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Can philosophers, or anyone, tell us what is “right” and “wrong”? Ken Perrott Jan 23

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Empirical-ethics

Credit: Descartes Centre

It’s no secret philosophers and scientists sometimes seem to be in conflict. I’m not talking about philosophers of religion (there are epistemological grounds for an inevitable conflict with science there). No, I mean philosophers in general. And the conflict usually involves claims being made about the respective roles of science and philosophy. A sort of professional demarcation issue.

Massimo Pigliucci often seems to go into battle on the philosophers side. I often think this reflects his own sensitivity to any real, or perceived, criticism of the role of philosophy. For example, in his recent article Michael Shermer on morality he referred to the “simplistic dismissal of philosophy a la Harris-Krauss-Hawking.” He seems to be reacting to provocation!

But at other times he goes deeper and critiques what he sees as “scientism,” intrusion of scientists into areas he feels should not concern them, or claims that he feels are being made for science outside its special domain. Morality is an area he is sensitive to and he confesses (in the above article) to taking upon himself the role of “chastising skeptics like Sam Harris* on the relationship between philosophy, science and morality.”

Some critics seem to have knee jerk reaction to any scientific investigation of human morality, or to scientists who comment on morality. Pigliucci is not one of those – he will concede that science can properly investigate many areas of morality. For example, he says in the above article:

“This is not at all to say that science is irrelevant to ethical reasoning. No philosopher I know of holds to that absurd position (except perhaps a dwindling band of stubborn theologians).”

And

“we need an evolutionary understanding of where a strong sense of right and wrong comes from as an instinct, and a neurobiological account of how our brains function (or malfunction) when they engage in ethical reasoning.”

But he adds the following (and this may indicate where he sees the problem):

“But it is the moral philosopher, not the evolutionary biologist or the neurobiologist, we should check with if we want to know whether a particular piece of ethical reasoning is logically sound or not.”

I interpret this to mean that it’s OK for the relevant scientist to investigate morality in their area of speciality – evolutionary psychology, cognitive biology, etc. But when it come to actually using logic, doing ethical reasoning, that’s the job of the philosopher, in particular the moral philosopher.

Must we always rely on philosophers for logic?

On the surface that seems reasonable – specialists have their speciality and non-specialists  should defer to the specialist when considering relevant areas. Mind you, I don’t accept that reasoning and logic are the exclusive domain of philosophers. Science does involve reasoning and logic – even in highly developed forms like mathematics.

We in fact receive a certain amount of training in such areas as part of a science degree. Consequently a chemist, physicist or biologist may be quiet proficient at applying mathematics in their area. Although the wise individual recognises their level of understanding and will involve the mathematical specialist if they feel it necessary. In my own research I always involved statisticians – and while I often carried out my own statistical tests I always checked later with a statistician.

And in ethical areas – how complex is the logic involved? Does one have to be able to express each proposition in the appropriate academic notation and be aware of all possible transformations before one can decide, on the basis of the facts and one’s values what is “right” and “wrong?” How would the “person in the street” react to that suggestion?

Who does the lay person trust on moral questions?

I am very sceptical of any group claiming for itself a special role on moral questions. And I don’t think that attitude is unusual. When it comes to decision making in social and ethical areas these day I think the individual herself usually wants to be involved. They won’t automatically just rubber stamp decisions made by specialists – scientists or philosophers.

Take climate change. I think most members of the public actually do accept what climate scientists say about human influence on the planet’s climate. After all, a lot of effort and money has gone into the research. It has been reviewed extensively, there is a wide scientific consensus about the science, and honest awareness of gaps in knowledge. And the conclusions are conservative and  usually presented moderately, with scientific qualifications.

But the climate scientists do not tell us what we should or shouldn’t do politically. Their science informs our decisions (and the decisions of our governments), but it doesn’t determine them. Economic specialists will also have input into recommendations for mitigation of, or accommodation to, climate effects. They will also inform. And while governments and democratic institution in each country make the final decisions on any resulting plans, we all expect that we should have the ability to influence those decisions.

I think this is even truer on moral issues. In the end morality concerns individuals and their actions. We insist on making those decisions ourselves. And especially in this sort of area our decisions and actions are not based only on evidence or logic - inevitably our emotions and value judgements are involved. So we are understandably not happy about any suggestion  that others, specialist or not, make those decisions for us.

So scientists can inform us regarding moral issues. They might give us facts – like when neural activity is present in a foetus, do animals feel pain, is sexual preference innate or learned, etc. But its up to us to use that information when we make decisions on moral questions like abortion, factory farming and eating meat or marriage equality. And we insist that this final decision is for us alone – not the scientist.

I think we would have the same attitude toward the moral philosopher. We might listen to their reasoning (if they communicate it properly), maybe even take it on board, but will still make the final decision ourselves. Because that decision involves far more than the scientist’s evidence and the philosopher’s logic. It also involves our own values and emotions.

We have got used to saying that while science can inform us on moral issues it cannot tell us what is “right” and “wrong”. I think most people today will also want to extend that to say that neither can philosophy tells us what is “right” and “wrong.”

Today we (or at least those of us who value autonomy) no longer allow priests and theologians to make moral decision for us. Why would we allow philosophers to do so – even if they are “moral philosophers.”


* It has become fashionable to criticise Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values because of its probably over-optimistic predictions of a future role of neuroscience in moral decision making. However, I think there is a lot of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” here. The main purpose of Harris’s book was a strong (and some would say overdue) criticism of moral relativism -  and this is often ignored by his critics.

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A disciplined discussion Ken Perrott Jun 18

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I have commented several times that the debate format is very unsatisfactory and have favoured a discussion format for public discussion. Richard Dawkins has tried out a number of such discussion formats, I think successfully.

But I think this one is actually quite ambitious – four personalities in discussion, on stage, in front of an audience of 4000. It actually comes out very well. With no chairperson or moderator, everyone seems to get a fair go. No one dominates. And the discussion is fascinating. I would love to have been there.

It’s the panel discussion between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali which occurred at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention
held in Melbourne last April.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris & Ayaan Hirsi Ali – YouTube.

It’s an hour-long – but very interesting.

Approaching morality scientifically Ken Perrott Oct 12

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Yeah, right! So why leave morality to theologians?

