so on might have a lot to say. If you want to answer the question of whether abortion is wrong, then you have to do so within some moral framework.

The thought that you can somehow decide on the best moral framework from a perspective outside of such a framework is problematic isn't it?

David B. Ellis said...


The thought that you can somehow decide on the best moral framework from a perspective outside of such a framework is problematic isn't it?


I'm not so sure it is.

I don't have to start from the assumption that kindness and compassion are moral goods to recognize them as such.

I simply have to experience what it is like to live as and among people with these qualities and to experience what its like to live as and among people without them.

I think, though I admit its debatable, that a person would is thinking rationally and objectively about the issue, with the ability to experience or at least imagine to a high degree what both ways of living and experiencing are like, will almost certainly conclude that the loving life and the loving community are intrinsically superior ways to conduct life---even without any prior beliefs one way or the other.

I'll admit, though, that its pretty hard to put that idea to the test.

Psiomniac said...

David B. Ellis,

The trouble is that direct experience is not sufficient to establish kindness and compassion as moral goods. At best, it can establish that it is nicer to live in a community of people who are kind and compassionate. In order to conclude that these are moral goods, you have to evaluate them within a moral framework.

David B. Ellis said...

What else does it mean for something to be a moral good than for it to be the best (or at least an intrinsically worthwhile) thing to live according to?

That, at the very least, is one reasonable definition of a moral good---and one which what I described satisfies.

You may have a different concept of what constitutes a moral good (there are, I'm sure, many ways the term can be interpreted). If so, please present it so that we can compare the two different understandings of the term.

Kyle S said...

Hi psiomniac,

The original accusation is that without religion there would be no morality. The reply to this is that you can give a causal explanation of morality in terms of evolution.

However, my claim is that this sort of explanation undermines morality as a way of deciding how you should act.

Imagine this sort of senario:

There are two boats, boat A and boat B. They are both sinking and for whatever reason you can only save one of them.

Boat A contains your twin brother and noone else. Boat B contains some five people who are from somewhere very far away and not at all closely related to you.

Which should you save?

There are lots of possible arguments one could make. One of these arguments goes something like this: Boat A contains my twin brother so there is a lot of my dna on that boat. Evolution has so engineered me to have a morality that seeks to preserve my genetic material because this contributes to our survival, therefore I should save my brother.

For the purposes of this example it doesn't matter what the right thing to do is, what I am interested in is the argument. Surely this would be a bad argument. Surely someone who was there would reply that just because evolution has tended to produce this sort of behaviour it doesn't mean you should act that way. The argument is irrelevant because it is not a good way of deciding how to act.

This is why causal explanations of morality are inadequate because they only tell why people have acted in certain ways in the past, not why you should, or how you should, act in the future.

Psiomniac said...

David B. Ellis,

You said:"What else does it mean for something to be a moral good than for it to be the best (or at least an intrinsically worthwhile) thing to live according to?"
As you go on to imply, there are lots of mutually incompatible conceptions of what constitutes a moral good, for example I can't see that an adherent of virtue ethics has the same conception of moral goods as a utilitarian for example.

The point is, in your scenario you are not deciding what is a moral good from a privileged position outside of all moral frameworks. Rather you are taking elements of experience as being partially constitutive of your moral framework. Others, perhaps of a Nietzschian persuasion, might disagree with you about kindness and compassion.

Psiomniac said...

kyle s,

I don't know how many different ways I can say it. A causal explanation of morality in terms of evolution is not an answer to questions about what you ought to do. I think that's a category error. You might as well try to derive the laws of thermodynamics via the medium of music.

On your boat example, according to my moral system, you should save boat B, though I couldn't guarantee I would do so were I facing that scenario.

Now, I think it quite likely that morality, like language, is forged from the interaction of culture on our evolutionary heritage. I think the same is true about our concepts of romantic love. I don't think any of these things would alter significantly if a full evolutionary explanation were given.

So if you ask me why I think you should save boat B, my answer will be in terms of my moral framework. It won't step outside of it to look at why or how moral frameworks arise. So irrespective of what I think the right thing to do is, I agree with you that an appeal to evolution would be a bad argument. Your position seems to boil down to an injunction to avoid the naturalistic fallacy. But I don't see anybody violating is/ought round here, do you?

