Posts Tagged science of morality

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin Ken Perrott Oct 19

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Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life is a new series of TV documentaries fronted by Richard Dawkins. I welcome this – partly because Dawkins is an excellent communicator. But also because it’s about time some of the current ideas in the science of morality and ethics were more widely known.

The first programme in the series, SIN,  was screened last Monday, on Channel 4 in the UK. I have embedded it below. It’s very informative.

There’s even a bit of humour – look out for the David Attenborough moment where Dawkins gives a description of evolution social customs around animal mating while watching humans performing on a dance floor

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 1.

There are at least two other programmes in the series. LIFE AFTER DEATH and MEANING OF LIFE.

See Death – part 2 of a series for the second episode.

See also:
Clear Story – Sex, death and the Meaning of Life
Channel 4 – SIN
British Atheist Richard Dawkins Explores Sin and Morality in New TV Series

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Moral behavior in animals Ken Perrott Apr 12

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Observing moral behaviour in other animals helps elucidate the evolutionary underpinnings of human morality. In this lecture Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioral tests, on primates and other mammals, that show how many of these moral traits all of us share.

Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals | Video on

de Waal’s first book, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes
(1982), compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. Ever since, de Waal has drawn parallels between primate and human behavior, from peacemaking and morality to culture. His scientific work has been published in hundreds of technical articles in journals such as Science, Nature, Scientific American, and outlets specialized in animal behavior.His latest books are Our Inner Ape
(2005) and
The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

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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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Ethicists have problems with ethics! Ken Perrott Oct 11

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I picked up this article recently – The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors. So I couldn’t help laughing when I came across this other one – When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists.

A title like “When Scientists Make Bad Scientists” would be more newsworthy (as the first article is implying the ethicists are not actually very good at personal ethics).

I will get back to Matt Flannaghan’s little rant against a scientific approach to understanding morality in a later post. It’s an important issue and I can appreciate why theologians like him worry about the scientific work in this area. (Their response is rather like the Roman Inquisition telling Galileo he had no right to believe that contrary to the Church’s teaching the earth goes around the sun – or King Canute’s command to the tide not to come in).

But – here I just wish to bring attention to the research in the first article suggesting that professional ethicists perhaps don’t behave too ethically as individuals. These researchers compared the:

 ”self-reported moral attitudes and moral behavior of 198 ethics professors, 208 non-ethicist philosophers, and 167 professors in departments other than philosophy on eight moral issues.”

“Ethicists expressed somewhat more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, such as vegetarianism and charitable donation. However, on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the two comparison groups. Our findings on attitude-behavior consistency were mixed: Ethicists showed the strongest relationship between behavior and expressed moral attitude regarding voting but the weakest regarding charitable donation.” (Quotes from abstract)

Senior author Eric Schwitzgebel expressed concern about these findings on his blog :

’I do think that our research raises questions about the extent to which studying ethics improves moral behavior. To the extent that practical effect is among one’s aims in studying (or as an administrator, in requiring) philosophy, I think there is reason for concern. I’m inclined to think that either philosophy should be justified differently, or we should work harder to try to figure out whether there is a *way* of studying philosophy that is more effective in changing moral behavior than the ordinary (21st century, Anglophone) way of studying philosophy is.’

I can’t say I am too surprised. I have often noted how specialists in some subjects appear very bad at handling their own particular problems in the specialist area. How often do we find psychologists or counsellors who don’t seem to follow the advice they dish out to their clients? (How often do we find priests . . .  No, let’s not go there).

But, perhaps more importantly, ethics at the individual level is usually not a conscious activity. It is based on ingrained intuitions and emotional responses.

So it’s easy to imagine how professionals may teach and intellectually justify ethical positions in the day job. But in their personal ethical and moral behaviour they will instead be exhibiting their emotional and intuitional behaviour.

See also: Ethicists, Courtesy & Morals.

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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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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More on the science of morality Ken Perrott Apr 18

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I think we may be seeing the beginning of a new wave of popular science books on morality. Sam Harris‘s The Moral Landscape got wide coverage and sparked several high-profile debates on the subject (see The new science of morality, Is and ought, A scientific consensus on human morality, Waking up to morality, Can science shape human values?, Telling right from wrong?, Telling right from wrong?, and Craig brings some clarity to morality?).