In his recent criticism of Jerry Coyne’s* USA Today article As atheists know, you can be good without God, local theologian Matt Flannagan repeats his rather tiresome warning that scientists should not try to understand morality – “leave that to us theologians.” He says:

“Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism.”

Yeah, right!

Well, my response is:

If scientists are not the people to investigate and develop an understanding of human morality, who are?

Certainly not theologians!

History show they have not been up to that task. Matt’s theological article demonstrates this – it is simply an attack on Coyne. His own explanation for human morality is “divine commands!” And he doesn’t supply any evidence either for “commands” or “divine agency.” Only faulty argument.

Two points in Matt’s article are worth expanding on.

1: Good without, or without knowing?

Basically Matt argues that Coyne is completely wrong with his assertion Clearly you can be good without God.”

Matt counters that “moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God.” (Isn’t it cute the way theologians use words like “fact”?). Without a god to issue commands there can be no human morality. However, one does not have to believe in a god to accept those obligations. Effectively, without a god there can be no morality, but one can be moral without believing in or knowing that god.

OK – I guess many Christians think they are cutting us godless heathens some slack when they stress this distinction. Why is it that such declarations often appear false. Perhaps its because empirical evidence suggests many Christians actually do think we godless are immoral - precisely because we don’t believe in their god!

Maybe many Christians do take their bible readings to heart – like Psalm 14 which reads:

“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.

They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the LORD.

There were they in great fear: for God is in the generation of the righteous.”

Yes – usually only the first sentence is quoted, but what comes after is often what is meant. And this is hardly surprising because one of the things introduced by Christianity is that belief in their god was the central moral issue. Belief, and not doing good, was required to enter the pearly gates. For Christianity the “them vs us” boundary was no longer between one ethnic group and another, or between the good and the bad, but between the believers and non-believers.

Here lies the origins of much of the Christian hostility to atheism.

2: Morality as a scientific issue?

It’s amusing that Matt effectively concedes ethics as a legitimate subject for scientific investigation when he draws the parallel with water. He uses this parallel a lot and it always irks me as I never see water simply in terms of its composition H2O. And he seems to create more confusion with the explanation than is necessary.

His point appears to be that:

1: Humans have used water for yonks without any understanding of its composition. Similarly we have existed as a moral species without any understanding of the sources and nature of morality.

2: Now we understand that water can be represented as H2O. (Actually – as a chemist I think that is a very naive understanding, but let’s press on). Water can still be used by people ignorant of that understanding.

OK, this illustrates Matt’s point “without a god there can be no morality, but one can be moral without believing in or knowing that god.” But notice the elephant in the room. Our discovery of the composition of water, its molecular structure and the electronic properties of its component atoms is a result of scientific investigation. It required many centuries of investigation, thinking, logic and empirical evidence. Investigation which proved most powerful when it was validated against reality. Science, not theology.

God of the gaps

Without his realising it, Matt’s use of the H2O parallel has raised the issue of proper investigation of natural phenomena. Yet what explanation does he provide for human morality – his god! And this is all! A god of the gaps!

Can’t he see the parallel – just imagine where humanity would be in its understanding of the nature of water if we had declared  some sort of story (oh, “water are the tears of our god”) and left it at that? If we had left understanding to the theologians?

Matt and his mates advocating “divine command” ethics are doing exactly that. They are declaring “moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God.” No evidence, no testing against reality, and faulty logic.** And now they want to leave it at that! They want to warn scientists not to encroach on “their area.”

Well, humanity being the inquisitive and imaginative species we are won’t leave it at that. We are not going to be satisfied with another tired old “god of the gaps” “explanation.” We will investigate this further – and we are.

There is a whole new literature on the scientific understanding of morality. And it’s fascinating.


*Jerry Coyne is the author of “Why Evolution Is True and writes the popular blog Why Evolution is True. He is a very clear and provocative writer and his blog and op-ed articles deal with interesting and important issues. I recommend you follow his blog.

** An example of this logic is Matt’s rejection of Coyne’s point that a simple declaration that what the Christian imagines as a “command” from her god must be good is actually an acknowledgement that our concepts of right and wrong are man-made, not god-made. After all a god could be commanding us to do evil things (doesn’t the evidence suggest that this god, if she exists, likes doing evil things?).

Matt thinks he has squirmed out of that trap by declaring that his god is “a loving and just god.” Therefore it is impossible for her to command evil things.

Problem is how does he know his god is “loving and just?” Oh, he has attributed properties of love and justice to his personal god when he imagined her. He knows he should do this because he is human and is using a human morality.

A circular argument. But that’s theology for you.

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Pat Churchland on the science of morality Ken Perrott Jul 28

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A few months ago there was a flurry of attention around Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape and lectures he gave around the time of its publication. A lot of it critical – but not all.

I thought the value of this book is that he did take on the problem of moral relativism in a way that religious moralists have been unable to. I think his contribution was valuable for that.

But, people seem to be ignoring a better book recently published on this subject. This is Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. I highly recommend it as being very sensible and enlightening. it also will answer some of the questions readers might feel Sam Harris was unable to.

I have written before on this book and some of Churchland’s talks. However, I think a recent podcast will be very useful for those following this subject. It’s from The Partially Examined Life (Episode 41: Pat Churchland on the Neurobiology of Morality (Plus Hume’s Ethics)). The discussion is with  Mark and Dylan Casey who are relatively knowledgable on philosophy so Pat’s arguments are quite deep. However, even non-philosophers will get a lot from the discussion. It’s 1 hr 45 min long but you can  Download the podcast (96.1MB)

There are three points I wish to make on the content of the podcast:

1: Is consciousness over-rated?

Pat Churchland devoted little of her discussion to the unconscious, or subconscious, aspects of human morality. The conscious aspects are important to understanding social rules and lawmaking, and to understanding how humans set up moral societies. But at the day-to-day and personal level our instincts and intuitions are critical. We operate largely in the automatic mode.

I am sure Pat acknowledges the important role of the subconscious, it’s just that in this discussion it was not really covered.

2: What do we mean by “right” and “wrong”?

