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Author Topic: Does an Objective Morality Exist?
enochville
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"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
-- William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Before I begin, I want to make it clear what I am not saying. I am not saying morality or good and bad do not exist. I am saying that they only exist as subjective constructs. I am not suggesting that if no objective morality exists, that we should then allow anyone to do what they want. The question of “what do we do now?” is separate from “does objective morality exist?” I am only treating the latter question in this post. I do have a moral system that in many ways is likely to be very similar to yours.

What does objective mean? Objective means having actual existence or reality; uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices; or based on observable phenomena. It is contrasted with the adjective subjective. Subjective means proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world; or particular to a given person; personal.

What is morality? Morality is concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct.

If you disagree with any of my definitions, let’s discuss that first before we move on. If we are on the same page so far, I am going to tackle this question from a couple of different angles: the necessity of an observer and relativity.

Necessity of an Observer

One possible phrasing of the topic in question is, “Does the distinction between good and evil exist in the external world or only in the human mind?” It is my contention that it takes an observer to make a judgment to make something good or bad.

Let’s try a thought experiment. If a behavior is engaged in, and no one ever judges it, does its badness exist? The behavior may result in pain or death, but if no one ever evaluates it (including you as you imagine it), does it have a badness characteristic? A behavior can only gain a badness quality if an evaluator gives it one. It is not a physical quality; it cannot be measured with an instrument. Badness only resides in the eye of the beholder; it does not exist independent of an observer. That makes it subjective by definition. Remember subjective means proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world.

Now, some believe that there is an objective, external morality that is established by God. But, we are faced again with the fact that now God is the evaluator. The badness of the behavior exists in the mind of God, not in the external world. God’s opinion of what is moral does not establish an objective morality, as not all accept the idea that he has the final word on declaring something good or evil. If God does exist, I do not accept his morality as an objective standard. He is simply one being, one evaluator of behavior, as am I. If he exists and is all-powerful, he may enforce consequences upon me for my behavior, but that does not make the behaviors objectively good or evil. He is not the final say of good and evil unless we make him so for ourselves. Every person creates good and evil for themselves in their own minds. Consequences exist whether someone believes in them or not, but only a person or god can create good and evil, for good and evil are nothing more than evaluations. And evaluations are not properties of a behavior as they cannot exist outside of an evaluator.

Other people may believe that behaviors have a goodness or badness quality, independent of any observer’s evaluation. They claim that the universe bestows this quality on behaviors. But, what does that mean? Consequences can follow behaviors as in karma, but that is a cause and effect relationship or a conditional reward type situation. It does not mean that a behavior is “good” or “bad”.

Now that I have shown that the distinction between good and evil exists only in the mind, I believe I have demonstrated that there can be no objective morality.

Relative Morality

Another way to phrase the topic in question is, “Although morality may exist only in the mind, can we humans through logic and reason identify morals that are not ‘particular to the individual,’ but are universal and ‘uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices’ and in that sense be objective?” Let’s take a look at that.

Logic and reason are operators; they need something to work on. The kind of moral system you end up with depends on what you subjectively choose to start with. Deductive reasoning requires you to subjectively choose some premise to start with, such as “whatever promotes life is good,” and then deduce moral behaviors that are consistent with that premise. Now, one can evaluate the system that was derived from the premise on the basis of consistency, soundness, and completeness, but one cannot objectively evaluate the premise itself. The problem is that there are nearly an infinite number of premises from which to start and no objective way to determine which premise is best. This is because the only way to judge a premise is with another premise. I imagine much of the discussion to follow will revolve around demonstrating this is true in several specific cases.

Allow me to demonstrate with just one specific case. Suppose an individual started with the premise that “might makes right” and thereby justifies genocide. Now there are many ways in which you can challenge this premise using your own subjective standards: reciprocity, beneficence, non-malevalance, sustainability, utility, etc. This individual may not share those values or think your criticisms are relevant. Is there a way to demonstrate that those values MUST be part of any valid moral system? What many people believe are essential elements of a moral system are not in actuality. It is usually because they cannot see their own subjective assumptions. It takes patience to identify these. How are you going to challenge the premise that “might makes right” objectively, without simply using another premise that they could validly deem irrelevant?