So although theoretical evolutionary explanations might be important and might be a valid consideration in influencing our moral thinking, it is the wrong level of description for the questions you are asking in my view.

Kyle S said...

psiomniac,

I'm not sure what you are saying.

Are you saying that your moral framework tells you what to do and why to do it? And then, that evolution only explains why you have that moral framework not the what to do and why to do it?

I may be wrong to attribute this view to you, but if I am not, then aren't you just shifting my criticism. My criticism won't undermine your reason for acting in a certain way, but it will undermine your reason for choosing a certain moral framework.

Psiomniac said...

kyle s,

Firstly, the likelihood that a full causal explanation of my particular moral system could be given in terms of evolution is low in my view. It would be like trying to explain why somebody spoke in a particular dialect at some point in history in terms of evolutionary theory alone.

Secondly, I suppose what I am saying is that I don't understand your criticism. It seems to point out that a given class of answers is inadequate for a given set of questions. I agree with you, but point out that I can't see anybody around who thinks that this class of answers refers to those questions.

Let me try another analogy. You could ask: 'why did she play an F# over that C9 chord?'. You could then point out that an explanation that said that a pair of sympathetic muscles operated in her finger as she placed it over that key is inadequate. Even a full physical description of her body system that yielded a causal explanation in terms of physics and biology would be inadequate if the answer required is in terms of music theory.

wombat said...

Kyle S.

You said - "The original accusation is that without religion there would be no morality."

I dont think that was precisely it. As Stephen re-iterated it is

"the "springboard" issue - that without God, morals are relative and arbitrary"

It seems quite possible to have a God (performing whatever function) without religion.
Indeed as far as evidence in RD's book is concerned, religion seems very often to be something of an obstacle to moral behavior. Witness the statistics on prison populations, the numerous infractions of individual clergy, the systemic immorality that seems to be practiced by several religious denominations. That's before we consider the historical back catalogue of pogroms, crusades, heretic burnings and institutionalized child abuse.

it is also possible, as Buddhists have shown, to have a religion of sorts without God.

I think it is easier to argue for "God making Good possible" than "Religion making Good possible". For one thing, while you might be able to wriggle round the question of "Which God?" by claiming that God is really the same even if called Yaweh, Brahma or Allah, the distinction between religions and sects within them is tangible and often irreconcilable. So which religion is the source of morality?

David B. Ellis said...


The point is, in your scenario you are not deciding what is a moral good from a privileged position outside of all moral frameworks. Rather you are taking elements of experience as being partially constitutive of your moral framework.


What I'm pointing out is that its possible (at least in principle) for one to start from an unbiased, completely objective position and arrive at moral insight---one does not necessarily have to start from a set of moral assumptions (which I take to be what you mean by a "moral framework").

To illustrate, using your example of someone with Nietzschean values, a person with no prior moral assumptions, completely objective, with highly developed reasoning skills and the ability to fully imagine and understand the implications for how life is lived under my humanist values and those of the nietszche, would see one or the other as intrinsically superior.

According to ideal observer theory, the right are those values which the ideal observer (thumbnailed above) would adopt. Of course none of us are ideal observers so there will inevitably be differences of opinion on morality.

But I dont think it can be assumed, as you seem to, that morality is simply a matter of competing "moral frameworks" of no inherent difference of quality between them.

Psiomniac said...

David B. Ellis,

What I'm pointing out is that its possible (at least in principle) for one to start from an unbiased, completely objective position and arrive at moral insight
No, I don't think such a position exists, even in principle. That is why I think the construct of the ideal observer is flawed.

On the other hand I do agree with you that just because there are competing moral frameworks, it doesn't follow that they are all equally effective. I think it is important that neither of us overstates our case. I think naive relativism is just as bad as assuming we can find a rational basis for morality.

David B. Ellis said...


No, I don't think such a position exists, even in principle.


OK. Do you have an argument for that position?


I think naive relativism is just as bad as assuming we can find a rational basis for morality.


As a matter of practice, what do you consider the best way to decide what values to hold (mine being doing as much as one can to approximate, necessarily imperfectly of course, the ideal observer)?