I would love Pat to delve into this aspect more deeply. She does divorce the concepts from any absolute or objective meaning, particularly a divine one. At the same time she is not adopting a purely relativist approach. I feel sure that she would accept that while morality is not objective, it does at least have a objecitve basis in the facts of situations and in human make up. Particularly in the human brain.

However, most people do feel there is something special about saying something is “right” or “wrong”. It feels absolute or objective. We are not just expressing an opinion.

Personally, I think this is part of our evolved moral intuitions. We have evolved to operate in an automatic mode – we just don’t have time to apply reasoning and logic to every moral situation we face. Consequently there needs to be some sort of emotional/intuitional feeling about our possible responses and decisions. We need to feel that we are doing the correct thing. That it is “right.” Or that something we find disagreeable or repugnant is “wrong.” Emotionally, not logically. Churchland does describe in her book how these intuitions can evolve naturally from the interests of living organisms.

So we have these strong feelings/emotions of “right” and “wrong.” So strong, and  partly because they are automatic, they can at times seem external. It is no accident that cartoons will often portray our conscience as a little being sitting on our shoulder and advising us. That is what it feels like.

So I can see why many people will argue that our concepts of right and wrong are objective, presented to us externally (and therein we get the leap of logic to divine beings and divine commands). But we can see the intuitions of “right” and “wrong” are really evolved. Not objective or absolute. And, capable of changing over time as society changes or more information is required. This is quite consistent with an objectively based morality.

3: Pat is really more helpful than Sam

I found Pat’s comments on Sam Harris’s book far more critical than I have heard from her in the past. They are friends so her criticisms are not a personal attack – they are the evaluation of a philosopher and neuroscientist. Consequently her criticisms are far more relevant than those made by theological critics. We all know what is driving them, and that is why their critiques usually have no value.

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Ideology and violence Ken Perrott Jun 08

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Religious violence a concern of academics too

I want to comment here on some strawmannery from a local theologian/philosopher of religion (Matt at MandM) in his post Religion and Violence. But first two important points:

1: He concentrates on the common perception of a relationship between religion and violence made by atheist writers (he claims these “themes abound in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.”). Matt’s obsession with atheists obscures the fact that this theme is also common in academia, and indeed theology. Theologian Alister McGrath, for example, has welcomed the fact that this problem has been brought to popular attention.  And this recognised relationship between religion and violence concerns many people who for governmental or professional reasons have to deal with terrorism and its influence.

2: Any analysis which limits violence and terrorism to the influence of religion is far too simple. Unfortunately this naivety is sometimes advanced by using Stephen Weinberg’s quote:

’With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.’

I criticised the way atheists sometimes use this quote in my article Sources of evil? Partly because it does lead to them being misrepresented, open to strawmannery.  I pointed out:

“None of these authors [Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris   and Michael Jordan] claim religion inevitably leads to evil. As Richard Dawkins said in a recent Newsweek article ’It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists.’ Nor are they denying the evil carried out in the name of non-religous causes.”

That’s why I suggested that Weinberg’s quote should have really read:

’With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes ideology.’

Bait and switch?

So, returning to Matt’s post. One of the straw men he demolishes is the assertion:

“that if people who hold a belief commit atrocities then that belief is either false or should be avoided by liberal-minded people.”

I really don’t think that is common. After all we condemn fascism for its fundamental opposition to human rights – not just because of examples of atrocities. Nevertheless Matt launches his attack on this straw man with a strange dig at science:

“The belief that the atom could be split is one that has been used to kill thousands of people yet that belief is true and it is an important scientific discovery.”

Leaving aside Matt’s confusion between belief and scientific knowledge (which is important) this argument is a naive bait and switch. Of course a “belief” in, or the “knowledge” of nuclear reactions is not responsible for the deaths in Hiroshima or Nagasaki any more than our chemical knowledge was responsible for the greater number of deaths through carpet bombing of civilian populations in Japan and Europe during World War II (and Indochina in the 1960′s and 70′s) The responsibilities were clearly political and ideological. Human knowledge just made it possible to put into effect these political and ideological aims through such atrocities.

Similarly, simple belief or non-belief in a god (or similar supernatural manifestations) is not responsible in itself for atrocities. However, such beliefs can be used in religious, nationalistic, political and ideological mobilisation to encourage people to commit atrocities. They can be used to mobilise the dark side of human nature, the “them vs us” intuition we are so susceptible to.

History is of course crammed with examples of situations where ideological, political, national or religious beliefs have fueled atrocities. But I don’t know of one example involving a scientific “beliefs.” After all, we have ways of resolving differences between scientists over the nature of subatomic particles. These involve research and investment in devices such as the large hadron collider. Interaction with reality.

Rewriting history

Religious apologists are famed for their rewriting of history. I referred to the specific example of the history of science in my posts  Confronting accomodationism, The Galileo myths and others. So I am not surprised at Matt’s historical revisionism on this subject.

He pontificates on:

“research having discredited the portrayal of the early Middle Ages as ’the Dark Ages’ brought about by Christianity. Similarly, research into Inquisition archives reveal that while such tribunals did exist, many popular beliefs are based on embellishment, exaggeration and propaganda rather than a sober assessment of facts. The picture of the Inquisition that emerges from these studies is significantly more benign than has popularly been thought. . . . The evidence suggests that much of what people believe today about religious history is based on discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes and consequent cultural prejudice.”

And:

“many atrocities cited by religious critics were not committed for religious reasons but for secular ones.”

Personally I think that blaming “discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes” is another current example of religious apologist myth making.  Often John William Draper’s book History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science is quoted as evidence. But having read that book I can see how selective apologetics quote mining has is.

Historical honesty respects the victims

However, downplaying religious motivated atrocities is almost always accompanied by exaggeration of the atrocities committed by others, or attributing these to atheist beliefs. At least here Matt doesn’t resort to the silliness of calling Hitler an atheist. But he does claim:

“Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious – the very thing people who press the historical atrocities argument are trying to contend. Richard Wurmbrand, a victim of communist persecution in Romania, stated that ’communist torturers often said there is no God, no hereafter, no life after death, we can do what we wish.’ The fact that atheism was not the motivation for these actions seems to be news to those who actually witnessed them. . . . So, many atrocities were committed on the basis of atheism.”