Now we have Patricia Churchland‘s new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. This came out at the end of March and I got my copy the other day. I have just read Chapter 1 and feel this will be an important book. In many ways it will probably complement The Moral Landscape because it deals clearly with some of the critiques made of Sam’s approach. Particularly those made by scientists and non-religious philosophers.

I hope it sells well. Churchland doesn’t have the high public profile that Harris has. But she is eminently qualified to cover the subject as a philosopher with a special interest in neuroscience. And the time is ripe for this sort of coverage.

I just hope some fire and brimstone Christian apologists attack the book (as with Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design). That would help get it noticed!

It’s also very readable – always important in a popular science book.

A problem with philosophers

I have despaired at much of the current philosophical discussion of human morality. And the assumption that it is a subject exclusively for philosophy and not science. In fact one is often accused of “scientism” for daring to suggest a role for science.  But I think the philosophical discussion is often  artificial – precisely because it does not take note of modern scientific findings. Churchland makes a similar criticism:

“a lot of contemporary moral philosophy, though venerated in academic halls, was completely untethered to the ’hard and fast’; that is, it had no strong connection to evolution or to the brain, and hence was in peril of floating on a sea of mere, albeit confident, opinion. And no doubt the medieval clerics were every bit as confident.”

So her stance is really welcome:

“The complaint that a scientific approach to understanding morality commits the sin of scientism does really exaggerate what science is up to, since the scientific enterprise does not aim to displace the arts or the humanities. . . . . On the other hand, it is true that philosophical claims about the nature of things, such as moral intuition, are vulnerable. Here, philosophy and science are working the same ground, and evidence should trump armchair reflection. In the present case, the claim is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what is right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and what it is that disposes us to care about others, may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems. That cannot be a bad thing.”

The is-ought problem

She disposes of this problem in the introduction, thankfully. It seems such a hurdle for those who have criticised Harris’s book. Churchland describes the origin of the “is-ought” mantra in Hume’s’ writing and how this has been misunderstood and misinterpreted – partly intentionally. She describes the idea ’you cannot derive an ought from an is’ as a “smackdown of a naturalistic approach to morality.” And asks how it could acquire philosophical standing.

Partly this is because many moral philosophers objected to Hume’s naturalism and “so they hung naturalism by the heels on Hume’s is/ought observation.” And today’s philosophers of religion are of course playing that one as hard as they can.

But the other reason is semantic – again, very relevant today:

Deriving a proposition in deductive logic strictly speaking requires a formally valid argument; that is, the conclusion must deductively follow from the premises, with no leeway, no mere high probability (e.g., ’All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal’). Assuming the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Strictly speaking, therefore, one cannot derive (in the sense of construct a formally valid argument for) a statement about what ought to be done from a set of facts about what is the case. “


“In a much broader sense of ’infer’ than derive you can infer (figure out) what you ought to do, drawing on knowledge, perception, emotions, and understanding, and balancing considerations against each other. We do it constantly, in both the physical and social worlds. . . . What gets us around the world is mainly not logical deduction (derivation). . . . In any case, that most problem-solving is not deduction is clear.”

Epistemologically the distinction between inference and deduction is important. In ’Other ways of knowing’ — some sense at last I pointed out that deductive logic:

“Produces the broadest, most complete and most consistent results. The methods are relatively simple and they involve few, precisely defined, predictions which are easily validated.”


“Logical claims are about the meaning of concepts, not details, and this limits the applicability of the method. It is also easily (and often) manipulated. For example logical arguments are presented as arbitrary lists (proving only that the ’logician’ can count) or based on shonky premises — chosen to produce the desired answer. This often happens with people arguing for strong ideological prejudices.”

A prime example is that presented by WL Craig and his constant use of “irrelevant syllogisms.” His fanboys in the Christian apologetic movement are caught up in the same approach in their attacks on “scientism” and the role of science on questions like morality, evolution and cosmology.

“Going Nuclear”

This putting all one’s eggs in the basket of deductive logic appears to be characteristic of the naive philosophy promoted by religious apologetics. How often do we hear them attack sceptics for not being able to “prove” that we are not a brain in a vat, that we even exist, that we aren’t electrons in a Matrix!