Example:
Joe: “Might makes right”.
Sue: “But, how are you going to feel if someone stronger than you kills you?” (This is using the premise that if you wouldn’t like the behaviors justified by your moral system committed against you then your moral system is inferior).
Joe: “I would not like it, but that would not make the behavior wrong. If they are stronger, they are right. Their behavior is consistent with my moral system; therefore it is good.”
Sue: “But, if you would not like it, then it is bad. And it would cause other people to suffer and that is bad.”
Joe: “Why? Might makes right. It doesn’t matter whether I or anyone else likes it or suffers.”
Sue: “A moral system must take into account human suffering; else you cannot call it moral.”
Joe: “No it doesn’t. That is your own prejudice talking. Morality is defined as a system to identify good behavior from bad behavior. Where in there do you see a stipulation to consider human suffering?”
Sue: “But that thinking could lead to the destruction of all mankind.”
Joe: “Destruction is part of life. Evolution by natural selection, survival of the fittest, it results in the hardiest organisms, and that is a good thing.”
Sue: “How can you say that?”
Joe: “I just have a different moral system than you. I value different things.”

As you can see the appeals to the values of reciprocity, human suffering, and sustainability had no result. There is no objective reason why Joe must agree to evaluate his moral system by Sue’s values. Two people must share a set of subjective values before they can agree on where one moral system is better than another. Nothing requires us to predicate our moral system on any particular value. That is what ensures that there is no objective morality.

Other people might contend that we can know what is good or bad by looking at what people agree are good or bad. Consensus of opinion is not proof of objective good and evil for it could just be opinion, and opinion is by its very nature subjective. For example, before Copernicus, there was consensus that the sun and planets revolved around the earth, but that did not make it objective reality. I think we should pay attention to areas of consensus when formulating our subjective moralities.

Nothing requires that we must define what is good based on the opinion of the majority. I could have a moral system based on “might makes right.” You could disagree with my moral system, but there is absolutely no way to objectively show me that I am wrong. The same goes for every moral system. The only way to criticize their premises is to use other premises for which there is no objective reason why others must acknowledge that those premises are the standard by which all moral systems may be objectively judged and compared. One can always subjectively judge, using one’s own preferred premises. There is no way to objectively determine which morality is best; therefore, there is no objective morality.

Some may acknowledge that there is no objective way to identify which moral premises are best through logic, but they contend that all people will find the same morality by listening to our consciences. If we consider whether something is good or bad, we will get a feeling about it. In order for this method to be objective, we all would need to get the same answer. One counterexample can demonstrate that this is not an objective method. When I was a true believing Mormon, my conscience was trained to give me a bad feeling about drinking alcohol. Now, as a non-believer, my conscience gives me no signal that drinking alcohol is wrong.

Other people may believe an objective morality may be found in the Bible. This is an appeal to authority. First, the Bible does not present a consistent moral system, but even if it did, it is only subjective opinion for one to consider the Bible as the standard by which to judge all conduct.

We may be able to objectively identify which behaviors lead to mistrust, or suffering, or hardship. But, we cannot objectively identify which behaviors are good, because goodness is an evaluation that is based on one’s personal premises.

OK, let the discussion commence.

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rivka
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A related thread you might find of interest.
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enochville
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Thanks for the link, rivka! It will take me a little while to work through it.
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Jhai
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I am quite certain an objective morality exists, independent of the Judeo-Christian deity. I don't have a lot of time to respond right now, but briefly...

Just because you say that "badness" requires an observer, doesn't make it so - or, at least, doesn't invalidate an objective moral reality. I fully believe that, whether anyone is there to count it or not, one plus one will always equal two. I think that morality falls into a similar epistemological framework as logic and mathematics - just more complicated. Just because you can't physically measure "badness" doesn't make it subjective - philosophy has moved on from empiricism.

With your comment on God - well, first I don't believe such a being exists. But you'd do well to read the Euthyphro by Plato (one of the Socratic dialogues), as it fumbles with the problem of whether God creates morality, or God is constrained by morality. Be sure to check it out when Euthyphro falls into Socrates' trap by blindly agreeing with him on a key point.