Matt and others who attribute the atrocities of Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung and Stalin (even Hitler) to atheism do an immense disservice to those who died or suffered in those atrocities. We owe it the victims to be honest about the causes of these evil activities, to understand why humanity does do such things and work to prevent their re-occurrence.  Matt should not be allowed to get away with the distortion that “Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious. “

A bit of historical research will show that perhaps the largest group of victims of the Stalin Terror were the Communists. The fact that some of these may have been believers had nothing to do with their deaths and imprisonments. A simple figure – more than half the membership of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee were eliminated in the middle of the 1930s! Did any religious groups suffer such a culling? Surely this makes clear that the motives for these atrocities were more political and psychological (the paranoia of Stalin and his cohorts) than anything to do with religious beliefs.

True, the Church’s relationship with the Soviet State and Communist Party was strained. Hardly surprising – this is not the only situation where the church has sided with the old order in situations of social change. But in a situation where every other political group which could have opposed Soviet power were made illegal the regime still allowed the legal existence and activity of the church.

I will go so far as to suggest that many religious believers were members of the Soviet Communist Party. This seems obvious as that Party was the only mechanism of serious social and political involvement at the time.  Perhaps the feared KGB and its predecessors also contained Christian believers. After all Putin, the current Russian Prime Minister who these days wears a Christian cross, was a KGB member.

Matt may be shocked at the idea that there could have been Christian KGB torturers. But many Russian Communists where also shocked when they realised there were Communist torturers. Welcome to the real world. Life isn’t simple.

A fundamental problem wuith religion

Matt is more balanced in his conclusion:

“So the appeal to historical atrocities, on examination, seems often based on a fairly selective analysis of the evidence. The Bin Ladens and Hitlers of this world are clearly dangerous but so too are the Stalins, Pol Pots and secular groups like the Tamil Tigers who pioneered the practice of suicide bombing before Al-Qaeda came on the scene. People fight and kill for a number of reasons; sometimes these are religious, more often they are secular — sometimes both. When people care deeply about something, sometimes they will kill to protect it. Religion is not an exception.”

But this still ignores a fundamental flaw in religion which does make it susceptible to the judgementalism and mobilisation of the “them vs us” mentality which can lead to atrocity. This is the concept of “divinity,” “sacred” and “holy.” These concepts are foreign to atheism and science. it is no accident that the traditional motivations for war and atrocity – “God, King and Country” – have these similar characters.

These “sacred” concepts enable justification of almost anything on the grounds of faith and emotion. Evidence and reason can easily be ignored on distorted towards the divine ends.

This is clearly illustrated by a quote from the farewell letter of a Dutch jihadist:

’In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of the jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this’ ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you may not’

“God knows, but you may not” can be used to justify the worst sort of atrocity.

(This quote is from Paul Cliteur’s book The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. I reviewed this in Secularism is important.)

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Confronting accomodationism Ken Perrott May 25

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Or is it accommodating confrontationism? I guess it depends on the image you wish to portray.

I have followed the accomodationism vs confrontationism (or “new atheism,” or “gnus”) debate among US atheist and science bloggers with interest. Mainly because I think it is relevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion, and the current changes in public acceptability of non-theism.

On the “confrontationist” side there are bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins.

They are vocal and unapologetic about their atheism. Rejecting the idea that one should not criticise religion because it is “disrespectful” and that religion therefore has a “go home free card” not available in other areas of human discourse such as politics, sport and science.  Generally they will assert that there are basic epistemological differences between science and religion and they should not be conflated. The boundaries are stark and should be clear. Science should be honest and uncompromising about evidence and conclusions and not feel it has to accommodate religion or superstition by giving lip service to it.

On the “accomodationist” side there are commentators, journalists and bloggers like Chris Mooney, Micheal Ruse and Josh Rosenau. Others such Massimo Pugliocci at times advance at least some of the accomodationist arguments.

Accomodationists generally argue that the “new atheists” are too confrontational. That their insistence on talking about their atheism and the problems of relgion isolates the US public. Their confrontational language is offensive to the religious majority. It doesn’t win friends and in fact is turning people away from science. Scientists, and atheists, should go easy on religion, never confront it, even make concessions to religion, in the interests of winning public support for evolutionary science and science in general. If anything the “new atheists” or “gnus” should STFU – leave the defense of science and evolutionary science to religious scientists.

One of the latest discussions of this issue took place on the podcast Point of Inquiry recently where Ronald A. Lindsay interviewed Chris Mooney. (See  Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief May 09, 2011.) It’s a good-natured discussion which I found useful because Chris does clearly present his arguments.

Several issues interested me:

How we make decisions

Chris stressed that humans are not rational. Our decision-making involves a lot of emotion. Consequently clearly held convictions are not easily changed. In fact the may become even more recalcitrant when exposed to rational discussion, evidence or criticism.

I agree with this – and it isn’t new. It’s an important consideration for the presentation of arguments and participation in discussion. However, Chris uses this to justify his opposition to  any “confrontational” opposition to religion. Even to the independent presentation of atheist world views.

Influence of a public atheist presence.

Chris made a concession on this point, referring to recently published research indicating that there is less opposition to atheists in environments where they already have a public presence. So he was effectively conceding that the public consciousness raising undertaken by “new atheists” and their encouragements to atheists to be public about their ideas, is having a positive effect.

This was obvious to most people even before the research results were published. But it does expose the accomodationist request to atheists to STFU as basically counter productive. I can understand it from religious apologists hostile to atheism – but not from atheists themselves.

The US population is turned off science by atheists?

Chris is convinced this is happening in the US, but acknowledged he doesn’t have data to back up his conviction. He suggests than it would be very difficult and expensive to get that data.

However, I discussed this in my articles Myths within a myth and Is atheism bad for science? where I commented on Elaine Howard Ecklands use of polling data to support a similar assertion. But in fact the data does not support this argument (See figure below from Is atheism bad for science?). If anything the vocal presence of “gnus” since the mid 2000′s seems to have undermined respect for religious leaders! With no obvious effect on the respect for science! Certainly no negative effect.

%age of US public considering professions of "very great prestige."

Tactics should fit situations

I think Chris is confusing the different tactics which are suitable for different situations.

I agree that confrontation is a bad tactic when used at the personal level. In the one-to-one or small group situations ideas are advanced better if their presentation does not anger the receiver. In such situations one should seek the common ground and use it to advance one’s ideas. Of course this does not mean dishonesty or denying one’s own world views. Not at all.