You refer to different moral frameworks (and I'd like a definition of that term) being of varying "effectiveness". What constitutes the effectiveness of a moral system and how do you judge it? And wouldn't making such judgement constitute a rational basis for morality?

anticant said...

I do wish that people wh drag Nietzsche's name into these debates would show some signs of actually having read him!

Nietzsche's values were humanist values, and he is consistently scathing of religious delusion and hypocrisy.

Kyle S said...

psiomniac,

I think we are talking past each other. I took you to be defending RD's position, but I am not sure that is the case.

You seem to agree with the following: morality is a product of evolution.

How do you respond to the charge that this makes morality arbitrary and relative?

Kyle S said...

Hi Wombat,

I'm not claiming that religion will always make people do good things.

I am arguing against causal accounts of morality. Such causal accounts may show that people will continue to make the sorts of moral judgements that they always have, but it does not give us a reason to continue going along with it.

Once we realise that morality is a product of evolution then we have no reason to follow that morality, and we can come up with our own.

This is why some people say that a rejection of God will lead to a lack of morality because morality that stems from evolution has no authority.

It might be that humans are such that they will continue to follow this morality even in the face of this problem, but it will lead to intellectual dissatisfaction.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Kyle: Evolution selects for survival not for 'good' moral agents. Would we expect a morality based on survival to be a good one?

This is a very bad question.

What does it mean to call a moral system "good"? A moral system by definition defines good; it is a set of statements, X is good; Y is bad; etc.

Trying to evaluate the goodness of a set of statements declaring what is good presents problems of infinite regress: Whatever criteria is used to evaluate what is a good or bad moral system will either be circular or self-refuting.

But this problem of infinite regress is just as fatal (per Euthyphro) for a theistic account of morality as it is for a naturalistic, evolutionary account, so it cannot be employed to differentiate theistic from naturalistic accounts.

We are simply stuck with a philosophical bullet to bite: The foundations of morality are inescapable subjective; all moral systems fundamentally depend on the evidence of our subjective moral intuitions, not on any objective truth.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Let me try another analogy. You could ask: 'why did she play an F# over that C9 chord?'. You could then point out that an explanation that said that a pair of sympathetic muscles operated in her finger as she placed it over that key is inadequate. Even a full physical description of her body system that yielded a causal explanation in terms of physics and biology would be inadequate if the answer required is in terms of music theory.

This is simply not the case: A full physical description would include how the brain responds to sounds, the foundation of music theory.

Kyle S said...

barefoot bum,

"Would we expect a morality based on survival to be a good one?"

I recognise that there is a problem in general answering questions like this, but in this case it is not very hard because all (or at least nearly all) of the moral frameworks that people actually hold to would not recognise survival as a 'good'.

So, even if there is no objective viewpoint from which to judge what is good, we can still say that any moral framework that is a product of evolution will be undermined by its origin if it does not recognise survival as being the greatest good (which is to say, most of them).

Also, you seem to think that if our morality finds it's basis in God, then it would be just the same as if we selected a person to make up a moral framework for us. This is not the case.

The Euthyphro dilemma can be phrased something like this: Is the morality good because God declared it so, or is God good because he follows the morality.

It seems that if we go for the first option morality is a bit arbitrary, but if we go for the second then God is not really God.

However, I would like to say it is both. I don't mean this in some sort of mystical just embrace the paradox kind of way, I mean that the dilemma only works because we think God is just like us.

God is eternal and unchanging. He does not have to decide on the morality because he is eternal and his thoughts and desires are also eternal, you cannot order morality and God, which is what the dilemma requires. The Euthyphro dileema is asking us, is it God then morality or morality then God? This question doesn't make sense.

Humans are not one with their desires because we are changing, we change our minds on a whim, God is not like that. His desires are as objective, infinite, perfect and as unchanging as he is, so unlike a morality that is based on the desires of a human God's desires can be the basis of an absolute morality.

Psiomniac said...

anticant,

I do wish that people wh drag Nietzsche's name into these debates would show some signs of actually having read him!