On relativism - a good ethical theory class ought to start with beating that out of anyone. As I said above, I believe that morality is similar in nature to mathematics and logic. Just like you can't "prove" the logical argumentation of modus ponens (If A then B; A; therefore B), you can't prove ethical axioms. But if anyone understands the terms, and looks at them long enough, then they're realize it must be true. Modus ponens *must* be true, and if you think about it long enough, you'll realize that. Likewise, if you think about the sentence "It is immoral to torture innocent babies just for fun," you'll have to come to the conclusion that that is also true. If you don't, it probably means that you're either a sociopath (incapable of understanding morality in the same way a non-rational being is incapable of understanding logical proofs), or you don't really understand the terms under discussion.

Some people balk at the idea that morality is similar to mathematics, citing that there's a lot of ethical disagreement, and no mathematical disagreement. The response to that is that, first, on the frontiers of mathematics there is disagreement awaiting a genius to figure out which side is correct, and, second, most people work (or try to work) at a much higher level of ethics than they ever get to in mathematics.

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Tatiana
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Yes an objective morality exists. What all human societies have so far is an imperfect idea of a concept that exists in perfect form. God exists and is constrained by morality, not vice versa.
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Paul Goldner
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"Some people balk at the idea that morality is similar to mathematics, citing that there's a lot of ethical disagreement, and no mathematical disagreement. The response to that is that, first, on the frontiers of mathematics there is disagreement awaiting a genius to figure out which side is correct, and, second, most people work (or try to work) at a much higher level of ethics than they ever get to in mathematics."

This is a problematic statement because, at the edges of mathematics, and at the edges of ethics, we have more or less the same number of people trying to figure things out. The frontiers of mathematics get worked out every 10-50 years, but the frontiers of ethics haven't been sorted out once in 2500 years, that I am aware of. There are almost no propositions in ethics that have ever been at the frontier, that now have universal answers. The dilemas that plato and aristotle, descartes and kant, spinoza and leibniz, wrestled with are still being wrestled with. In different ways, granted, and with different tools. But its still, fundamentally, all the same question.

In other words, while mathematics has progressed such that we have a better understanding of mathematics, and at deeper levels, and have resolved thousands of difficult questions, the same cannot be said about ethics.

Additionally, Mathematics is universal once we agree to definitions. That is, once we describe what we mean by "1" and "0" and some other terms, its obvious that it doesn't matter who is counting, 1 plus 1 is always 2.

The thing is, though, that to get to the same place with ethics, you need to define "good" and "bad." And those are, ultimately, the questions of contention within ethics.

Math, we define trivial things in order to get universality. In ethics, in order to get universality, you need to define what ethics means. But by doing so, you inevitably exclude some segment of people who disagree with your definition.

The fight, in ethics, is how to define our terms. This seperates it from math, where definitions are NOT the problem. Its the application.

Until we can start agreeing, universally, on ethical terms, I don't think its reasonable to say that ethics is like mathematics.

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Jhai
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Sorry for any confusion - I didn't mean to say that ethics in analogous to mathematics in all respects, just that it's similar in its epistemological underpinnings. Just like you can't prove the building blocks of logic or mathematics, you can't prove the building blocks of ethics - but it's still true. Morality is just a lot more complicated than mathematics, and it's much harder to build up from axioms - in part due to the way English as a language is a lot more complicated than mathematics as a language. If you converse in English (or Latin, French, etc) as philosophy does, you're going to have a messier time going about it. Terms, however, *are* often clearly defined in philosophy (unless you're PoMo, but in that case I don't think you're doing philosophy anymore). Most philosophy majors are required to take two or more history courses in large part to gain the terminology and understand the definitions that have built up over time. Modern analytic philosophy papers very precise.

I disagree strongly with the idea that there has been no progress made in understanding morality over the past 2500 years. No decent philosopher, for instance, will ever take a moral relativist stance, because it's been shown to be so easily defeated (similar to how no decent economist will take a Marxist stance, although he might incorporate some ideas of Marx).