But this is not the situation Mooney is criticising. He attacks the talks, articles and public appearances of Richard Dawkins. He criticises the blog articles of PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. These are not one-to-one or small group situations. These are communications with the public at large.

They are part of public discourse. Contributions to the overall market of ideas.

Responsibilty to provide information

Atheists have a responsibility to communicate their ideas. Just as do theists, agnostics, Buddhists, etc. It’s part of contributing to the overall market of ideas and human thought we find so interesting. The fact that some people don’t like some ideas in that market is not a reason to prevent contributions.

From a presentation on "new atheism" by Victor Stenger

For example, I find the biblical Psalm 14:1 offensive:

The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do
Abominable deeds,
There is none who does good.’

That cannot justify any request to remove that Psalm from the bible, or to deny theists using it in their articles or lectures. It is part of the market of ideas and thought and just as open to being advance or critiqued as any other idea or though

Similarly scientists have a responsibility to communicate their findings, and to be honest about them. Research results should not be hidden because they conflict with the beliefs of some people. Historians should not deny the truth about the Galileo affair just because it offends some religious sensibilities.  And philosophers should not hide or confuse the fundamental epistemological difference between science and religion just to protect the sensitivities of religious fundamentalists.

Misinformation

It’s important for non-theists and scientists to contribute their ideas to the general market because many theist activists promote misinformation about these, consciously or unconsciously. For example the vilification and misrepresentation of non-theists like Richard Dawkins. This might be intentional or it might just  be an emotional response to his criticisms. But the concept of Dawkins being a “militant,” “strident”, “fundamentalist” atheist is promoted. And it gets picked up by people who should know better. By some non-theists, even those in academia. (Although the latter might just be examples of a common professional jealousy).

And, such ideas can easily be assumed by those who have no other source of information. How often have I heard Dawkin’s books denounced by people who have never read them.

Accomodationists commonly vilify Dawkins, Hitchens, and other “gnu” authors – often simply repeating the complaints of religious apologists. Of course this must be challenged. However, the more people who are familiar with the writings of people like Dawkins, or view them on internet videos, or hear them in person, the less believable such vilification and misrepresentation is.

However, there is a more serious way that theistic idealogues will spread misinformation about atheism and science.  Currently religious apologists question the epistemological basis of science – complaining that it does not permit supernatural explanations. This only has a small influence among accomodationist non-theists, but even so it can lead to a slightly post-modernist questioning of scientific epistemology among some academics.

This also occurs with the history of science. It always amazes me how many theologians and religious philosophers pontificate in this area.  And of course their pontifications are revisionist in the sense they attempt to rewrite history to express a Christian chauvinistic viewpoint.

Origins of modern science

There is the common apologist claim that the modern scientific revolution is based on Christian society, even Christian philosophy and theology. I wrote about this myth in Christianity gave birth to science — a myth? There I called it offensive:

“It’s insulting to medieval Islam. To the scientists and philosophers of the Roman Empire and classical Greece. To the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China and India and beyond.”

And I quoted Noah J. Efron on this:

’Modern science rests (somewhat, anyway) on early modern, renaissance, and medieval philosophies of nature, and these rested (somewhat, anyway) on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested (somewhat, anyway) on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures. .  .  .”

Science is a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive enterprise.

The Galileo affair

In recent years religious apologists have tried to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair to present religion in a better light. Or they may claim that scientists and atheists are misrepresenting that history. For instance they will claim that atheists are actively promoting a myth that Galileo was tortured and imprisoned. He wasn’t. although he was apparently threatened with torture and his sentence of imprisonment was changed to house arrest for life.

But check it out. There are plenty of unreferenced instances of this claim being made by apologists – bit I certainly can’t find anything substantive to support the claim. Its a myth about a myth.

The “conflict thesis”

Similarly apologists claim that a so-called “conflict thesis” is being promoted. Atheists are claiming that science and religion are inevitably and always have been in conflict. Of course no-one is saying that. There are inevitable and irreconcilable difference in epistemology, but historically the history of the relationship between science and religion has never been that simple.

Apologists will rely on cherry picked quotes from old books like John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science published in 1878. But this is disingenuous because it is easy to find other quotes in this book giving examples of the positive role that some religions have sometimes played in science.

Is the US a special case?

Sure there are sensitivities in situations where atheists are a small minority like the US. But this is not the same issue in Europe or New Zealand. In fact these examples indicate the real nature of the problem.

In New Zealand the vocal opposition to “new atheists”  really only comes from the committed anti-atheist. The religious apologists. Those are the very few people who are strident or militant in their criticism of atheist adverts, or the appearance of Richard Dawkins on TV, or Dawkins lecture tour. (Boy, do they have an obsession with Dawkins and the “gnus”). While I am sure that some people like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse do exist in New Zealand they really don’t comment much here. The accomodationist/confrontationist debate is very rare.

Then again, perhaps there should be such a debate here. Perhaps atheists in New Zealand are not “confrontational” enough. Perhaps they should be doing more to counter situations like non-consential prayer, promotion of creationism, religion in schools, etc.

After all, these are all issues non-theists have important views on and they should make sure that these ideas are part of our society’s appreciation and knowledge.

Maybe our atheists are not living up to their responsibilities?

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A non-theist feast down under! Ken Perrott May 15

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This just in from the organisers of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention —‘A Celebration of Reason’

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens have been announced as speakers. (And have a look at the last sentence – a breakthrough!).


The Atheist Foundation of Australia is excited to announce that the next Global Atheist Convention — ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will feature headline speakers Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (health permitting).

The Global Atheist Convention will be held once again at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from13 – 15 April 2012.

’This is the first time that the Four Horsemen have spoken together publicly in five years,’ said Atheist Foundation President David Nicholls. ’Their best-selling books on atheism earned the group the moniker ‘The Four Horseman of the Anti-Apocalypse’, and fittingly so as they have been instrumental in bringing forth a new enlightenment in the face of growing irrationality, fundamentalism and superstitious thinking around the world.’

The 2010 Global Atheist Convention gave local, interstate and international attendees the opportunity to hear first-rate speakers from a range of fields including science, philosophy, politics, education, stand-up comedy and more.