I think it was me. Now perhaps your reading of Nietzsche is different to mine, but I certainly think it credible that some people could fairly be described as Nietzschian who would argue that a culture which embodied the norms of altruism, compassion and equality would be antithetical to the realization of human excellence.

If you look at the context of my remark than you should understand why I made it.

Nietzsche's values were humanist values, and he is consistently scathing of religious delusion and hypocrisy.
I think maybe you should consider whether it is time for you to reread Nietzsche.

Psiomniac said...

the barefoot bum
This is simply not the case: A full physical description would include how the brain responds to sounds, the foundation of music theory.
You have simply missed the point. A full physical description would contain how the brain responds in minute detail and would include its response to sounds and so on. But this would not be a useful level of description to answer a music theory question. The salient features would be buried in a mass of synapses and neuronal excitation patterns.

Psiomniac said...

david b. ellis,

OK. Do you have an argument for that position?
It seems prima facie implausible to me that you can have a being that is in principle capable of making evaluative assessments and yet not subscribe to any values. The only way that this could work seems to violate is/ought as far as I can see.

But since you are the one that proposed such a being, it is you who owes an argument.

As a matter of practice, what do you consider the best way to decide what values to hold (mine being doing as much as one can to approximate, necessarily imperfectly of course, the ideal observer)?
I think we don't decide on our values. Perhaps they can be influenced by reason and experience in a process of reciprocal redefinition, but that's probably a matter of tweaking. Although traumatic experiences could radically alter values I suppose.

You refer to different moral frameworks (and I'd like a definition of that term) being of varying "effectiveness". What constitutes the effectiveness of a moral system and how do you judge it? And wouldn't making such judgement constitute a rational basis for morality?
I'd say a moral framework is a context in which normative judgements are made. This would include a set of values and an ethical system. By this I mean a set of principles which tries to connect values to conduct.

I suppose that ethical systems can be more or less effective in their own terms-for example in how they promote their stated values. They can be consistent or inconsistent and be informed by reason in matters of fact more or less well.
This doesn't constitute a rational basis for morality though since there will be an evaluative component.

Psiomniac said...

kyle s

You seem to agree with the following: morality is a product of evolution.
I have said that I think it likely that morality arises from an interaction of culture and predispositions we have as a result of evolution.

How do you respond to the charge that this makes morality arbitrary and relative?
Not guilty.

By the way, your standard defense of Euthyphro is unconvincing in my view. The fact that god is eternal doesn't really rescue you from the arbitrary horn.

Kyle S said...

psiomniac said:

By the way, your standard defense of Euthyphro is unconvincing in my view. The fact that god is eternal doesn't really rescue you from the arbitrary horn.

I said:

It is not just that God is eternal that makes it non-arbitrary. It is because it is a part of his character, a character that is eteernal and unchanging. Also, God is necessary, so that makes his character necessary as well. It is not arbitrary, because it could not have been any other way.

I said:

How do you respond to the charge that this makes morality arbitrary and relative?

psiomniac said:

Not guilty.

I said:

I don't really think this constitutes an adequte response.

anticant said...

Psiomniac:

I am constantly referring to Nietzsche [in translation, admittedly] because I think he talks more sense than most other philosophers - as well as a good deal of nonsense. I am also familiar with the books about him by Kaufman and Hayman.

He is a greatly misrepresented thinker, largely due to the unscupulous efforts of his Nazi-loving sister. May I ask whether you have actually read any of his writings, or only the bowdlerisaqtions of those you term 'Nietzscheans'?

I find it a waste of time to debate with Kyke S, because he is just another of the brigade who claim to know the nature and mind of God.

Kyle S said...

Anticant said:

I find it a waste of time to debate with Kyle S, because he is just another of the brigade who claim to know the nature and mind of God.

I said:

I find this comment a bit unfair. I never claimed to know the mind of God.

Unless by this you mean that I claim God is knowable. I think that we can know about God through the Bible, and also through philosophical reflection. However, this does not mean that I am not open to correction. In any case, I don't see why that would disqualify me from a place at the debating table.

wombat said...

Kyle S.
"I'm not claiming that religion will always make people do good things."

Nor even prevent them from doing bad! I agree with you that any religion may have imperfect followers.