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Paul Goldner
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"I disagree strongly with the idea that there has been no progress made in understanding morality over the past 2500 years. No decent philosopher, for instance, will ever take a moral relativist stance, because it's been shown to be so easily defeated"

Aside from the fact that decent philosophers are still taking relativst stances (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/), and granting for the moment that moral relativism is wrong, sure, maybe we've made progress by elimination. This is a far cry from mathematics, where we've made tons of progress by addition.

"Just like you can't prove the building blocks of logic or mathematics, you can't prove the building blocks of ethics - but it's still true. "

See, I don't think you can even come up with building blocks of ethics that people will universally agree to. You can't prove either mathematical or ethical building blocks, but at least in mathematics you can provide some blocks that everyone agrees to.

I am unaware that we have yet defined "bad" and "good" in such a way that everyone will agree to play with the defined rules. Mathematics, we literally have thousands of defined rules that everyone is willing to play by. And without "bad" and "good" being defined, you can't even attempt ethics.

So I think you need to prove that the building blocks of ethics can be proved to be true for your argument to have merit.

let me see if I can say what i mean in a slightly different way in case the above is confusing.

"Morality is just a lot more complicated than mathematics, and it's much harder to build up from axioms"

In mathematics, we have a lot of axioms that are agreed to. I'm not certain we have any useful axioms in ethics that are agreed to.

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Jhai
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Paul, have you read any current philosophy journals - at least those written in the analytical style? Everyone is very careful to define their terms before starting an argument. The definitions are generally just as precise as I've seen in, for instance, baby Rudin.

Also, I'll repeat again that I'm *not* arguing with you that mathematics and ethics are alike in all or even most ways - precision, what we've done with over the ages, etc. Just that they're similar in their epistemological underpinnings - we come to know them in similar manners, by considering the statements made, and reflecting deeply. It's really not that controversial a position, although, being philosophy, it'd take a lot more explanation than I have the time to write out here. Take a look at any metaethic or moral epistemology text - any one with "moral realism" as a subheading or chapter should cover it.

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Paul Goldner
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"Paul, have you read any current philosophy journals - at least those written in the analytical style? Everyone is very careful to define their terms before starting an argument."

I understand that.

But those defined terms don't really help, in ethics. When people agree to them, they are the useless terms. As I said above, you can't even attempt ethics without definitions of good and bad. And those are the terms that there is wild disagreement about.

It would be like, in mathematics, disagreement over what "addition" and "subtraction" , "one" and "zero" mean.

"Just that they're similar in their epistemological underpinnings - we come to know them in similar manners, by considering the statements made, and reflecting deeply."

I agree with this statement.

Where I am disagreeing with you is this:

" Modus ponens *must* be true, and if you think about it long enough, you'll realize that. Likewise, if you think about the sentence "It is immoral to torture innocent babies just for fun," you'll have to come to the conclusion that that is also true. If you don't, it probably means that you're either a sociopath (incapable of understanding morality in the same way a non-rational being is incapable of understanding logical proofs), or you don't really understand the terms under discussion."

The terms under discussion are not agreed to. They are, in fact, at the heart of the discussion. Therefore, math and ethics are not similar.

"It's really not that controversial a position,"

I'm sure its not, in some departments. I've found, however, that non-controversial positions within a philosophy department, are often extremely controversial if you ask people in the departments that philosophy is trying to compare itself to.

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Samprimary
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A concrete, objective morality could exist, and it would still be of little use to humanity as long as we had no means to end disagreement over the authenticity of this moral standard.

Now, I'm all for the almighty God(s) landing giant indestructable glowing monoliths on the outskirts of all the world's cities with text on them that spell it out clear as crystal for all of us. Barring a solution like this, though, all we have is axiom and philosophy, and a potluck of cultural and religious socialized mores which are constantly tested against our crude biological opportunism.