’Atheism has provided the perfect foundation in which people can come together to celebrate science, reason and secular values in today’s society. With the planet in a state of organised chaos and the menace of religious extremism threatening everyone’s quality of life, this 2012 world-class event will once again provide rational discussion and debate about what can be done to address the issues facing the globe,’ said Nicholls.

’The 2012 Global Atheist Convention — ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will also send an important message to Australia’s political institutions that freethinking Australians are a growing force to be reckoned with.’

The entire line-up for the convention will be released gradually via official social media streams in the lead-up to   tickets going on sale later in the year. The last convention sold out well in advance, leaving many people disappointed to have missed out. The Atheist Foundation of Australia expects this event will also sell out very quickly and encourages prospective attendees to purchase their tickets as soon as they go on sale.

The Atheist Foundation has succeeded in obtaining financial support from the Victorian Government for the convention.

See also: Government comes to atheist party

Is there a role for science in morality? Ken Perrott Apr 28

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In our discussion of the science of morality commenters often assert that science may be able to describe why and how we are moral but it cannot make moral decisions for us. Or tell us what is right and wrong. Sometimes these commenters have their own motive — a covert or overt interest in promoting a religiously determined moral code and they don’t want another discipline intruding into ’their’ arena. At other times they may be reacting to a simplistic interpretation of the role of science. This is common in criticisms of The Moral Landscape (and Harris did not help by using the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values”). In partial mitigation of Harris’s position he does make clear, often, that he is using ’science’ in a very general sense — including philosophy and history.

Emotions in human decisions

Our moral decisions are different to the apparently straightforward decisions a physical scientist might make relying on evidence. Logic and reasoning, and validation against reality. Being social animals things are never that simple for us. And we have evolved not to be a rational animal, more a rationalising one. Our decisions will usually involve our emotions and intuitions as well as evidence and reasoning. In fact research suggests that an emotional component is essential in decision-making. Where emotions are impaired people find decision-making impossible. We are also influenced by the moral attitudes of others, and in some situations a moral decision may involve a democratic process. Moral ideas get validated against society and not objective reality.

But the fact is human morality is now a very live area of scientific research and discussion. This is generally about how our morality works and its origins, and not using ’science’ as such to prove a moral position. But there is no doubt that an awareness of the science of morality may actually influence moral decision-making, particularly during public discussion and deliberation. Science indicates our morals are not simply ’relative’ (anything goes depending on our own feelings) or ’divinely’ commanded (our god tells us what is right and wrong — just accept it), or based on tradition. If that is publicly accepted then the proponents of ’divine’ commands, tradition, or relativism will have less influence on our moral deliberations.

Sure, our prejudices and emotions will still be involved. Our religious beliefs and cultural influence will also play a role. But there will be far more acceptance of discussion about facts and accepted ideas of what is good for society and individuals. In the past religion and tradition have been far too influential in such discussions. Hell, this example from a potential US presidential candidate shows they are still too influential (see Bachmann: God Told Me To Introduce Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage In MN). I think our moral progress has only been possible to the extent we have been able to override those influences.

Role of public deliberation

One argument that came through strongly for me in the Edge New Science of Morality  Seminar was the role of social or public deliberation of moral questions. (See The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) ) Particpation of a range of individuals helps make sure that prejudice and individual emotion don’t play a determining role. A group can be more rational than an individual. This indicates that groups and social decision-making may produce better moral, and hence legal, decisions than those made by individuals.

Of course, in the end our actions are made mostly by individuals. And very often these decisions and action are the result of unconscious moral decisions. But, as I pointed out in Foundations of human morality, our subconscious moral position is always changing. We are always learning and what we learn consciously becomes integrated into our subconscious. Similarly we are learning without deliberate intellectual consideration just by being a member of society, exposed to the changing moral zeitgeist through our entertainments and social contact. Just consider what influence the portrayal of women and gays has had on influence individual moral attitudes over the years.

Yes, there is an important role

So, I think the current interest in the science of morality is important. It’s important from the point of view of knowledge, of finding out and understanding more about our species and its behaviour. But I also think its important because it will help us be more rational about our moral deliberations and decisions.

That must be a good thing.

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Philosophical justifications for morality Ken Perrott Apr 26

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I will use this post to answer some of the more philosophical questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version. (Open ). Last time in Answering questions on morality I responded to some specific questions from a critical religious apologist.

One outline of my approach is in Foundations of human morality but I have discussed these ideas in many other posts.

Once again I thank all those who have critiqued my ideas — I have found the input valuable. And I welcome further criticisms

Are philosophical justifications required for morality?

John Wilkins says yes in his comment:

’If you argue for a position — such as a particular course of action being right or wrong — then no matter what you give as a reason for thinking it is right or wrong, the moment you introduce a prescription, a normative element, you need some irreducible missing premise to the effect that ‘you should [or should not] do X’. . . . To justify a course of action, you must, rationally, have a bridging principle of justification that is non-factual.’

John does not disagree with a scientific explanation of morality but says this:

’neither justifies nor has any moral force upon the actions of agents unless you introduce that ’thou shalt’ prescription.’ Then one needs a ’prescriptive premise.’

Alonzo Fyfe  at the Atheist Ethicist argues for an ’external standard’: What [our intuitions or morality] should be is determined by their conformity to this external standard.’

I think this approach is related to the is vs ought concept. It implies there is an objective, external, ought. And that we can not determine this ought, this prescription, from the facts of a situation. Personally I would find that approach more convincing if the proponents actually indicated where they get their “external standard” from, what the prescriptions are. But they never seems to. (No – ’god did it’ explanations don’t work — they never do).

We experience moral prescriptions

I think our automatic moral reactions, our designation of things being right and wrong, is very much prescriptive. Yet no conscious philosophy is required. No-one thinks of ’normative elements’ or ’irreducible premises.’

We experience our morality prescriptively — and largely unconsciously. Even when we rationalise to explain our reactions very few people are going to use these words or give a philosophical analysis. All this goes on in our brain and largely unconsciously. So at what stage during our unconscious moral reactions or our conscious moral deliberations do we refer to this ’external standard’ or use prescriptive premises? Some people may refer to such prescriptions during conscious moral discussions — but there is no evidence these exist objectively, separate from the individual or her culture.