Now lets leave aside the debate about what constitutes a religion - should it include the profession of belief, liturgy, governance through a hierarchy of priests, culture amongst its adherents and all the anthropological stuff that goes with it and so on. If we just confine ourselves to some cannon of moral guidance which is provided by a religion either in the form of a Holy Book or a consistent oral tradition we can eliminate the failings of imperfect followers from consideration. Furthermore if we set aside those parts which relate to the behaviour of the believers in relation to their God(s) with respect to worship, holy symbols, ceremonial occasions etc and just look at those parts which relate to cases where those involved are purely in the physical world we can see that religions differ significantly from one another. They cannot all be right. Not only that but they very often provide contradictory guidance. So authority cannot come from religion as a class of belief systems. Please feel free to argue in favour of a particular religion's ethical framework if you can find one which is internally consistent and unambiguous.

On a slightly different tack:

Now could believers in another God or Gods accept these teachings - "Well OK we'll be kind to animals then but this must have come from our God and we will still dance naked every moonrise just as we have always done..."?

They can be intellectually satisfied, as you might say, with their morality.

Do they now have the same religion as the first set of believers or maintain a different one? The correctness of their ethics is not determined by which God(s) they believe or which cathedrals or sacred groves they worship in is it?

Why not take it further and have the morality adopted by deists? It's still correct for them. They also have the "intellectual satisfaction" of believing their moral code to have been created by "Someone Who Was Really Good At That Sort of Thing".

At the end of it all even if you require that a God or Gods be responsible for a correct ethical code it would appear to be independent of any particular religion. In fact I would say it is separable from any religion, perhaps even, given the various moral hazards associated with religion that any moral code which requires or condones religion is flawed.

wombat said...

Kyle S.

Isn't the "eternal, unchanging" thing a problem in that morality seems to be required to adapt to changing circumstances. I don't mean that in some expedient relativist sense, merely that the conditions in which we live may change either in environmental, societal or technological terms. A key element of any system of governance or quality assurance or similar is some means of self improvement or at least a mechanism for coping with developments.

Psiomniac said...

anticant,

Yes I have read some of Nietzsche's writings.

I agree with you that his reputation has been unjustly tarnished by association with the Nazi regime.

I'm just surprised that you would want to dispute what is a fairly mainstream interpretation of his views on morality.

And don't forget, I wasn't dragging Nietzsche in to this, rather I was invoking the idea that some might interpret his works in such a way as to place less of an emphasis on kindness and compassion and more on other values. Now if you want to pick a fight about whether this is a misinterpretation of Nietzsche, fine I can give you quotations with contextual analysis that will support this interpretation but can I just ask that we don't bother as I think it would be dull and even more irrelevant to this thread theme than it seems to have become already.

Psiomniac said...

kyle s,

Nor do the standard moves of locating god's goodness in his character or the Argument from Contingency rescue you from Euthyphro in my view. All that happens is that you stipulate a being that answers all the tricky questions and pop a label 'god' onto it. It might tie all the loose ends into a satisfying narrative bundle for you, but for me it solves nothing.

I don't really think this constitutes an adequte response.

The charge was that an evolutionary basis for morality makes it relative and arbitrary.
Forgive my flippancy but I don't feel that the charge sheet has been adequately formulated. For a start if there really were a tight causal relationship between evolution and morality, then it wouldn't be relative would it?

Secondly, it matters not one jot if everything is ultimately arbitrary if what matters to me has a firm and consistent footing.

For example, suppose I consider toothache. The fact that pain is usually unpleasant is probably a necessary feature but the fact we have teeth might be contingent. A few different rolls of the evolutionary dice and who knows, maybe we would have had mandibles. Now does that mean I will just decide to eat sweets and not clean my teeth because they are arbitrary?

David B. Ellis said...


But since you are the one that proposed such a being, it is you who owes an argument.


I propose the "ideal observer" only as a theoretical construct which I think we can work to approximate---not something that is completely achievable.

In that sense, I suppose we agree. Though I don't see why you reject ideal observer theory simply because the ideal observer can never be perfectly achieved---after all, the theory never claims that it can or that it has to be.


I think we don't decide on our values.


Fair enough. Let me restate. What criteria do you think most sensible for judging between competing value systems?