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TomDavidson
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The question "does objective morality exist" is flawed, insofar as it assumes that morality logically based upon axioms is not objective. As morality is clearly not a physical construct, I think we should start with a willingness to accept that an axiomatic foundation for morality is necessary.
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Samprimary
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quote:
As morality is clearly not a physical construct
Heh .. but what if we don't even know that for sure? Our actions could be influencing an unmeasurable soul-linked morality counter that determines our afterlife destiny!
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TomDavidson
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True. We could also be weird simulationist programs running as part of a massive weapons system that, once enough of us reach spiritual enlightenment, will destroy the "real" universe -- a universe we have never perceived, but which is progressively harmed by every bit of good we do to each other in our simulation. So for the purposes of this conversation, let's assume that reality consists of things which can be perceived. [Smile]
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Tarrsk
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quote:
Originally posted by TomDavidson:
True. We could also be weird simulationist programs running as part of a massive weapons system that, once enough of us reach spiritual enlightenment, will destroy the "real" universe -- a universe we have never perceived, but which is progressively harmed by every bit of good we do to each other in our simulation. So for the purposes of this conversation, let's assume that reality consists of things which can be perceived. [Smile]

Dude. That would make a fantastic movie.
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MightyCow
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An objective morality does indeed exist, but honestly, I've been too lazy to lay it out for everyone. I might some day, but until then, you're all just going to have to muddle through.

Basically be nice, drive safely, try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. I'll get around to telling you all the rest eventually, but I think you really know if you think about it.

[Wink]

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enochville
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And not mock others, right, MightyCow?

Just kidding. I liked it.

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Xaposert
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quote:
What does objective mean? Objective means having actual existence or reality; uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices; or based on observable phenomena. It is contrasted with the adjective subjective. Subjective means proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world; or particular to a given person; personal.
I think you might want to rethink your definitions, unless you believe something can be both Objective AND Subjective at the same time - because many things that proceed from or take place in your mind also actually exist in reality. Numbers, concepts, colors, thoughts, ideas, preferences, rules of logic, perceptions, etc. All these things proceed from the mind, or take place in the mind, and yet are definitely real. Several of them also have clear effects on behavior in the physical world too.
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Destineer
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Everyone interested in the topic of this thread should read The Moral Probem by Michael Smith (if you don't believe in God) or Finite and Infinite Goods by Robert Adams (if you do believe in God).
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Kwea
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quote:
Originally posted by Xaposert:
quote:
What does objective mean? Objective means having actual existence or reality; uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices; or based on observable phenomena. It is contrasted with the adjective subjective. Subjective means proceeding from or taking place in a person's mind rather than the external world; or particular to a given person; personal.
I think you might want to rethink your definitions, unless you believe something can be both Objective AND Subjective at the same time - because many things that proceed from or take place in your mind also actually exist in reality. Numbers, concepts, colors, thoughts, ideas, preferences, rules of logic, perceptions, etc. All these things proceed from the mind, or take place in the mind, and yet are definitely real. Several of them also have clear effects on behavior in the physical world too.
Wow...I never saw THAT coming.....

[Wink] [Razz]

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Juxtapose
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I think a good case can be made for an objective morality that stems from our biological history. Most people have an intuition concerning any given moral dilemma. Like Jhai said earlier, "[you] realize it must be true." As biological organisms certain behaviors are more conducive than others, in the aggregate, to functioning as a social creature.
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MightyCow
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quote:
Originally posted by enochville:
And not mock others, right, MightyCow?

Just kidding. I liked it.

Good, because part of my objective morality is always agreeing with me [Wink]

Who can say if I'm not the final authority on objective morality? If you disagree, it's only because you don't know how true it is [Big Grin]

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Samprimary
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quote:
Originally posted by Juxtapose:
I think a good case can be made for an objective morality that stems from our biological history. Most people have an intuition concerning any given moral dilemma. Like Jhai said earlier, "[you] realize it must be true." As biological organisms certain behaviors are more conducive than others, in the aggregate, to functioning as a social creature.

I think I would categorize that more under a biological imperative rather than an objective morality, since natural demands do not seem to be universalized.

Conditioning adds another layer to it: two 'natural' upbringings can create entirely seperate innate moral answers to given dilemmas.

Then there's the question regarding the differentiation between 'civilized' morality and the brutish state of nature described by Hobbes. And so on, so forth, blah blah.