On the one hand this is just the logical fallacy of “going nuclear,” or trusting in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Because if the sceptic’s arguments are restricted to the confines of deductive logic, so then must the protagonists. On the other hand they get around this withy the shonky logic and false premises I referred to above.

So, Churchland concludes:

“In sum, from the perspective of neuroscience and brain evolution, the routine rejection of scientific approaches to moral behavior based on Hume’s warning against deriving ought from is seems unfortunate, especially as the warning is limited to deductive inferences. The dictum can be set aside for a deeper, albeit programmatic, neurobiological perspective on what reasoning and problem-solving are, how social navigation works, how evaluation is accomplished by nervous systems, and how mammalian brains make decisions”

And that is what the book is about.

See also

A special The Pod Delusion podcast of a recent discussion at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford between Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape. [Direct MP3 Link]

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins discuss the science of morality

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

Video of Pat Churchland’s contribution to the Great debate ’Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?’ (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop).

A philosopher comments on science and morality

TSN: Patricia Smith Chuchland, posted with vodpod

Video of Pat Churchland’s Gillford Lecture: Morality and the Mammalian Brain

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Sam Harris on The Daily Show Ken Perrott Oct 06

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Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is now out. I have been offered a review copy but have yet to see it.

Here is a clip of Jon Stewart and Sam Harris talking about the book on the Daily Show last night.

Sam says some interesting things.

I am sure many will find faults with his book but he has certainly started a much needed discussion on the possibility of an objective basis for morality.

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Arrested moral development. Ken Perrott Oct 04


I came across this intriguing statement about religious ethics in the book I am currently reading:

“religious ethics is similar to the attitude of the child between 5 and 9 years old. It is far too concerned with rules that are experienced as sacrosanct, as deontological commands coming from above, instead of with rules as a product that should be justified and amended as necessary.”

This struck a chord because  of two article I also read recently:

Why young adults change their religious beliefs where Tom Rees remarked on the observation that one’s religious beliefs “tend to crystalline in your late teens and early adulthood.”


Five Good Things about Atheism where R. Joseph Hoffmann claims that atheism is an ethical position and raises the question of “whether it is possible to be good with God.”

But first the book – which I highly recommend. It’s The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur. Just published, it is really relevant to today’s society and is a thorough discussion of the subjects indicated by its title. I promise to have a review of the book posted in a few weeks.

Human development and belief

I have a clear memory of my own thoughts on religion, morality and society having suddenly “clarified” at around the age of 12 years. And I know that was not just me. I have found the same experience related in  the biographies of well known people like Francis Crick and Albert Einstein and am sure it is common.

My memory is not that I suddenly knew everything. Just that I didn’t have to mindlessly accept other people’s word for things. That I could make my own decisions. Beliefs, morality and views on society were no longer “god-given” – to be accepted without question or consideration.

I have always put this down to hormones. But apparently its a recognised part of human development. Cliteur describes this in his discussion of Jean Piaget‘s ideas on cognitive development.  In effect Cliteur describes three stages of moral development:

  1. Orientation to punishment and reward and an instrumental view of human relations (“You scratch my back and I”ll scratch yours”).
  2. Orientation to authority, law, duty. Accepting of social and religious order. Interested in maintaining approval of peers.
  3. Orientation to one’s conscience. Highest value placed on human life, equality and dignity. Uses logic and appreciates universality. See value in social contract and democratically established order.

I see that stage 3 as starting to happen about age 12 and hopefully developing until the description is characteristic of the mature adult. At this stage the individual has moral autonomy. Has integrated a moral outlook into her own conscience. Is able to respond independently without instruction from an authority, a government, political or religious leader, or a holy book.

On the other hand individuals can have their moral development restricted by reliance on, or imposition of, authority. Typically this happens in cults and strict traditional religions. But of course it can also happen in the absence of religion if the environment is dictatorial, authoritative and imposed. (Remember the “Red Guards” in China’s Maoist “Cultural Revolution”).

In such cases an individual’s moral development may be arrested at stage 2 – effectively at the stage of a 5 to 9 year old. Have a look at Psychological abuse of children for a video interview with Jill Mytton. She is is a therapist specialising in the  problems suffered by adults who have escaped from religious cults, and those suffering from religious abuse as children. Apparently failure to integrate a personal morality is common with such survivors.