I suppose that ethical systems can be more or less effective in their own terms-for example in how they promote their stated values. They can be consistent or inconsistent and be informed by reason in matters of fact more or less well.
This doesn't constitute a rational basis for morality though since there will be an evaluative component.


Lets perform a thought experiment.

Igor, the mad scientist, rewires, in utero, a fetus's brain so that he, by nature, values physical agony as the supreme good. The man goes through his life doing everything he can to inflict terrible agony on himself while not inflicting such injury as to end his life and, therefore, his ability to continue experiencing agony.

His value system is effective in its own terms---it abundantly achieves its goal of allowing him to experience agony that balances intensity and protractedness. It is fully self consistent and makes full use of knowledge of matters of fact (allowing him to inflict agony with maximum effectiveness).

But, though it fulfills the criteria of "effectiveness" you describe I think any sane person would have to realize that this man's values are seriously flawed.

Yes, its true that we can never fully step outside of our value system and achieve a totally objective judgement about what value system is intrinsically better than another.

But that doesn't mean that one value system isn't, in fact, superior to another nor that we aren't able to make sound, if imperfect, judgements as to which is which (and the way to do so is, I think, precisely by cultivating to as high a degree as one is able the qualities of the ideal observer).

Psiomniac said...

david b. ellis,

I was careful to point out that I don't think the ideal observer is achievable in principle. I don't deny that it might be a useful fiction in some circumstances but I feel I must reiterate that I don't reject it because it is unachievable in practice. I think it is flawed in principle.

So where is your argument that the ideal observer construct is coherent?

As for judging between competing value systems, apart from consistency and efficiency you can't judge apart from those judgements you make from within your own value system.

As to your thought experiment, perhaps you could answer this question: why is this man's value system flawed? It is one thing to say that a sane observer would say so, but that's a bit like saying that a million Sun readers can't be wrong isn't it? Your thought experiment is biased even if your ideal observer is not.

anticant said...

Psiomniac:

I'm not interested in picking fights - I just dislike common misconceptions being perpetuated.

Bandying contradictory snippets of Nietzsche around would be as futile as seeking consistency in the Bible.

Jesus, after all, wasn't the meek and mild milksop he's painted at by so many Christians. He cursed barren fig trees and had plenty against Pharisees.

As to what is dull and irrelevant on this thread, we can all have our own opinions as to that. By and large, I am keeping out of it.

Psiomniac said...

anticant,

I'm not interested in picking fights - I just dislike common misconceptions being perpetuated.
Well I wasn't doing that, though I can understand why it might have seemed that I was.

Kyle S said...

psiomniac,

There seem to be, broadly speaking, two options for morality.

Either it is opinion or it stems from some source outside humanity.

If it is opinion then it seems difficult to explain the features that we think it has. For example, my belief that 'it is wrong to murder' seems very different to my belief that 'strawberry ice-cream tastes nice'. And it is not just a matter of degree. It's not just because I believe that 'murder is wrong' very strongly. My belief that 'it is wrong to drop a sweetie wrapper in the street' is held very lightly, compared to my belief that 'Queen are one of the greatest bands ever'. However, the former definitely seems to belong in the morality category, and the latter in the opinion category.

The alternative is to say that morality, unlike opinion, taps into something outside of humanity. So, maybe we have some sort of awareness, through the light of reason, to some objective standard. Or perhaps there is an appeal to God or something else.

Anyway, that seems to be the background to the discussion. The question is then posed to the atheist why do you think that morality is not simply opinion?

This is where dawkins gives a very weird response. He seeks to explain why we have morality in terms of evolution. This seems to miss the point. That may mean that morality is not opinion, but it is certainly not the sort of thing one should use to govern your actions.

I'm not claiming that if morality arose through evolution that they would stop acting morally, instead it seems to me that further reason is needed.

Psiomniac, I don't think you have yet given a reason for thinking your your morality is not, in reality, just opinion.

Kyle S said...

Hi Wombat,

You seem to that I said something like "intellectually satisfying morality = good morality". This is simply not true.

Also, I have no interest in defining 'religion', if that means all the things that people do that are referred to as religion.