Consider also the very different ’moral’ behaviours of different species. The females of some insects will kill and eat the male after coitus — our species doesn’t (although some men may feel there is a psychological parallel). Doesn’t this suggest that morality is at least species specific, perhaps not objective. Perhaps more to do with the actual organism or group of organisms.

Part of the motivation for desired ’external standards’, ’prescriptive justifications’, absolute or objective moral truths is the fact that our intuitions of right and wrong are so strong. They feel so real. But that doesn’t make them real, external or objective.

Maybe there is also a cultural pressure to think about external standards or prescriptions. PZ Myers raised this issue when he acknowledged that he had critiqued Harris’s book with mistaken interpretation of the is-ought argument (see Craig brings some clarity to morality?). As he puts it these issues are ’getting all twisted up in philosophical head-games based on misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.’

Then perhaps, related to both these influences, there is a common feeling that morality is just too important an issue to be determined by individuals. That there must be external standards or prescriptions.

Infinite regression of ’external standards’

I have also noticed another a common interpretation of Sam Harris’s arguments is that the ’external standard’ or moral prescriptions can be determined by science. (This is not exactly helped by him using the subtitle ’How science can Determine Human Values’). But quite a few reviewers have pointed out this simple transference of ’external standards’ or prescriptions from gods to science does nothing to solve the basic problem.  That whatever external standard is used, one will be caught in the infinite regression or requiring a further external standard to justify the chosen standard.

Both Fyfe and Kenan Malik (in Test-tube Truths) illustrate this by extending the  Euthyphro dilemma. This argues, in its modified form: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” Which we can extend to any ’external standard’ as Fyfe does when he says:

’The answer to the Euthyphro argument in both cases is to argue that morality is to be found somewhere outside of God, or outside of  ‘”human instincts and intuitions’.’

And I add – or outside of any other external standard. Hence the infinite regression.

I think Malik has the answer:

’The desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values is a desire to set moral values in ethical concrete. It is a yearning for moral certainty, a fear that without external authority, humans will fall into the morass of moral relativism. But just as we do not need the false certainty of a divinely sanctified moral code, neither do we need the false certainty of a morality rooted in science.’

’Unless we wish to believe that values are simply plucked out of the sky, then we must accept that there is some relationship between the kinds of values that we hold, the kinds of beings that we are, and the kind of world in which we live. But while values can never be entirely wrenched apart from facts, neither can they be collapsed into facts. Humans are the bridge between facts and values. The significance of the Euthyphro dilemma is that it embodies a deeper claim: that concepts such as goodness, happiness and wellbeing only have meaning in a world in which conscious, rational, moral agents exist that themselves are capable of defining moral right and wrong and acting upon it. It is the existence of humans as autonomous moral agents that allows us to act as the bridge between facts and values.’ [my empahsis].

I think this is the answer to the problematic ’external standard’ of Fyfe and the ’bridging principle of justification that is non-factual’ of Wilkins. In one sense our problems have arisen because we have overestimated the importance of moral certainty. We therefore find it difficult to accept that our morality may not rest on external ’truths.’ Sometimes our moral decisions may not be obvious or may be ’fuzzy.’ Perhaps, in fact, our standard is internal. And it arises from our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent social and empathetic beings.

But what about our negative intuitions?

This does need an answer. After all, history does show that sometimes our intuitions based on evolved instincts can have bloody consequences. An obvious issue is the ’them vs us’ problem. Sometimes described as the problem of expanding reciprocity.

This is a double-sided sword. On the one had our empathy and kin sympathy encourage us to protect and advance the interests of our ’in-group.’ On the other hand this often means conflict with the ’out-group.’ The morality of the ‘in-group’ may value  a warrior who kills a warrior from ’out-group’ who threatens their security. At a more mundane level a prevailing morality may actually encourage attitudes which are xenophobic or racist. Because of our natural ’in-group/out-group’ instincts.

The history of social development of our species has necessarily been one of expanding the boundaries between the ’in-group’ and ’out-group.’ This has required social mechanism to expand our morality from simple kin or clan considerations to wider city, regional, national or coalitional interests. Social structures, legal frameworks, religion and ideologies have assisted this. Religion, for example, enables expansion beyond national boundaries by pushing the boundary between them vs us to non-believers vs believers. Ideologies have done a similar thing based on ideological beliefs (eg., communism, democracy) or class interests (hence The Internationale).

So it is inevitable that intuitions wider than just ’good’ empathetic ones are involved in providing our ’internal standards.’ However, these ’standards’ are not simply the instinct or intuitions themselves. As social and intelligent beings our social, legal and moral structures may be based on our human natures (good and bad) but there are also the result of reasoned processing. Both individually and collectively.

As a species which has memories and is capable of planning we can look further ahead than simple satisfaction of instinctual requirements. We can postpone rewards, consider the long-term and wider social effects of our instinctual behaviours. We can apply our intuitional, in-built ’Golden Rule’ in a way that favours some intuitions over others. In fact, in a way that recognises our in-built ability for behaviour which we consider wrong, as well as right.

A realistic, human morality

Again I am sure some people will resist this analysis because it does not ’set moral values in ethical concrete’ or ensure ’moral certainty.’ But surely our history shows such certainty to often lead to tyranny. A more realistic appreciation of human morality is based in our own human nature and amenable to reasoning and deliberation. A morality which takes account of our real situations, is capable of improvement over time and is available to all — whatever the ideological or religious outlook.

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Answering questions on morality Ken Perrott Apr 22

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I want to spend a few posts answering some of the questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version (Open Parachute@ SciBlogs). See, for example, Foundations of human morality.

Those articles represent my thinking as a result of the New Science of Morality  Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) and the Great debate ’Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?’ (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop). Effectively I have tried to integrate the psychological approach of the Edge seminar with the more philosophical and neurobiological approach of the Debate. The reflection was also stimulated by reading books by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), Patricia Churchland (Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality), Jonathan Haidt, Marc Hauser, Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker and others.

I have been very thankful for the discussion the articles generated. It’s a great way of developing one’s ideas. Finding flaws, looking for alternatives. Even when the disagreement is a result of misunderstanding, realising where one’s arguments need clarifying or better explanation is very useful.