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David Bowles
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quote:
I think a good case can be made for an objective morality that stems from our biological history. Most people have an intuition concerning any given moral dilemma. Like Jhai said earlier, "[you] realize it must be true." As biological organisms certain behaviors are more conducive than others, in the aggregate, to functioning as a social creature.
Ah, but this is a case for what I have (on the many, many, many morality threads on this site in the last seven years) called "Virtual Morality." Unlike objective morality, which presumably would be based upon universal laws like mathematics and physics are, virtual morality is based on what makes the largest number of human beings both individually satisfied and collectively able to peacefully coexist/progress. It certainly feels as if not killing people who piss you off is the moral thing to do, and abstaining from such killing helps society run more smoothly. So, for human beings, we can say that murder is bad. But we can't say murder is objectively bad or universally bad, because that just doesn't make any sense. Time itself doesn't flow universally at the same rate! We may run into an alien species one day that is sentient but that has embraced murder as a wonderful thing (though I doubt this... I suspect that there are a half dozen principles that are evolutionary "good tricks" for sentient species, and one is probably "don't just kill other members of your species, moron... makes it more likely that you'll get randomly killed").
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orlox
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http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/27/AR2007052701056.html
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BlackBlade
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quote:
Originally posted by orlox:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/27/AR2007052701056.html

Quite an interesting read. The rat experiment was really clever and the results surprising.

Is it possible that its neighbor getting shocked caused it to cease eating as the body language and sounds the rat would surely make might make eating very uncomfortable?

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orlox
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quote:
Originally posted by BlackBlade:
Is it possible that its neighbor getting shocked caused it to cease eating as the body language and sounds the rat would surely make might make eating very uncomfortable?

I would be surprised if that were the case but it is certainly a testable hypothesis.

More stuff:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070528162351.htm

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Juxtapose
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Samprimary & David Bowles,
I noticed you both mentioned the word "universal." Do you both think, then, that a true objective morality would necessarily enforce itself equally on all capable beings? Please answer in unison.

For the record, that's more or less my big problem with the classical concept of an objective morality. We have examples of objective, physical laws and how they work. Namely, they can't be broken.

So perhaps David's "virtual morality" works better as a label. Two problems though:
quote:
Unlike objective morality, which presumably would be based upon universal laws like mathematics and physics are, virtual morality is based on what makes the largest number of human beings both individually satisfied and collectively able to peacefully coexist/progress.
1. Part of the definition of objective is "based on observable phenomena," which the biological case would indeed fall under. If you think that's just semantics, fair enough.

2. Your definition of virtual morality is itself based on physical universal laws. Perhaps "derived morality" makes more sense.

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Destineer
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quote:
Ah, but this is a case for what I have (on the many, many, many morality threads on this site in the last seven years) called "Virtual Morality." Unlike objective morality, which presumably would be based upon universal laws like mathematics and physics are, virtual morality is based on what makes the largest number of human beings both individually satisfied and collectively able to peacefully coexist/progress.
What evidence do we have that species enjoying peace and progress are more fit in an evolutionary sense?

Humans are the best-adapted species on Earth right now, and most of us don't have very peaceful lives, though we do seem to make a lot of progress (in science and technology at least).

It might be that ethical systems are in fact selected for, given that humans and advanced animals also develop systems like ethics. But that by itself gives us no reason to believe that moral systems make individual people better off. In fact they might be selected for in part because they help foster certain kinds of conflict.

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Foust
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What does it even mean to say that an act is "right" or "wrong"?

Right and wrong as factually correct and incorrect - in the sense that, say, a math equation is correct or incorrect - doesn't seem to fit. How am I factually wrong to murder?

Is it a matter of rules and principles? Does morality have the same sort of structure as legal systems? For example, it is illegal in Canada to murder. Murder violates a legal law. Are there moral laws that operate in the same way? Ie, murder is immoral because it violates a moral law.

If that is the case - that morality is akin to a legal system - than what reason do we have to care about those moral laws, other than potential rewards and punishments?