Is religious morality infantile

One could also see different ethical structures as representing different stages of development. I personally see secular ethics as requiring moral autonomy, capable of logical consideration and based on universal human values such as human life, equality and dignity. Stage 3. On the other hand religious meta-ethics (not the ethical content, which can be good, but the form or structure) is really stuck at stage 2. It relies very much on authority, law and duty, and their acceptance.

So the claim made by Patrick Nowell-Smith (quoted in this book) “that religious morality is infantile,” while provocative, is largely accurate. And it is even expressed in the question religionists sometimes pose of non-believers: “Where do you get your morals from?” It is usually clear from the context that the questioner really means “what or who is your authority for your morals?” In other words moral autonomy is not really considered an option.

Even quite intelligent theologians seem not to appreciate the mature position of moral autonomy. Ideas like divine command theory are sometimes presented as explanations for human morality. This is the idea that moral propositions are “good” because God commands them. Huge flaws in this of course – as can be seen in the satirical comment from “Everybody knows that morality is whatever God says. And God says, whatever me, my best friends, and my hierarchical coalition say that God says.’

Can you be good with God?

So the question posed by R. Joseph Hoffmann actually seems very sensible. Quite apart from the nice reversal of the billboard slogan “You can be good without God.”

How can you be good, have a mature moral attitude, if you accept your moral positions purely on authority? And that authority also determines it moral teaching on authority? How can one be good without a personal moral autonomy?

I think it is worth posing this question. But I don’t think it is correct to claim that all religious people, or all Christians, are immoral, or don’t have moral autonomy, purely because of their religious beliefs. We need to recognise that people can mature to a position of moral autonomy naturally even while professing religious beliefs. Researchers have found people will respond to situations instinctively. Their moral responses are intuitive. However, after the event they may rationalise those responses. And their rationalisations may bear little relationship to their actual response – after all they are not able to access the unconscious processes involved in that response.

So, I don’t find it surprising that a morally autonomous person, who has accepted human values and logical consideration of important ethical questions, can nevertheless resort to religious or theological explanations, really rationalisations, of their moral actions.

Holy dangers

On the other hand I don’t think there is any doubt that some members of society can, for one reason or another, have their moral development arrested. This can be dangerous. When  children are raised in an environment imposing a strict dogma, including moral instruction, they may sometimes not be able to develop full moral autonomy. They may be stuck at stage 2.

Maybe not a big threat to society if it means some people are saving themselves sexually until married. But there are far more dangerous moral instructions coming out of the pages of “Holy” scriptures and the mouths of “Holy” men (yes, usually men). Ideas that religious beliefs are more important the human liberties and rights. That religious instructions are more important than national laws. That, for instance, the pronouncements of an Imam in an Afghani cave is more important that the laws and lives of the person in the street in Europe, America or Pakistan. Even if the innocent is attending a mosque or church.

Or that the teachings of a fanatical American religious leader are more important than the lives of workers at an abortion clinic and their patients. That one’s god’s commands have overriding importance even when they call for the most inhumane actions. And they must be their god’s commands because they are in a “Holy” book or come out of the mouths of “Holy” men.

In these situations one must find it really difficult to be good with God.

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A scientific consensus on human morality Ken Perrott Sep 21


There has been some local discussion of the scientific approach to morality. Unfortunately some of this has concentrated on only one source (a TED talk by Sam Harris – see Can science answer moral questions?). I believe Sam makes some interesting points and am eager to read his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values which will be published next month. (I am planning to review it then). However, he is just one person, has tended to concentrate only on the problem presented by advocates of moral relativism, and has not actually done any significant research in this area.

I posted previously about the Edge Seminar last July on the science of morality (see The new science of morality and Is and ought). This brought together eight researchers, including Same Harris. (Well nine actually, but Marc Hauser’s contributions have been removed – that is another story; unfortunate but significant). The videos and transcripts of the conference are available at the Edge site and are well worth viewing.

Below I have reproduced the Consensus Statement made by the scientists at the seminar. It’s a useful summary of where the science of morality currently stands – at least in the minds of eight significant scientists working in the area. Its taken from Edge 327.


1) Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon
Like language, sexuality, or music, morality emerges from the interaction of multiple psychological building blocks within each person, and from the interactions of many people within a society. These building blocks are the products of evolution, with natural selection playing a critical role. They are assembled into coherent moralities as individuals mature within a cultural context. The scientific study of morality therefore requires the combined efforts of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

2) Many of the psychological building blocks of morality are innate
The word “innate,” as we use it in the context of moral cognition, does not mean immutable, operational at birth, or visible in every known culture. It means “organized in advance of experience,” although experience can revise that organization to produce variation within and across cultures.

Many of the building blocks of morality can be found, in some form,  in other primates, including sympathy, friendship, hierarchical relationships, and coalition-building. Many of the building blocks of morality are visible in all human culture, including sympathy, friendship, reciprocity, and the ability to represent others’ beliefs and intentions.

Some of the building blocks of morality become operational quite early in childhood, such as the capacity to respond with empathy to human suffering, to act altruistically, and to punish those who harm others.

3) Moral judgments are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious weighing of evidence and alternatives
Like judgments about the grammaticality of sentences, moral judgments are often experienced as occurring rapidly, effortlessly, and automatically. They occur even when a person cannot articulate reasons for them.

4) Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives
People often apply moral principles and engage in moral reasoning. For example, people use reasoning to detect moral inconsistencies in others and in themselves, or when moral intuitions conflict, or are absent. Moral reasoning often serves an argumentative function; it is often a preparation for social interaction and persuasion, rather than an open-minded search for the truth. In line with its persuasive function, moral reasoning can have important causal effects interpersonally. Reasons and arguments can establish new principles (e.g.,  racial equality, animal rights) and produce moral change in a society.

5) Moral judgments and values are often at odds with actual behavior
People often fail to live up to their consciously-endorsed values. One of the many reasons for the disconnect is that moral action often depends on self-control, which is a fluctuating and limited resource. Doing what is morally right, especially when contrary to selfish desires, often depends on an effortful inner struggle with an uncertain outcome.

6) Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no “moral center” in the brain
Moral judgments depend on the operation of multiple neural systems that are distinct but that interact with one another, sometimes in a competitive fashion. Many of these systems play comparable roles in non-moral contexts.  For example, there are systems that support the implementation of cognitive control, the representation of mental states, and the affective representation of value in both moral and non-moral contexts.

7) Morality varies across individuals and cultures
People within each culture vary in their moral judgments and behaviors. Some of this variation is due to heritable differences in temperament (for example, agreeableness or conscientiousness) or in morally-relevant capacities (such as one’s ability to take the perspective of others). Some of this difference is due to variations in childhood experiences; some is due to the roles and contexts influencing a person at the moment of judgment or action.

Morality varies across cultures in many ways, including the overall moral domain (what kinds of things get regulated), as well as specific moral norms, practices, values, and institutions. Moral virtues and values are strongly influenced by local and historical circumstances, such as the nature of economic activity, form of government, frequency of warfare, and strength of institutions for dispute resolution.

8)` Moral systems support human flourishing, to varying degrees
The emergence of morality allowed much larger groups of people to live together and reap the benefits of trust, trade, shared security, long term planning, and a variety of other non-zero-sum interactions. Some moral systems do this better than others, and therefore it is possible to make some comparative judgments.

The existence of moral diversity as an empirical fact does not support an “anything-goes” version of moral relativism in which all moral systems must be judged to be equally good. We note, however, that moral evaluations across cultures must be made cautiously because there are multiple justifiable visions of flourishing and wellbeing, even within Western societies. Furthermore, because of the power of  moral intuitions to influence reasoning, social scientists studying morality are at risk of being biased by their own culturally shaped values and desires.

Signed by:

Roy Baumeister,  Florida State University
Paul Bloom, Yale University
Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia
Sam Harris, Project Reason
Joshua Knobe, Yale University
David Pizarro, Cornell University


Footnote: I liked the comment on this consensus statement: “I dunno why these big-brain ’EDGE’ guys are making such a fuss here about ’morality.’ Everybody knows that morality is whatever God says. And God says, whatever me, my best friends, and my hierarchical coalition say that God says.”

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