I do not doubt the discussion has significantly contributed to evolution of my ideas in this area.

Questions from a religious apologist

First I will deal with questions from Bnonn at Thinking Matters. His article (Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel) was basically a straw man attack but did ask some specific questions. Some  are worth responding to.

Q1: How is my model ’improving?’

This was in response to my claim, in Foundations of human morality, that the model I describe ’may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectively based.’

I think Bnonn has intentionally or unintentionally confused that claim. However I will answer his specific question.

Science is basically progressive in its knowledge. Over time its ideas and theories improve as we get more data from reality and do more testing and validating of our ideas against reality. In a sense our scientific knowledge is an imperfect, but ever improving, reflection of reality.

This will also be true of any scientific theory about human morality. The improvements in fields like anthropology, social psychology and neurobiology in recent years has made a scientific description of human morality possible. This will only improve with time and future research.

Q2: How does my model support moral positions?

Bnonn asks how I can ’support specific moral positions, over and against divine command theories? For example, if a divine command theorist says that it is morally wrong to sleep around, and an evolutionist says that it’s morally permissible because of this evolutionary model, why should we give more weight to the evolutionist?’

First let’s dispense with Bnonn’s confusion about ’evolutionists.’ My dictionary defines an evolutionist as someone who ’believes’ in a theory of evolution. Let’s leave aside problems with that word ’belief’ (technically I don’t ’believe in evolution’ — I ’accept’ evolutionary science). Science is not a belief system like religion. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, have dogmas. “Evolutionist” is really not an appropriate term and I think Bnonn is using it here as a derogatory one. That is problematic for him because many of his mates who accept ’divine’ command theories also accept evolutionary science (or at least say they do).

Nor is the model of human morality I suggest a naïve ’evolutionary’ model as Bnonn suggests.  Rather it sees our morality as built on human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals. We can develop strong intuitions of right and wrong and of social taboos which make use of our evolved instincts like purity, disgust, fear, reward, judgment, etc.

A scientific model of human morality can easily explain why we have strong intuitions of right and wrong and we unconsciously respond to specific situation by classifying them as right or wrong (’auto mode”). When we go through the intellectual exercise of considering novel and theoretical situations (’manual mode’) we accept our empathetic nature as a criteria. The Golden Rule — which I claim is, in effect, ’wired in.’ Part of human nature. Not surprising that some form or other of the Golden Rule has emerged in many human cultures.

I see no problem in arriving at arguments of support, or opposition, to specific moral positions. We seem to do that all the time.

Q3: Does my model deny a progressive approach to morality?

Bnonn sees my reference to a moral zeitgeist as claiming that historically humanity is improving morally and asks: ’but wouldn’t that contradict the model itself by implying some objective good towards which they are moving?’

I do say there is an objective basis to our morality in human nature. Particularly in our social and empathetic nature. This does give an objective intellectual basis, as well as an emotional one, for describing things as good and bad. So we can make judgements about moral progress.

Q4: Bnonn’s concern with ’sleeping around?’

A rather quaint expression. Surely he isn’t judging ones ability to sleep anywhere?

But I reject his assumption that my model assumes sexual promiscuity is ’morally permissible.’ Opposition to sexual promiscuity is common in human moral codes. One can see how this has arisen as part of the social and empathetic nature of our species. The need to protect and raise children who have a long period of dependency on parents provides a biological basis for that. It also helps explain why monogamy is a common social arrangement. Even in our modern society where old and irrelevant sexual restrictions have been abandoned because of their restrictions on human rights we have a moral and legal code which takes this biological necessity into account.

Rather than dogmatically demanding sexually promiscuity as Bnonn suggests, my model helps explain why we have such moral codes. Perhaps Bnonn’s ignorance here is more a matter of his perception that evolutionary science is ’evil.’

Q5: Are Humans hard-wired to “forcibly sleep around?”

Bnonn assumes my model implies humans are ’hardwired’ to ’forcibly sleep around’ (I assume he means rape) – so why is that not morally permissible?

Again he is misrepresenting my model. Surely it is clear why as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species we should have developed moral codes which usually abhor rape. And as a social, empathetic species we usually developed laws and moral codes to prohibit it.

I think Bnonn may somehow be confusing a moral code with the fact that our evolutionary development has produced instincts and desires influencing our social interaction and ensuring reproduction. They are not the same thing.

Of course there are people who may give a full reign to some individual instincts, sexual desire, dominance in human relationships, etc., while ignoring other empathetic instincts. Our species has developed moral intuitions and legal codes specifically to handle such problems, not to promote them.

Q6: What is wrong with moral relativism?

Bnonn: ’Hasn’t evolution hardwired some of us for that to?’

No, it hasn’t. That is the point of my suggested model — to explain why we have moral codes. How these arise from our nature. Again, I suspect Bnonn is being distracted by his hatred for the word ’evolution.’

Moral relativism is not a fact of human wiring but an intellectual position which denies any objective basis to human morality. One that is sometimes used to justify an ’anything goes’ approach to specific moral questions. Without a scientific model like the one I suggest the field is wide open to ’moral relativism.’  Just imagine society trying to develop moral or legal codes without giving any credence to ’The Golden Rule” or our inbuilt empathy?

This was why I criticised ’divine’ command ethics: ’Any old moral positions can be supported by ’divine commands.’ Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.’ After all, if morality is determined by decree or command from on high, and not reason recognising human empathy and society, anything can be commanded. And the “divine” part acts to prevent any doubts or questions.

So, considering Bnonn’s obsession with ’sleeping around’ for example. Surely he knows that some religious sects have proclaimed such behaviour, particularly access of religious leaders to young women and children, on the basis of ’divine’ command ethics. Instructions from their god. Whereas it is perfectly natural for humans as a social, empathetic species to develop moral and legal restrictions against such behaviour. And not just for cultural and historical reasons. But because we are hardwired to appreciate the suffering we can cause others. We are empathetic beings.

Finally, I think Bnonn’s problems with my model lie in his emotional reaction to words like “secular” and “evolution.” Consequently he has made unwarranted assumptions about this model and been busy attacking straw men.

Hopefully these comments will help him to critique the real model I am proposing.


In a future post I will answer some of the more philosophical criticisms I have received.

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