I believe that true religion is following what the Bible teaches.

re: morality being eternal, unchanging

This does mean that I am committed to a view that would say something like, the principles are unchanging, but their application changes as the situation changes.

Psiomniac said...

kyle s,

There seem to be, broadly speaking, two options for morality.

Either it is opinion or it stems from some source outside humanity.

I think that is a false dichotomy.

Does Cupid exist or is romantic love just an opinion? An absurd dichotomy? You bet!

If it is opinion then it seems difficult to explain the features that we think it has.
It isn't opinion any more than I am of the opinion that I love my wife.

It seems to me that you have fallen so completely for the standard lines of christian apologetics on morality that progress in our discussion is unlikely.

Kyle S said...

psiomniac said:

It isn't opinion any more than I am of the opinion that I love my wife.

I said:

This isn't opinion because there is something you can point to, such as the way you behave or the things you say to show that it is true.

What are we supposed to point to to show that murder is wrong?

Psiomniac said...

kyle s,

This isn't opinion because there is something you can point to, such as the way you behave or the things you say to show that it is true.
No, that isn't the reason. It is true that I can point to those things, but I could point to things to justify an opinion too.


The point is that being in love just does not function like an ordinary opinion. Nor does the moral intuition that gives rise to the definition of murder.

You might want to point to god to show that murder is wrong. But essentially you end up pointing to something many don't believe in and you have to resort to statements about god's character and eternal nature to try to mask the fact that all you are saying is the equivalent of 'that's the way it is because it is, god is god and goddunnit'.

But correct me if I'm wrong, if you lost your faith today and just suppose for the sake of argument that you were correct to do so because god doesn't exist, are you saying you would also begin to doubt whether murder is wrong?

Kyle S said...

psiomniac said:

But correct me if I'm wrong, if you lost your faith today and just suppose for the sake of argument that you were correct to do so because god doesn't exist, are you saying you would also begin to doubt whether murder is wrong?

I said:

That's not what I claimed. I would most likely still continue to believe that murder is wrong, but I would believe it for no reason.

It seems to me that atheists do believe in morality and can be just as moral as anyone else. But they have their moral beliefs for no reason.

Psiomniac said...

kyle s,
That's not what I claimed.
I didn't say you had claimed that, I was just asking you a question.

I would most likely still continue to believe that murder is wrong, but I would believe it for no reason.
Which is just a restatement of your belief that the only thing that can constitute a reason is god. To me that is as absurd as saying if cupid doesn't exist then I love my wife for no reason.

wombat said...

Kyle S.

"You seem to that I said something like "intellectually satisfying morality = good morality". This is simply not true."

By no means. I hope that this is not how my ramblings came across. Merely trying to address your point that a morality which was not intellectually satisfying would be somehow hollow.

Of course there are responses which appear to defend the evolution based morality from this challenge. At the level of the species evolution would tend towards a morality that was beneficial or at least not overly harmful to us in that it promoted the success of our species or those members of the species that practiced it. We may concede that better solutions may exist but we can claim that the moral faculty we have has been endorsed by all our successful ancestors. We can claim at some level that it works.


"Also, I have no interest in defining 'religion', if that means all the things that people do that are referred to as religion."

Again I hoped to have removed that distraction. I agree that what followers of a religion do and what their religion teaches is often at variance. Nonetheless you did use the word "religion" instead of "God". The two differ in the same sort of way that astrophysics is distinct from the Sun. It is conceivable (although I do not yet concede it to be so) that morality comes from to God like sunshine from the Sun but it is not the case that it comes from religion anymore than the existence of the discipline of astrophysics brings daylight.

wombat said...

" I would most likely still continue to believe that murder is wrong, but I would believe it for no reason."

[Aside from the point that murder is unlawful killing as opposed to execution, winning a legal duel, or euthanasia otherwise it would probably be called culling or pest control...]

How about if I asked you to consider any of the following:

(a) How would you like it, if it were done to you or someone you cared for.

(b) How do you think society would function if murder was deemed OK.

(c) Imagine you've just murdered someone - how would it feel? Would you regret it afterwards?

(d) What would your surviving friends think?

Sounds like a few reasons to me.

Jacob said...

nice post