I think those questions are unanswerable, and that there is a better angle. The moral perspective is the one that shows us the difference between ourselves and the world as they are and as we wish them to be. The difference between a current state and an ideal we've internalized.

We feel pride when we personally move towards that ideal, shame when we fall short. We praise people when they move towards that same ideal, and we feel indignant when they fall short.

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David Bowles
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quote:
What evidence do we have that species enjoying peace and progress are more fit in an evolutionary sense?
Species' enjoying peace and progress? None. One's particular in-group's enjoying peace and progress? Plenty. Evolutionary biology and psychology have done a pretty good job of tracing (as you hint at) the likely selective pressures that made in-group morality a viable "good trick." I realize that this is far from being resoundingly and empirically proven, but it seems likely that morality within the group you belong to (tribe, family) increases reproductive fitness (i.e., lets you produce more babies). What then cultural evolution has been doing (via the gradual construction of ethical memeplexes, religions, etc) is building up systems through which we can view larger and larger groups of humans as part of the in-group (because, frankly, the problem isn't a lack of morality in the world, but an unwillingness to apply our core of virtually universal moral principals to the Other).

Juxtapose— right... capital-T-TRUE, objective morality would be literally universal: wherever one went in the universe, those ethical laws would hold true, and that's pretty hard to imagine, honestly.

BTW, I don't agree that —just because morality as I've described it coming into being was hit upon via natural selection— morality has to be seen as natural and therefore objectively good (like some people argue heterosexuality to be). It's no better or worse, objectively, than having big tail feathers or not. Just helps humans survive longer and have more babies. Which, to answer Destineer's other point, generally makes individual humans relatively happy and peaceful. Relative to not living longer lives and not having any babies, I of course mean.

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Destineer
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quote:
Just helps humans survive longer and have more babies. Which, to answer Destineer's other point, generally makes individual humans relatively happy and peaceful. Relative to not living longer lives and not having any babies, I of course mean.
Right, but if I follow the evolved/"virtual" moral law, that doesn't necessarily increase the overall happiness of people. All you've shown is that it is likely to increase my happiness.

There are well-known game-theoretic situations in which a group of individuals, each doing the individually most expedient thing, fail to create the greatest possible benefit for the group overall. Perhaps the virtual moral law works like this.

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Juxtapose
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quote:
Right, but if I follow the evolved/"virtual" moral law, that doesn't necessarily increase the overall happiness of people. All you've shown is that it is likely to increase my happiness.
Yours and those in your immediate vicinity. Friends-of-friends and the like would still derive some utility from your behaving morally too, I'd imagine.
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Jhai
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quote:
Originally posted by Destineer:
Everyone interested in the topic of this thread should read The Moral Probem by Michael Smith (if you don't believe in God) or Finite and Infinite Goods by Robert Adams (if you do believe in God).

I haven't read or heard of The Moral Problem yet - thanks for telling us about it. I did read parts of Finite and Infinite Goods for a philosophy class, and found it hard slogging, but interesting. Of course, I'm probably not the audience the author was aiming for, considering I was reading it for a philosophy course called "Godless Universe" - something I believe I exist in.

As a side note, non-theists (or theists) might also be interested in the very excellent book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik Wielenberg written by the professor who I took the course with. He's a laid-back and funny guy, and it comes through in his book, which is quite readable.

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David Bowles
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quote:
Right, but if I follow the evolved/"virtual" moral law, that doesn't necessarily increase the overall happiness of people. All you've shown is that it is likely to increase my happiness.
Only until your "in-group" expands to include all of humanity (which, my friend, I believe yours has). Then following your innate tendency to treat members of your in-group in "moral" ways will be of benefit to all human beings.
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Destineer
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quote:
Only until your "in-group" expands to include all of humanity (which, my friend, I believe yours has). Then following your innate tendency to treat members of your in-group in "moral" ways will be of benefit to all human beings.
Yes and no. I certainly believe in a univerally inclusive moral system, but do I live by it? Not exactly. If I did, I'd be sending a lot more aid to poor people in the third world.

Even those of us who are relatively enlightened have effectively rather small in-groups.

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papastebu
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Morality can only be defined as objective if every person observing agrees that it is so. Therefore, subjective morality exists on its own, but objective morality may only be composed.
I feel that murder is wrong, but I would not hesitate to take a life to save one, if it was demanded by the situation. To my subjective morality, the lost life would not be murder in itself, but the prevention of it. Assume that the person being attacked has done nothing to warrant the attack.

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Omega M.
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Could we define objective morality as those principles that all human beings except for sociopaths feel compelled to uphold even when it's not in their direct self-interest? Then morality would exist as objectively as color, which exists only in our minds but is such that the same wavelengths of light produce the same colors in different people's minds (or so we think!).
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Xaposert
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quote:
Morality can only be defined as objective if every person observing agrees that it is so.
This is not true. It is objectively true that 5 time 5 equals 25, but there are certainly people who won't agree that it is true - 1st graders who can't do multiplication, for instance. In fact, it would be objective true that 5x5=25 even if nobody in the world knew it. Therefore, objectivity doesn't require universal agreement on the matter. It just means that those who disagree are wrong.

This is why I'd say morality is objective: Because it is possible to have wrong beliefs about what is moral.

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David Bowles
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quote:
This is why I'd say morality is objective: Because it is possible to have wrong beliefs about what is moral.
That's circular, because it requires the existence of "morally wrong" in order to prove that "morally wrong" things exist.
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Morbo
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quote:
Originally posted by Omega M.:
Could we define objective morality as those principles that all human beings except for sociopaths feel compelled to uphold even when it's not in their direct self-interest? Then morality would exist as objectively as color, which exists only in our minds but is such that the same wavelengths of light produce the same colors in different people's minds (or so we think!).

But what you're defining is not morality, but a tiny subset of morality. A very important subset, but it certainly doesn't encompass every moral question.

My analogy/vision of this thread so far: think of a yin/yang symbol, with fractal boundaries and surrounded by white on on side, black on the other. Most of the posters here are looking deep into the white or black for an objective morality, but the tough moral questions are at the boundaries between white and black.

To stretch the analogy, in the fractal Mandelbrot set, it's simple to determine if a point far from the origin is in or out of the set. It takes one or two computations. Like determining the moral value of obvious moral questions is easy (killing innocents for no reason=bad, caring for infants=good)

When a point is arbitrarily close to the set boundary, it can take a huge amount of computation to determine if the point is or is not a member of the set. Similarly, deciding the moral value of difficult moral questions takes much thought. Because that thought is influenced by a myriad of factors (culture, family, religion, personality, genetics, etc.) different people come up with different answers to hard moral questions. Therefore, I don't think comprehensive objective morality exists or could exist.

[ June 01, 2007, 02:38 PM: Message edited by: Morbo ]

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Destineer
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quote:
That's circular, because it requires the existence of "morally wrong" in order to prove that "morally wrong" things exist.
I take it that by "wrong" Xap simply meant "false," which is not a notion that presupposes morality.
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David Bowles
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Okay, let's reword it then, see if it makes more sense:

quote:
This is why I'd say morality is objective: Because it is possible to have false beliefs about what is moral.
Still begs the question of whether morality can be true or false (in order to say people can have a "false belief" about morality, you have to assume that there exist "true beliefs" about morality). He hasn't settled anything.
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Destineer
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quote:
Still begs the question of whether morality can be true or false (in order to say people can have a "false belief" about morality, you have to assume that there exist "true beliefs" about morality). He hasn't settled anything.
As I understood it, he was stating his view rather than making an argument for it.

But there is a related argument for moral objectivity in the vicinity: the Frege-Geach problem. Namely, it seems like it's possible for you and I to have a moral argument and to disagree about what's morally right. If moral facts aren't the sort of things that can be true or false, it follows that we're not really disagreeing.

If that's true, we must be making a mistake by having a moral argument in the first place. But you and I have moral arguments all the time, in all seriousness without engaging in sarcasm or make-believe. So it looks like it would be inconsistent for us to suppose that moral claims can't be true or false.

(Actually, what I've said here is a very over-simplified version of the Frege-Geach problem, which is explained better in section (4) of http://www.pathways.plus.com/questions/answers_19.html ).

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